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by Amanda Davis

Hi Tara! Thank you so much for hosting me on your blog. I’m super excited to be here and can’t wait to share my Storystorm Success Story with everyone.

In case you’re not familiar with me or my work, I’m an author, artist, and high school art educator who uses my art and writing to light up the world with kindness. After losing my father at the age of twelve, I turned to art and writing as an outlet. It became my voice. A way to cope. A way to escape. And a way to tell my story. Because of this, I was inspired to teach art and pursue my passion for writing and illustrating children’s books. Through my work, I hope to empower younger generations to tell their own stories and offer children and adults an entryway into a world of discovery. A world that can help them make sense of themselves, others, and the community around them. A world where they can navigate, imagine, and feel inspired—over and over again.

As you can see, art and writing have been a part of my life ever since I was little, but let’s fast forward to September 2011. The new school year was upon me, and I was searching for a lesson I could do with my high school art classes to teach them about the tenth remembrance of September 11, 2001. Each year, I touch upon 9/11 in my curriculum. We learn about the events and do an art project in remembrance. This year, while browsing through some magazines, I came across a little blurb about an American flag that flew over Ground Zero in the days after 9/11. The flag became torn and tattered and was taken down and stored away. Seven years later, the flag emerged from storage and was brought down to a small town in Kansas, to be retired. But instead, the flag was patched back together and later traveled to all all fifty states to be fully restored; returning to New York on the tenth anniversary of 9/11 as a symbol of hope and unity.

“Wow! This was it!” I thought. I’d found my lesson. So, that year, students learned about the National 9/11 flag, and we created our own patchwork flag that was inspired by the story of the National 9/11/ Flag. It was a beautiful project and a beautiful story that stuck with me long after the lesson was complete.

Fast forward again to January 2018. It was a new year, and I was reflecting on my writing and illustrating goals. Was I doing enough? How can I improve? What new resources are out there? Etc., etc.,. This is when I came across Tara’s Storystorm challenge—30 ideas in 30 days. This was the perfect way to commit to my creativity at the start of the new year. I was in!

Each day I collected my ideas in my special A.A. Milner Winnie the Pooh journal. On Day 5, there was a post from Corey Rosen Schwartz titled Begs, Borrows, & Steals. The post was all about borrowing ideas from YOURSELF. She talked about re-examining past ideas, pondering over them, and picking them apart. She suggested going back into your files, notebooks, and sketchbooks to see what was lingering. AHA! How brilliant! This led me back to the flag.  The story always lingered in the back of my mind, but Corey’s suggestions brought it to the forefront again. I got to thinking, “Why not make this a kid’s book?” So, I noted this in my trusty journal, scribbled an idea for a pitch, and continued with my Storystorm journey.

Lo and behold, I ended up being a Storystorm Grand Prize Winner and now had the chance to pitch five of my Storystorm ideas to agent Jennifer March Soloway. I was blown away and super stoked! I polished up my pitches (the story of the flag being one of them… then called ONE STITCH AT A TIME) and sent them off to Jennifer. In her response, she encouraged me to focus on the flag story, calling it “a marvelous idea with great potential.” Hooray! With Jennifer’s insights in mind, I now had the confidence to forge ahead with my story idea, begin my research, and later query agents and editors with the story.

Now, ten years since I first conducted my high school art lesson on the National 9/11 Flag, two years after Storystorm’s inspiration, and many, many, many drafts later, 30,000 STITCHES is the story that landed me my first agent and is set to be published with WorthyKids/Hachette Book Group on May 4, 2021.

It will enter the world twenty years after the tragic events of 9/11. The beautiful spread that is pictured here, illustrated by Sally Wern Comport, shows the flag coming to its last stop in Joplin, Missouri before returning to New York. The image showcases the people and places the flag touched throughout its 120,000 mile journey across the United States—criss-crossing borders and cross stitching lives. With today being Election Day, I think this image perfectly captures the power of the people when we come out and come together.  At the core of this story, are seeds of hope, seeds of unity, and seeds of strength. It’s about the power of working together to overcome hard things. It’s about kindness, compassion, and service to others. I hope that anyone who reads 30,000 STITCHES will be reminded that we are connected through our shared stories. Our stories are stitched together. Our stories are the fabric of America.

Thanks so much to Storystorm and to you, Tara, for giving writer’s opportunities to get inspired and share their work. Storystorm comes around again in January 2021!

Don’t forget to enter the giveaway for a chance to win one of ten signed copies of 30,000 STITCHES! Sign up here!

Oh yes, one more thing, GO VOTE!

You can check out some of the 9/11 remembrance projects I’ve done with students here: 9/11 Remembrance Projects and stay tuned on my website for classroom activity guides for 30,000 STITCHES.


Amanda Davis is a teacher, artist, writer, and innovator who uses her words and pictures to light up the world with kindness. After losing her father at the age of twelve, Amanda turned to art and writing as an outlet. It became her voice. A way to cope. A way to escape. And a way to tell her story. She was thus inspired to teach art and pursue her passion for writing and illustrating children’s books. Through her work, Amanda empowers younger generations to tell their own stories and offers children and adults an entryway into a world of discovery. A world that can help them make sense of themselves, others, and the community around them. A world where they can navigate, imagine, and feel inspired—over and over again. When she’s not busy creating, you can find her sipping tea, petting dogs, and exploring the natural wonders of The Bay State with her partner and rescue pup, Cora. Visit her online at amandadavisart.com, on Twitter @amandadavisart, Instagram @amandadavis_art and Facebook.

by Jaime Zollars

I am thrilled to share my Storystorm success story here!

For those who don’t know me, my name is Jaime Zollars. I’m an illustrator who has been drawing pictures for young readers since 2003. I have illustrated many books for other authors, most notably, Kate Milford’s wonderful GREENGLASS HOUSE series and Claire Legrand’s enchanting FOXHEART.

After years of illustrating the writings of others, my first solo picture book, THE TRUTH ABOUT DRAGONS, will be published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers on September 15, 2020! This is very exciting to me because I told myself way back in 2003 that I was going to make my own book, and it took (WAY) longer than expected to make that happen.

WHY did it take so long to happen? Well, I keep an optimistic list of tasks for myself daily and only a fraction of them get done. Those remaining list items are carried over to the next day, and this series of events repeats daily. For 15 years. Turns out that nothing that isn’t at the very pressing top of my list will ever get done, unless: it is suddenly on fire, is very enjoyable, only takes a few minutes, or is decidedly easy. Writing a picture book (for me, at least) is not particularly enjoyable, takes more than a few minutes, and is not easy. Writing is an unpredictable creative process that takes energy and time and focus. Writing a picture book is simply a list item doesn’t get neatly checked off.

Enter the challenge to come up with one idea for a picture book a day. This is a task that is decidedly checkmark-able.

I resolved to give PiBoIdMo (Picture Book Idea Month, now Storystorm) a whirl back in 2014 with a friend and fellow-illustrator, Wilson Swain. (He is talented and you should check out his work at wilsonswain.com.) We kept each other accountable by checking in weekly and sharing our ideas. NOW, some of these ideas were not good. Truly, 90 percent of these ideas were terrible. BUT occasionally, something would trigger more thought. One of my ideas in particular, was just a title. “The Truth About Dragons” sat on my list for some time. It was all I could come up with on that particular day when I had to come up with something. But this title intrigued me enough to consider it well after the month was through.

About a year later, I was driving alone in my car and thinking about this title again. I asked myself pointedly: “What IS the truth about dragons?” (I often talk to myself when my kids are not in the car.) My brain struggled as usual with this query, but then surprised me by proclaiming that dragons LOVE mint chocolate chip ice cream, they are actually very afraid of kittens, AND they love their little sisters even if they pretend that they don’t. None of these examples actually made it into the book, but the concept stuck. Dragons are just like us! Over the next few days, this idea grew into the concept that sometimes things look different when we’re afraid, and if we can see past our fears, perhaps we’ll uncover the truth. I thought about how the illustrations could take the lead in this title and invite readers to figure out the visual puzzle for themselves (the dragons turn to kids one-by-one as the protagonist learns more about them). And THAT was when the task of making my own book went from just another checklist item that would be indefinitely carried over, to a checklist item on fire.

The rest of my PiBoIdMo ideas also helped me to feel confident soliciting an agent. I had several kernels of ideas ready to share as soon as I had agent interest, and I signed with the infectiously enthusiastic Stephen Barr at Writer’s House in 2015. He looked over my book ideas and The Truth About Dragons was his pick as well. He was invaluable as we started working with this story in the background of my other deadlines and sold the book at auction to the amazing Deirdre Jones at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers in 2017!

I’m honestly not sure I would have ever found the idea for this first solo book if it were not for Storystorm. I think we are mistaken if we assume (as I once did) that good ideas will come to us without some forced consideration. Waiting for inspiration to visit is a nice thought, but now I’m pretty sure that we can (and should) actively cultivate it. Storystorm, for me, was a low-pressure invitation to see things a little bit differently—if just for a month. Having to write something down, anything down, was a gift that trained my mind to actively pursue story alongside going about my days.

THE TRUTH ABOUT DRAGONS will be published on September 15, 2020. Kirkus even gave it a star (!) and calls it “A beautifully rendered, comforting, gentle lesson in overcoming fears.” I hope that it finds its way to the right parents, teachers, librarians, and readers as we all face a little bit of the unknown this fall.

Blog readers, Little Brown is giving away a copy of THE TRUTH ABOUT DRAGONS!

Leave one comment to enter.

A random winner will be chosen in a few weeks.

Good luck!

 


You can see more of Jaime’s art at jaimezollars.com, learn more about her art and writing process by following her on Instagram @jaimezollarsart, and preorder the Truth About Dragons here: https://bookshop.org/books/the-truth-about-dragons/9780316481489. Because there is just no way to do traditional book events at this time, send me a copy of a pre-order receipt from anywhere books are sold, along with your address, and I’ll even send you a signed mini-print to celebrate!

*Extra note for those interested: I also have a curriculum guide for this book for those who can use it—including parents who are doing some of the teaching in these strange times. I’m happy to send that out to anyone who e-mails me at jaime @ jaimezollars.com.

by Alexandra Alessandri

I’ve always loved the brainstorming part of the writing process. Endless possibilities! Bright, shiny story ideas! Hearts, unicorns, and rainbows! Imagine my excitement, then, when I discovered Tara Lazar’s PiBoIdMo, later re-envisioned into Storystorm. A whole month devoted to brainstorming? Yes, please!

Storystorm has become such an important part of my journey as a writer. Many of the posts shared by fellow kidlit authors have served as inspiration diving boards for my stories. I’ve filled notebooks with countless ideas. Some are only a few words or a title. Some have more fleshed-out plots. Others, though, explode into fully developed stories.

In fact, both of my upcoming picture books, FELIZ NEW YEAR, AVA GABRIELA! (Albert Whitman) and ISABEL AND HER COLORES GO TO SCHOOL (Sleeping Bear Press) were conceived during Storystorm.

In Storystorm 2018, Debbi Michiko Florence (Day 4) explored Culture and Family Tradition, and boy did her post resonate with me! I discovered that my Colombian heritage and memories provided a fountain of ideas. All of the foods, traditions, and family sayings came pouring out, and a few kept poking me to write them: the Colombian Andes and farms of my youth, the Año Viejo and our New Year’s Eve traditions, the energy of holiday get-togethers with my large extended family. But while I knew I wanted to include these elements in a story, I had no idea who or what the story was about, nor did I have a vision yet for its “about about.”

Then, on New Year’s Eve 2018, a week before Storystorm 2019 started, I watched as a friend’s young daughter shifted from hiding-behind-Mom-shy (just like I was at her age) to bouncing and squealing with excitement as the fireworks swished above us. I remember telling her, “Ava, you found your voice!” And thus my debut FELIZ NEW YEAR, AVA GABRIELA! (illustrated by Addy Rivera Sonda), which releases this October 2020, was born. It was the perfect mashup of memory, culture, and observation, and many of the details that came from Debbi’s post made it into the final draft.

That wasn’t my first experience with Storystorm, though. My very first was in 2015, back when it was PiBoIdMo (Picture Book Idea Month). That year, Jessixa Bagley (Day 7) activated her muse and urged us to search [our] memories. Carter Higgins (Day 15) rewound things and guided us through finding a story’s “about about.” Both of these posts helped me develop a budding tale about a little girl who didn’t speak English and who was scared to make friends because of the language barrier—a story that blossomed from my memories of being a kindergartener in New York, coming from a Spanish-only home. I wrote and revised and revised some more (rinse and repeat) until it was ready. ISABEL AND HER COLORES GO TO SCHOOL releases Fall 2021.

I swear magic really exists. All you have to do is read through the posts of Storystorm and PiBoIdMo past to see it. Of course, you need more than a great idea to publish a book. You need perseverance, hard work, and heaps of patience. You need willingness to revise your words over and over (and over) again.

But it all starts with a seedling of possibility that Tara Lazar makes possible through Storystorm. I will always be grateful to her for creating magic. Thank you, Tara!

You’re welcome, Alexandra! And thank you for sharing your successes. I hope everyone will join us for Storystorm 2021 in January!


Alexandra Alessandri is a Colombian American poet, children’s author, and Associate Professor of English at Broward College. Her poetry has appeared in The Acentos Review, Rio Grande Review, Atlanta Review, and YARN. Her debut Feliz New Year, Ava Gabriela! releases October 1, 2020 from Albert Whitman & Company, followed by Isabel and Her Colores Go to School in fall 2021 from Sleeping Bear Press. Alexandra lives in Florida with her husband and son. Visit her at alexandraalessandri.com.

OPENING THE ROAD is the true story behind the Green Book guide Black Americans used to travel safely during legal segregation…and the mail carrier who wrote it.

Today author Keila Dawson is here to talk about how the 2017 Storystorm challenge inspired this story. Congratulations and take it away, Keila!

After reading a 2017 Storystorm post by Brenda Reeves Sturgis, Social Media Inspires Social Awareness, I heard an interesting story about the Green Book travel guides on a different type of media—the radio. The broadcast was an interview with the creator of a BBC documentary on the Green Book. I learned it was written and published in the 1930s during a time when finding places to eat, sleep, or get gas on road trips wasn’t easy or safe for Black Americans. I had always wanted to write a narrative nonfiction story and thought there was an audience for this story about the man and the book that changed lives for so many people.

Keila, how did your initial idea grow and change?

I followed the links provided by the broadcast host to learn more about the guide and fell down a research rabbit hole!

From a quick search, I found one other title published about the topic, a fiction picture book, and gave myself permission to dedicate the time to dig deeper. Filling in the gaps of my own personal knowledge of the history during that period made me even more determined to write this story.

My first draft read like a Wikipedia page with lots of dates and facts. There was very little public information available on Victor Green, the mail carrier who published the guides, but they were in the public domain. I read the introductions he wrote and articles he published in every guide. I learned he got the idea from the Jewish press.

I connected with experts such as a Jewish historian and museum curator, a photojournalist searching for Green Book sites once listed in the guides, a former mail carrier who is now a college professor that studies the history of postal workers activism, and a story arc emerged. After the movie “Green Book” released, I already had the bones of the story, but it sparked a lot of discussion about the guide and I had access to even more information.

What did your illustrator bring to the project?

When the publisher started looking for an illustrator, my editor told me they reached out to Alleanna Harris but not to get my hopes up because she was in such high demand. It was clear from other nonfiction books Alleanna illustrated that she would do the research and add so much more to the story, so I crossed my fingers and toes. Knowing she signed on the project assured me it was in talented hands. Literally!

The cover…which I will reveal now…

…and interior spread show exactly what I wanted readers to take away from this book: yes, legal segregation made travel and life difficult for Black citizens. Yes, there was unfairness, and protests, but there was also room for joy. And Victor Green found a solution that worked at that time. It felt like he led and won a battle in the war against racism. And Black families, their communities and allies helped create the change they wanted, together.

Although the story and art in OPENING THE ROAD: Victor Hugo Green and His Green Book take you back in time, kids will connect things that happened then to today’s events and see what has and hasn’t changed over the last 80 years.

Thank you, Keila, for introducing us to your book.

Keila will be giving away a copy of OPENING THE ROAD to one lucky blog reader.

Leave one comment below to enter.

A random winner will be selected next month.

Good luck!


Keila V. Dawson worked as a community organizer, teacher, school administrator, educational consultant, and advocate for children with special needs before she became a children’s book author. She is co-editor of No Voice Too Small: Fourteen Young Americans Making History, along with Lindsay H. Metcalf and Jeanette Bradley, illustrated by Bradley (Charlesbridge, September 22, 2020), the author of The King Cake Baby, and  the forthcoming Opening the Road: Victor Hugo Green and His Green Book, illustrated by Alleanna Harris (Beaming Books, January 26, 2021). Dawson is a New Orleans native and has lived and worked in the Philippines, Japan, and Egypt. Visit her at keiladawson.com, on Twitter @keila_dawson, on Instagram @keilavdawson, and on Pinterest @keiladawson.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

These three Storystorm ideas…

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

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

Tell us more about the story!

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

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

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

How did you find your publisher?

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

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

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

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

Leave a comment below to enter.

A random winner will be chosen next month.

Good luck!


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

 

 by Sharon Giltrow

Seven years ago, I decided to fulfill my childhood dream and write a picture book.

Hey, that couldn’t be too hard!

Luckily the writing community is filled with many helpful writing challenges. With the help of these challenges and many, many hours of hard work, my debut picture book BEDTIME DADDY will be released May 12, 2020. A heartfelt thanks goes to these writing challenges, especially Storystorm.

Challenge Number One: Coming up with a good idea

Enter Storystorm (formerly known as PiBoIdMo). The challenge? To create 30 story ideas in 30 days. Storystorm 2017, Day 7’s post Be Big! Be Small! Be Any Size at All! by Jennifer Arena inspired Idea number 7, BEDTIME DADDY.

Challenge Number Two: Writing the first draft

Enter 12 x 12, a year-long writing challenge to write 12 complete picture book drafts. BEDTIME DADDY was my June 2017 draft which was written 5 months after Storystorm 2017.

Challenge Number Three: Revising

The two previous challenges had helped me to write BEDTIME DADDY but my next challenge was to take the first draft and revise, revise, revise. Enter ReFoReMo, which helps writers to learn how to use mentor texts. I went back in time to 2016, Day 5’s post “Tammi Sauer Models HOW TO do the structure strut”. Bingo—I had all the mentor texts I needed to transform BEDTIME DADDY from a meh first draft to a published story.

Here is how the start of Bedtime Daddy changed through revising:

How to Put a Grown-up to Sleep: Version 1

A grown-up can get grumpy.
A grown-up can get tired.
A grown-up sometimes needs to be put to bed.
And this is how you do it.
When your grown-up starts rubbing their eyes and yawning.
Announce “It’s time for bed!”
Your grown-up will start crying immediately.
HOW TO CONSOLE YOUR GROWN-UP
Give your grown-up a cuddle.
Wait for them to stop crying.
Explain that bedtime happens every night and that it isn’t a punishment.
And wait for crying to stop again and say, “still bedtime”.
Then watch your grown-up move at a snail pace to their bedroom.

Bedtime, Daddy!: Version 10

When you see your daddy rub his eyes and stifle a yawn.
Announce, “Bedtime, daddy!”
Your daddy will start crying immediately.
Give him a cuddle until he stops.
Tell your daddy, “it’s still bedtime.”
Watch as he moves as slow as a sloth to his bedroom.

Here are the final first two-page spreads of BEDTIME DADDY.

The challenges continued even after writing and revising Bedtime Daddy.

Challenge Number 4: Getting Published

Unfortunately, there are no helpful writer’s challenges for this, but there are some great Twitter pitch parties. Thirteen rejections and fourteen months after writing the first draft, I found the perfect publisher, EK Books. SUCCESS!

Challenge Number 5: The Publishing Process and Marketing

Again, there are no helpful marketing challenges. However, in 2019 I joined a group of debut picture book authors and illustrators, 2020 Debut Crew. Together, we are facing new challenges.

Challenge Number 6: BEDTIME DADDY a best-seller

I’ll need reviews for this and I know the perfect challenge enter the Debut Review Challenge.

Success comes from challenging yourself. If I hadn’t participated and embraced these writing challenges, my dream of becoming a published picture book author would never have come true.


Sharon Giltrow grew up in South Australia, the youngest of eight children, surrounded by pet sheep and fields of barley. She now lives in Perth, WA with her husband, two children and a tiny dog. When not participating in writing challenges and writing, Sharon teaches with children with Developmental Language Disorder. Sharon was awarded the Paper Bird Fellowship in 2019. Her debut PB Bedtime Daddy is due to be released May 12th 2020 through EK books. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter @sharon_giltrow.

 

by Laura Renauld

Online writing challenges have been key to my career as a children’s author. I’m the kind of writer who needs external goals and deadlines to jumpstart my internal motivation. Challenges have helped me develop my craft, given me strategies for revision, and connected me with a vibrant writing community. Some of my favorites include NaPiBoWriWee, ReFoReMo, Susanna Leonard Hill’s writing contests, and, of course, Storystorm.

I’ve been participating in Storystorm since 2011. Back then, it was called Picture Book Idea Month (PiBoIdMo). That same year I joined SCBWI and found a local critique group. I was finally taking myself seriously as a writer!

Fast forward three years. PiBoIdMo 2014 was in full swing and I was filling my notebook with ideas. After reading Tammi Sauer’s guest post about attempting ‘How-To’ books, I jotted an idea in my notebook that involved a pie and a porcupine. Little did I know that this alliterative idea was going to propel my writing career forward! Almost one year ago, in October 2018, my debut picture book, Porcupine’s Pie, was published.

Happy first birthday, Porcupine!

As I reflected on my journey to publication, the amazing connections I’ve made in-person and online in the Kidlit community, and the writing challenges that have motivated me along the way, I became aware of three things. First, I have benefited greatly from the generosity and support of other children’s authors and illustrators. Second, a debut author has an uphill climb when it comes to connecting with readers. Third, I wanted to find a way to give back. What better way to do that than to start my own challenge?

Introducing the DEBUT REVIEW CHALLENGE!

We’ve all heard about the importance of customer reviews. They act as a proxy for word-of-mouth recommendations. While there is some debate over how many reviews are “enough”, I think we can all agree: the more reviews, the better. Reviews lead to exposure and book buzz, which allows our books to get into the hands of more children. What could be better than that?

Anyone with a book can benefit from a review, but this challenge is designed to give a boost to first-time authors and illustrators. The Debut Review Challenge will encourage kidlit creators, teachers, librarians, and parents to write book reviews, specifically for debut books.

Here’s how the challenge will work:

  1. Read a debut book by a Kidlit creator.
  2. Write an honest review. Post it on Amazon, Goodreads, or other online sites
  3. Repeat! Once you complete 10 reviews, fill out this ENTRY FORM. You could win a signed book, a free Skype visit, or a manuscript critique, to name a few of the fabulous prizes donated by participating debut authors and illustrators. And you can enter every time you complete 10 reviews!

Be sure to follow #DebutReviewChallenge on Twitter and Instagram for debut creator interviews and chances for bonus entries. You can also find more info at my website, including a downloadable Review Record sheet. Go to LauraRenauld.com.

(And if you are a traditionally published debut kidlit creator who would like to shine in the challenge spotlight, click HERE!)

The first challenge begins in October. Won’t you join the fun?

Thanks, Laura! And congratulations!

To celebrate the first birthday of her debut picture book, Laura is giving away a signed copy of Porcupine’s Pie.

Leave one comment below to enter. A winner will be randomly selected soon!

Good luck!


Laura Renauld is the author of Porcupine’s Pie and Fred’s Big Feelings: The Life and Legacy of Mister Rogers, which will be available January 14, 2020. (Just one of the many fabulous new releases from the 2020 Comeback Crew: @2020comebkcrew.)

Find out more about the Debut Review Challenge at laurarenauld.com, where you can also subscribe to her newsletter and blog.

Follow Laura on Twitter: @laura_renauld, Instagram: @laurarenauld, and Facebook: @kidlitlaura.

by Joanna Rowland

A few years ago I started following Tara Lazar on Twitter. Not only does she have a great blog that is full of resources and is helpful to writers, but she’s also a great author herself. Then I discovered Tara Lazar’s Storystorm (formerly PiBoIdMo). I used to try and fail at NaNoWriMo, but writing 31 different ideas for a month sounded like a goal I could reach and it would be fun.

I had just sold my second picture book THE MEMORY BOX: A BOOK ABOUT GRIEF in November of 2016 and I needed some time to figure out what to write about next.

Luckily, as a teacher I have the beginning of January off so I can really focus on Storystorm at kickoff. In January 2017, I was up at the family cabin when a snow storm came in. So there on my second day of  Storystorm I just wrote the word storm.  There is so much I love about storms. The only problem was I didn’t have an idea of how to tackle the story. What was my story?

What I’ve learned about my writing process is that sometimes I get a topic before the story. With my first book ALWAYS MOM; FOREVER DAD (Tilbury, 2014), I knew I wanted to write a positive picture book on divorce. I knew I wanted the topic of divorce before I knew what my story was. I was reading WHEN I WAS LITTLE: A Four–Year-Old’s Memoir of Her Youth by Jamie Lee Curtis to my Kindergarten class. Her book went back and forth with memories of when she was little to her now big age of FOUR. Something struck me in that moment of reading and I thought, What if I write a book about a child that goes back and forth between time with mom and time with dad? I wrote ALWAYS MOM; FOREVER DAD based on that structure and it allowed me to write about divorce and separation and the child’s relationship with each parent in a positive light.

A month before ALWAYS MOM; FOREVER DAD was to be released, a relative that was intended to receive my picture book on divorce and was one the inspirations behind it, tragically lost her father. So then I knew I needed to write a book on grief. I didn’t know what my story was, but I knew it needed to be written. About a month after trying to write about grief, our synchronized swimming team got devastating news that one of our beloved swimmers and coaches was diagnosed with cancer. Within six months, our sweet Marisa, who I used to coach and who swam with my niece and daughters, passed away.  It was so heartbreaking.

I had to get this story right. I think going through grief and taking my youngest to her first funeral at age six, helped me find a way to talk about death with my youngest and find the heart of the story. It still took me over two years to get the story right, but again the topic of grief came before the story.

THE MEMORY BOX: A BOOK ABOUT GRIEF won a gold from The Mom’s Choice Award, St. Jude Hospital read it on their Day of Remembrance to families that attended around the world, and it recently sold Dutch and Simplified Foreign Rights. It’s been such a blessing to see and hear how hospitals and counselors are using it. I think my editor Andrew DeYoung was also touched to see how this book has been helping people. He emailed me on his paternity leave to pitch an idea for a companion. Coming Spring of 2020, THE MEMORY BOOK: A GRIEF JOURNAL FOR FAMILIES will be out. Families will be able to write, add pictures, and draw in their own keepsake journal of their loved one. This can be something they add inside their own memory box.

After the years writing THE MEMORY BOX, I now know when a topic lingers, I’m meant to hold on to it.  I kept thinking about storms and what I could do, but nothing really inspired me. Then as I was listening to the radio, Imagine Dragons’ song “Thunder” came on and it really made me feel something. So I kept driving around and thinking. I find thinking/writing about difficult topics usually will bring out my best writing or story ideas. I was actually thinking about a childhood friend that died by suicide and how I wished he had stayed. And then the word STAY hit me and I knew I had found my storm story.

I wanted to show friendship through a storm. So my little word storm that I wrote on the second day of Storystorm back on January 2, 2017 took over 9 months to find its true story, but it finally sold to editor Andrew DeYoung of Beaming Books. He took such great care of my second book THE MEMORY BOX that I was beyond thrilled to work with him again.

STAY THROUGH THE STORM is about friendship during a storm. Many kids have fears of actual storms, so kids will be able to relate that fear and it shows ways of being a friend during a real storm. But it is also a metaphor that I think adults will be able to find their own meaning to. One thing I’m very passionate about is mental health and writing books that may help people through difficult times. This story is about being there for one another during the dark and scary times and knowing the storm will pass. You’re not alone.

So my advice is to listen. What topics won’t let go of you? It may take a month, a year, or more, but search for the story that comes from your heart.

Thank you Tara for all that you do to inspire writers and for creating challenges like this where you encourage writers to stop and take the time just to jot down ideas for a month and see where it takes you.

And thank you, Joanna, for sharing your Storystorm success story!

You can visit Joanna at writerrowland.com and follow her on Twitter @writerrowland.

And please join the next Storystorm—a free brainstorming event open to all writers—in January 2020!

by Julie Segal Walters

In November 2011, I secretly stalked Storystorm (then PiBoIdMo) from afar. I wanted to write picture books, but I didn’t take myself seriously as a writer. So I lurked in the shadows, read the inspirational blog posts, and soaked up everything I could without thinking of ideas, putting myself out there, or participating in the group’s Facebook page in any way whatsoever.

By Storystorm 2012, I had boldly joined a local critique group of other greenhorn picture book writers, and had resolved to stop being so secretive about my desire and efforts to write for children. I decided it was time to publicly try on my new identity, and I hoped that it would fit. So when Maria Burel posted on the Storystorm Facebook wall (with similar trepidation) that she lived in my area and was looking to join an in-person critique group, I invited her to join mine.

You see, for me, Storystorm wasn’t about generating picture book ideas. It was about the people. The community of writers who shared a love for children’s literature and a desire to write stories that would touch a child’s heart, or funny bone, or soul. While I’m constantly grateful for the blog posts and for the opportunity to learn from shared resources, mostly, what drove my desire to participate in Storystorm was engaging with others. I loved interacting in the comments on the Facebook wall! The Storystorm community provided the much needed infusion of interpersonal connection in my otherwise solitary writing effort.

That said, when November 2013 rolled around, I was also in it for the ideas! I was writing more seriously, meeting regularly with my critique group (including Maria), and learning everything I could about the children’s book business and craft. That year, I was deliberate about capturing every idea in my idea notebook, including, on November 20, when I documented the idea, “Find some fun Yiddish saying and make a story out of it.”

This idea surfaced while reading a bedtime story to my son that included Yiddish vocabulary. I have always loved Yiddish, and I think Yiddish proverbs are the perfect combination of hilarious and profound. My father’s parents spoke Yiddish, and I have fond memories of my grandfather teaching me to swear in Yiddish while my grandmother yelled at him to stop corrupting me.

Later that same night, I continued thinking about my grandfather, and decided to spend a few minutes researching Yiddish proverbs. I came across the proverb that became the first line of my book—“If the cat laid an egg, it would be a hen.” (It loosely means, you can’t wish for something to be different from what it is because wishing won’t make it so.)  The proverb inspired me to write more words about different types of animals, and ultimately a full meta-fiction author-illustrator conflict story spilled out.

As far as I was concerned, though, I was merely entertaining myself by writing a funny story based on that day’s Storystorm idea. It was a fun night. But, a few weeks later, I was still amused by the story, so I emailed it to my critique partner, Maria. Maria replied: “JULIE! I LOVE this. Your natural voice comes through so clearly here. Like you allowed yourself to be silly and THIS came out!”

I still get chills when I read her message, because I think Maria’s point—allowing yourself to be silly—is another gift of Storystorm. Sure it’s important to generate lots of picture book ideas. But I think Tara Lazar’s genius in creating Storystorm was in creating an environment that allows us—even requires us—to just be creative. And silly. It’s a brainstorm with no room for an internal editor. It doesn’t require industry savvy, or story arc, or plotting. Storystorm frees our imaginations, and sometimes an unburdened inspiration results in a book.

That book I wrote in November 2013, THIS IS NOT A NORMAL ANIMAL BOOK, sold in May 2014 to Simon and Schuster, and released in November 2017. While I will NEVER write or sell a book that quickly again, I always try to return to that zone of unburdened creative freedom that I learned and nurtured through participation in Storystorm when I think of story ideas or write something new.

All of this was possible thanks to Tara Lazar and the Storystorm community, and I will be forever grateful to you all. But Tara can only lead a horse to water (and, you know, provide the water). It’s up to each of us to drink the Storystorm opportunities. I’m proud that I chose to take a risk, participate in the challenge, and engage with the community. Thanks to Storystorm, I thought of the idea for my debut picture book. But more importantly, I met the critique partner who encouraged me to pursue the book, as well as dozens of other incredible picture book writers and friends. I also learned about Julie Hedlund’s 12×12 [http://12x12challenge.com/] from Storystorm. Through 12×12, I received further critiques on my book, and met the people with whom I would later form Picture the Books, [https://picturethebooks2017.wordpress.com/] the group of 2017 debut authors and illustrators who have become some of my most trusted colleagues and dear friends.

To me, my true triumph, and the real Storystorm success story here, is an achievement we all have the opportunity to share — the enduring gift of creativity, and of connecting with this committed, generous, and supportive community of writers and illustrators.

Thank you all for everything!

Julie Segal Walters is the author of THIS IS NOT A NORMAL ANIMAL BOOK (illustrated by Brian Biggs) (Simon and Schuster 2017). She lives in Washington, DC, with her husband, son, and pesky cat. Before writing for children, Julie was a lawyer and advocate for civil rights and civil liberties, and an international democracy and civil society development specialist. These days, she can be found advocating for her many favorite children’s books to anyone who will listen. Julie is fluent in Spanish and loves to cook, but not bake. She thinks baking has too many rules. You can find her online at juliesegalwalters.com.

Julie is giving away a picture book critique.

Simply 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 given away at the conclusion of the event.

Good luck!

by Chana Stiefel

Hello Storystormers! By now, you are either sloshing through puddles of ideas, or maybe you’re stuck in the mud. That’s ok! Here’s a method to jumpstart your story idea machine…

Recently, I came across an article by Fancy Nancy author Jane O’Connor announcing that she is hanging up her boa. O’Connor’s idea for her blockbuster series came from her habit of dressing up when she was a kid and urging her mom to be fancy, too.

I love that O’Connor’s spark came not only from exploring her inner child but from her ACTUAL childhood. So here’s your new assignment: Take a walk down memory lane and dig deep into your childhood. (You may have blocked it, but you had one!)

What stories pop into your head? What made your childhood unique? Think about your relationships with parents, siblings, teachers, friends, camp counselors, baby sitters, coaches, neighbors, pets….you get the idea! What conflicts or challenges did you face? Did you resolve them? If so, how? What were your talents, hobbies, dreams, likes and dislikes?

Now here’s the TWIST. Unless you are uber-famous, most kids (or editors) may not want to read your autobiography. So take your idea and give it a twist. Exaggerate, add humor, turn yourself into an animal or robot, take your idea and go bigger!

O’Connor didn’t copy her own childhood; she took it to another level and created a character that uses French terms and flowery language to express her “fancy” nature. Voila!

When I started writing my upcoming picture book, MY NAME IS WAKAWAKALOCH!, a Storystorm (then PiBoIdMo) 2014 idea that will be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on August 27 (woohoo!), my first drafts were about a girl named Chana (ahem) who wanted to change her unpronounceable name. In those older versions, Chana’s grandmother explained that Chana got her name from her namesake, her resilient great grandmother. My critique partners thought my story was okay but Chana needed to solve her own problem. I was stuck in the muck for a long time. Then I read a blog post by my agent John Cusick suggesting that I drop my character into a new setting. That’s how my cave girl Wakawakaloch was born.

Soon a whole new world opened up and my manuscript took off. (Check out my full “success story” on Tara’s blog.) Basically, I started with my own childhood struggle of dealing with a hard-to-pronounce name, gave it a neolithic twist, and ended up with cave girl with a funny and relatable problem. The takeaway: It’s those real, relatable childhood experiences that touch the hearts of kids.

I asked some writer friends if their own childhoods sparked book ideas. OF COURSE they did! Here are some more examples for inspiration:

  • Army brat journeys

Gretchen McLellan wrote, “Many of my books, published and soon-to-be, are based on my nomadic army-brat childhood. MRS. McBEE LEAVES ROOM 3 (Peachtree, 2017) is grounded in my extensive experience with the bittersweet of saying goodbye. BUTTON AND BUNDLE (Knopf 2/19/19) is based on leaving my first best friend and the world of play we created. My experience of having a father at war is deeply woven into WHEN YOUR DADDY’S A SOLDIER (Beach Lane, 2020).”

  • Family traditions

Patricia Toht said, “I mined our family’s holiday traditions for PICK A PUMPKIN (Candlewick, July 9, 2019) and PICK A PINE TREE (Candlewick 2017).”

  • Childhood fears

Gaia Cornwall added, “Being scared of jumping off the diving board, while wanting to sooo badly, is a very clear memory from childhood.” Results: The beautiful JABARI JUMPS (Candlewick, 2017).

  • Family photos

Ariel Bernstein shared this gem: “I saw an old photo of me on a camping trip with my family–in a canoe with my mom and sister where they were smiling and I was scowling. I thought it was funny and came up with the idea for my upcoming PB, WE LOVE FISHING, which is about four woodland friends who go fishing–three love fishing, one (the squirrel, based on me), does not. (S & S, Paula Wiseman, 2020).” See how Ariel drew from her childhood and added a twist?

  • Size matters

From Gina Perry: “I wrote SMALL (Little Bee, 2017) because I was always the smallest kid in my class, all the way through middle school. I never forgot how it felt and wanted to show ways that kids could feel big regardless of size.” True that!

  • Collectibles

Michelle Schaub shared: “Two of the poems In my upcoming PB poetry collection, FINDING TREASURE (about things people collect), coming from Charlesbridge in September 2019, are based off of childhood memories of my grandma collecting teapots and my grandpa collecting license plates.”

So get out of the muck and give it a try: Tap into your unique childhood. Add a twist. Create fresh new stories for years to come!

Check out Jane O’Connor’s article here:
“Au Revoir, Nancy! A Children’s Book Author Kisses Her Character Goodbye”

Chana Stiefel grew up in South Florida, fishing for tadpoles and going on swamp tromps in the Everglades. Her childhood love of creepy critters was her inspiration for writing ANIMAL ZOMBIES!…& OTHER REAL-LIFE MONSTERS (NatGeoKids, 2019). Growing up with a hard-to-pronounce name gave Chana the spark to write MY NAME IS WAKAWAKALOCH! (illus. by Mary Sullivan; HMH, 8-27-19) about a cave girl who wants to change her unpronounceable name. Chana is also the author of DADDY DEPOT (Feiwel & Friends, 2017) and the upcoming LET LIBERTY RISE (Scholastic, 2021). She is represented by John M. Cusick at Folio Literary. Follow @chanastiefel on FB, Twitter, and Instagram and visit her at https://chanastiefel.com/.

Chana is giving away a signed copy of MY NAME IS WAKAWAKALOCH! after its release in August. (U.S. only, please!)

Simply 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 given away at the conclusion of the event.

Good luck!

 

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My Picture Books

COMING SOON:

BLOOP
illus by Mike Boldt
HarperCollins
July 2021

ABSURD WORDS
illustrator TBA
Sourcebooks eXplore
November 2021

"PRIVATE I" SERIES #3
illus by Ross MacDonald
Little, Brown
2022

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