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by Kate Garchinsky

When Tara asked me to write a blog post for Storystorm, my inner critic threw an immediate tantrum. She, Princess Poopynannyhead, is between six and eleven years old, has the voice of my troublemaking younger sister, and sticks her tongue out a lot. She is prettier than me, always wears the right shoes for her outfit, and she knows and remembers absolutely every criticism I have ever received. Especially those about my writing.

“Advice for writers? Who do you think you are? All you do is draw and color pictures.”

That’s right. I do. I am an illustrator.

I’ve always been a very visual person. I’m learning to write, but images always come easier to me than words. My brainstorms come to life in my sketchbooks. Piles and piles of partially-filled sketchbooks. Would you like to try a little drawing exercise with me?

“But I can’t draw! I can’t draw a stick figure. I can’t even draw a straight line!” you say?

It’s ok. Please thank your Poopynannyhead for trying to protect you. My mistake. This is not really a drawing exercise. It’s a sensory exercise. And it’s called…


I learned this exercise from a naturalist named Mark Baldwin at the Highlights Foundation’s Nature Writers Workshop in 2014. For years he taught this same game to kids of all ages as the Director of Education at Roger Tory Peterson Institute of Natural History. He’s now a science teacher in Sweden.

Here’s what you’ll need: blank paper (loose or in a journal), a pen or pencil, and a door that leads to the outside.

First, go out and walk toward the first patch of nature you see. It can be as simple as a pile of blown leaves, or as fancy as an arboretum. Spend a few minutes letting your eyes wander until they settle on an object of interest, small enough to bring back inside with you if it’s cold out there. Some examples might be a pinecone, an acorn, a dried seed head, a sprig of holly or boxwood, or a dried, crumpled leaf. I used a piece of bark I found in the woods for my first I Wonder.

Next, study your object. Turn it around in your hands. Set it down on a table or your lap.

Now let’s do a contour drawing. In a contour drawing, you trace the outline of an object with your eyes, and let your drawing hand mimic your eye movement. Slowly. Deliberately. Pretend you’re watching a little ant walk around the outside of the object, and let your pencil point follow the ant, just on your paper. DO NOT LOOK AT YOUR DRAWING UNTIL YOU ARE DONE. It doesn’t matter if you run out of room on the page and have to start in a new spot. Just keep going. When you finish the outline, look at the middle and contour draw any lines you see there.

It won’t matter if your drawing looks like an ugly blob. What matters is the attention you put into observing all the little angles, curves, and details of the object.

Now that you’ve studied the object’s appearance, pick it up and gift it a long, deep sniff. Feel its texture, turning it around in your hands. Now start writing with these prompts:

It looks like…

It smells like…

It feels like…

It tastes like… (optional)

It’s the same color as…

It’s as heavy/light as…

It reminds me of…

I wonder…

Did anything unexpected come to mind? Where did your wonderings take you? You can also try this exercise with something colorful from the produce aisle, a pair of children’s shoes, or a treasure from the thrift store. Can you think of another place to look for objects? Where would your characters like to go? What do they wonder about?

Let’s check in with that inner critic of yours. What is s/he up to now? Do they have any ideas?


Kate Garchinsky listened to inner Poopynannyhead for twenty years before fully committing herself to her dream of illustrating children’s books. Since then she has illustrated four children’s books, including  The Secret Life series of narrative non-fiction picture books written by Laurence Pringle. Her most recent book is The Secret Life of the Skunk. Before that she held less-fun jobs like retail cashier, patio furniture salesgirl, hoagie maker, dollhouse decorator, and packaging designer. She lives and works on the edge of the woodlands in Newtown Square, Pennsylvania with her husband, two kitties, and their new rescue puppy, Ruby Roo.

Learn more about Kate and her books at, Twitter and Instagram @katesnowbird.

Kate is giving away a signed copy of her first illustrated book, The Secret Life of the Red Fox, written by Laurence Pringle, and a page of thumbnail sketches she did for the illustrations, and a peek at an illustration from book #5 in progress, The Secret Life of the Sloth (2021).

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 Carrie Finison

It’s hard to make something from nothing and yet, we writers do that every day, don’t we? A blank sheet of paper or computer screen fills with our words or pictures and becomes a story. Something from nothing.

But what if you could start with just a little something. Like a title. Making something from something else feels just a little bit easier.

I’m a sucker for all things alliterative, and catchy titles tend to stick in my head. That’s what happened when my friend and fellow rhymer Diana Murray posted a story called DOUBLE THE DINOSAURS in our online critique group, Poets’ Garage, back in 2012. Isn’t that an engaging, memorable title? That double-D rolls off the tongue and the phrase has a bouncy rhythm—you know the story is going to be fun.

That title sunk into the depths of my brain. It emerged again during the next Storystorm (then called PiBoIdMo), on a day when I was reaching for an idea. But, instead of “dinosaurs,” my brain substituted another word that’s never far from my thoughts—“doughnuts.”


DOUBLE THE DOUGHNUTS. Yum! I thought about that idea for a while, but the storylines I came up with to go with that title all seemed too similar to Diana’s. After more thinking (and probably a few doughnuts) my brain swapped out another word. DOUBLE became DOZENS (which makes sense since doughnuts are frequently bought by the dozen), and a new title was born. DOZENS OF DOUGHNUTS! It’s catchy and alliterative, not to mention delicious!

This isn’t the only time that I’ve come up with a picture book title by tinkering with someone else’s successful title. In fact, this has become one of my favorite methods for coming up with new story ideas. I love looking at existing titles and changing one or two words to turn it into a new idea. This process works especially well at the library, because there the shelves are filled with titles and stories I’m not familiar with. In fact, it’s best not even to look at the covers of the books, just the titles alone.

Let’s give it a try!

(Note, since I write picture books, I’ve only tried this method for picture book ideas. If someone who writes novels wants to give it a try, I’d love to hear if it works!)

Here’s a shelf in my library’s picture book section:

Shall we take a close look at some of the titles?

TURTLE IN THE SEA catches my eye. What if we change the word “sea”? Where else could a turtle character go?

How about TURTLE IN TOWN? Or maybe TURTLE GOES TO TOWN. That has some nice alliteration to it and sounds a little unexpected and intriguing. Why would a turtle go to town and what would it do there? Or maybe our turtle doesn’t go anywhere. Maybe it’s a TURTLE IN TROUBLE. That could be fiction, or even nonfiction focusing on the plight of sea turtles encountering plastic in the ocean. Or, perhaps our character isn’t a turtle. Maybe it’s a TURKEY or a TOUCAN or a TARANTULA. Or maybe it doesn’t start with T at all—there’s a whole alphabet of other letters waiting to jump in on this game!

Let’s look at another one. I’ve never read PANCAKES IN PAJAMAS but it sounds hilarious. That could spark some fun ideas. What else could be in pajamas, and what would they do? How about POTATOES? PANGOLINS? PODIATRISTS? Well…some ideas have more kid appeal than others.

Here are a couple of stacks of books I pulled off the shelves at random. Tinker around with these titles and see if they spark any new ideas for you.

Of course, a title is just a start. For me, it took a lot of brainstorming, 3 years, and 89 drafts to a finished product. I’m happy to report that DOZENS OF DOUGHNUTS is being released in July, 2020, by Putnam. And I’m DOUBLY happy to report that Diana Murray’s book, DOUBLE THE DINOSAURS, is being released in Fall, 2020, as an early reader from Random House.


You never know where your title tinkering can take you, until you try it!

Carrie Finison began her literary career at the age of seven with an idea, a box of markers, and her father’s typewriter. She has been writing off and on ever since, though she has (somewhat regretfully) traded in the typewriter for a laptop. Her debut picture book, DOZENS OF DOUGHNUTS, illustrated by Brianne Farley, will be published in July, 2020, by Putnam, with a second book, DON’T HUG DOUG, illustrated by Daniel Wiseman, coming in 2021. She lives outside Boston with her husband, son, daughter, and two cats who permit her to write in their cozy attic office. For updates, subscribe to her newsletter, check out her website, or follow on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram.

Carrie is giving away a fiction picture book critique, either in rhyme or prose.

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 Rajani LaRocca

I’m a doctor as well as a writer. I take care of grownups all day, and write stories for kids all night…well, actually pretty much every minute of the day not spent taking care of my patients or my family. And as a doctor and a writer, there’s one thing I know for sure:

We write with our brains.

Photo by Robina Weermeijer on Unsplash

OK, not literally with our brains—writing usually involves hands. But the work of writing comes from our brains.

Duh, Rajani, you may say. We don’t need to be doctors to know that!

Aha, gentle writer, I say to you. But what part of our brains?

I’m not going to go deep into brain science here. I’m not going to delve into the workings of the cerebral cortex, the hippocampus, or the amygdala.

I’m talking about the conscious vs. the subconscious.

Photo by Christopher Rusev on Unsplash

Most of the time, we use our conscious mind. It’s the stuff we are aware of right now—the input from our senses, our actions, and our thoughts.

But there are times when the conscious mind gets stumped. You can’t figure out what happens next in your novel—all your ideas are predictable and boring. You have no idea how to make the rhyme work in a stanza of your hilarious picture book about unicorn hats. You cannot imagine coming up with thirty different story ideas in thirty-one days to start off 2020. You think, and you think, and you think with your conscious mind, and you’re coming up empty.

But the conscious mind is only the tip of the iceberg.

Photo by Derek Oyen on Unsplash

Most of what our brains do is actually under the surface of all that stuff we’re thinking about. The subconscious mind makes connections, draws conclusions, and remembers things we thought we’d forgotten. It helps us solve problems when our conscious minds are stumped. It might just be the wellspring from which all our creativity flows.

Photo by Ezra Jeffrey-Comeau on Unsplash

But how do we access the subconscious mind? How do we demand that something work when we can’t consciously ask it to work? How do we catch a cloud and pin it down?

Well, there are lots of ways.

1.     Meditate. This is a tried and true practice for calming the conscious mind and accessing the subconscious more easily.

Photo by Deniz Altindas on Unsplash

2.     Exercise. Getting your muscles pumping makes your conscious mind stop focusing on the problem at hand and can allow your subconscious mind to take over. I’ve gotten many ideas at the gym — including a tricky little plot point for my debut novel, MIDSUMMER’S MAYHEM, that had me laughing out loud and taking desperate notes on my phone while trying not to fall off the elliptical.

Photo by Thomas Park on Unsplash

3.     Be in nature. If you can exercise in nature, even better! And if you can do it with a friend who is a good listener, even even better. Here’s my favorite friend exploring nature with me:

His name is Boomer. And yes, he’s impossibly cute.

4.     Shower. I cannot tell you why, but the feeling of warm water running over your head can prod your subconscious into action like nothing else! I get ideas in the shower all the time; you can even get a special notepad to jot down ideas during your ablutions.

Photo by Chandler Cruttenden on Unsplash

5.     Work on a different task that requires your attention. People often ask me how I can be a doctor and a writer. The truth is, I often feel that I’m a better writer because I’m a doctor. My day job requires intense focus, and when I take a break from it, my subconscious mind has often figured out something for my writing that my conscious mind couldn’t access.

I also like to shift between projects, especially if one project is long (like a novel) and the other is short (a picture book or essay…or, perhaps, a blog post). After I’ve finished working on one thing, I move to the other and find that the ideas are flowing again.

Photo by Joe Green on Unsplash

6.     Sleep. Seriously! It gives your brain time to rest and rejuvenate. Even a nap can help. For rhyme, I find that a good night’s sleep often leads to discovering just the right turn of phrase first thing in the morning. While my conscious mind went night-night, my subconscious worked on finding the perfect combination of words.

During this Storystorm month, I hope you find your own ways to tap into your subconscious and get your ideas flowing like never before. As a parting gift, you are free to meditate and exercise in an outdoor shower while contemplating this lovely photo before taking a nice long nap:

Rajani LaRocca practices medicine and writes middle grade novels and picture books in the Boston area. In her free time, she enjoys reading, traveling, and baking too many sweet treats.

Her debut novel, MIDSUMMER’S MAYHEM (Yellow Jacket/Little Bee Books) was a 2019 Indies Introduce title and a 2019 Kirkus Reviews Best Middle Grade Novel. Her debut picture book, SEVEN GOLDEN RINGS: A TALE OF MUSIC AND MATH (Lee & Low, July 2020) is set in ancient India and introduces the concept of binary numbers. Learn more about her and her other forthcoming books at and on Twitter and Instagram @rajanilarocca.

Rajani giving away a picture book critique and a copy of her debut picture book, SEVEN GOLDEN RINGS: A TALE OF MUSIC AND MATH (July 2020) 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!


by Heidi E. Y. Stemple

Storystorm is all about ideas. Seeing them, searching for them, compiling them, listing them, gathering them…

I’m excited to be teaching about nonfiction ideas at the Storystorm Highlights retreat this spring because I love finding nonfiction ideas. I find them in news clippings, in the google doodle, on the radio, at museums, while reading. I stumble upon nonfiction ideas while researching other stories. I have been hit in the face by them while walking in nature or driving down the road (not literally, of course). They are everywhere.

But, once you have an idea, what do you do with it?

A nonfiction idea is different, in many ways, than any other idea. It comes with rules. If it is a biography or history, it can come with a plot built-in. You are presented with the entire story—beginning, middle, end. It has an armature already in place. But, the story already being set, can be deceptive.

Let’s take Jane Goodall’s story. You could tell her story about working with the chimps, whole-cloth, cradle to grave (though, her conclusion is far from written since she is still very much alive and still changing the world). Go find yourself a copy of the book ME JANE (by Patrick McDonnell). This book takes a unique look at Goodall’s origin story. The author found a small story arc in Goodall’s childhood and pulled it out of the larger story arc of her life. Imagine how many stories can be written about this one subject. You could come up with a story idea every day this month just for Jane Goodall! But, how do you make that story stand out? That is the REAL question. How do you take that idea and make it into something unique?

If you are talking about a nonfiction idea that has less strict lines, perhaps a science or nature-based book, it still has rules—you can’t plop in a fairy or a stream that rushes UP a mountain and call it nonfiction. So, how can it be different from what’s already out there?

Let’s take a look at some books about nests.  In my bookshelves alone, I can find a couple dozen books about nests. Fiction and nonfiction, narrative and expository. So many books on the same subject.  And, no two are alike (insert birds of a feather joke here). Here are three books on that same subject and all are different in the way they take it on:

What makes each of these books, written after each author had the same idea—to write about nests—completely unique?

The magic is in taking that idea and making it your own. What perspective you take to look at the subject. Will you look at the birds (or other nest builders) from an outside observer’s point of view? Or from the bird’s? What voice will you use to tell your story? Will it be poetic? Scientific? A combination of the two? Will you choose, and make the most of, a literary device? Will you rhyme? Use alliteration or pack it with similes? Be silly or serious.

Go further: Look to the history or nature of the story to inform your story voice.

In LIGHTS, CAMERA, ALICE (by Mara Rockliff, illustrated by Simona Ciraolo) the story is about a woman in the film industry and parts of the story are told in old fashion (silent film) movie placards. That sets the book apart from any other book I’ve seen. Is your books about a mathematician? Can you integrate numbers into your story?

Does your protagonist have a catch phrase (look at I DISSENT by Debbie Levy, illustrated by Elizabeth Baddeley).

Carole Boston Weatherford uses rhythmic words to tell the story of John Coltrane in BEFORE JOHN WAS A JAZZ GIANT (illustrated by Sean Qualls) which makes the reader really feel the music that informed every aspect of Coltrane’s life.

What if you have a ridiculous idea? My book EEK YOU REEK (co-authored by Jane Yolen and illustrated by Eugenia Nobati) is about stinky animals. We chose humorous poems to be the vehicle to drive this subject.  But, there is lots of nonfiction packed in those rhymes—even the really short ones:

The Shore Earwig (A Haiku)

Eat me. I dare you.
I’m a nasty stink bomb—POW!
Not so tasty now.

One more thing to think about—where it gets even more interesting—if you have a nonfiction idea, there is no rule saying you need to write a nonfiction book. Take, for example, the Audubon Christmas Bird Count. My book COUNTING BIRDS (illustrated by Clover Robin) is the nonfiction account of its history. Since it published, two other books about the same subject, though in a fictional way, have come out (FINDING A DOVE FOR GRAMPS, Amstutz/Di Gravino, and BIRD COUNT, Richmand/Coleman) and each has a new way to look at the same subject. Far from competing, these books work together for the bird-loving child.

So, don’t be afraid. Feel free to take a nonfiction idea and move away from it. Write something completely fictional or even fantastical. That nonfiction idea is your seed—the tree you grow from it is your choice.

Heidi didn’t want to be a writer when she grew up. In fact, after she graduated from college, she became a probation officer in Florida. It wasn’t until she was 28 years old that she gave in and joined the family business, publishing her first short story in a book called Famous Writers and Their Kids Write Spooky Stories. The famous writer was her mom, author Jane Yolen. Since then, she has published more than 20 books including You Nest Here With Me, Not All Princesses Dress In Pink, and 2 Fairy Tale Feasts cookbooks, as well as numerous short stories and poems, mostly for children.

Heidi lives on an old tobacco farm in western Massachusetts where she writes, reads, cooks, sews, and once a year, calls and counts owls for the Audubon Christmas Bird Count.

Her website is and she’s on Twitter @heidieys.

Heidi is giving away a copy of EEK YOU REEK when it’s released.

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 John M. Cusick

Picture this: you’re at a midtown restaurant and you see two people having an animated conversation about books. You know this is a favorite lunch spot for publishing folk, so you guess (correctly), you’re witnessing one of those fabled agent/editor lunches. No, there are no empty martini glasses rolling across the table—you can just tell from the way one diner is animatedly talking about a new manuscript she’s working on. As she describes the plot, you find yourself pulled in—you’re intrigued by the details, maybe a few of them even make you smile. And just when you think “hey that’s a pretty clever idea,” the speaker presents another twist, another layer of tension of complication, and before you know it, you’re thinking “I’ve got to read this!”

We typically think about agents pitching projects to editors, and it’s true that as an agent I’m presenting new stories and manuscripts to my editor colleagues all the time. But oftentimes, at lunches like the one described above, the person raving about the wonderful new book they’ve acquired is just as likely to be the editor. And that’s great! As an agent, I want to know what my editors are excited about. What are they working on that’s inspiring them? What new book are they dying to share with the world?

I wish aspiring writers could hear how editors talk about their books at lunches and in-person meetings like these. I think it would be such an education for authors looking to generate compelling and commercial ideas of their own. On the one hand, editors speak from a place of pure, genuine enthusiasm—these are the books they’ve already fallen in love with, offered on, bought, reread a dozen times, and thought about for hours on end. At the same time, editors are often able to speak about their current titles with a kind of focus and precision that many struggling pitch-writers could learn from. Not only does the editor know her book inside out, she’s also a) had it pitched to her (by the author’s agent), and b) has had to pitch it herself—to her team, her publisher, her sales and marketing departments.

Firstly, editors often start with a compelling detail (usually with a smile on their face as they recall a favorite image or concept): “So, she’s a roller-derby all-star,” or, “His best friend is his hairless cat.” Instantly there’s something different or unusual to pull you in, snag your interest.

Secondly, there’s a layer of conflict (another opportunity for a unique detail): “She’s got to save her mom’s holistic pottery center” or “He’s finding first love against the backdrop of the Challenger shuttle disaster.”

This is often where most author pitches begin and end— with the set up and the basic conflict. But editors often go further in their off-the-cuff (or sometimes very polished) descriptions. There’s almost always a third layer, the thing that happens as the story unfolds: “She meets her idol who turns out to be her enemy,” or “He gets expelled for something his brother did.” Etc. etc.

The point is, you’ll notice that published books often have interesting details and “hooks” stacked on top of each other. There are multiple ins to the story, multiple elements that can potentially pull in a reader. If the roller-derby bit didn’t catch your attention, the holistic pottery center or star-crossed lovers might.

And my reaction is almost always, “Oh wow that’s cool. Hey that’s even cooler! And THAT happens too!?”

When building your story world, first, get creative and specific with your details. Instead of your main character working at a generic restaurant, why not have your hero be an entertainer at an off-brand Discovery Zone who has to dress as a giant frog (how embarrassing!).

Next, see if it’s possible to layer your “hooks,” giving your manuscript multiple points of interest for the reader browsing their local bookstore. One way to do this is by combining pre-existing ideas. That romcom about the typewriter repairman? Why not blend it with the detective story you’ve been toying with? Now you’ve got a mystery-rom-com about a typewriter repairman who falls in love with the prime suspect against the backdrop of the space race. Layered concepts equals more points of interest, more complexity, and more intrigue.

It can be tricky to stand out in the crowded market, but building in eccentric and memorable details, as well as combining story-concepts, can help your work rise above the static. Writing well is essential, the base line, but it’s only the start. Take the idea you began with and add your own layers of complexity. Tweak the details and embellish the conflicts, and the next time an editor is gushing about their favorite new manuscript over dim sum or lattes, that book might be yours.

John Cusick is a VP and literary agent with Folio Literary Management, representing a diverse list of award winners and New York Times bestsellers. His focus is middle grade, young adult, and crossover fiction. He is also the author of the YA novels Girl Parts and Cherry Money Baby (Candlewick Press), and the forthcoming middle-grade Dimension Why: How to Save the Universe Without Really Trying (HarperCollins). He tweets at @johnmcusick and discusses the craft and business of writing on YouTube at His submission guidelines are available on Publishers Marketplace

John Cusick will be one of the Storystorm Grand Prizes.

No, we’re not wrapping him in a bow and shipping him to you.

At the end of Storystorm, if you’ve completed the challenge and have at least 30 ideas, you can sign the Storystorm Pledge. If you have registered and signed the pledge, you will go into a random drawing for a Grand Prize. An agent will review your best 5 ideas and give you feedback regarding which ideas would be best to pursue as manuscripts.

So, no need to comment below today…but if you would like to, Storystorm loves feedback!


by Angela Kunkel

In January 2017, I participated in Storystorm for the first time. While I’ve wanted to be a writer pretty much since childhood, perfectionism always got in the way. I rarely, if ever, finished a story because it wouldn’t do exactly what I wanted it to on the first attempt. So, when I heard about thirty days of generating ideas-only? Especially when I had limited time and brain space as a working parent? Sign. Me. Up.

Storystorm was the first time I tried a sustained, daily practice of cultivating ideas without judging them, and without trying to turn each idea into a perfectly polished piece. Although I didn’t know it at the time, I was doing more with less. Building this habit was helping me shake off the grip of ol’ perfectionism. I jotted ideas down each morning, didn’t love any of them in particular, January ended and I felt pretty good about it.

And then.

A month later.

The video.

A brief segue (it will come back around, I promise): In 2017, I was living and working in Albuquerque, New Mexico at a dual-language school where the student body was (and is) 98% Latinx and 100% free/reduced lunch. Much of my job as a school librarian was outreach: outreach to reluctant readers. Outreach to students who didn’t see themselves in books. Outreach to families who might be hesitant to use public services (like libraries) due to immigration status, or the fear of incurring library fines they couldn’t afford to pay. I talked to students and teachers and families about books day in and day out, and I absolutely loved my job.

And, in my off hours, colleagues and friends, who knew how much I loved my job, often shared library-related articles and memes on Facebook.

So. Back to the video.

It’s February 2017. I just completed my first Storystorm. And one of those feel-good videos about a library popped in my feed.

It was a quick, upbeat story about José Alberto Gutiérrez, a garbage collector in Bogotá, Colombia who discovered a single discarded book on his route, only to build a collection that became an entire library for the children of his neighborhood. This is especially important because, in a city of ten million, Bogotá has only 19 public libraries. And Jose’s barrio had none.

It was a viral video, yes. And it was on Facebook, which I spend entirely too much time on and has tons of problematic content, yes. And it was probably going to be the next repeatedly-shared library-themed post on social media and yeah, I’ve seen it, Aunt Karen (just kidding, don’t have an Aunt Karen).

But still. Something hummed.

It was my newly-honed ability to recognize the seed of an idea.

The idea would not be quiet. I watched the video repeatedly. And my inner perfectionist was really annoying me and I told her I did not have the time, because I’d just spent a solid month of generating ideas, thankyouverymuch.

I returned to the video yet again. In the faces of José’s young friends, in their excitement to browse a library and hold up books of their own, I saw my students. It was an idea I loved because it was a flash of recognition.

So, I put the perfectionist in time out and drafted a beginning-to-end story in my composition book, sitting in Starbucks and frantically scribbling in a stolen 30 minutes before I saw those same students at work.

Some things were clear from the video and from that very first draft—the Spanish interspersed throughout the text, the child and adult characters both named José, the circular ending—I made those choices right away, and they remain in the book.

However, it’s important to note that defining my personal connection to the idea gave me not only the confidence to write that first draft, but the stamina to continue revising it. As 2017 progressed, I researched Jose’s library, seeking out news articles and videos in both English and Spanish. I shared multiple drafts with critique partners, benefited from professional feedback at a conference, and made several rounds of sketch dummies to get the pacing right. Finally, José read a Spanish translation of the manuscript in the summer of 2017 and gave the project his blessing. And, like José’s single book, my single idea had become this:

And then, thanks to illustrator Paola Escobar’s talented hand, it became this:

If I can leave you with any advice, Storystormers, it’s this: Get those ideas down without wondering what will become of them. It’s the habit, not the single idea, that will set you on a creative journey you can’t even anticipate. You can find inspiration in the least likely or most mundane of places—recognize it means to you and your ideal reader. That is what can take something from viral to vibrant, no matter how many times it has been viewed (in the case of that original video, 8.3 million times).

You can view the original video here.

Angela Burke Kunkel is the author of the forthcoming DIGGING FOR WORDS: JOSÉ ALBERTO GUTIÉRREZ AND THE LIBRARY HE BUILT, illustrated by Paola Escobar and published by Random House/Schwartz and Wade. Look for both English and Spanish editions in September 2020!

In addition to writing, Angela is a current school librarian and former English Language Arts teacher. After soaking up the sun in the Southwest for a number of years, she now lives in Vermont with her family, two dogs, two guinea pigs, and one rapidly-growing bearded dragon (really, it’s rather alarming). Right now, she’s just trying to get through another Vermont winter by knitting an enormous blanket and baking sourdough bread.

You can subscribe to Angela’s author newsletter here. You can also find her on Twitter and Instagram @angkunkel, or check out her website at

Angela is giving one prize winner a choice between a picture book critique or a copy of DIGGING once it is released in September.

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 Ashley Franklin

Rejection is an unavoidable part of a writer’s life. In fact, the more diligently we pursue our writing dreams, the more we increase our chances of being rejected. (Hey, I don’t make the rules.)

Receiving a “no” from your dream agent or editor stings. I want to tell you that it gets easier with time, but I ravenously ate a chocolate bar after receiving a couple of rejections just a few months ago. Once that passed, I had to do something that was actually useful. I took a break. It doesn’t help to think about a rejection while still emotional about it.

What I did next is something that helps me to think of a “no” as a necessary pitstop towards my final destination of a “yes”. Instead of feeling defeated from a “no”, I started looking to it for inspiration to make my manuscript even better.

Learn from it.

You’re a writer, so take notes. Make a note of the suggestions that you receive. Write them down and turn them into a checklist even if you don’t agree with them at first.

Once you have your initial list, strike out any feedback that you don’t agree with. Specifically, dismiss any feedback that completely goes against your vision for the story.

Review your manuscript, list in hand and make the appropriate revisions.

Grow from it.

Query your shiny new manuscript that was inspired from the feedback you received by the rejection.

Put the manuscript to the side. Perhaps you’ve realized that the manuscript truly wasn’t ready and you need to work more on your craft. Perhaps you’ve realized this manuscript truly wasn’t the right fit for those you queried. Either way, you’ve grown as a writer.

We all hate form rejections. “No response” rejections are even worse. While both make it more difficult to assess what you can gain from them, it’s not impossible. You can still take apart your manuscript and read it as a reader (not as a writer). Look for parts that you don’t necessarily connect with. See if the pacing drags in places. Double-check for continuity in longer works. Nobody knows your work better than you do, and nobody knows your strengths and weaknesses as a writer like you do (just be honest with yourself!). Look past the passion of your passion project and get to work!

Once you’ve gotten to intimately know the no that you’ve received, you’ll be in a better headspace that allows your creativity to flourish.

Then, you’ll be that much closer to your YES!

Ashley Franklin is a writer, mother, and adjunct college professor. She received her M.A. from the University of Delaware in English Literature, where she reaffirmed her love of writing but realized she had NO IDEA what she wanted to do about it. Ashley currently resides in Arkansas with her family. Her debut picture book, NOT QUITE SNOW WHITE, was published in 2019 by HarperCollins.

Social media savvy?  You can find Ashley on Twitter @differentashley, Instagram @ashleyfranklinwrites and Facebook at Ashley Franklin.

Ashley is giving away a non-rhyming fiction picture book critique.

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by Dawn Young

It’s 2020, a brand new year, and thanks to STORYSTORM we get off to a running start with a daily flash of inspiration and a stash of ideas to turn into stories.

Let’s imagine those moments when inspiration strikes. Do you envision a flurry of fairy dust? Do you picture rainbows and unicorns? Do you feel all warm and fuzzy? And when inspiration strikes…does everything fall neatly into place?

I like to think that my moments of inspiration will feel magical and I hope that someday inspiration will strike as the whole package‒‒an amazing idea, complete with the story beginning, middle and end‒‒and that I’ll be miraculously overcome by an endless flow of words. As if seeds would somehow transform into a glorious garden simply by opening the packet.

For some writers that may happen‒‒every idea makes them dizzy with delight, the words flow and entire stories are written, but it hasn’t happened for me. Not yet, anyway. My stories take time, and some have stemmed from ideas that came without fairy dust, rainbows or unicorns. No warmth. No fuzziness. The ones I believed were not really ideas but merely fillers for that day. Fortunately, I didn’t dismiss them but instead, feeling the pressure of meeting my daily quota, I wrote them down. And I’m so glad I did. Note to self and anyone else who may be guilty of dismissing ideas/words/snippets that don’t seem worthy… don’t judge, just jot. Jot them down. All of them.

That’s why Storystorm is so wonderful. When you acknowledge anything that stands out in your mind and everything that strikes you, whether it’s a snippet, a title, a silly word, a rhyming couplet, a pun, a character name, a sound and write it down on your Storystorm list, you’re collecting story seeds. Those ideas, as simple, random or obscure as they may seem, are worthy of being on your Storystorm list. So…

Write. Them. Down.

When they’re on a list they leave a mark and they marinate. They sit in your mind, like seeds sit in the soil, and they begin to grow. But just as seeds don’t become flowers because you opened the packet, ideas don’t become stories because you wrote them down. Like seeds need soil, water, sunlight and time to grow into a garden, ideas need nourishment and time as well. Feed your seeds by writing, reading and learning. Nurture them with your creativity and let time run its course and someday they may surprise you. While you’re sleeping, showering, walking, cooking, painting , doing something, anything‒‒usually something  other than writing‒‒your ideas may call on you. Maybe they teamed up or battled each other or became unlikely friends and the formed the foundation for a story.

I’ve been an active participant in STORYSTORM for years, going back to when it was called PiBoIdMo. Each year I completed my list of more than 30 ideas. One of my 2013 PiBoIdMo ideas, a battle book, like Shark versus Train, involved my other passion, math. But at the time I didn’t know what to do with it. How in the world would Addition battle Subtraction? Then in 2015, while feeling at a loss for new ideas, I decided  to visit my old PiBoIdMo lists, and that battle book idea spoke to me. Addition versus Subtraction was calling out to me. Pick me! It was ready to be a story.

As a writer and a math enthusiast, I brainstormed ways to merge my two passions. I thought about ways to convey the essence of addition and subtraction. I imagined an addition character, counting items, while a subtraction character made them disappear. Of course, having things disappear led me to magic and, voila, that’s when the magician became the nemesis to my counter. The elephants were in my head begging to be counted. I wanted chaos and miscommunication and most of all, tons of fun!

This year, I hope you build your Storystorm list without hesitation. Don’t judge your ideas, just jot them down. Jot down anything and everything that strikes you – those snippets,  titles, silly words, rhyming couplets, puns, character names, sounds that left mark on you, may eventually spark something in you.  Keep your old lists. Visit them and check on the seeds you planted in the past and someday, maybe even years from now, you may find that a story has sprouted.

Dawn Young graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering, and later with an MBA.  For years, Dawn worked as an engineer and, later, manager at a large aerospace company, until her creative side called her to pursue her dream of writing children’s books. After reading and writing hundreds of corporate documents, none of which were titled The Little Engineer Who Could or Don’t Let the Pigeon Fly the Airbus, Dawn is thrilled to now be reading and writing picture books instead.

Dawn is also a math enthusiast. When she’s not busy writing and reading, she can be found doing math problems, sometimes just because… In high school, Dawn’s dream was to have a math equation named after her, but now, she believes having her name on the cover of books is a million times better! Dawn lives with her husband, three children and golden retriever in sunny Arizona. Counting Elephants is her second book. Her first book The Night Baafore Christmas released in October 2019. Find her online at, on Twitter @dawnyoungPB and Instagram @dawnyoungbooks.

Dawn is giving away a copy of COUNTING ELEPHANTS.

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by Abi Cushman

I’m always envious of other people’s sketchbooks. You know the ones I mean. The pages are brimming with beautiful figure drawings, gorgeous color studies, and without fail—cool-person handwriting. There’s always cool-person handwriting.

And then there’s my sketchbook:

I never did have cool-person handwriting. BUT—as much as those beautiful sketchbooks have value and have a place, so too do ugly sketchbooks. And that’s what I want to encourage you to try, whether you consider yourself an artist or not.

The beauty of ugly sketchbooks (see what I did there) is that they are just for you. To capture all your ideas or even just inklings of ideas in whatever form is easiest and quickest to mark down—a roughly-scribbled facial expression, a scene with stick people, a weird rhyme about a hippo’s butt. Get them all down on paper, however silly or embarrassing or unfunny or clichéd they are.

Once you do that, you will have a collection of truly terrible drawings and bad ideas all safely tucked away in one place, ready to be accidentally discovered by someone really good-looking that you were trying to impress. But you will also have a treasure trove of great stuff peppered in there that you can pick through and develop into future storylines, iconic scenes, or memorable characters.

In fact, this is how I developed the story that would become my debut picture book, SOAKED!, which will be published by Viking Children’s Books in July 2020.

Here’s a line I wrote in my sketchbook in the summer of 2017:

Getting caught in rain—first drops not nice but reach pt when so soaked it’s not bad—liberating—now can actually enjoy it.

And that remains the major theme in my book.

Above that, on the same page, I wrote:

Time when Pete accidentally weedwhacked tomato plant [I’d] lovingly grown from seed for months.

So… not all the ideas were winners that day. And unfortunately for Pete, the incident is now recorded in my sketchbook, keeping my memory of it alive and well.

But the rain idea did resonate with me, and soggy bear drawings started showing up regularly in my sketchbook.

I experimented with facial expressions and props.

I started capturing different scenes in the story. But I didn’t have to come up with a beginning, middle and end in order, or even all at once. I could fit them all together eventually.  My ugly sketchbook allowed me not only to think visually, but also in a non-linear way.

I continued adding snippets of text and little drawings as they came to me, until one day, the voice of the story popped into my head. That was the missing key. I brain-dumped all my thoughts onto a page that evening and set the story in motion.

I was able to do this because I wasn’t being held back by the need to draw something pretty or the fear of writing something stupid. In this space, I felt safe to try a kind of humor that might be considered weird. And being vulnerable allowed me to push my story further and in more interesting ways.

Like including a dancing moose in a dark cave with glow sticks.

Just kidding. Of course that part didn’t make it into the book.

See? The moose has glow-in-the dark Hula-Hoops, not glow sticks.

So whether you are a professional illustrator, a bit of a dabbler, or a stick figure aficionado, go ahead and scribble down those ugly drawings and write in your ugliest handwriting. That way, you too can let loose and discover that inkling of an idea that might just lead to your next great story.

And if you don’t, I’ll sic this vengeful sketchbook chipmunk on you.

Abi Cushman is a children’s book author-illustrator. Her debut picture book, SOAKED!, comes out in July 2020 from Viking Children’s Books, with a second book, ANIMALS GO VROOM!, to follow in 2021.

Abi has also worked as a web designer for over 15 years, creating websites for libraries, towns, and local businesses. She runs two popular websites of her own: My House Rabbit, a pet rabbit care resource, and Animal Fact Guide, which was named a Great Website for Kids by the American Library Association.

In her spare time, Abi enjoys running, playing tennis, and eating nachos. (Yes, at the same time.) She lives on the Connecticut shoreline with her husband and two kids.

For exclusive sneak peeks, wombats, and giveaways, join Abi’s email list. You can also find her on Twitter at @AbiCushman, on Instagram at @Abi.Cushman, or at her website at

Abi is giving away a signed copy of SOAKED! after its release in July.

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by Tammi Sauer

I have been doing this Storystorm business since the very beginning. Oh, people. I have loved the experience, and it has served me well.

More than a dozen of my books got their start in Storystorm. These are just a few of them:

Over the years, I have not only participated in the wonder that is Storystorm, but I have shared all sorts of idea-getting strategies as well. Today, I have a new one to pass along.

It’s simple.

Embrace the opening of a certain soap opera.


But I don’t want you to think about just any days. I’m talking those early days. Let’s go back to childhood.

Mine was spent on a farm.

When I was a kid, my family had a horse, cows, chickens, geese, ducks, dogs, cats, and hundreds of pigs. Is it any coincidence that many of my books feature barnyard animals?

Even my August 2020 release stars my favorite kind of cast. See?

My childhood included more than just animals, though. I also had an assortment of relatives with varied dispositions. Remember Mr. Duck? That bird is actually my great aunt Florence.

I want you to take a moment to think about your childhood. What was it like? Did you live in a bustling city? Did you grow up with siblings? What sorts of things did you do with your free time? Who made an impression? Did you have an imaginary friend? Did you want to name your baby brother PeePee Garbage? My niece Madison sure did. Did you ever run away from home? If so, why, what did you pack, and how far did you get? What sorts of things did you stash under your bed? What was your most embarrassing moment?  What did you want more than anything?

Jot down a few of your childhood memories, hopes, and/or snippets of the funny stories your uncle Bob told each Thanksgiving. Remember what it felt like to be a child…the joys, the frustrations, the fact that the world is designed for people twice your size.

Let the days of childhood open you up to some new ideas.

Keep in mind, though, that when you are ready to shape some of those ideas into stories, you shouldn’t lock yourself into making them historically accurate. Nope, nope, nope. Use those memories as a starting point. I mean, I’m pretty sure our barnyard animals never held a talent show after my family had gone to bed, but I’m not going to lie. I sure hope they did.

Tammi Sauer, a former teacher and library media specialist, is a full-time children’s book author who presents at schools and conferences across the nation. She currently has 29 published books, but many more are on the way. Getting kids excited about reading and writing is Tammi’s passion. Her other passion is mango tea. 

To learn more about Tammi and her books, visit her on the web at and at You can also find her on Twitter at @SauerTammi.

Tammi is giving away a picture book critique to one winner AND a copy of A LITTLE CHICKEN to another.

Write 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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My Picture Books


illus by Vivienne To
January 7, 2020

illustrator TBA
Sourcebooks eXplore
August 2020

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