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“A big story is about a small moment.” ~Matthew Dicks

Think about that for a moment (not a small one).

Every book you have ever read is about a small moment—an epiphany when a character realizes an emotional truth with complete clarity.

Let me provide examples:

THE MONSTORE is not just about a store that sells monsters. It’s about a brother and sister who learn to appreciate one another and cooperate.

 

7 ATE 9 is about number 9 realizing his worth.

 

LITTLE RED GLIDING HOOD is about not judging someone before you get to know them.

 

Before I read Matthew Dicks’ STORYWORTHY, I used to phrase this “small moment” concept differently. I would explain that a story, especially a picture book, required an emotional core. Now I realize that is an amorphous blob of a statement.

In other words, not very helpful.

Likewise, if I told you my manuscript was about siblings who learn to get along, that doesn’t sound very enticing, does it? Sounds preachy and boring—been there, done that.

However, frame that sibling story in a shop of misbehaving monsters and suddenly it’s a must-read.

Small moments. They are what make your story BIG.

You may ask, do I set out writing about small moments? NEVER. I begin with an appealing, kid-friendly premise about dolphins or aliens or robots or puppies. If I am doing my job correctly, my main dolphin is not going to be the same dolphin by the end of the story. That dolphin has changed. Not from a bottlenose to a pantropical spotted, but from a mean dolphin to a nice one. Or one who doesn’t believe in narwhals to one who does. That small moment of emotional transformation is what makes the journey through the waves (and the story) meaningful. Otherwise, it’s just splashing in the ocean.

Your small moment appears with the story’s organic evolution. Often, if you begin with a small moment you end up sounding like a big know-it-all. Why? Because you can unknowingly force that theme into being. Never do I write in THE MONSTORE, “Zach and Gracie learned to appreciate one another and cooperate.” SNOOZEFEST. Instead, they open another Monstore together. That’s a lot more fun, and the small moment of transformation shines through.

While STORYWORTHY by Matthew Dicks is about crafting personal storytelling narratives, it contains nuggets of writing gold applicable to picture books. I had a small moment myself when I read about small moments.

So examine your manuscript. Does it contain a small moment? If you hear from an editor that your story requires another layer, that emotional epiphany could be the big answer.

 

 

 

Fangirl moment. THE Carin Berger is on my blog today. A children’s book creator I have long admired, Berger’s cut-paper illustrations bring delightful whimsy to books by former U.S. Children’s Poet Laureate Jack Prelusky, as well as imbue her own stories with a joyful spirit.

 

When I read her newest release, ALL OF US, I thought, “This is a perfect book for today—for right now.” So of course, I had to ask her about it. Thankfully, she agreed to an interview.

Carin, ALL OF US feels so timely, however I know it can take years to create a picture book. How did you decide upon the theme (and when)?

While it is true that it can take years to bring a picture book into the world, I wrote ALL OF US, in a single burst, in response to the turmoil in our country, especially in the lead up to the election. In fact I wrote it while I was in Germany, the country that my family was forced to flee in the 1930s because of unrelenting racism, hatred and violence directed against vulnerable minorities. I had actually voted on Election Day and then flown to Germany that afternoon. I landed to the news of the election results. The juxtaposition of the events in our country against my own family’s history of forced displacement was upsetting and surreal. I wanted to do something to make a difference, to remind those that felt unbalanced or ostracized or alone, that community, diversity, inclusion and love are powerful and will ultimately triumph. This idea of wanting to do something dogged me for days. Or maybe it was months. In any case, there in Germany, with such a stew of feelings inside, I woke up in the middle of the night with the words to the book almost like a song or refrain in my head. I scribbled them down and made thumbnail drawings in my sketchbook. The next morning I took a picture of this on my phone and then emailed to my publisher, Greenwillow Books. And, in a terrific leap of faith, Greenwillow agreed to put this project ahead of one that was about to go to final art in order to get ALL OF US out into the world quickly.

You are known for your cut paper illustrations. Was there any special consideration of the paper you chose for this project?

I do think a lot about the paper that I use in my illustrations. I work with found ephemera in part because I love that each piece of paper comes with its own history…like secret stories…that inherently add another layer of depth to the books. I intentionally gather really diverse papers from around the world, so if you look closely at the illustrations in ALL OF US, you might see a bit of Chinese or Spanish or Japanese or Hindi or Russian.

I know you surreptitiously include your daughter’s name “Thea” in every book. Did you hide any messages in ALL OF US? Or is your message out in the open?

I love that you remember that I put “Thea” in all of my books.

It is true, in ALL OF US, there are some covert messages. Others are right out in the open.

Some examples of hidden messages are:

Thea’s name appears on the hand that is on the “know that I am here, as steady as stone” page.

Elsewhere in the book, my brother’s name, Daniel, appears in one heart.

Additionally, there are two self portraits in the book. One appears on the wordless “love wins” page holding a heart that says “thea”.

A second family portrait is on the lowest row of the left hand side of the 2nd “love wins” page. There you will find me, my husband, Max, Thea, and our pet rabbit, Pearly.

Finally, on all of the pages in the book that have illustrations of people, I have included images of family and friends within the crowds.

Also, if you look closely, you will find my daughter’s black cat, Cosette.

What’s more, there is a gentle, unspoken story going on in the book.

There are two characters that reoccur, the little girl in the yellow boots and the little boy with the red kite. The girl starts the book with a heavy heart and an unsure step. The little boy is on the page with the unclear path and his kite appears on the stormy past page.

They first appear together on the “hazy future” page, and they don’t notice each other.

Eventually, as we make our way through the book, they notice each other and join together as friends in part of the larger community.

allofusspread

allofuslovewins.jpg

(Click to enlarge spreads.)

Carin, what do you hope readers will connect with? What do you hope they will take away after reading ALL OF US? 

Hope is a great word. I HOPE that the message of HOPE in ALL OF US will resonate with readers.

I HOPE that the book makes readers feel more connected, that it opens up conversations about inclusion and community and the power of HOPE and love in the face of adversity.

Children face so many challenging moments in growing up…they are figuring out who they are, and how they fit it. They are trying to make sense of the world and navigate through all sorts of new situations. I really HOPE that ALL OF US can be a tool to bring people together and to offer empathy and light and HOPE in difficult times.

Thank you, Carin, for bringing us such a beautiful book for our uncertain times. I know I will treasure my copy.

Blog readers, if you would like your own copy to treasure, plus ALL OF US bookmarks and swag, please comment once below.

A winner will be randomly selected in September.

Good luck and thank you for reading.

 

 

In one month, The Carle Museum of Picture Book art will hold its annual Carle Honors, awarding four people/entities who have made significant contributions to the art form.

Also that evening, September 27th, final bids are accepted on original artwork by picture book masters. The auction goes live on August 31, and you can browse and bid here: https://501auctions.com/carlehonors2018.

If you could ask the Carle Honorees one question, what might it be? My question is here—

“Why are picture books an art form to enjoy not only in childhood, but through every age, every stage of life?”

 

—and the answers are diverse and delightful, just like picture books themselves.

 

Paul O. Zelinsky
2018 Carle Honors Artist

“Why are pictures an art form to be enjoyed by people of all ages?  Well, that has to be a function of what picture books exist in the world to be enjoyed. Some, aimed at children in a pedantic and condescending way, are no fun at all for adults, and might be appreciated by only the most deluded or idiosyncratic child. But the world has come to contain an increasingly large number of picture books created by genuine artists, addressing the full extent of their humanity. These books may not look the same through the eyes of a four-year-old as they do to an adult of ninety-five (even putting aside questions of cataracts), but they somehow charm and enrich the thoughts and the vision of both.  Picture books can be appreciated by people of all ages because there are picture books that deserve this kind of appreciation. One of the best ways to prove this is to visit The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art!”

 

Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop
2018 Carle Honors Mentor 

“Picture books are indeed an art form, and enjoyment of art is not limited by age. With their unique combination of interdependent visual and verbal art, picture books speak to readers and viewers on a fundamental level. In addition to their aesthetic appeal, their thematic content often evokes universal emotions and experiences. Picture books also offer opportunities for older students to examine and learn about artistic styles, media, and technique. Picture book texts, in their conciseness, are often poetic, and can evoke the same kinds of responses as poetry. And because many literary genres come in picture book format, picture books can be a rich source of information as well as entertainment. Like other art forms, picture books are never outgrown.”

 

Dona Ann McAdams
(and Lynn Caponera),
representing The Sendak Fellowship & Workshop
2018 Carle Honors Angel

“I never assume a picture book is just for children. When a picture book works it marries images and words in a way few other mediums can. Each time we revisit an old beloved picture book we discover something new within its covers and new within ourselves.”

 

Elena Pasoli
The Bologna Children’s Book Fair
2018 Carle Honors Bridge

“The language of illustration is borderless not only in terms of cultural and geographical heritages, but more and more often also in terms of the age of the readers. Who could describe ‘The Arrival’ by Shaun Tan as simply a children’s book? This is the same for most of the wordless books which have been sharply growing in production and sales in the last few years all over the world. Illustrations speak clearly to everybody; they tell stories and leave people free of traveling across pages and thoughts; they are powerful and add emotions to the words; they can engage the readers’ memories as well as accompany them to discover new worlds.”

 

Andrea Davis Pinkney
Children’s Book Author, Editor &
2018 Carle Honors Presenter

“Come, little one. Climb onto my wings. Nestle, settle, celebrate. My feathered pages take you to places only the clouds can touch. Up, up! Here we go, soaring through words and pictures that fill you with my unforgettable flutter. Do you see the view from where my colors paint themselves into your quietest places, into the deep-down knowing that brings you comfort, giggles, wonder, discovery?

“Listen to my wisp of words spinning stories that will someday become your heart’s memories. Yes, child, I am a picture book. Our journeys—yours and mine, together—will last your whole life. This is what we picture books do—we lift you. We let you rise to skies filled with wonder. This, the awakening of your soul, starts from the day our wings hug your imagination. From there, we beckon you higher. Child, young or old, I am a picture book. No matter your age, stage, time or place, I give you the power to fly!”

 

Thank you, Honorees, The Carle Museum…and picture books!

What question would you ask the Honorees? Please tell us in the comments…

Shutta Crum wrote one of my all-time favorite Storystorm posts a few years ago about crafting an irresistible picture book opening. Her “four W” technique grounds the reader in time and place with the character, leaving just enough detail unanswered so one must turn the page to discover why. WHY????

When I learned Shutta the word whisperer released a new book celebrating words, I just knew she’d have lots of wonderful words to say about it.

Shutta, you know I’m a “wordie”—that’s a new word in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary this year and it means “a word lover”. Words bring Mouseling great comfort and belonging in this story. Which words foster those same feelings in you?

You ask a great question that I had to ponder quite a while. I mean, there are so many wonderful words that can engender feelings of comfort and belonging, like family and chocolate. So I thought about what I’ve lost and miss the most. And that would be my parents. They both died in 2008. Anyway, I bear my father’s nickname as my legal first name, Shutta. But he never called me that. He gave me a nickname, Shud. What I wouldn’t give to hear that word in his voice again! And thinking about my mother, I think of food. Specifically, biscuits and gravy, a Southern breakfast staple. It’s real comfort food, and makes me think of home and all the wonderful smells of Mom’s cooking.

So circling back to your childhood, did words give you comfort then? Were you an avid reader and writer even as a little girl?

Was I an avid reader?—hah! I read everything I could get my hands on, especially as we did not have many books in our home. I remember Mom telling me to put my books down and go outside and play. My siblings were real outdoor lovers and I think she thought I was a bit unusual. I also remember being proud when I could finish a book in a day. Sometimes I’d hide them in my textbooks at school as I read. Words were comforting, and amazing! Whole worlds were opened to me. As an avid reader I was also an avid day-dreamer. I’d play out scenes in my head all the time. I still do. It’s made me a very visual thinker and, I believe, a better writer.

A funny story: if I found a book, I’d pick it up and start reading it. One time, when I was in high school I found a rather salacious book at a bus stop. I opened it up in geometry class when we had a few extra moments to read and my teacher just about had a stroke. He came bounding over to me and ripped The Story of O out of my hands in an apoplectic manner yelling, “Where did you get this?” I’d only read the first page, or so, but my, oh my! However, most of my reading material was adventure, mystery and science fiction.

Why is learning tough (but fun) new vocabulary words important to young readers?

Humans have been communicating since the time we could only point and grunt. There is an instinctive desire to communicate—even with our first breath we communicate—we cry when we’re birthed. It means: Hey it’s cold out here! What’s happening to me? Where am I? And, This doesn’t feel right. Communicating is like breathing; it is part of our basic nature. And miscommunication can be disastrous. Deadly, even. So finding the right word or the right way to say something is important. When we build our vocabularies we have more skill at pinpointing exactly what we mean.

This is always important to writers! But for people who love words it goes beyond meaning to the music created by the sound of words, and even the way words sound in our mouths. We use all our senses to communicate.

In MOUSELING’S WORDS, Mouseling feels the whirr of “fur” in his throat when he says it. He sees the two round vowels that look like mouse tummies in the middle of the word “float.” He tastes the word “milk.” He smells “perfume.” And he hears the loud crinkling and crackling of the word he balled up to throw at the cat. I really wanted young readers to know that when we communicate we use our whole bodies—not just vocabulary words. But it’s also handy to have a large vocabulary to choose from. It’s like having lots of pairs of snazzy socks to wear. You wouldn’t want to wear the same old white ones every day. That’s the fun of words!

Obviously, you’re a “wordie” too. Any special hints for writers about word choice?

Well, I’ve just had an article published at the RYS site about wielding the right words and using the right journals that goes into this question in detail. I can sum it up by saying that when I think about word choice I think of words like people. Words have personalities, and like any person there is always more than what meets the eye. Words have emotional baggage, a cultural upbringing, physical sensibilities and an historical demeanor. Considering all of these factors is critical when writing for young readers. I only have so many words to play with—very few in the case of my picture books. Those words have to be weighed, analyzed and found to slot perfectly into its place.

I should also mention that I keep special “word” journals. I do not just journal generally. I note words I find, or phrases I love, from my reading. I keep an onomatopoeia journal and other specific journals. These help me keep the focus on word choice. The full article with examples from great writers can be found by going to this link at my blog.

Thanks, Tara, this has been fun…keep those lovely words coming!


Shutta Crum is the author of thirteen picture books, three novels, and numerous poems and articles. Her THUNDER-BOOMER! was an American Library Association and a Smithsonian Magazine “Notable Book” of the year. MINE! was listed by New York Times as “one of the best board books of the year.” Many of her books have made the Bank Street Best Books lists and have been short-listed for state awards. Her newest picture book MOUSELING’S WORDS is garnering glowing reviews. PW says: “…a tribute to the way books can unite even the unlikeliest of friends.” Booklist says, “This earnest and encouraging title fits on the shelf of books for book-lovers…” And Kirkus Reviews sums it up as, “Encouraging, lovely words.” For more, visit Shutta.com.

Shutta is giving away a picture book critique (less than 1000 words)—what an awesome opportunity! Just leave a comment below mentioning you want the crit (in other words, use your words).

A random winner will be selected at the end of the month.

Good luck!

Author-illustrator Denise Fleming gave the keynote at the NJ-SCBWI conference a few years ago and she said something that has stuck with me: “My internal age is five. So I make books for five-year-olds like me.”

I had an ah-ha moment, complete with a hovering lightbulb. I’m eight, I thought. No wonder I write what I do.

Denise’s newest book was recently released, and if you’re familiar with her work, it looks a little different. I learned that Denise has changed up her style. So, of course, I wanted to chat about it.

Denise, you are well known for your innovative illustrations created with paper pulp. THIS IS THE NEST THAT ROBIN BUILT looks a little different—still gorgeous and unique—but I understand you decided to reinvent your style with this book. Why did you feel the need to change up your technique?

I have been illustrating my books with pulp painting for over 25 years. While I love paper making, I felt it was time for a change for several reasons. The small company where I bought my pulp had changed hands and the new pulp was causing me problems. The board I used for stencils was no longer available. I had tried substitutes but none worked as well for detail and some were difficult to cut. Then, there were the hours of standing bent over the paper vat which was affecting my health. These were all a part of my decision to experiment with new techniques.

Gelatin printing and foam printing along with collage were the techniques that really interested me. These provided more freedom and the ability to create more detail, which is difficult with paper making. I also felt I needed a bit of reinvention. I have been around for a long time, I wanted readers to take a second look at my art. I am fascinated with printmaking. Before I created books I studied printmaking, mostly etching, lithos and mono-prints. I am excited to try new styles and techniques in upcoming books.

How does this new style contribute to and enhance this story?

With the new style I am able to create more detail in the illustrations. Printing the background and collaging the foreground gives the feeling of more depth. I also am able to make papers with the textures of feathers and grasses which enhances the art and adds a feel of realism.

 

Has your new style given rise to ideas for books you would have never thought of before?

Actually, I will be experimenting with several new styles in upcoming books. And yes, these new styles will allow me to more ably illustrate several manuscripts I had put in the back of my file due to the fact that I couldn’t figure out how to illustrate them in my pulp painting technique. People are difficult to do in pulp painting. Up until this point I have illustrated people as large graphic shapes. Hands and fingers were stressful as the pulp would fill in spaces between figures. Ugh. So maybe more figures and details in upcoming books. And maybe even white space.

Can you tell us about any upcoming projects?

As to future books, I have been on a sort of sabbatical. Working out how I want books to look. Manuscripts have not been submitted, so I would rather not reveal any of the books until they are under contract. But, I will let you know about them as soon as I send them out and am offered contracts. I agent myself, so I have to give myself a push. Unfortunately, I love experimenting, so I am slow to get back to the business of books.

If I were to edit your reply, I would delete “unfortunately”. Readers are lucky that you keep innovating and creating even more beautiful art!

THIS IS THE NEST THAT ROBIN BUILT is available now from Beach Lane Books.

You can win a copy here by leaving a comment below. A winner will be randomly selected in a couple weeks.

Good luck!

by Nancy Viau

Hey there, readers of this wonderful blog!

Betcha can’t wait for hot, hot summer days, right? I know I’m looking forward to lots of sunshine and NO SNOW!

WAIT.

A.

MINUTE!

I canNOT say that because I am all about snow these days. The reason? In September, my fourth picture book makes its way into the world, and it’s called FIRST SNOW (Albert Whitman & Co.). So, put on your clunky boots and funky hats, think chilly thoughts … instead of OMG, it’s summer and it’s ridiculously hot, and please check out:

What does this cover reveal about the book? Simple. Snow. Is. Fun! If you’re an adult, do you remember the hours spent building igloos, having snowball fights, sledding, and that feeling of cozy warmth from a cup of hot chocolate? (Yeah, I know, dear grown-ups, you’ve gotta put aside the snow shoveling, buried cars, bad roads, etc. for a minute. I haven’t forgotten about you. When the book comes out, look at my funny dedication!)

As with my other picture books, this story is written in rhyme. Before I even thought about being a writer, I loved to read rhyming books. The words seemed to roll off my tongue, yet I never really understood why until I tried my hand at rhyme. It was much harder than I ever imagined! With rhyme, there is so much to consider—the rhyming words, internal rhyme, meter, length of phrases, length of stanzas, vocabulary, and more. Still, I love it. I love that every single word counts. It often takes me weeks to find that perfect word—the one that fits for all the right reasons. When that happens, it’s magical, trust me. If you write in rhyme, you know exactly what I’m talking about!

As far as finding a topic for a rhyming picture book, nature has always been my inspiration. I enjoy every season and the weather that comes with each one—warm, breezy, rainy, super-hot and humid, or freezing cold. While some may grumble, growl, and complain about a pending snowstorm, I’m a little kid again. There is something about the crunch of snow under my feet; its clean smell; that blanket of white; the cheery voices of children playing; and at night, the quiet peacefulness it brings.

Puffy jackets. Scarves in place.

Extra mittens, just in case.

In FIRST SNOW, you’ll see the kids scramble to see those first snowflakes, then head outside for adventure. Illustrator Talitha Shipman has done an amazing job of showing how beautiful snow is. (It’s not easy to paint white snow on white paper, right?) The colors she has chosen are varied and bright, and the expressions on the kids’ faces are priceless. Seeing how an illustrator works with my words is one of my favorite things about writing picture books.

So, next winter when meteorologists predict a big winter storm, I hope you’ll curl up with a copy of FIRST SNOW and think back to a time when snow meant serious, crazy fun. Then bundle up and go out and play!


Nancy Viau is the author of five picture books: PRUETT AND SOO (Two Lions, TBA), FIRST SNOW (Albert Whitman), CITY STREET BEAT (Albert Whitman), LOOK WHAT I CAN DO! (Abrams Books), and STORM SONG (Two Lions). She also writes middle grade and has several published with more forthcoming. Look for her latest, BEAUTY AND BERNICE, at the end of August! During the summer Nancy works as a librarian assistant at a public library and is the first to check out the travel books, searching for adventures out-of-state and out of the country. It’s in nature where she finds inspiration and whether it’s navigating mountain trails or riding her bike, she’s always writing stories in her head. Visit her at NancyViau.com.

Nancy is giving away a signed copy of FIRST SNOW in September. Comment now to be entered into the random drawing. A winner will be selected…on the first day of summer…? (Oh, the irony.)

Good luck!

 

 

 

 

by Maria Gianferrari

Cat got your tongue? I hope not! It’s time to stick out your tongue and celebrate all things tongue with a TERRIFIC TONGUES book giveaway, and a trip off the tongue thanks to Tara for helping feature it here!

Tongues rule!! So does Jia Liu’s fun and vibrant art!

How cool are tongues? Take this quiz and find out!

Whose tongue is like a washcloth?
A) Giraffe
B) Okapi
C) Tiger

If you had a tongue like a whip, you might be a …..

A) Snake
B) Dog
C) Anteater

Your tongue cleans your eyes like a windshield wiper. Who are you?

A) A gecko
B) A snail
C) A sea turtle

Answer in the comments and you’ll be eligible to win a copy of the book (for US residents only—sorry!).

To check your answers, read TERRIFIC TONGUES!

Thanks again, Tara & hearty thanks to publisher Boyds Mills Press for generously donating copies!

by Tracy Marchini

I’ve worn a number of hats in my career—and for the most part I have always had at least two hats on at once.

Now, I’m a children’s author who is celebrating her picture book debut, CHICKEN WANTS NAP, and a Literary Agent at BookEnds Literary representing fiction, non-fiction and illustration for children and teens.

But I’ve also been a newspaper correspondent, a children’s book reviewer, a freelance copywriter, a literary agents assistant, a freelance editor and a communications manager. (Well, and a pharmacy tech—which has nothing to do with this post—and very, very briefly an assistant at a wedding dress preservationist’s—which is the only job I’ve ever been let go from. I was relieved.)

Anyway, so many of these hats forced me to learn to write in a different way. Feature pieces vs. event wrap ups, editorial letters vs. pitch letters, book reviews vs. press releases—everything had a different format or tone, but there was also a lot of overlap. Ultimately, I think all of the above experience helped me with my writing and agenting career, and I hope that some of the below helps you too!

Character
I would get my newspaper assignments on Friday, do interviews and write the story over the weekend, and submit on Sunday so it’d be in my editor’s inbox by the Monday deadline. (Monday I’d be commuting to work as a literary assistant.)

My favorite pieces to write were feature pieces that honored another person’s life. People were generally so happy to talk about this person that they loved or admired, even though we’re all flawed, and I usually left the interviews feeling pretty inspired. I also felt like there was a little more room for creativity in a feature piece. A good features makes the reader feel like they’ve met the person, too.

Looking back on feature writing makes me think about a character exercise that I was once assigned in undergrad. The exercise says to pick a person you know and write about them as they would write about themselves. Then write about them through the eyes of someone that hated them. Then again through the eyes of someone that loved them. You have three different people on the page—or four, right? Because the primary subject is actually probably closer to a culmination of those three pieces than any one particular view—and I think that’s why the exercise can be so helpful when you’re struggling with rounding out your characters. Remember, even antagonists think they’re the hero of the story.

Hook
Book reviews, newspaper pieces, pitch letters, press releases, copywriting—all of it relied on being able to find a hook that was going to grab a reader and make them want to read more, attend the event, buy the book, click a link, etc.

As an author, particularly as a picture book author, you have to be thinking about what is going to make your story stand out on the shelves or in the submissions pile.

That said, your hook is not the plot summary. For example, I’ve pitched CHICKEN WANTS A NAP as “Remy Charlip’s Fortunately set in the barnyard,” but that’s not the summary.

One exercise I’ve done with friends when they’re having trouble with finding a strong concept for their own WIPs is to go through the bookstore or their own shelves, pull out and read a picture book, then find a hook. For example, DUCKS’S VACATION is THERE’S A MONSTER AT THE END OF THIS BOOK set on the beach. NUT JOB is “Ocean’s 11” with squirrels. Or, if I were to pitch a book without a comparison, I might say something like HOORAY FOR FISH is a fun and heartwarming celebration of a fish’s love for their mom.

Once you’ve had practice with some books on the shelves, tell your friend the hook for your WIP. If it’s a plot summary, your friend should make you try again. And if you can’t find the hook for your WIP—that thing that’s going to make it stand out from all the other queries/manuscripts in an agent or editor’s inbox—then perhaps it’s time to take another look at your WIP’s concept.

In truth, you might not use this hook in your query letter at all, but if you find that a common theme in your rejection letters is “not sure it can compete in the marketplace,” this is an excellent exercise to help punch up your concept!

Word Choice
Almost everything I wrote had a standard structure and/or expected word count, be it a press release, feature story, book review, pitch letter or pieces for a social media campaign. Just like in a picture book text, EVERY WORD COUNTED. I had to be concise—looking for that one perfect word instead of two to four less precise words.

So take out your picture book WIP. Are you in the sweet spot (300 – 500 words for fiction*)? Does every word convey the exact meaning you intend? If you’re using repetition, is it done in a way that builds tension, humor or otherwise adds to the story? If you’re not sure about a word or line, delete it and then read the story aloud (or bring it to somebody else). Does the story lose anything? If not, then permanently delete that line, phrase or word.

*CHICKEN WANTS A NAP is 165 words, and my current WIP is 600. CHICKEN is a read-aloud for younger picture book readers and the story just did not need another 140 words. My WIP is for older picture book readers who are starting to read by themselves. So I guess I’m saying to use the words you need and not one word more!

Speaking of one word more, I had started a different draft of this post where I went through each job individually and it quickly became a novel. And as I’m hitting that point again, I think it’s best to close here. I hope that these tricks help you in your own writing, and if you have the time or opportunity to do some freelance writing in another format—I say, why not! You’ll exercise a different writing muscle, and I’ll bet it’ll improve your current children’s writing as well!


Tracy Marchini is a Literary Agent at BookEnds Literary, where she represents fiction, non-fiction and illustration for children and teens. She’s thrilled to represent a list of debut and award-winning authors and illustrators, and is currently open to submissions. To get a sense of what she’s looking for, you can follow her Twitter #MSWL, see her announced client books, and read her submission guidelines.

As an author, her debut picture book, CHICKEN WANTS A NAP, was called “A surprising gem” in a starred review from Kirkus. She’s been accepted for publication in Highlights Magazine and has won grants from the Highlights Foundation, the Puffin Foundation and La Muse Writer’s Retreat in Southern France. She holds an M.F.A. in Writing for Children and a B.A. in English, concentration in Rhetoric.

Tracey is giving away a signed copy of CHICKEN WANTS A NAP.

Leave one comment below to enter and a winner will be chosen next week.

Good luck!

by Troy Cummings

Designing a picture book cover is like housetraining a puppy: it requires lots of patience, there are papers spread all over the house, and it’ll inevitably lead to fits of howling in the middle of the night.

But if you can sniff out the good ideas and clean up your happy accidents, you’ll hopefully wind up with something you’re proud to cuddle up with on the couch.

When I wrangle my picture book covers, I try to explore as many different ideas as possible. I start by sketching a few pages crazy loose brainstormy concepts, and then distill those into half a dozen thumbnail sketches.

I draw my thumbnail sketches at about 1.5″ tall. It forces me to work quickly, make big, bold shapes, and to _not_ get fussy with details. I think it’s best to work in b/w at this point; we can save the color decisions for later.

Here are the cover sketches I submitted to my editor/art director for CAN I BE YOUR DOG? It’s a story about a dog who writes letters to every house on Butternut street, in search of a home–so I knew I’d want the cover to involve DOG + MAIL.

DVD COMMENTARY TRACK ON THE ABOVE IMAGES:

1. Big letter: This would have been a pretty static/boring cover; the puppy is too small! But I kept it here in case it gave us more ideas for another direction to follow.

2. Arfy mailing: I like how this one shows us the dog actually sending a letter. It’s sort of already getting the story started—like a bonus page zero of the book!

3. Zoomed-in stamp: I was trying to show the title in a cancellation stamp, but it’s too hard to read. (I ended up stealing this idea for my ABOUT THE AUTHOR photo on the flap. (With my portrait on a 3RD CLASS STAMP.)

4. Special delivery: I liked this one, especially Arfy’s floppy ears.

5. Big puppy: We ended up using this one as flap art, too.

6. Peek: I liked the timidness of the puppy peeking around the corner; we ended up using a variant of this on the back cover.

7. Arfy’s head: This was everyone’s favorite. The scruffy mutt is prominently featured, and it was nice to work the title into the illustration.

Once we’d agreed on a direction, my art director Liz (who rocks!) was able to take my sketch and improve it like crazy. Liz zoomed in on the image, made the title bolder, suggested to bend the letter, and moved my byline out to the background space. I loved all of her suggestions, and we ended up with a jacket that reads pretty well across the room or as a tiny thumbnail image on the web.

The best part about sketching multiple ideas is that none of that work was wasted. I was able to reuse some of my sketches on the flaps/interiors of the book, or for promotional materials.


Troy Cummings is the author/illustrator of more than 30 books, including CAN I BE YOUR DOG?, THE NOTEBOOK OF DOOM, and LITTLE RED GLIDING HOOD (written by the indefatigable Tara Lazar!) You can follow him on Twitter @troycummings, follow him on Instagram @troxcummings, or follow him to the new ice cream shop that opened next door to his studio. (Shrewd move on their part!)

Troy is giving away a signed copy of CAN I BE YOUR DOG?

Leave one comment below to enter. A winner will be selected next week.

by Tara Luebbe

Today I’d like to jump into a time machine and beam forward to February 1. You have followed the brilliant advice of my fellow authors and have some great new ideas. Now let’s talk about that next vital step…

Last fall, Tara (Lazar) and I discussed how we often see writers spending too much time polishing, revising, and perfecting a manuscript that, frankly, is not a good idea to begin with. It doesn’t matter how beautiful your prose is or how much you polish every word. If it is not a marketable or unique idea, it won’t sell. So how do you take your Storystorm ideas and assess them for marketability and selling potential?

I’ve been given a gift like the kid in The Sixth Sense, but instead of dead people, I see marketability. My gift was honed through working retail; from the sales floor to the buying offices of big retailers, to wholesale distribution, and finally to owning a book and toy boutique. Buying and selling picture books gave me an astute understanding of what works…and what doesn’t.

In your eyes, your book is your baby, your masterpiece, your blood, sweat and tears, your soul. And yes, it IS all of those. But to the retail world, your book is a product, a SKU—inventory to be turned. Is your idea strong enough to be crafted into a sellable product? I don’t draft an idea into a manuscript unless I can envision the sales pitch. Not everything I write sells, of course—far from it. But I start with an idea that I am confident has marketability, and that is half the battle.

Not every published book falls into the parameters I suggest below. But, when I was trying so hard to break into the industry, writing marketable picture books was my golden ticket. If it is an approach you’d like to try, here are my recommendations to evaluate your ideas for marketability:

  • One obvious place to start is your topic. Does your book have a topic that kids actually like? You would not design any other product that doesn’t appeal to the target market, and books are no different. Can you imagine Pottery Barn trying to sell plastic lawn ornaments or Chia Pets? But yet, a lot of people write about topics that aren’t very interesting to the target market—kids. Kids like trucks, dinos, outer space, ninjas, princesses, pirates, cupcakes, art, monsters, animals, fairy tales, tutus, dance, etc. Popular topics make a book more marketable. BUT, this also means you need to research to make sure your story is DIFFERENT than existing books on your topic, or this won’t matter at all. (Tara Lazar has a brilliant list of 500+ things kids like in case you need help.

These books were recent favorites and are perfect examples of popular subject matters handled in fresh, new ways.

  • Walk into a children’s toy store or boutique with your manuscript. Look around. If you had to merchandise your product (book) in this store (not on a bookshelf, but with toys and merchandise), where would you put it? Does it have an obvious place? This is a picture from my former store. There were lots of books that I could merchandise in my “pink, fairy, tea party, ballerina” section. My upcoming book, I AM FAMOUS, would have fit in here, right next to Nancy and Bree. If you can’t see an obvious place for Grandma’s Childhood Tales of Eating Vegetables, you might want to rethink it.

  • Think of the changing front table displays at any gift retailer. Does your idea fit one of the themes that rotate throughout the year? The major holidays? The minor holidays? Back to school? Fall? Winter? Spring? Summer? Graduation season? Beach season? Snow season? Your book does not have to be a “holiday book” to be included here. Bunnies and chicks are associated with Easter; monsters, bats, or zombies can fit in with Halloween; love stories for Valentine’s Day, etc. When a retailer needs to create a themed front window or table display, can your “product” be included? Make a list of the holidays and themes that might work.
  • Are there any specialty retail stores you can envision your book fitting into? Does it belong in a zoo gift shop? An aquarium? The National Park gift stores? Pet boutiques? Pregnancy boutiques? Hobby stores? Museum gift shops? Educational or teacher stores? Craft stores? Cat stores? Specialty catalogs? Besides a bookstore, where else would your book fit seamlessly on the shelf? My book SHARK NATE-O is perfect for aquarium gift shops, and, in fact, we added non-fiction backmatter to make it even more attractive to this group. Bookstores are our bread and butter, but adding specialty retailers to your marketability factor is extremely helpful for sales. Make a list and see what you get.
  • Are there any special interest groups that would love this book? Scientists? Bilingual households? Families expecting a sibling? Military families? Pet adoption advocates? Marine biologists? Cryptozoologists? Potty trainers? Sloth aficionados? Flat earthers? Cosplayers? Teachers and librarians? Slot car racers? Grandparents? Yarn bombers? These subsets all are a part of the book’s marketability. I believe my forthcoming book, CONAN THE LIBRARIAN, may really resonate with teachers and librarians because of the literary message. Any marketing plan for your book should include these special interest groups.
  • Are there any special occasions or events that would tie in with your idea? Consider major events like the Olympics, Shark Week, a presidential election and Earth Day. Also think of regional events, like the Indianapolis 500, the Kentucky Derby, the Moose Poop Drop, the Polar Bear Plunge, etc. What about anniversaries of historical events? Black History Month? School celebrations like Poem in Your Pocket Day? The 100th day of School? The first day of school? Make a list. SHARK NATE-O is ready for Shark Week!

  • And the last great piece of marketability: a high-concept title. A high-concept title is one that tells a buyer what the book is about by title alone. A great title allows a book to be placed on a pallet in the middle of Costco, with no pretty merchandising and no sales help, and sell itself. As a retail buyer, I immediately get a sense of a book just by looking at the title and cover in a sales rep’s catalog. Can you give your manuscript a high-concept title?

I hope you find something in this post helpful as you sit down with your list of shiny new Storystorm ideas. While reviewing them, run each through the above checklist. Maybe one idea will jump off the page as an obvious place to start. Or maybe two ideas can be combined into something more marketable for an editor or agent. Oh, and watch Shark Tank if you don’t already—it’s brilliant for understanding marketability.


Tara Luebbe is an ex-retailer turned picture book author. She co-writes with her sister Becky Cattie. They are the authors of the forthcoming I AM FAMOUS, illustrated by Joanne Lew Vreithoff, (Albert Whitman March 1, 2018); SHARK NATE-O, illustrated by Daniel Duncan, (little bee books April 3, 2018); I USED TO BE FAMOUS, illustrated by Joanne Lew Vreithoff (Albert Whitman Spring 2019); and CONAN THE LIBRARIAN (Roaring Brook Press Spring 2019). She is also the founder of Writing with the Stars, a free mentorship program for aspiring picture book writers. You can learn more at beckytarabooks.com and you can find her on Twitter @t_luebbe.

To keep it all about retail, Tara (Luebbe) is donating a $20.00 gift certificate to Chapters, an Indie bookstore in Seward, Nebraska, for one lucky winner to buy whatever they like. The winner will also receive a signed copy of I AM FAMOUS upon release on March 1.

Leave ONE COMMENT on this blog post to enter. You are eligible to win if you are a registered Storystorm participant and you have commented once below. Prizes will be given away at the conclusion of the event.

Good luck!

7ate9
Winner of the 2018 Irma S. Black Award and the SCBWI Crystal Kite!
black kite

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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My Picture Books

COMING SOON:


illus by Melissa Crowton
Tundra/PRH Canada
June 4, 2019

THE UPPER CASE:
TROUBLE IN CAPITAL CITY
illus by Ross MacDonald
Disney*Hyperion
Fall 2019

FOUR WAYS TO TRAP A LEPRECHAUN
illus by Vivienne To
HarperCollins
Spring 2020

THE WHIZBANG WORDBOOK
illustrator TBA
Sourcebooks Jabberwocky
Spring 2020

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