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by Julia Mills


1. I like to start with a list. Lists are much less intimidating than paragraphs. You can use numbers, letters, bullet points, stickers. I sometimes change midstream.

2. I like to make lists of very random words, whatever comes to mind. It’s ok if some of them are repeats. You may find that the same word creeps in again and again. Be suspicious of this word. It may be telling you something.

3. Lemons…

4. When you are brainstorming, no idea is bad. Write it down. Sometimes I try to make a bad idea worse. Take it to the limit. You can always go backwards.

5. If you can’t think of anything to write, write how you feel.

6. I’m feeling hopeful today. I’m hopeful that some great picture book idea will land in my brain.

7. Look at your words. I mean really look at them. What shapes do they make? The “aha!” moment for my story occurred when I saw a turtle in the letter “u” of “stuck”.  I like to make very rough doodles. It’s OK if you don’t draw, doodling is for everyone. Doodle like a Kindergartner with a sparkly crayon.

7.5 Say your words. How do they feel? Are they crunchy or smooth? Are they funny or serious?

8. Take your words to a different place. Sit on the floor. Do they look different here? Take them to the shower but only if your paper is waterproof.

9. Add things to your process that make you happy. For me that means colorful pens, stickers and tea. Tea is very important.

10.  If you are really frustrated, take a nap. When you are half asleep, think about your words. Imagine them in a book. Don’t stress over this. Just read the book to yourself in your half sleep. Read them like you would read them to a child. You are the child. You are putting yourself to sleep. It’s ok, you are tired.

11. Ignore your words for a while. If you have terrible handwriting like I do, deciphering your words months later is half the fun.

12. Come back to your words after you forget them. What do they make you think about now? What questions pop up when you look at them?

13. Even if you write ONE word, you have written something. You deserve a nap, a sticker, a cup of tea, or whatever makes you happy.

Julia Mills is a writer, illustrator and kindergarten art teacher. Her debut picture book I AM STUCK (Clarion, Fall 2023) was dreamt up on the very last day of Storystorm in 2020. She has yet to write a book about lemons. You can find her at jamills.com and as JMillsPaints on Instagram and Twitter.

Julia is donating a 30-minute Zoom idea chat or art critique.

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

Prizes will be distributed at the conclusion of Storystorm.

by Melissa Roske

Inspiration is weird. It comes at the strangest times, in the strangest places. The inspiration for my middle-grade novel, KAT GREENE COMES CLEAN, came stuffed inside a fortune cookie. Here’s what it said:

A winsome smile is your sure protection.

I hadn’t a clue what this meant—or how it applied to me—but the fortune had a nice ring to it, so I decided to keep it. Several years later, I was going through my desk drawer when I found the fortune. For reasons I can’t begin to understand or explain, an image of a sassy 11-year-old New Yorker leapfrogged into my brain and I knew I had to write about her.

I wrote and wrote (and wrote), until I had a clearer picture of who this character was, and what mattered to her. I slowly added parents, a best friend, a quirky school in Greenwich Village, a stepmom, a little brother, a crush. Before I knew it, I had created Kat Greene’s world—and a first draft of the novel. I found an agent (not easy), landed a book deal (harder still), and, on August 22, 2017, was finally able to call myself a published author. It was a dream come true!

Unfortunately, the idea for my second middle-grade novel didn’t come as easily. Images of sassy protagonists didn’t leapfrog into my brain, and all the fortune cookies in the world couldn’t help me this time. Clearly, I’d used up all my good ideas in the first book. I was a one-hit wonder, I decided. The kidlit equivalent of Milli Vanilli.

Immobilized by fear and self-loathing, I went into a very dark place. Then the pandemic hit, and the place grew even darker. The more despondent I felt, the more immobilized I became. Was this writer’s block, I wondered—or something more sinister?

As most writers eventually do, I turned to Anne Lamott’s iconic craft book, BIRD BY BIRD, for guidance. I had resisted this book for years because—let’s be honest here—it seemed way too touchy-feely for my cynical New York taste. Too New Age-y. Too Californian. But I was wrong. Sure, Lamott uses words like “abundance” and “self-compassion,” but her book turned out to be hysterically funny and, more important, offered me more than humor. It gave me hope. Hope that I wasn’t a one-hit wonder; that I had the ability to write but had lost my confidence, somewhere between “fear” and “self-loathing.” I’d also forgotten how joyful writing can be, especially when you learn to tune out the judgy-wudgy voice inside your head that says, “You suck!” and “You have no business calling yourself a writer.”

It didn’t happen overnight, but after a while “you suck” gave way to “I can”. I revised two novels and wrote a short story—“Grandma Merle’s Last Wish,” which will appear in COMING OF AGE: 13 B’NAI MITZVAH STORIES, a Jewish MG anthology released on April 18 from Albert Whitman & Co.

I also realized that fear and self-loathing can be kicked to the curb, but only you’re ready and willing to do the work. And if you’re not…?

Crack open a fortune cookie. You never know what’s inside.

Melissa Roske is the author of KAT GREENE COMES CLEAN (Charlesbridge, 2017) and the short story “Grandma Merle’s Last Wish,” which will appear in the forthcoming Jewish middle-grade anthology, COMING OF AGE: 13 B’Nai Mitzvah Stories (Albert Whitman & Company, 4/19/22). A native New Yorker, Melissa is a contributor to the popular MG blog From the Mixed-Up Files of Middle Grade Authors, including this post she wrote about #Storystorm2021. Learn more about Melissa on her website and follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Melissa is giving away three prizes to three separate random winners—a signed copy of KAT GREENE COMES CLEAN, a copy of COMING OF AGE: 13 B’NAI MITZVAH STORIES (when it becomes available on 4/18/22), and a middle-grade query critique!

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

Prizes will be distributed at the conclusion of Storystorm.

by Heidi Tyline King

I hesitate to give away my treasure trove of ideas, but let’s be honest: There are more people dead than alive, meaning that there are plenty of obituaries—and people who led insanely interesting lives—for all of us writers to mine for stories. Obituaries are mini biographies readymade for children’s nonfiction picture book writers. I began reading obituaries for fun but they have become integral to my writing process.

First, they’re great sources of inspiration for good writing. When I get stuck on how to mark time quickly or what phrase to use as a transition between unrelated life events in a story, I spend time reading obits for examples. They’re also ideal for helping writers identify a singular event to chronicle in a life. You don’t always have to write a birth-to-grave story; consider the life of Katherine Johnson, the mathematician whose work for NASA became the central narrative for the popular book, Hidden Figures. Papers like The Guardian or The New York Times are filled with obituaries exuding strong writing and examples of how to distill a life down to its essence in a few hundred words or less.

I also turn to obituaries for motivation. I am full of self-doubt and “poor me”s, especially when my writing gets stuck. In the name of “research,” I’ll pull up my file of obituaries and begin reading about the ordinary people in the world who did extraordinary things—despite advanced age, disabilities, or a lack of education and resources. Their stories and ability to overcome keep me going.

And then there’s the most obvious reason for reading obituaries: subject matter. I am currently finishing my second children’s book on John Bonner Buck, an expert on firefly research and bioluminescence, whose obituary I clipped way back in 2005. Buck’s life’s work centered around a question that I believe all children ask: Why do fireflies flash? My book explains how Buck found the answer and went on to become a preeminent scientist in the field of bioluminescence.

To make the most of obituaries in your work, I suggest the following:

1.     Scan obituaries for compelling characters.
I skip the celebrities and look for people that I haven’t heard about, people who made notable achievements in a particular field of study, worked behind the scenes on a well-known event, or devised a new way of doing things. Don’t forget to delve into the archives for the forgotten stories of people who deserve to be known.

2.     Set Google Alerts to narrow interests.
Sifting through obituaries is one way to find interesting subject matter. Another is to set a Google Alert and have the search engine curate content for you. You’ll get obituaries delivered to your inbox about people working in fields that are of most interest to you. Every now and then, you’ll get a gem that you would have never sniffed out on your own.

3.     Branch out and look for other sources.
Once you’ve identified a person to consider writing about, do a quick search for other sources to learn more about their contributions. Obituaries in other publications and articles about their work help you compile research to consult when you’re ready to write and help you build a stronger story. For example, I ran across an article about Buck describing him as a “scientist’s scientist.” The idea that he loved process and the practice of science became an underlying subtheme in my book.

4.     Discover secondary themes.
Speaking of subthemes, a good biography has several running through throughout. In my latest picture book, SAVING AMERICAN BEACH: The Biography of African American Environmentalist MaVynee Betsch, the story centers on her activism to save a beach, but it’s the subthemes of music, environmentalism, discrimination and racism, and resilience that carry the story.

5.     Write in the genre that’s most comfortable to you.
Above all, obituaries are simply sources of inspiration. I have a degree in journalism so writing nonfiction is what I’m best at doing. But obituaries can inspire writing in genres from poetry to science fiction.

The next time you’re struggling with characters, plot, motivation, and writing succinctly, take a break and scan the day’s fresh batch of obituaries or leaf back through your file for ideas. There are people whose stories are waiting to—and worthy of—being told.

Heidi Tyline King writes nonfiction picture books from her home in Tallahassee, Florida. Follow her on Instagram @heiditylineking and visit her at heiditking.com.

Heidi is giving away a copy of her book, SAVING AMERICAN BEACH.

Leave one comment below to enter.

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

Prizes will be distributed at the conclusion of Storystorm.

by Kelly Mangan & Adrea Theodore

‘Write what you know’ is a popular refrain we’re used to hearing as writers. And for good reason! When you write from your own, lived experience, there’s an honesty and authenticity to your words that’s hard to duplicate.

But what do you do when a lived experience is rooted in a difficult or uncomfortable reality? How do you translate those sorts of experiences into a story for kids? And…should you?

There are no easy, universal answers to these questions. But hopefully OUR answers will help as you dig into your own life experiences for story inspiration.

Why write about reality?

ADREA: For me, it starts with the story. If there’s a particular story that I want to tell, I have to consider if using the framework of a real-life experiences is the best way to do it. With my debut picture book, A HISTORY OF ME, I had a story to tell about a young girl being the only person of color in class during lessons on slavery and segregation. I had a story to tell about that same girl growing in her understanding of and appreciation for her heritage, one that includes an ancestor who was enslaved in this country. It might be difficult to write about, but not nearly as difficult as actually having the experience. This story is also worth sharing, since I know there are other kids out there experiencing the same or similar things right now.

KELLY: I write about challenging realities to comfort and validate kids going through similar situations. But also…? Because I want encourage kids to think about why things are the way they are, and to question if they could be different. For example, I was the fat girl growing up. I never once saw a fat character in a picture book who wasn’t either a bully or a buffoon. Sadly, that remains largely unchanged in children’s media (fat is often used as a visual shorthand for a whole slew of negative character traits). So I often seek out story ideas which confront this paradigm.

How do I know if a topic is appropriate for kids or not? 

KELLY: I think virtually any topic can be broached with kids if done in a thoughtful, developmentally-appropriate way. I have two children who are picture-book-age, so I often think about how I’d explain a difficult topic to them. What questions or concerns do I anticipate them having? How could I answer those in a way that is honest and honors their intelligence, but which isn’t overly upsetting? And perhaps most importantly: What’s the overarching message or feeling I want kids to take away from this story?

ADREA:  I definitely agree. The pages of a book can be viewed as a safe space to hear about or see things that can be scary, difficult to handle, or hard to explain.

How do you address serious topics in children’s books in an age-appropriate way?

ADREA:  My approach?  First, try to see it—whatever “it” is—from a kid’s perspective. Remember what it was like to be that age; and if it’s from your own experience, remember what or how you felt.  What was most important to you?

Second, simplify “it” in terms that would make sense to a young person. Consider your words, phrases, sentence structure, and metaphors. Keep in mind that the illustrations will likely carry as much weight as the words, especially for those who aren’t yet reading on their own. As an example, in A HISTORY OF ME, there is a scene that takes place on a playground because these spaces are familiar to young children. The playground is known as a place for fun, but it becomes a place of racial insensitivity; and this juxtaposition is unsettling, but necessary.

KELLY: I always start from a personal experience, like being the only fat girl in my ballet class. Then I dig into the little, concrete details of that experience: the disdainful way other students looked at me; the snickers of the parents; my own mother’s fear of me performing and embarrassing myself. I needn’t ever say “people didn’t think she could be a dancer because she was fat”– for one, because it’s unnecessary: children are smarter, more nuanced readers/listeners than adults often give them credit for. And for two, because focusing too much on the pain can actually be damaging to kids rather than empowering. It’s a tough balance.

Does writing about reality always have to be sad? 

KELLY: Absolutely not! I don’t write about serious topics to make kids sad. I write about them to instill hope, foster compassion, and to make kids feel seen. There has to be light at the end of the tunnel. Ultimately, I’m trying to distill my experiences down into something useful for kids.

ADREA:  When we write about a serious topic, one that is uncomfortable or difficult in real life, we should consider how to present it in such a way that it’s beneficial to our audience.  Is this something that can be used as a mirror for some kids or a window for others?  Can it enhance empathy or cultivate kindness? And is there a way to leave the child reader with hope, regardless of the situation?  The onus is on the writer to find that hope first and then bring it out in the text so the reader can see it and grab hold of it.

ADREA THEODORE is a mom, a pediatrician and a children’s book author from North Carolina.  Her debut picture book, A HISTORY OF ME (Neal Porter Books/Holiday House) is available for pre-order now and in stores soon (January 18, 2022)! When not writing, Dr. Theodore works in a local child advocacy center (CAC) with children being evaluated for abuse or neglect. Every child she sees there also has a story to tell. Follow her on Twitter @adrea_theodore or check her website for upcoming event info: adreatheodore.com.

KELLY MANGAN an author and illustrator of picture books, middle grade, and young adult stories. She was a 2021 #PBChat mentee, and recently won an honorable mention in the KidLit411 annual banner contest. Though originally from the south, she now resides in snowy Vermont with her partner and two kids. When she’s not writing or drawing, you’ll likely find her weaving on a rigid heddle loom, reading anything with Squirrel Girl, or watching Star Trek with a cup of Earl Grey, hot. Follow her on Twitter @KellyAMangan or visit authorkellymangan.com for more info.

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We are giving away not one, but TWO fabulous prizes!

One picture book critique from Kelly and one copy of A HISTORY OF ME to two random 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.

Prizes will be distributed at the conclusion of Storystorm.

by Katey Howes

I’m going to be honest with you all. In the past twenty months, I have had tons of ideas. But I have not written all that much.

And I was really upset about this for quite some time. Frustrated with myself. Disappointed in myself. Worried I’d never get back in the swing of moving from inspiration to actualization.

Then I reflected on a conversation I’ve had with countless students during school visits. We talk about my book BE A MAKER. We discuss how there are many kinds of makers in the world: writers, artists, robotic engineers. Chefs, directors, architects. Minecrafters and perfumiers and lawmakers.

I tell the kids that the very best, among all kinds of makers, have one simple thing in common.

A notebook.

Because making anything requires resources. Time. Money. Materials. The right team. The right supports. The right equipment. The right level of skill, focus, or knowledge. The right level of faith in yourself. You may not have the resources you need right now. But you can get them later. Days later. Years later. Half a lifetime later. And when you do, you’re going to want that idea close at hand.

So you put it in your notebook.

Like DaVinci. Like Einstein. Like a Storystormer.

The kids often worry that the ideas will have gone bad, have worn out, by the time they have the resources to bring them to fruition. They aren’t alone in thinking this. I reassure them (and myself) that that isn’t the case. That it is natural for ideas to lay dormant, like seeds, until the right conditions surround them.

Seeds can wait for water, I tell them. They can wait for spring. They can wait for decades—centuries!—if stored properly. So can your ideas.

After having this conversation many times, I wrote “Seed/Idea” in my notebook.

After many more months listening to kids, taking poetry courses, learning to believe that my words and experiences matter, I realized I had acquired the right resources to turn this idea into a book.

And so I wrote A POEM GROWS INSIDE YOU. It’s the tale of a child who holds a seed of a poem close to their heart, not sure how to put it into words…until the rhythm of raindrops patters onto their skin, seeping through, bringing that long-quiet idea to life. It wraps roots and vines through the character’s body, and then, like a seedling questing for the sky, it reaches for the light.

That part is hard for me. When my stories want out, I want to keep them to myself. No one can dislike them, criticize them, judge them, if I keep them inside, in the dark.

But I remind myself (with this book, among other methods) that other people are some of the greatest resources for shaping and supporting my creations, for pruning and trimming and encouraging my seeds to grow.

I am so blessed to have had the courage to let A POEM GROWS INSIDE YOU out into the light, to be seen and pruned and fertilized first by my critique partners, then by my agent, Essie White, and at last by the incredible team of book gardeners at The Innovation Press. I am astounded at the ways illustrator Heather Brockman Lee has brought it to verdant, blooming, bursting-ripe life. (Take a sneak peek here! You’ll be glad you did.)

And now I want to use this book, the process of its dormancy and its growth, to reassure and advise all of you. Especially now, at a time when, I suspect, bringing ideas to life is tough for many of us.

Do not despair or give up.

Do not judge or become frustrated with yourself.

Instead:

  • Store the seeds of your ideas.
  • Trust that they are safe in dormancy. That it is natural.
  • Check on them once in a while. Remember you have them.
  • Assess the resources you need to grow them. Time to yourself? A class on meter? A brainstorming session with trusted friends? Research? Chocolate? Mentor texts?
  • When they begin to take root, to sprout and to reach—be brave. Let them into the light.

I look forward to seeing how they bloom.

Katey Howes is a haphazard gardener, a good rhymer, and a fun mother. She’s also the award-winning author of RISSY NO KISSIES, BE A MAKER, and a growing assortment of other books. In 2022, Katey is looking forward to the release of A POEM GROWS INSIDE YOU, illustrated by Heather Brockman Lee (The Innovation Press, Fall 2022) and WOVEN OF THE WORLD, illustrated by Dinara Mirtalipova (Chronicle, Fall 2022). You can find Katey on Twitter @kateywrites or on IG @kidlitlove, or check out her author page kateyhowes.com.

Katey is giving away a signed copy of one of her books…or a picture book critique. Whichever the random winner prefers.

Leave one comment below to enter.

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

Prizes will be distributed at the conclusion of Storystorm.

by Kirsten W. Larson

Today we will not be talking about generating ideas.

Nope. Not even for a minute.

You think I’ve forgotten the whole point of Storystorm.

I assure you, I haven’t.

You see, I don’t think ideas have to be generated. They’re already out there just waiting for you to catch them. Your job is to pay attention, to put up your story antennas and jostle them around until the static gives way to a steady stream of inspiration.

That’s what I want to focus on today—fine-tuning your antennas. Because here’s the thing, if you train your antennas just right, you’ll pick up the story ideas only you can write. The ones that resonate with your soul and speak to the deepest part of who you are. The ones that capture your heart and energize you, carrying you from crappy first draft through countless revisions.

Those story ideas are gold. And they are begging for you to notice them.

Take the idea for my debut picture book WOOD, WIRE, WINGS, illustrated by Tracy Subisak, the true story of engineer Emma Lilian Todd. Lilian Todd was the first woman to design a working airplane, which flew in 1910. That idea for that book came straight out of the pages of ROSIE REVERE, ENGINEER by Andrea Beaty, illustrated by David Roberts.

Thousands, perhaps millions of people have read ROSIE REVERE. Why did I pick up on the idea of Lilian Todd when so many others hadn’t?

My antennas were up.

I used to work for NASA, and I’ve lived and worked around airplanes my whole adult life. I was interested in aviation. I was fascinated by underdogs. And I was curious enough to think, “Who is this Lilian Todd, and why haven’t I heard of her?”

Step 1: Embrace curiosity

Your first task today is to make a list of topics that interest you and new things you want to learn about. Consider past jobs, your hobbies, your childhood favorites. (If you’ve read my latest picture book, A TRUE WONDER, illustrated by Katy Wu, you know I was a huge Wonder Woman fan as a kid. I had the Underoos to prove it.) Think about the types of movies, TV shows, and books you like. What are your cherished family and cultural traditions? What have you been dying to learn more about?

Now keep pursuing those interests and see what ideas crystalize out of thin air.

Step 2: Consider your values and truths you know

Now let’s make a list of your values and truths you know. These speak more to theme than subject matter, but every good picture book needs both.

I believe underdogs can change the world, and I love writing about them. All my protagonists are underdogs, including Wonder Woman, who was poo-pooed by male comics creators and then parents and teachers.

The label also fits Cecilia Payne, the real-life subject of my next picture book, THE FIRE OF STARS, illustrated by Katherine Roy. When Payne discovered what stars were made of, a well-known male astrophysicist flat-out told her she was wrong. French art curator Rose Valland, who secretly spied on the Nazis for years, is an underdog too. She’s the subject of my first middle grade graphic novel, THE LIGHT OF RESISTANCE, illustrated by Barbara McClintock.

My antennas are always scanning they sky for stories about people who defy odds and expectations.

There are other ideas that fascinate me too, like being a scientist or inventor is about passion and persistence not genius. I also gravitate to the idea of subverting notions about what heroes look like.

Getting in touch with your values and truths helps train your antennas in the right direction.

Step 3: Mash it up

What if you combine one of your truths/values with one of the topics from your first list? Maybe you mash up “pirates” with “family is who you choose.” Does an idea start to form?

I’ll be honest, every time I finish a project, I worry I’ll never find another just-right idea. But I know if I indulge my interests and curiosity and reflect on my values, the ideas come in crystal clear.

Now get out there and pick up some golden ideas.

Kirsten used to work with rocket scientists at NASA. Now she writes books for curious kids. She is the author of the picture books WOOD, WIRE, WINGS: EMMA LILIAN TODD INVENTS AN AIRPLANE, illustrated by Tracy Subisak (Calkins Creek), A TRUE WONDER: The Comic Book Hero Who Changed Everything, illustrated by Katy Wu (Clarion), and THE FIRE OF STARS: The Life and Brilliance of the Woman Who Discovered What Stars Are Made Of, illustrated by Katherine Roy (Chronicle, 2023), and the middle grade, graphic nonfiction, THE LIGHT OF RESISTANCE, illustrated by Barbara McClintock, (Roaring Brook, 2023), as well as 25 nonfiction books for the school and library market. Find her online at Kirsten-w-larson.com or on social media @kirstenwlarson.

Kirsten giving away an hour Zoom call you can use any way you like. You could use it for career coaching, a critique, or just an “ask me anything” session.

Leave one comment below to enter.

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

Prizes will be distributed at the conclusion of Storystorm.

by Josh Funk

So here’s the thing: I’m kind of a fraud. This is the fifth time I’ve written a guest post for Storystorm and it’s time to come clean.

Storystormers, I lied to you.

I never took my own advice before sharing it with you.

Let me explain.

Back in my first ever Storystorm post, I suggested you should think of something you want to see illustrated. I strongly implied that I got the idea for the Lady Pancake & Sir French Toast series by thinking how fun it would be to see a Pancake running through Broccoli Forest or a piece of French Toast skiing.

But that’s not how I got the idea for the book. I didn’t start brainstorming ideas by thinking of things I wanted to see illustrated until after I wrote that post.

During another Storystorm, I suggested spying on people in coffee shops…or better yet…spying on artists on Instagram. And while I do love to snoop on the #kidlitart IG hashtag, I didn’t truly start doing that until after I made that suggestion.

Another time, I suggested that you should think of the worst idea for a book and go write that. I somehow managed to convince you that I got the idea for Lady Pancake & Sir French Toast by using that approach (I really milked that book for Storystorm posts, didn’t I?).

But as you now know, that’s not how I got the idea. I didn’t start trying to think of bad book ideas as a source for new stories until after that post.

And in perhaps my most ludicrous Storystorm post, I suggested using autocorrects and typos to generate ideas. As you probably suspect, I never did this before writing that post. It was absolutely not a tried-and-true method of idea generation.

So as you can see, I lied to you. I was a genuine fraud.

But here’s the thing. After I wrote those posts…after I made those Storystorm suggestions…I did start to heed my own advice.

I got the idea for the IT’S NOT A FAIRY TALE series (illustrated by Edwardian Taylor) by thinking that it would be really fun to see the characters in a book arguing with the person reading the book.

I got the idea for DEAR UNICORN (2023, illustrated by Charles Santoso) from artists posting on social media on Unicorn Day (which also happens to be my birthday).

I got the idea for my poem The Ballad of Mr. Zibb (about my cat that poops all over the house) by thinking of an idea that should never get published (and frankly, I don’t really want to see that one illustrated)—although it is available as part of a Writers’ Loft anthology.

But maybe best of all was when I made the typo writing ‘my best fiend’ when I meant to write ‘my best friend.’ I began to wonder what a book called My Best Fiend would be about. I began wondering what happened to the R in friend to make it fiend. If something happened to that R, what happened to the rest of the R’s? Eventually, that led to an entire book written without the letter R, called MY PET FEET which comes out later this year (illustrated by Billy Yong) in which a little girl’s pet ferret turns into pet feet as she frantically searches for missing R’s throughout her mixed-up town.

So now you’re probably thinking, “Great, Josh. You told me how you lied and didn’t take your own advice until after you gave it to us. How does that help me now?”

Here’s how: I want you to think of the advice you give to other people that you often forget to take yourself. We all do this. What is the inspiring advice you tell others to follow…but need to do a better job of following? Today, I want you to utilize that advice.

Better yet, I want you to share that advice in the comments for ALL of us to learn from. What is your one piece of writing advice that you yourself wish you followed more?

You might be thinking, “But, Josh, doesn’t this just mean we, the Storystorm community, will essentially be writing this Storystorm post for you?”

And to that I answer, “Maybe. But maybe this will turn out to be the greatest Storystorm post TO RULE THEM ALL!!! Bwahahahaha!”

(Or maybe this post is another lie in an excruciatingly long series of despicable deceptions…)

Josh Funk is a software engineer and the author of books like the Lady Pancake & Sir French Toast series, My Pet Feet, the ​It’s Not a Fairy Tale series, the How to Code with Pearl and Pascal series, the A Story of Patience & Fortitude series, Dear Dragon, and more.

Josh has written a comprehensive “Guide to Writing Picture Books” that’s available for free on his website’s Resources for Writers section.

For more information about Josh Funk, visit him at joshfunkbooks.com and on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook at @joshfunkbooks. (Photo credit: Carter Hasegawa.)

Josh is offering one of either a picture book critique or a signed copy of any of his books to THREE lucky 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 Donna Cangelosi

When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news,
my mother would say to me “Look for helpers.
You will always find people who are helping.

–Fred Rogers

We all need helpers, those who inspire, comfort, lift our spirits, and help us soar. Kids especially need helpers! For many years, I’ve listened to children share their stories in my psychology practice—separations, abandonment, learning difficulties, peer pressure, bullying, and the list goes on. This is the reason I love writing picture book biographies—to introduce kids to people who faced challenges and turned their struggles into something positive. Individuals who made the world a better place despite obstacles and often, because of them.

When thinking of picture book ideas, I ask myself, Who do I want to write about? Who should kids know about?

Sometimes I think about helpers who have inspired me in my own childhood. Other times, I find them in museums, and art galleries. Many times, a name or memory pops into my head when I’m walking or doing a totally unrelated task. Helpers are everywhere! Look for them next time you’re running errands, stuck in traffic, reading the news, or watching a movie. They’re opening doors at the store, slowing down to let ducks cross the street, and picking up neighbors’ trash cans. Also, think back to a time when someone helped you or someone you know. Now imagine that person as a picture book character or perhaps, the experience as a theme.

Back in 2016, I was on a quest to write a picture book biography about someone who helped kids, so I started a list and had an aha moment! I’ll write a story about Mister Rogers! It was before the documentary and the movie starring Tom Hanks, before his picture appeared on multitudes of Twitter posts, and before a string of beautiful picture books about him were published. The idea was fresh! I was thrilled! My research began.

First stop: primary sources. I needed to answer a few questions I always ask before I start writing.

  • Did the person face a challenge that children can relate to?
  • Did they grow as a result of the hardship?
  • What was the person’s long-term contribution and how will kids be inspired by it?
  • Has something similar been published before?

Then, the most crucial question:

  • Do I want to spend months and possibly years learning and writing about this person?

Mister Rogers checked all boxes and then some! Fred Rogers was sick, lonely, and bullied as a child. He used music to heal himself and then used it to help children. He trained with the child psychologists I had studied and admired for years. I immediately empathized with Fred’s childhood struggles. I related to his passion for music and helping kids express feelings. And when I read that his favorite quote from Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s, THE LITTLE PRINCE was the same as my own—”It is only with the heart that one can see rightly, what is essential is invisible to the eye”—I felt as though the stars had aligned. I was meant to write a picture book about Mister Rogers. And after years of research, writing, and revising, I signed my first picture book contract!

There have been many twists and turns on the road to publication. The original version of my book was cancelled, and I rewrote the story. I also worked with a new editor and illustrator. But my original hope for the book has never altered—to introduce kids to a person who faced challenges and turned them into something positive. My debut book, MISTER ROGERS’ GIFT OF MUSIC, illustrated by the amazing Amanda Moeckel-Calatzis, will be published by Page Street Kids on August 23, 2022!

Looking for helpers isn’t only a great way to come up with story ideas. It also lifts our spirits! So be on the lookout. You may find the perfect idea for a picture book to comfort, inspire, and help kids soar.

Donna Cangelosi fell in love with picture books when seeing the joy they gave her daughters years ago. Since then, she rarely misses a day of reading, writing, revising, or thinking about new stories. Donna considers herself lucky to have the opportunity to work with kids in her psychology practice and to write books to inspire them. Like Mister Rogers, she often helps kids deal with feelings that are hard to express with words using music, art, play, and of course picture books! Visit her at donnacangelosi.com, and follow her on Twitter @DonnaCangelosi2 and Instagram @dmcange.

Donna will be giving away one picture book critique.

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Prizes will be distributed at the conclusion of Storystorm.

by Dawn DeVries Sokol

I spent a few days in 2012 painting a utility box for the City of Tempe in Arizona, my hometown. Six artists were selected to paint utility boxes along the downtown corridor and I was one of them. My submission was the quote “Be the change you wish to see in the world” (Ghandi).

I used my lettering skills to paint the quote as a wraparound of the box. I met people, homeless teens, those who worked in the downtown area, and those coming out of their condos and apartments in search of their morning coffee. I started at 9 a.m. each day and watched as the intersection came alive with pedestrians, supply trucks, and shops opening.

But now I think the quote should be reworded to: Be the change you wish to BE in your world.

We all have moments we think very little of ourselves, especially as creatives. I think we should all take a moment to SEIZE THE DAY.

Seize the Day and Be the Change…geez, I’m getting cliché. But think about it for a moment. Just when you’re feeling down about yourself and your own creativity is the moment you need to run with it—take the bull by the horns and just CREATE. It’s really that simple. Be George Constanza in “Seinfeld”: Do or say the opposite of what you would normally. You might find yourself in a much better situation. Instead of wallowing in it, suck it up and get out of the pool. Will yourself to create. Even if it’s just making a mark, gluing down random bits of papers, writing a phrase here and there, whatever.

So, the next time you find yourself unmotivated, less than confident, majorly uninspired, and feeling like the last thing you could be is prolific, FIGHT IT. Don’t surf the internet. Don’t ogle other artists’ or illustrators’ work and wish it were yours. Don’t mourn your creative spark. Simply grab a pen, just an ordinary black felt tip pen. And doodle. Doodle on white paper. Pick a shape, your favorite shape, and repeat it on the paper over and over. Big, small, abstract, uniform, etc. Now shade some of them in, outline others, go back over to make them more elaborate. Just DOODLE. Doodle words that pop into your head along with the shapes. If anything, you’re making your own mark, feeding your own spark. Even if it’s rudimentary. Even if it’s extremely uninspired. You’re doing it. And that’s ALL THAT MATTERS.

Always told she would be a writer, Dawn DeVries Sokol earned a bachelor’s degree from Arizona State University’s renowned Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. But she yearned to create visually, and soon worked her way from editing newspapers to art directing magazines, such as America West Airlines Magazine—from which a feature she art directed landed in Print Magazine’s 2002 Regional Design Annual. For 10 years, she designed books for U.S. publishers such as Sterling Publishing, Gibbs Smith, North Light, Quarry, and The Countryman Press. Now a widely published author, artist, and illustrator, she lives and creates in her Tempe, AZ, studio with her dog, Lola. Dawn is represented by Louise Fury of The Bent Agency. Her latest book is THE POSTCARD PROJECT. Follow Dawn on Twitter and Instagram @dawndsokol and visit her at dawndsokol.com.

Dawn is giving away a copy of her latest book, THE POSTCARD PROJECT, to one random winner.

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by Benson Shum

There are many ways to generate ideas. For me, sometimes it starts with an illustration. Sometimes it starts with a word, a line or a thought. Let’s start with the first. Whether you’re creating the illustration or have a painting that calls to you, there is almost always a story in it. If there isn’t, let’s create one. Start to ask questions. Think about every detail in the illustration.

  • What emotion does the painting give you?
  • Is there something interesting about the color palette?
  • How is the character posed?
  • What is their expression?
  • What situation are they in?
  • How are they feeling? and why? What are they wearing? Or not wearing?
  • Could this give insight into who they are?
  • Is there an environment? What does it tell us? where does it set the character in? Forest? A city? Is it a bustling city? or a slower paced location?
  • Could there be a possible conflict?
  • Conflict with their surroundings?
  • Conflict with self?
  • Conflict with another character?

Hopefully by the end, you will get a basis of WHO this character is, WHERE they’re from, WHAT is the possible problem and WHY. If not, that’s ok! We’ll try again, maybe we could add a character to it? Or look at the painting a different way. Maytbe place the character in a different environment. Create conflict. And start with the questions again!

If we were to start with a word, a line or a thought. I’ll use the example from my book ANZU THE GREAT KAIJU. If you don’t know what a kaiju is, kaiju is a Japanese term for “giant monster” like Godzilla or King Kong. I’m a big fan of King Kong, Godzilla, huge robots, giant monsters in general that tower over cities. So I wanted to take a twist on it. And started to ask “What if” questions. The thought or line for this story was “What if not all kaiju want to destroy?” That was the seed of the story.

  • What if Anzu comes from a family legacy of destroyers?
  • What if Anzu was different?
  • What if Anzu’s superpower wasn’t like his families?
  • What if Anzu’s power was kindness and gentleness?
  • How does that make Anzu feel?
  • How does that make his family feel?
  • What happens when his family finds out?

These are some of the exercises I use when trying to come up with story ideas. Even if the idea or solution doesn’t make complete sense, jot it down. You can always delete/erase it. But what it does do is get the idea out of your head and onto paper, which leaves more room for new ideas. Thank you for listening to me ramble! I hope it was helpful!

Benson Shum is a children’s book Author/Illustrator and Disney Animator. He uses watercolor, ink and digital tools to create his illustrations. Aside from writing and illustrating, Benson is also an Animator at the Walt Disney Animation Studios, where he was a part of such films as Frozen, Big Hero 6, Zootopia, Moana, Frozen 2, Raya & the Last Dragon and Encanto. Originally from Vancouver, British Columbia, Benson now lives in Los Angeles, California. Follow him online at bensonshum.com, and on Twitter, Instagram & Facebook as bshum79.

Benson is giving away a copy of ANZU THE GREAT KAIJU, an art print, and stickers to one random winner.

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Prizes will be distributed at the conclusion of Storystorm.

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TIME FLIES
"7 ATE 9/PRIVATE I" BOOK #3
illus by Ross MacDonald
Little, Brown
April 26, 2022

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