by Courtney Pippin-Mathur

You must play if you want to create.

HI, I’m an illustrator.

An illustrator that loves to draw.

An illustrator that loves to draw and paint with watercolors.

An illustrator that loves to draw and paint with watercolors and create stories.

An illustrator that loves to draw and paint with watercolors and create stories who doesn’t like to sketch.


It’s the truth.

The doodles I do create are abstract pattern designs taken during PTA meetings, where I dream of being home in my PJs. (No offense to PTA meetings, I just have a love affair with sweatpants and PJs and it starts at 6pm sharp every night.)

But I was running low on ideas. I had written and illustrated two picture books and I needed more. More ideas, more stories, more art.

But when I sat down to write, nothing happened. When I tried to sketch ideas, nothing happened. The graphite ran dry. I hated everything I made and grew frustrated with each attempt. The burden of creation had stifled my brain. Because I felt as though I HAD to come up with more ideas, I could not come up with ANY ideas.

So, I decided to just play.

Instead of making myself sketch in order to get a story, I sketched because I love to draw. And I drew what I loved.

My niece who loves to act like a dinosaur.

My daughter who was so shy in big family gatherings with her father’s family.





And I played with my first love, watercolor.

I started to combine my abstract watercolors with my drawings and felt the magic come back. The magic of inspiration and story.

Sometimes the story comes to me right away.

And sometimes I let it sit and the story comes to me through stages.

If I just play and put no pressure on myself that every drawing or painting has to become a story, the stories come. Some shamble in like half dead zombies, some strike like lightening but if I move my pencil or my brush and just PLAY, the ideas arrive.

Even if you’re not a visual artist, you can play. Play with watercolor, play with oil pastels, play with colored pencils, crayons or markers. Just play. Allow yourself to do something creative that isn’t tied into words and see what happens.

Courtney Pippin-Mathur grew up in East Texas and passed the hot summer days reading, drawing, watching She-Ra and exploring her grandma’s farm. She doodled constantly through elementary, middle and high school but didn’t think about art as a career until a fateful art history class at The University of Texas at Austin. After transferring from Government to Studio Art, she moved to the east coast, and started pursing a career in children’s books where she could combine all my favorite things.

She now lives in Northern VA now with her husband and three kids. Her picture books include MAYA WAS GRUMPY, DRAGONS RULE PRINCESSES DROOL and the upcoming HAPPY DIWALI. Visit her online at, Twitter @pippinmathur and Instagram @pippinmathur.

Special announcement! Courtney will be teaching at our premiere Storystorm Retreat at Highlights Foundation, March 5-8, 2020. We’ll be playing with watercolor!

You do not have to be a Storystorm 2020 participant to attend the retreat! It’s open to anyone serious about developing a picture book and a writing career.

Learn more about our fun and intensive picture book retreat here!

This event will fill up quickly! Sign up today!

Hope to see you there!


by Shannon Stocker

If you’ve attended any SCBWI conference or followed writers on Twitter for longer than a minute, you’ve probably heard the message loud and clear.

Write what you know.

Know what you write.

We need #OwnVoices.

The push for diversity is strong, vital, and long overdue in the picture book world. I challenge you to go to any bookstore or library and pull books off the shelf, separating them by the protagonist’s race. Despite the recent push for #OwnVoices, over 50% of the books printed in 2018 depicted white characters.

Credit: School Library Journal

Considering that the other 50% includes characters that are every other race as well as animals, crayons, vehicles, letters, and anything else inanimate or not human, you can see that we still aren’t where we need to be.

Granted, we’ve come a long way. In 2015, over 73% of picture books featured white characters.

Credit: School Library Journal

Not exactly representative of the world in which we live.

In 2018, I really wanted to write a nonfiction picture book biography about Aretha Franklin. As a musician who used to close shows with her song Respect, I admired so much more than her voice. Her songwriting skills, her piano talents, her civil rights activism…when I was little, I wanted to be Aretha. So when she passed away in 2018, I thought, “Do it. Write her story.”

Then I attended SCBWI Midsouth and Cheryl Klein burst my bubble.

Someone asked, “How can you best write from the point of view of someone who’s a different race?” I leaned forward on the edge of my seat and curled my hands over the keys of my laptop, prepared to feverishly type her every word. And you know what she said?


Wait. What?

“Don’t,” she said. “If you’re white, don’t make your protagonist black. Don’t make them Latino. Because you can’t know that voice.”

She went on to talk about the importance of the #OwnVoices movement. Now, not every editor will agree with her, certainly, but she was firm in her convictions. And it got me thinking.

I wanted so badly to write Aretha’s story, but now I felt stymied. I’m white…but I’m so passionate about Aretha.

And then it hit me. One of the reasons I’m passionate about Aretha is because…I am a musician.

My mind whirred. At the time, I was between agents. I hadn’t sold a book in almost two years. The last thing I wanted was to pour myself into a manuscript that no one would even open because they thought I was telling a story that would be told better by someone else.

So, I thought, whose story could I tell better than anyone else?

The idea struck like thunder.

I spent seven years actively battling illness, two of them walking with a cane or in a wheelchair. Although I’m now in remission, those years changed me. I can still picture the way people looked away from me in the airport. The discomfort on the faces of passing strangers who wouldn’t make eye contact. The sting of that kind of isolation doesn’t fade away.

So how could I use that experience to write a story that might help others?

My very first Google search for “disabled musicians” brought me to deaf percussionist, Evelyn Glennie. I watched her documentaries, listened to her interviews, played her music, and just knew.

Hers was a story that I could write.

That I needed to write.

Within a month of interviewing Evelyn, that story wrote itself, went to Acquisitions at its first house, and brought me interest from five agents. Less than two months after writing the story, it sold to Dial.

So how can you apply this to your life? How can you turn #OwnVoices into your #OwnSuccessStory?

Get out a piece of paper. Go ahead. I’ll wait.

Now, make a list of things that you love. Subjects you’ve studied. Hobbies you’ve had for years. Instruments you play. Foods you cook.

What are you good at? Write it all down. What makes you different? Are you a redhead? Jewish? ADHD? Color blind? Write it down.

What makes you YOU?

Write it aaallllllll down.

Then, go through this list and ask yourself—which of those things make you happy? Which of those things are you passionate about? Which of those things makes you relatable?

Maybe, instead of listing everything at once, you can write a new passion each day along with your StoryStorm idea. Or maybe one of every five ideas can include something about which you’re passionate. But find a way to weave the things you love into your stories.

If you write from a place of passion, your reader will know. They will feel it. Racial diversity is certainly a major part of the movement, but #OwnVoices isn’t just about racial diversity.

It’s about owning your voice.

So write what you know.

Know what you write.

And own your voice. The world is just waiting to hear it.

Shannon Stocker is an award-winning author and proud word nerd who lives in Louisville, KY, with her husband, Greg, and their children, Cassidy and Tye. Her debut picture book, CAN U SAVE THE DAY (Sleeping Bear Press), released in 2019, her nonfiction PB bio about Evelyn Glennie entitled LISTEN: HOW ONE DEAF GIRL CHANGED PERCUSSION comes out with Dial (Penguin/Random House) in 2022, and several of Shannon’s nonfiction essays have been published in Chicken Soup for the Soul. Shannon currently serves as SCBWI social co-director for Louisville, a judge for Rate Your Story, and she created the blog series, Pivotal Moments: inHERview, highlighting transitional life stories of female picture book authors. Cool facts: Currently writing her memoir, Shannon is a medical school graduate, a coma survivor, an RSD/CRPS patient and advocate, and a singer/songwriter who once performed two songs, including one original, as part of an opening act for Blake Shelton. Shannon is represented by Allison Remcheck of Stimola Literary Studio.

Visit Shannon at, Facebook, or follow her on Twitter @iwriteforkidz and Instagram @iwriteforkidz.

Shannon is giving away a copy of her debut CAN U SAVE THE DAY and a 30-minute Skype consultation (to discuss your writing career, writing in verse, a particular manuscript, whatever you’d like). Two separate winners will be selected.

Leave one comment below to enter.

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

Good luck!


by Joana Pastro

A few months ago, I was summoned for jury duty. When lawyers went around the room asking questions as part of the selection process, one of them surprised me by asking where I get ideas for my stories. About fifty pairs of eyes stared at me, so I gave my go-to one-word answer: everywhere. I wasn’t lying—I was under oath after all—but when I noticed that all eyes were still on me, I realized they expected more. So I expanded my response with a series of examples that I’m pretty sure sounded like a bunch of mumbo jumbo.

At the end of the day I wasn’t selected for the jury, but I left determined to have a better answer for next time.

So…where do I find ideas for my stories?

Everywhere. Allow me to expand.

All day long we are exposed to an enormous amount of information that can prompt ideas. Notice I’m using the word prompt.

To find ideas, you must follow a few steps.

  1. Be on active pursuit of prompts at all times. How, you ask? Turn on all of your senses—sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch. Leave your brain, your very own personal database—emotions, memories and knowledge—open to make the necessary connections rather than just going on autopilot through your day.
  2. Once you’ve made the connections, ask a creative’s favorite question: What if?
  3. Grab those ideas! Register them: write them down, record them on your phone, do whatever needs to be done. Don’t let them escape. Ideas have a way of disappearing into thin air when they’re not properly captured!

For example:

Witnessing a flock of birds fly from one tree to another, in and of itself, is simply a beautiful scene. It’s not an idea…yet. But if you take that beautiful scene and filter it through your personal database, that scene might take you to an idea. Observing those birds might make you think of an air show, a ballet, or a crowd gathering to protest—birds can be pretty loud! Their beautiful chirping might remind you of an orchestra or your grandma’s front porch where you used to eat deliciously ripe and juicy mangoes. I bet you can almost taste those.

Oh boy, I’m about to go on a tangent.

The flock of birds might remind you of how your grandpa planted trees all over town, and by helping him, your relationship with him grew stronger.

So, perhaps that flock of birds leads to a story about a grandpa’s love for nature and his grandchild.

My upcoming debut book LILLYBELLE, A DAMSEL NOT IN DISTRESS began with a call for submissions from Cricket magazine. The prompt was knights and castles. It wasn’t an idea yet. It only became an idea when I sifted through my database and remembered the term “damsel in distress”. Then I thought of my daughter, who loved playing princesses and was also confident and strong. BOOM! An idea was born! What if I wrote about a damsel, who loves being a damsel, but refuses to wait for rescue?

Try taking a few moments to pursue a prompt that catches your senses and see what kind of connections your personal database will make. It can be outside your window, on a screen or a photo album. Anywhere! If this process works for you, make a habit out of it, and hopefully you will never suffer from a dreaded idea drought ever again!

Joana Pastro always wanted to be an artist of some sort. So, she became an architect. But once her first child was born, all the visits to the library, and the countless story times made Joana start dreaming of becoming a children’s book author. After a lot of reading, writing and revising, her dream is coming true. Her debut picture book, LILLYBELLE, A DAMSEL NOT IN DISTRESS, illustrated by Jhon Ortiz, will be published by BM&K in Fall/2020. Her second book, BISA’S CARNAVAL, illustrated by Carolina Coroa will be published by Scholastic in Spring/2021. Originally from Brazil, Joana now lives in Florida with her husband, her three extremely creative children and a rambunctious Morkie. Visit her on Twitter @jopastro, Instagram @joanapastro, or at

Joana is giving away a non-rhyming picture book critique.

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

Good luck!

by Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow

For me, story ideas come from two extremes: when I allow my mind to wander or when I focus it on the small and specific. They are opposite ways of thinking and yet, somehow, both give me great material.

My mental wanderings happen each day during my daydream time. Daydream time sounds like the stuff of unicorns and pixie dust but in practical terms, it’s time I schedule to be bored. Typically, it’s 20-30 minutes on my train commute when I put away my phone and commit to not reading, communicating, or working on something. I simply sit, staring into space. I try not to people-watch or look out a window. Observing people and things can be great inspiration, but I push my mind to feed off nothingness during daydream time.

The trick to this is having no expectations about what my brain should do here. I allow it to do what it wants to. I might think through a stressful interaction I had with a family member. I might remember something that makes me laugh. I might come up with a new, fun program for my youth center. I may reflect on my nervousness around a new venture and mentally speak words of confidence to myself.

Sometimes, I get a story idea.

An idea that comes from boredom is often strange and exciting and the urge to not lose it is strong, but I fight to not take out a phone or notebook to work on that idea during that time. During daydream time, I’m just there to observe the idea. I let the idea move freely without trying to name, define, critique, organize, or develop it. I can do that work later. I let that idea twist itself around in my head and dance around in my thoughts the way it wants to.

My other main source of material is typically a specific word or phrase. Often these come from books. However, a number of my manuscripts come from focusing on something seemingly inconsequential that a young person said but that I can’t forget. I’ll consider these words and ask questions about them and imagine how they might work in a story.

YOUR NAME IS A SONG was inspired by my focusing on the name, Olumide (pronounced O-loo-muh-Day), which a teen I worked with had told me was his middle name. I simply loved the sound of it, the feel of it on my tongue, and decided to take time to reflect on it. I mused, “Olumide is a melody.” That led to many thoughts: That name is a song! What other names are like songs? What if I told someone their name is a song? How would they respond? “Your Name is a Song” would be an intriguing book title. But what would a story with that title be about?

Eventually, I worked out those questions and developed a story about a girl whose name gets repeatedly mispronounced. I also decided to use the narrative to celebrate names from certain cultures that may often be mispronounced by American teachers. “Olumide is a melody” became an actual sentence in the book!

So, today, consider focusing on something—a word or phrase that won’t leave you possibly. Or, don’t focus at all. Let the ideas wander in as they wish!

Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow centers Black and Muslim children in her work. She is the author of critically acclaimed picture book, Mommy’s Khimar. Through her work with Mighty Writers, she also provides free writing programs for Philadelphia youth. This year, she looks forward to the publication of her work in MG anthology, Once Upon an Eid and her picture book, Your Name is a Song.

Find her online at, Twitter: @jtbigelow, and Instagram: @authorjamilah.

Jamilah is giving away a picture book critique.

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

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Hi! I’m Sam. I’m an author and illustrator and the author part is super new for me. My first book, CHICKEN LITTLE: THE REAL AND TOTALLY TRUE TALE, comes out May 5, 2020 with Scholastic Press. Wheeeee!

I’m a mom of 2 young kids and before I can even think about making ANYTHING, I have to get to where I can be alone. This means being disciplined and organized with our family routines, so I can really disconnect and focus when everyone is out the door.

Showing up to the page is key. Even if I’m feeling fuzzy or confused or exhausted, showing up to work and write or draw is the first step. Having a regular time at a regular rhythm (whatever you can make work!) is what’s helped me. That way, if I get the itch and I can’t stop to work then, I just take notes for myself and know that I’ll have that time soon to dive in. I guess it’s a bit like having creative boundaries. Seems like a paradox, but it makes the flow-state easier.

Mind the fuel gauge! When making a lot of work (and living your regular life in general), it’s easy to get to running on fumes without noticing.Your inner-artist does not work well on fumes, trust me. Make sure you listen to your mind/body/heart and feed yourself. Give yourself permission for taking a walk, doing a quick dance break (highly effective IMO!), visiting a museum, listening to a good podcast, etc. These things are the input that might just appear in your work later down the line! Fill that tank!

Turn off your inner critic. As a relative newbie in this field, it’s super easy for me (like anyone!) to look at my heroes and get instantly deflated by the gap between what I *want* to make and what I *can* make with my current skill set.  The good news is that closing the gap is just more showing up and working, so go ahead and turn off that inner nagging critic voice. Oh, and the comparison one and perfectionism one too.  Turn ON the affirmations and self-compassion. You’re almost ready!

PLAY!  Our minds are the most fluid in states of play. Find your play space. Follow your curiosity. This involves listening and WASTING TIME. It involves 90% of what you make NEVER seeing the light of day, so that you can unearth the 10% that is pure GOLD. Make, make, make, play, play, play.

This is how I approach my process of finding and courting inspiration and making work. I hope it’s somehow helpful and inspiring to you in your journey of making! There’s room for all of us in this creative constellation. Sending all my love and good maker-energy your way. You got this!

Sam Wedelich is a native Texan living in the Bronx. She’s painting, drawing, reading, knitting, baking, and seeking beauty while raising 2 kids with her husband and far too many houseplants.

She loves to work on all sorts of illustration and lettering projects, from custom wedding invites, to on-site calligraphy for events and gifting, to editorial illustration and book art.

Follow Sam on Instagram @samwedelich or visit her at

Sam is giving away a copy of her debut book CHICKEN LITTLE when it’s released in May.

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by Vivian Kirkfield

Wow…we are half-way through the month of January and therefore, half-way through Storystorm. Is your notebook half filled with great story ideas, titles, or even just a phrase that you’ll go back to as the year unfolds to see whether it will turn into a winning manuscript? No worries if it isn’t. You still have plenty of time, and even if you don’t have thirty ideas at the end, you will have more than if you hadn’t participated at all. Here’s a page from my 2012 PiBoIdMo journal (as many of you know, that was Storystorm’s former name. And that idea became Four Otters Toboggan: An Animal Counting Book that launched in April 2019. By the way, the post that day was contributed by the late Dianne de las Casas.

When Tara asked if I’d contribute one of the posts this year, I wondered what I was going to chat about. In 2018, I shared where I got ideas for each of the manuscripts that became books in 2019. And I also touched on why I chose those topics.

For today’s post, I’ll put on my serious hat (wait a minute…I don’t even wear hats!) and I’ll talk about how, as authors (and illustrators), we have an amazing opportunity to make our voice heard—when we write (or draw) about issues that are important to us and to the children of the world, and also when we speak at conferences and school visits.

I think this “speaking at conferences and school visits” may be a big worry for many of us. And even if you are pre-published, opportunities may come along for you to present…and if you keep doing what you are doing—writing, revising, submitting—you WILL have a book deal one day, I know you will. After I share where I got the idea for my newest nonfiction PB bio that launches in just a few days, I’m going to share some tips and techniques from my conference and school visit presentation toolbox.

As a child, I was very timid—afraid to meet new people, go new places, try new things.

Obviously, somewhere in these last 73 years, something happened and I gained a new confidence in myself (or perhaps it’s just that, with Uber, I don’t have to worry about getting lost 😊). Maybe it was self-publishing that parenting guide back in 2010, or maybe it was jumping out of a perfectly good airplane in 2011, or maybe it was just pushing myself, one step at a time. But whatever it was, I can now step out in front of an audience, at a conference or at a school visit, with a smile on my face and without my teeth chattering, my knees knocking, and my hands sweating. And this is crucial because I get to make my voice heard. I get to share my journey at conference presentations and inspire others who are on the same path…I get to talk about my courageous characters with students at school programs.

I doubt that many of you are signing up in the next few months to go skydiving. So, here are a few other things you can do that will give you the confidence to make your voice heard:

  • Be passionate: about the topics/people/characters that you write about—passion gives you an energy and a fearlessness, like a mother lion protecting her cub.
  • Believe in your characters: whether you write fiction or nonfiction, choose topics that are close to your heart and your beliefs. Get to know your characters—in one of the writing classes I took, the instructor urged us to ‘interview’ our characters as if we were newspaper reporters. When I discovered an online photo of Ella Fitzgerald and Marilyn Monroe, sitting shoulder to shoulder in a nightclub and the caption explained that these two were friends, I had to find out more.

You see, I grew up in the 1950’s—Ella and Marilyn were icons even then. But I didn’t know that Marilyn was an early Civil Rights and gender equality activist nor that Ella had sued a major airline for racial discrimination…and won! I’m passionate about offering strong female role models to young girls…this passion helped me stay the course and dig deep to flesh out and revise my story idea into a manuscript an editor fell in love with. I’ve got a calendar full of bookstore events and school visits coming up for this wonderful book, so I want to share a few other tips that may help banish conference presentation and school visit jitters.

  • Be prepared: preparation is the KEY. Practice your presentation. Record yourself and listen back. Call on local friends and family to be your audience. The more prepared you are, the more confidence you will have. You don’t need to memorize every word—but it helps to be very familiar with what you plan to say.
  • Be proactive: if possible, scope out the venue where you will be presenting or, at the very least, speak with a contact person. Do you know how to get there and how long will it take? (try to be early—not leaving enough time just adds to the stress) What type of space is it? Do they have the proper hookups for your computer or flash drive? There’s nothing worse then getting to a conference and discovering they don’t have a computer available for your flash drive and the computer you brought doesn’t have the proper cable hook up. This happened to me in NZ last March and at the NE-SCBWI last May. Luckily, they were able to cobble something together and the presentation went smoothly. Word to the wise…I now have two small cable dongles (hahaha…what a word!) which enable me to use my own computer no matter what type of hook up the venue has.
  • Be a PowerPointer: standing up in front of a crowd of adults or children can be intimidating, but if you have a PowerPoint presentation, the audience is looking at the slides on the screen, NOT at you! And if you forget what you wanted to say, you will have the slide right there to jog your memory. The audience hasn’t heard your rehearsed document so it won’t matter if you don’t say every word you had practiced.

  • Be Personal: start your presentation with a personal story—this helps the audience connect with you. It can be funny, sad, whimsical. I begin my program by telling about the unique birthday present my son gave me when I turned 64. He took me skydiving! I have a slide of me, flying through the air—no matter what the age of the audience, jaws drop and everyone is engaged and wants to hear more. I’m sure each one of you has some type of story that will entertain the audience and connect you with them.

I hope these ideas will help all of you make your voices heard as you write your manuscripts and as you share your books when they are published. I’ll be making my voice heard today at the Barnes and Noble in Nashua, NH for the launch of Making Their Voices Heard: The Inspiring Friendship of Ella Fitzgerald and Marilyn Monroe, illustrated by Alleanna Harris and published by Little Bee Books. And then I’m off again, to Chicago, for more bookstore events and school visits…but not more skydiving, thank you very much.

Here’s to finding ideas that evoke your passion, to making your voices heard…and to a wonderful 2020 for all!

Writer for children—reader forever…that’s Vivian Kirkfield in five words. Her bucket list contains many more than five words, but she’s already checked off skydiving, parasailing, banana-boat riding, and visiting critique buddies all around the world. When she isn’t looking for ways to fall from the sky or sink under the water, she can be found writing picture books in the quaint village of Amherst, NH where the old stone library is her favorite hangout and her young grandson is her favorite board game partner. A retired kindergarten teacher with a masters in Early Childhood Education, Vivian inspires budding writers during classroom visits and shares insights with aspiring authors at conferences and on her blog, Picture Books Help Kids Soar where she hosts the #50PreciousWords International Writing Contest and the #50PreciousWordsforKids Challenge. She is the author of numerous picture books. You can connect with her on her website, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, Linkedin, or just about any place people with picture books are found.

Vivian is giving away a picture book critique (non-fiction/fiction/rhyming/prose, she does it all).

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

Good luck!


by Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen

Ask any writer, and he or she will tell you that ideas are hard.

Except…they’re not.

Ideas are easy. I can come up with a new idea for a book once a day. I could probably do it once an hour! I’d have oodles of ideas at the end of this exercise.

Except…they probably wouldn’t be good ideas.

Ideas aren’t hard. Good ideas, on the other hand are as elusive as a greased pig at a county fair. (I assume that greased pigs at a county fair would be elusive. I have no first-hand knowledge of pigs, greased or otherwise, or county fairs. But I’ve definitely read about them, and they sound very elusive.)

I’ve talked about sorting through your ideas on this blog before, and I won’t be repeating the same old story. After all, that would not be a very good idea. Instead, I’d like to share some tips about developing an idea from eh to excellent.

You already know that creating a polished, publishable manuscript involves peer review, professional critiques, and revision. But there is something else I do to get to the strongest possible story: I rely on my sounding board.

We’re all familiar with the dictionary definition of sounding board: “a person or group whose reactions to suggested ideas are used as a test of their validity or likely success before they are made public.” It’s very likely you already have a critique group to perform a similar function on your manuscripts. But I use a sounding board as early as the idea stage.

There are some things to look for when choosing an idea sounding board. First, he or she must be a children’s literature professional. So, no, you can’t bounce your ideas off your spouse or your kids or your neighbor or—heaven forbid—your mother. Those are fine people to consult with when you’re brainstorming or writing, but they don’t count as the kind of sounding board I’m talking about.

Next, you have to choose someone you work well with. This does not have to be someone you will be using as an active collaborator, but it does have to be someone who feels comfortable giving you honest feedback—because telling you something is good when it isn’t is really just a waste of everyone’s time. As Roxie says, ain’t nobody got time for dishonesty.

Thirdly—and this is perhaps the most important—your sounding board should be someone who doesn’t think like you do. In fact, the less your artistic points of view overlap, the better it is. You are already thinking of your idea the way  someone like you would think about it. What you need is someone different, who comes at it from a totally contrasting viewpoint, and who might even bring a completely new skill set.

For me, my sounding board is most often my agent. (After all, I can threaten to fire her if she doesn’t listen to me.) We’ve been working together for over a decade, so there is a high level of comfort there. She’s still unflinchingly honest and I respect her knowledge of the market. Unfortunately, she also tends to nag me about ideas I’ve bounced off her that I…never seem to finish. Which means, sometimes, I have to hide from her—and I have to find a different sounding board. Which brings me to the story I want to share.

A few months ago, my agent nagged reminded me about a Project-That-Shall-Not-Be-Named that I have been trying to write for years. She even asked one of her illustrator clients, Mike Ciccotello, to draw a character sketch to help inspire me. So, of course, I immediately began working on…a completely different project. I guiltily shared that information with Mike. To my surprise, he both liked the new project and had suggestions.

The second project is called CHEESE & QUACKERS. The story centered on a lamb (Cheese) and a duck (Quackers) who have an odd couple-type relationship as roommates at summer camp. I had the idea that the story should be told in sparse text in a comic book-like format, but that would require rich, expressive illustrations. Luckily, Mike had the idea that the story should be told with rich, expressive illustrations in a comic book-like format and therefore should have sparse text.

Thus, the idea bouncing—really an elaborate version of the “What If” game—began.

What if one of them was neat and organized and the other was a slob? (Good idea.)

What if one was a summer camp veteran and the other new to camping? (Also good.)

What if one had lots of friends at camp and the other was totally reliant on his roommate? (We’re on a roll!)

What if the characters wore shirts but no pants? (That’s a hard “no.”)

What if one of them likes pancake batter and jelly sandwiches? (Also no.)

What if we put two llamas in their core friend group so I can name them Dolly Llama and Kendrick Llama? (Umm, of course!)

Because Mike and I were collaborating, the “What If” game was reciprocal and ran concurrently with drafting the manuscript. This typically won’t be the case, but luckily, your sounding board does not need to be a collaborator. The important thing is that he or she needs to be able to ask you “What If” questions to get you to think about things you hadn’t considered, and he or she needs to be able to answer your “What If” questions to toss out new ideas. Answering “What If” questions makes the eventual story become clearer in your head. It also helps you block off the paths you shouldn’t take your character down (see pancake batter and jelly above), which makes the idea stronger.

Sometimes, you need a little feedback.

Sometimes, it’s a long back-and-forth.

Sometimes, you hear something you didn’t expect.But every round of the game helps you hone in on the good ideas, discard the bad ideas, and gets you closer to where you need to get your story.

Mike and I were fortunate to have found a home for CHEESE & QUACKERS, tentatively scheduled for 2022. So we get to continue playing the “What If” game through at least two books. It’s very exciting.

Though, Mike is definitely more excited to play than I am.

Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen is an award-winning children’s book author whose books include Chicks Rule, The United States vs. Jackie Robinson (2019 ALSC Notable Children’s Books List), Duck Duck Moose (CBC Children’s Choice Award Finalist), Tyrannosaurus Wrecks (Junior Library Guild Selection), and the Purrmaids chapter book series. She has visited schools and libraries for the past 15 years, talking to kids about writing, reading, and finding their voices.

She lives in Princeton, NJ with her husband, three children, and an adorable pug named Roxie (featured above). You can learn more about her and her books on her website

Special announcement! Sudipta will be teaching at our premiere Storystorm Retreat at Highlights Foundation, March 5-8, 2020. Learn more about our fun and intensive picture book retreat here!

This event will fill up quickly! Sign up today!

Hope to see you there!


Tara knows it’s Day 17, but she spent over 16 hours traveling on Day 16…so this is a place holder until she gets a good night’s sleep. Look for Day 17’s post later in the day.

In the meantime, say hello to her adorable row mate on the flight. Perhaps he’s got a story idea? “Dog Flies at Sunset”?


Dear fellow kidlit book creators,

A few years ago, my writing partner gave me a challenge. She dared me to write an epistolary book—the entire manuscript could only be letters between characters.

So I gave it a shot. I decided the main character would be a dog—my old dog!

(BACKSTORY: One day, in about second grade, a scruffy mutt showed up in my front yard. He was dirty, and hungry, and stinky—and he was ours. We fed him, cleaned him up, and named him Auggie. I miss that dog, and still dream about him!)

Initially, my book was a series of letters between two characters: a scruffy dog looking for a home, and the cranky guy he was writing to.

But the story quickly evolved. In my second draft, the dog (named Arfy) was writing letters to every house/business on the street. Each person replied, and they all said “no.” For different reasons. Until the end of the book, where Arfy finally DID find a home.

This book ended up becoming a picture book called CAN I BE YOUR DOG?. And I didn’t realize it at the time, but that prompt from my friend was actually an exercise in writing voice.

In the early drafts, each of the letters sounded really same-y. The butcher sounded like the fire chief, who sounded like the junkyard guy. (Really, they all sounded like me. No good!) So I started playing with the letters, to make each character’s voice sound as different as possible.

Here are some of the parameters I tweaked for each character:

  • VOCABULARY/GRAMMAR: The word choices the character makes, and how they string those words together. How does the butcher sound different from the fire chief?
  • VOLUME: Is this character loud or quiet? And HOW are they loud/quiet? Are they boisterous? Overbearing? Timid? Soothing?
  • RHYTHM: Does this character speak in long, flowing singsongy sentences? Or short, clipped bursts? Or a droning monotone? Or some other pattern?
  • HANDWRITING: Do they write in loopy cursive with a purple pen? Or with a scribbly pencil, with crossed-out mistakes? Or do they type their letter? And what kind of paper do they write on? These things are all still part of that character’s “voice.”

I think the great thing about letter-writing is that it’s all about voice. We get to  leave out the narration entirely, and have the entire text focus on the voice of the characters who are speaking. I mean, writing.

So now, I’m going to pass that challenge along to you!


Write a letter (or series of letters) between two characters. These characters should be as different from one other as possible.

For instance:

  • The giant is writing a letter to Jack about this beanstalk ruining the resale value of his castle. (What’s the giant’s handwriting like? And imagine the size of his postage stamp!)
  • The hare is writing to the tortoise demanding a rematch. (What’s the hare’s writing-rhythm like, vs. the tortoise’s?)
  • A professional baseball coach is writing to the world’s greatest pitcher, who happens to be a second grade little-leaguer. But the second grader is NOT interested.

OR: design two characters of your choice. They can be people, animals, or fairy tale characters, but try to make them as opposite as possible. In the way they look, the way they sound, and their individual “goals.”


If you’re feeling warmed up, repeat the above exercise, but make the two characters as similar as possible. At least, on the surface. Maybe they’re both eighth-graders passing notes in science class. Or they’re two goldfish stuck in the same bowl. They can have the same age, interests, etc. but their voices should still be absolutely distinct.

Your pal,


P.S. I love postcripts. A cool way to sneak in one last surprise. And in this case, the surprise is a peek at my next book! Here it is:

I FOUND A KITTY! is the follow-up to my NY Times Bestseller CAN I BE YOUR DOG?. This time, Arfy finds a teeny kitten in a drain pipe. He writes letters to more people in town, hoping to find a home for the poor little cat.

As a kid, Troy Cummings spent all his time writing stories, drawing pictures, and keeping an eye out for monsters. As a grown-up, he pretty much does the same thing. Except now his bed time is 9:15.

Troy has written and illustrated more than forty children’s books, including THE NOTEBOOK OF DOOM series, THE BINDER OF DOOM series, CAN I BE YOUR DOG?, and THE EENSY WEENSY SPIDER FREAKS OUT (BIG-TIME!) He was also lucky enough to team up with the amazing, hilarious Tara Lazar on LITTLE RED GLIDING HOOD.

Troy Cummings lives in Indiana, where he steals jokes from his wife, kids, cats, and goldfish.

Visit Troy at and follow him on Twitter at @troycummings.

Troy is giving away one copy of I FOUND A KITTY after its release on March 3, 2020.

Leave one comment below to enter.

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

Good luck!

by Darshana Khiani and the Soaring20s

It’s the middle of Storystorm, I hope your gears are turning and churning out ideas. If yours are a little rusty like mine, then I suggest starting small by following your curiosity and then letting your imagination take over. From TV shows, doodling, to puppy clothing, ideas are everywhere! Today members from the Soaring20s Picture Book Debut group are here to tell you where they got some of their ideas. Enjoy!

While struggling with a story about an otter, I doodled a secondary character—a sea lion who was roaring while flying a plane. Suddenly the idea to play with sounds that could be made by both animals AND vehicles took over. And before I knew it, I had a shiny new book dummy called ANIMALS GO VROOM!, which will be published by Viking in 2021!

Abi Cushman, author-illustrator of SOAKED! (Viking, July 2020) 

I had an idea for a story while picking up my son at daycare one day. When I arrived, he was playing outside. He started running in my direction as soon as he saw me, but there was a group of kids in his way. Instead of going around, he roared and waved his “claws” at them, like a T-Rex. It worked, but I don’t know what was funniest, his strategy or the disapproving looks he got from the other three year olds.

Joana Pastro, author of LILLYBELLE, A DAMSEL NOT IN DISTRESS, illus. Jhon Ortiz (BM&K, September 2020), and BISA’S CARNAVAL, illus. Carolina Coroa (Scholastic, Spring 2020)

I once read that when Edward White completed America’s first spacewalk in 1965, he was reluctant to return to his ship and when he finally did, he said, “This is the saddest moment of my life.” Immediately, I thought, “Wow! Kids can really relate to that feeling.”  I knew White’s story needed to be shared with young readers so I wrote it.  The Stars Beckoned comes out from Philomel in early 2021.

Candy Wellins, author of SATURDAYS ARE FOR STELLA, illus. Charlie Eve Ryan (Page Street Kids, August 2020)

I’m currently working on a draft inspired by an episode of the non-kid-friendly show, “Drunk History” (Comedy Central). Each episode is a goldmine for highlighting overlooked histories of underrepresented groups, including women, people of color, and the LGBTQ+ community. Try working THAT point of inspiration into a picture book author’s note.

Kirsten Larson, author of WOOD, WIRE, WINGS: Emma Lilian Todd Invents an Airplane, illus. Tracy Subisak (Calkins Creek, 2020) and FIRE OF STARS: The Life and Brilliance of the Woman Who Discovered What Stars are Made Of, illus. Katherine Roy (Chronicle, 2021)

Ideas often come to me as I walk in nature. I think the quiet—wherever I am—opens up my mind and heart and allows me to be more receptive to sights and sounds and ideas! Just the other day I came across some scat—whose? With a lot of fur in it—whose? I am not sure what I will do with that but the discovery sure nurtures curiosity and questions. And who knows where that takes me.

Mary Wagley Copp, author of WHEREVER I GO, illus. Munir Mohammed (Atheneum, April 2020)

I’ve gotten a story idea from watching my kids have a huge fight.

Sam Wedelich, author-illustrator of CHICKEN LITTLE: THE REAL AND TOTALLY TRUE TALE (Scholastic Press, May 2020)

My dad sent me pictures from a local event called Prairie Plowing Days, a demonstration of steam tractors and gang plows to show how farming was done in the early 1900s. The event featured other antique farming equipment, such this tractor. Kansas to Washington, DC, in a tractor?! Research uncovered the American Agriculture Movement’s 1979 cross-country “tractorcades,” which led to the farmers occupying the National Mall for weeks, which led to more protests, which led to Farm Aid, which led to me writing FARMERS UNITE! Planting a Protest for Fair Prices.

Lindsay H. Metcalf, author of BEATRIX POTTER, SCIENTIST, illus. by Junyi Wu (Albert Whitman, September 2020), co-editor with Keila V. Dawson and Jeanette Bradley of NO VOICE TOO SMALL: Fourteen Young Americans Making History, illus. by Jeanette Bradley (Charlesbridge, September 2020), and author of FARMERS UNITE! PLANTING A PROTEST FOR FAIR PRICES (Calkins Creek, November 2020).

When I was a teenager, a song I loved came on the radio. I squealed, “Turn it up! This is the best song ever.” My friend’s Dad scoffed and replied, “Really? This is the best song ever?” That exchange stuck with me and became the kernel that launched the interaction between young Mason and his Grandpa in How Long Is Forever? Mine those long ago memories and you may find your next idea!

Kelly Carey, author of HOW LONG IS FOREVER?, illus. Qing Zhuang (Charlesbridge, April 2020)

I was taking care of my cousin’s puppy who was wearing a onesie (who knew there were dog onesies??) to keep her from licking her stitches. I took the puppy outside to pee and forgot to undo the onesie snaps. You can guess what happened next. That incident spawned a title and a story which I’m working on now!

Melanie Ellsworth, author of CLARINET AND TRUMPET, illus. John Herzog (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, August 2020)

When a book editor read my article for the New York Times about what Julia, an autistic Muppet, means to my family, she asked me if I could write a picture book about an autistic girl with sensory issues. My daughter and I both live with autism and sensory issues, so I thought about what bothers us the most. I settled on sticky hands and created scenes with pancakes and syrup for breakfast and slime day at school.

Jen Malia, author of TOO STICKY! SENSORY ISSUES WITH AUTISM, illus. by Joanne Lew-Vriethoff (Albert Whitman, April 2020)

I’m not an illustrator, but sometimes ideas come to me in the form of images. I was at a writing conference with friends, and I suddenly pictured a sari where the border color was interspersed into the body of the sari, and the sari color was interspersed into the border. I sketched it, and realized it was a metaphor for a girl’s experience traveling to India to visit her grandmother, and the grandmother’s experience traveling to the U.S. to visit the girl. I’LL GO AND COME BACK will be illustrated by Sara Palacios and published by Candlewick Press in 2022.

Rajani LaRocca, author of SEVEN GOLDEN RINGS, illus. Archana Sreenivasan (Lee & Low, July 2020), BRACELETS FOR BROTHERS, illus. Chaaya Prabhat (Charlesbridge, 2021), WHERE THREE OCEANS MEET, illus. Archana Sreenivasan (Abrams, 2022)

I usually get my best ideas from brainstorming. Like with my book THE ELEPHANTS’ GUIDE TO HIDE-AND-SEEK (Sourcebooks Jabberwocky April 1, 2020), I started with the idea of a parody guidebook of some kind, then I brainstormed activities kids like that don’t really have guidebooks (and wouldn’t). Then I brainstormed angles for ways the guidebook could be ridiculous. Soon I had an idea that was much more interesting than the original small seed.

Kjersten Hayes, author of THE ELEPHANTS’ GUIDE TO HIDE-AND-SEEK, illus. by Gladys Jose (Sourcebooks Jabberwocky, April 2020)

A lot of my stories come from the “What If?” game. What if a spunky, creative girl who dances to the beat of her own drum decides to start ballet classes? What if instead, it was an Indian classical dance? These questions led me to write a story about a Indian-American girl trying to find an Indian dance class that suits her. This story is on submission now!

Darshana Khiani, author of HOW TO WEAR A SARI, illus. Joanne-Lew Vriethoff (Versify, Spring 2021)

Soaring20s is a diverse group of authors and illustrators with picture book debuts soaring onto shelves in 2020 and beyond. Visit for behind-the-scenes posts, resources, and giveaways!

You can also follow them on Twitter @Soaring20sPB and Instagram @Soaring20sPB.

Soaring20s is giving away the choice of a picture book manuscript critique or a picture book dummy critique to two different winners.

Leave one comment below to enter.

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

Good luck!


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As a children's book author and mother of two, I'm pushing a stroller along the path to publication. I collect shiny doodads on the journey and share them here. You've found a kidlit treasure box.

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illus by Vivienne To
January 7, 2020

illustrator TBA
Sourcebooks eXplore
August 2020

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