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 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.
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?


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

(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, 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 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 [] 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, [] 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

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

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!


by Andria Rosenbaum

Writers understand the power of Story. We get that stories can enlighten, educate, make you laugh till you’re breathless, or move you to tears. All good stories make you feel something.

I wish I was a humorous writer, à la Madam Tara Lazar.  

Who wouldn’t want to bring word play, joy and humor to the world of kidlit?

But it turns out that some stories knock on your door unsolicited. Sometimes, they seep into your brain and wrap around your heart. They badger you until you pull them into the world by painting them with words.

These stories can be tricky. Especially when they’re based on truth, or history. If they aren’t handled with care, they can end up sounding boring, sentimental and didactic. When that happens the hearts and minds these stories long to open—remain closed.

More than ten years ago, one of these persistent ideas knocked on my door after I read multiple testimonies from people who had been separated from their parents and siblings during WWII. Even as these children grew up in different countries with new families, they remembered each other. But each believed the other had perished in the war. Some sixty-plus years later, some of them found one another thanks to organizations like The Shoah Project and Yad Vashem.  

Their stories haunted me. They shadowed me like a lost dog looking for home. I wondered how war scars children? How did they survive while others didn’t? What unseen fractures remained? How could they be healed? I felt compelled to share the stories that had shaped their lives.

I knew a manuscript about children of war would be tough to sell. Especially a picture book. But that didn’t matter. I only knew I had to write it. Because this had happened to children, I wanted to write it for children. But how could I begin to describe such a tragic truth?



Looking out of the eyes of a child.

As I read and researched more and more about the Holocaust, I realized I wanted to tell a story sewn together from accounts of siblings from multiple families. I put myself into the heart of the older sister. Her memories became mine. I wrote in her voice. I minimized the graphic details and focused on the separation itself. The main character Ruthi refused to let her story be solely about what she’d lost. Her story became more about what kept her going. It’s about the key ingredients that might have allowed her and others to survive.

I shared the manuscript with my agent unsure of how she’d respond. Thankfully, she loved it and was determined to sell it. Eventually, she did. HAND IN HAND will be published in April by Apples & Honey Press. Maya Shleifer’s incredible illustrations bring Ruthi and her little brother Leib to life, while softening the hard edges of their story through color and character.

Editing helped the book evolved into a story about the effects of separation and war on children.

It became more than just another book about the Holocaust. Though it’s aimed at 7-10 year-olds, I hope it speaks to a broader audience.  

Our stories can’t change history, but they might have the ability to heal. By spotlighting tragic events, books can build empathy and understanding. If you have a tough story you’re longing to tell I hope you find a way to share it. Open the door and embrace it. Try to be honest. Try to be brave. Listen to your characters. You never know who may be waiting for your words.

Andria Warmflash Rosenbaum is the author of TRAINS DON’T SLEEP, illustrated by Deirdre Gill (HMH) and BIG SISTER, LITTLE MONSTER, illustrated by Edwin Fotheringham (Scholastic Press), a PiBoldMo idea from 2014. She hunts for picture book ideas from her home in New Jersey. You can follow her on Twitter @andriawrose, or learn more about Andria and her books at:

Andria is giving away a signed copy of HAND IN HAND when it’s published in April.

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 Ashley Franklin

If inspiration is all around us, why does it sometimes feel as if our muse is on vacation—basking in the sun and living the good life while we’re struggling to settle into our creative groove?

Without our muse to guide the way, we are destined to be adrift in a sea of uncertainty headed towards a creative abyss, right? Wrong!

I want to let you in on a little secret. Are you ready for it? Here it is: You don’t need a muse!

There won’t be an “aha moment” around every corner. There may not be an aura surrounding your next big idea. If you want access to a constant source of inspiration, look no further than yourself.  All you need is your inspiration tool box.

My inspiration tool box helps me to generate ideas at any stage of the writing process. What’s great about it is that it only consists of three things: eyesight, insight, and hindsight.

  • Eyesight
    Take a look around. Your home, job, and favorite hangout spots are waiting to be mined for story ideas. Get your axe and get picking!
  • Insight
    Take a long, hard look at something—anything. Take a closer look at it then you normally would. Involve your senses. Take note of how it looks, smells, feels, tastes, sounds. There’s more depth involved in insight than eyesight. Consider your emotional response to what you’re observing. Experience the object of your focus.
  • Hindsight
    You can’t change the past, but you can sure draw some inspiration from it. What made your heart skip a beat when you were younger? What is the most cherished memory of your recent past? Who or what have been most important to you and why? Think about some of your first experiences and the way they made you feel.

You can use all three tools at once, or you can pick and choose. For my picture book debut, NOT QUITE SNOW WHITE, I used a combination of the three to come up with the idea.  Here’s how I used my inspiration tool box:


Q: What do I see a lot of?
A: Princesses. They’re everywhere and on everything.


Q: What’s common about the princesses?
A: Most of them are White. There’s not much variation. They’re all “perfect” according to today’s standards.

Q: What’s missing?
A: Princesses with quirks. Princesses who look like me.


Q: What made me happy as a kid?
A: Barbies. Mom made a point to buy me POC Barbies. I had tons.

Q: How do I feel about that?
A: Back then, the dolls made me happy. They were my favorite. Now, I realize they helped me feel seen (which was especially important because I attended predominantly White schools).

As you can see, I always begin with questions. Personally, I find that beginning with questions helps me to focus my ideas.

Armed with the thoughts gifted to me by my tool box, I decided that I wanted to write an African-American princess story. Many wretched and promising drafts later (thanks, revision!), I came up with Tameika’s story.

I’m happy to introduce to you, my Storystorm family, the cover of NOT QUITE SNOW WHITE:


Ashley Franklin is an African-American writer, mother, and adjunct college professor. Ashley received her M.A. from the University of Delaware in English Literature, where she reaffirmed her love of writing but realized she had NO IDEA what she wanted to do about it.

Ashley currently resides in Arkansas with her family. Her debut picture book, NOT QUITE SNOW WHITE, will be published July 9, 2019 by HarperCollins. The idea for the book originated from a former Storystorm (then PiBoIdMo) challenge. For more information on Ashley, you can visit her website:

Social media savvy?  You can find Ashley on one of these platforms: Twitter @differentashley, Instagram: @ashleyfranklinwrites and Facebook.

Ashley is giving away two prizes to two winners. First, a signed copy of NOT QUITE SNOW WHITE when it releases. Second, a non-rhyming 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 Jen Betton

If you’ve been to any sort of children’s book writing event, you’ve heard how much editors and agents want character-driven stories. But what if that is hard for you? What if you’re like me, and you have a tendency to create characters who are just placeholders for the plot? What if you create amazing characters, but have a hard time getting the plot to work around them?

This is the story of how my first published book was written, which also happened to be my first truly character-driven manuscript.

In 2014, I lurked in the sidelines of Storystorm (PiBoIdMo at the time), and I read Diana Murray’s post about character-driven stories. She recommended creating a character with a personality trait that was in direct opposition to their goal. This struck a chord with me but didn’t result in anything much until a couple months later when I read the absolutely perfect LIBRARY LION, written by Michelle Knudsen and illustrated by Kevin Hawkes. In it, the Lion (who naturally would like to roar) becomes a fixture at the library (a place of quiet) – boom, instant conflict! I adored this book, and thinking of Diana’s post, sat down to think of some animal characters who natural tendencies might lead to conflict.

I wanted to have an animal character because it allowed me to play with making an internal trait external. So I started brainstorming animals and inherent conflicts: A bear wants honey—no inherent conflict there, but a sloth who wants to race, aha conflict. Very quickly, I came up with a hedgehog who wants a hug!

The words weren’t right and I didn’t have an ending, but I immediately had a character, and a conflict, and HEDGEHOG NEEDS A HUG was born! After a lot of fleshing out, a persistent, prickly little hedgehog feeling down in the snout and droopy in the prickles tries to find a hug. He asks a number of places, gets discouraged, and eventually finds someone feeling the same way.

So get a notepad, and start brainstorming your own list—what is a trait that an animal or person might have? It might be something like this:

  • Sloth – slow
  • Lion – roars
  • Magpie – hoards sparkly things
  • Hedgehog – prickly
  • Matilda – messy
  • Victor – loud

The second step is to create a list of things that would make that natural trait difficult—it could be a goal or desire, or just a situation that makes that inherent quality problematic—anything that creates conflict. What if the sloth wants to hurry up? What if the lion loves a library and needs to be quiet? What if the magpie loses all her stuff? What if the hedgehog needs a hug? What if the messy girl needs to find her homework? What if the loud boy needs to keep his baby sister asleep?


If you start to look, you’ll notice a lot of characters out there have some sort of inherent conflict: in Anika Denise’s STARRING CARMEN, the main character loves being the center of attention, but needs to share the spotlight. In Lisa Anchin’s upcoming debut, THE LITTLE GREEN GIRL, the protagonist wants to leave her garden to see the world, but she is literally rooted in place, being a topiary. In Molly Idle’s PEARL, the mermaid wants to do something important, but is given a humble grain of sand to protect. Sometimes it could be two conflicting desires (instead of a personality trait and desire) like in Sherman Alexie’s THUNDER BOY JR, where little Thunder wants his own name, but doesn’t want to hurt his dad’s feelings.


Another variation on this exercise is to put two characters who have opposing traits or desires together: for example in Alexander Milne’s Pooh books, Rabbit loves order and Tigger loves to bounce on him—that creates an instant tension between the two.

I love this exercise because at the end of it you have a character (or two!) and the beginning of your plot! Happy story-hunting!

Jen Betton loves to draw and make up stories with her pictures. In Kindergarten she got into trouble for drawing presents on a picture of Santa, and she has been illustrating ever since. She wrote and illustrated HEDGEHOG NEEDS A HUG, published with G.P. Putnam’s Sons, and she illustrated TWILIGHT CHANT, an NCTE notable book, written by Holly Thompson, published with Clarion. You can find more of her work at, or on Twitter and Instagram @jenbetton.

Jen is giving away a signed copy of HEDGEHOG NEEDS A HUG, with an activity kit and bookmarks.

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!


We’ve all heard the saying: “A picture is worth a thousand words.”

It’s true!

One picture can spark an idea that can lead to an entire picture book manuscript. Don’t believe me? Try it!

I often get ideas for stories by looking at pictures.

Pictures serve as inspiration. And lucky for picture book writers, pictures are everywhere. But there are some places I peruse regularly to get inspiration.

Have you heard of Storybird? Here you will find art samples from talented illustrators worldwide. In other words, there is a goldmine of art at this site. Anyone wanting to delve into storytelling can use the images for inspiration for a story. It’s a great writing tool for kids and adults.

Where else can you find images?

How about clipart? Free clipart sites are another treasure trove for writers. Just select a category. Science. School. People. Pets. Surely an image or two will spark a story idea in your brain.

Are you doing any shopping today? Make a pit stop in the greeting card aisle at the grocery store and look at the pictures on the covers of the cards. Do you see animals singing in the snow? A hedgehog holding a balloon? A crocodile on a skateboard? Any ideas jumping out at you?

While you’re at the store, take a glance at the magazines. Kid magazines and family-centered magazines are chock-full of kid-friendly images.

Maybe you’re driving or riding in a car. Pay extra attention to street signs. I once saw a street sign with a stick figure and a circle around its waist. Say what? Hula hoop crossing? Why? Is there a story nugget there? What if instead of a person, it was a bear? Or an armadillo? And why is it crossing the road with a hula hoop?

There is a board game called Awkward Family Photos. For the game, players are presented with a picture and a thought-provoking question about the photo. For example, players may have to think of the last thing the person said before the picture was taken. Or, they may have to write a caption for the picture. This game is a perfect example of using pictures to dig a bit deeper and see what story lies beyond it.

Wherever you are right now—at home, at work, in your car, at a store—at least one of these sources of images is available at your fingertips. You can even use Google to search for images.

Pictures will speak to you, but you need to do three things for that to happen:

Stop, look, and listen.

  1. Stop:
    Take a few minutes each day during this month-long challenge to find a source of pictures. Use the ones I listed above or find another source. The few minutes you spend will be worth it.
  2. Look:
    Take a close look at the picture. Take it all in: the character(s), the expressions, the details, the background, etc.
  3. Listen:
    Are there questions popping up in your brain? If not, you want to train your brain to ask questions, such as:
  • What is the character in the picture doing?
  • What does he/she want?
  • Look at that mischievous grin. What is behind it?
  • Why is the dragon sitting alone on a rock?  Is he scared, embarrassed, sad, sleepy?
  • Why is the dog wearing roller skates? Where is he going?
  • What are those strange footprints in the sand? Who do they belong to? Where do they lead?

If you follow these three steps, I guarantee ideas will start flowing in no time at all.

So, a picture is worth a thousand words. Better yet, in the case of picture book writers, maybe a picture leads to a 500 word story, or even one that is only 250 words. Whatever the final word count, a picture can be the starting point. Just like what happened in 2014, when I saw a picture of a caveboy and a cavegirl on a clipart image during the Storystorm Challenge (which was then called PiBoIdMo). That ultimately led to CAVEKID BIRTHDAY, which launches in March 2019. And, my fingers are crossed that a picture you look at today will be the inspiration for a book that will be in kids’ hands in a few years.

Good luck!

CAVEKID BIRTHDAY was Cathy Breisacher’s 2014 PiBoIdMo idea for Day 10 and it will be a book in March 2019! CAVEKID BIRTHDAY, illustrated by Roland Garrigue, is a prehistoric twist on the Gift of the Magi. Cathy’s second book, CHIP AND CURLY: THE GREAT POTATO RACE, illustrated by Joshua Heinsz, will hop into stores in May 2019. Cathy looked at loads of potato pictures for inspiration, and she whipped a ton of puns into this tale.

You can follow her on Twitter @CathyBreisacher, Facebook, YouTube or


Cathy is giving away autographed copies of CAVEKID BIRTHDAY and CHIP AND CURLY: THE GREAT POTATO RACE when they are published. There will be one winner for each book.

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 Michelle Cusolito

I’ve said this in other places, but I think it’s worth repeating here: I reject the idea that authors should write what we know. I believe we should write what we’re curious about. What captures our imaginations. What we’re passionate about or what we want to explore deeply.

I’ve nurtured a sense of wonder since I was a child growing up on a farm building hay bale forts and mucking around in nearby swamps. Once I lived abroad for the first time, my interests expanded to learning about other cultures and ecosystems. I am curious about the world. That curiosity determines the topics I choose to research and to write about. (I write fiction and non-fiction picture books, but I lean mostly toward non-fiction).

My debut, FLYING DEEP, invites young readers to imagine themselves piloting deep-submersible Alvin two miles below the ocean’s surface to explore the unique ecosystem that thrives near hydrothermal vents. I am not an Alvin pilot. I had never been inside Alvin or even seen Alvin up close when I started the book. But I WAS fascinated by the idea of piloting Alvin. I was especially fascinated by the alien-looking animals that live near the vents. How could I not be fascinated by dinner plate-sized clams, six foot tube worms and an octopus with appendages that look like Dumbo’s ears? I knew I wanted to write a picture book on the topic because I was so interested in learning more.

FLYING DEEP was a Storystorm (PiBoIdMo) idea in 2014. At that point, I had no idea how I would write the book or even what kind of book it would be. I only knew I was fascinated by Alvin and hydrothermal vents.

My approach to Storystorm was to list every topic I could think of that I was interested in. I used a printed PiBoIdMo calendar and wrote my ideas in the boxes. I allowed each idea to be as big or small as it came to me. Sometimes it was a topic, or a character or even a kind of book I wanted to try writing. I didn’t put any rules on it except that I had to fill every box in my calendar. Just one tiny box per day. No big deal. And I didn’t actually write one idea per day. Some days I wrote 6 or 7 or 8. Other days I wrote none, but my subconscious was certainly at work. One nugget on that calendar became FLYING DEEP. Another nugget became a manuscript that is now out on submission. That one took me years to research and write. Am I bored by the topic? Nope. I still get excited when I come across new articles about my subject. (The remaining ideas on my 2014 calendar did not see the light of day because, well, they were junk. But that didn’t matter. I got two viable manuscripts out of that list.)

So, today, instead of trying to come up with a fully formed idea, try this:

Sit with your notebook, calendar, or laptop and brainstorm. What are the topics you love? What are your passions? What intrigues you? What fascinates you? Who do you admire? Write quickly. Get everything down.

Maybe you love pickles, or ceramic tiles or the way light streams through tree leaves in the late afternoon sun. Are these fully formed book ideas? Of course not. Are they all book worthy? Maybe not, but I can imagine ways these COULD lead to something interesting, funny, or educational. (There are books about bacon and pasta that came out in recent years. Why not pickles? I’m not going to write that story, but maybe you will). This is where you come in: you craft the book that’s right for you.

How many ideas did you come up with? Guess what? All of them count toward your Storystorm total!

Michelle Cusolito’s debut, Flying Deep, will be published by Charlesbridge in May. Flying Deep won the PEN New England Susan P. Bloom Children’s Book Discovery Award and is a summer 2018 Junior Library Guild selection. Michelle climbed inside deep-submersible Alvin to complete research for Flying Deep. Michelle has lived in the Philippines and in Ireland. When she isn’t mucking around in the world, she’s usually in her home office or local coffee shop weaving these experiences into stories for children. Learn more at

You can connect with Michelle on Instagram @mcusolitoTwitter @MCusolito, and Facebook.

Michelle is also making a special request. Her favorite local Indie, Eight Cousins, suffered a catastrophic flood last week. Eight Cousins is an amazing local business run by true booksellers. The storefront is closed until sometime this spring, but they are open for on-line orders which will be staged out of a temporary location. Last fall, Michelle had already arranged for pre-orders placed through Eight Cousins to be signed by both Michelle and Nicole Wong (the illustrator) before being shipped to purchasers on publication day (May 22, 2018). To sweeten the deal, she’s adding a chance in a special give-away. Learn more here:

Please support independent bookstores. If you plan to pre-order Flying Deep, will you order through Eight Cousins or your own favorite local book store? Thank you for your consideration.

Michelle is offering a critique of a fiction picture book up to 700 words or a non-fiction picture book up to 1200 words.

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

Good luck!

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July 2021

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