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by Hannah Barnaby

Novels were my first love—as a children’s literature graduate student, as an editor, as a bookseller, and then as a writer. I loved long descriptive passages, the rising tension and angst, the unexpected twists and turns of complicated plots, and all the ways that casts of characters could clash, conflict, and come together. Novels were other worlds in which I could become fully immersed for long stretches of time, emerging only to jot down particularly beautiful sentences in my journal. However, these complications presented certain problems for me once I began writing my own novels.

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It turns out that plotting is . . . not my strong suit.

While wrestling with the plot of my second novel, SOME OF THE PARTS, I turned to picture books for help. There were plenty in our house, but I knew those too well to read them objectively (and my kids kept interrupting), so I went to the library and gathered stacks of new ones, old ones, favorite classics and unfamiliar texts. I was searching for a sense of how stories were built, and I knew that picture books had patterns I could see clearly, structures I would recognize. The more I read, the more I fell in love. I felt like I was cheating on my novel, but I didn’t care. It was glorious—the humor, the energy, the sweetness, and unexpected twists and turns of uncomplicated plots were a revelation.

I began thinking in picture books, seeing new possibilities. My son’s preschool playground rule (“There are no bad guys at our school.”) sparked a story.


So did a conversation at an academic dinner, where I was seated between an astronomer and a marine biologist.


There were some practical things I did to put the picture books to work for myself:

  1. I typed out the text of books that were particularly successful in some way, so that I could see the words separately from the pictures. This is how picture book manuscripts arrive at a publisher (most of the time) and how mine look when I write them, because I am not the illustrator. When you can read the text alone, you get the clearest possible sense of how it operates, what jobs it has and what jobs it should not try to do (e.g. extensive description).
  2. I took note of elements like repetition, alliteration, rhyme, and plot structures to get a sense of what the rules were. I compared older books and newer ones, to see how the rules had changed. Word counts and formats vary wildly from then to now, and I wanted a strong sense of both the history of the form and the current trends, so I knew where my stories would fit.
  3. I allowed myself to start with themes and ideas that I knew had been written before. Because I had been reading so many picture books by other authors, my first efforts to write my own often mimicked what I’d read. (I could call it “an homage” and get away with it, right? Maybe?) But I let it happen, because I needed to warm up those muscles and strengthen them. It was like taking a class at the gym: for a while, I just followed along with what the instructor did. I couldn’t design my own routine right away.

Before long, I had a couple of drafts that I really liked (and several more that had yet to find their feet). I revised and fine-tuned them until I felt brave enough to send them to my agent. She replied almost immediately. “You’ve done it,” she said. “You’ve cracked the picture book code.”

So, what have picture books taught me? To be open to unexpected possibilities, to examine small moments and know that stories can grow out of anything that happens, and to be confident in my ability to structure a narrative. Writing both picture books and longer stories allows me a unique kind of balance between different forms, and has allowed me to see plot on a much smaller, more manageable scale and then expand that scaffolding to a larger one.

They’ve also taught me that sometimes you think your characters are elephants, but your illustrator has other ideas…


Hannah BarnabyHannah Barnaby is the author of WONDER SHOW, a 2013 Morris Award finalist, and SOME OF THE PARTS. She makes her double picture book debut in 2017 with BAD GUY, illustrated by Mike Yamada (coming in May from S&S), and GARCIA & COLETTE GO EXPLORING, illustrated by Andrew Joyner (coming in June from Putnam). Hannah lives in Charlottesville, VA, where she teaches creative writing and wrangles a variety of children and dogs. Visit her online at, Twitter @hannahrbarnaby and Facebook.

Her two picture books are now available for pre-order via Indiebound: BAD GUY and GARCIA & COLETTE GO EXPLORING.


Hannah is giving away her code-cracking secrets in a picture book critique.

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

Good luck!


by Deb Lund

I’ve been restless lately. Uncertain. Wondering what to work on next, but not taking action. Growing up in northern Minnesota, the outward version of that was an approaching storm—a blizzard, a tornado, torrential rains… It starts out in stillness and quickly gets dark.


There’s something in the air that you can’t quite identify, and then it whooshes in…


Energy builds. Everything whirls around you. There’s nothing to hang on to. It all feels impossible and there’s nothing you can do about it—except face it. Be brave! Lean into the wind! You got this!

Creativity needs chaos. It needs a storm. Once in a while we need to be shaken out of our pitiful patterns and hideous habits. You know what I mean. Those crazy excuses—I’m too old/young/busy/whatever. Or… just another game of Solitaire, or another snack. Yeah! That’s what I need!


When the storm hits, don’t hide out, and don’t run away. What matters to you? What’s your big dream? What would give your life more meaning? Claim it! Step into the eye of the storm.

Snatch the ideas flying by. Add more snatches to them. Don’t look for pieces that fit—go for curiosity, not judgment. Just grab them. Own the storm!


Are you wondering what you’re getting yourself into? Feeling lost? Unprepared? Me, too! When it comes to creativity, if you don’t know what you’re doing—you’re on the right path!

Still feeling anxious? What do you say to yourself? Here are some of mine…

  • “Who do you think you are?”
  • “It was only a fluke that you ever got published.”
  • “Someday they’ll figure out you can’t write.”

Change those conversations! We all run around scared that someone else is going to find out we don’t really know what we’re doing. We’re afraid we’ll die in the storm.

Take back that talk, and talk back!

It’s hard work finding your way through torrential rains, hail, sleet, or snow. The wind might mangle your umbrella. You might slip on the ice. You might end up in your own version of Oz. Do it anyway.


I grew up with stories of farmers tying ropes between their homes and barns so they could take care of their cattle during blizzards. We have no worries there. Tara is our tether, and she’s tenacious! You may feel lost now and then, but the rope is always within reach. Come back and read this post when your doubts drift up around your ears. I promise you can do this!

When a storm approaches, you get ready. You gather up all you need. You make a plan.

Here’s a short list to help you get started:

  • Piggyback on elements of your favorite stories.
  • Glance through book titles on bookstore and library shelves.
  • Start with first sentences from books you haven’t read.
  • Drag out past idea lists or folders to mix and match
  • Look at photos—your own, social media, online image searches.
  • Mine your memories.
  • Think emotions: Sad, angry, hurt, frustrated, relieved, determined, etc.
  • Search magazines, newspapers, and online resources for interesting stories.
  • Observe kids in libraries, stores, parks, schools, or your own at home.
  • Think “firsts”—teeth, steps, birthdays, school, friend, kiss, etc.
  • Identify epiphanies and turning points.
  • Ask kids, parents, teachers, librarians, friends, family—anyone!

I’m sure our amazing Storystorm line-up will cover some of these in detail and more. Still feeling anxious? Change your default reaction to calm. Tough order, I know. But it’s possible.


As tornadoes touched down around us on Minnesota summer days, neighbors without basements would run to our house and gather in ours. My mom would ask me to play the piano while we waited out the storm.


Playing through a storm is a pretty good analogy of the creative process.

Here’s how you do it…

Ignore the dangers around you. Stay focused, deny the distractions, and entertain yourself until the wind dies down enough to step out into the new landscape before you. And when you do, stay curious. If you label the storm a disaster, you’re not free to experiment and explore.

Keep an open mind as you assess the possibilities. You can shovel out a path or pick up pieces later. Until then, enjoy the wonder and the rainbows. After this month, you might just become a storm chaser.


Deb Lund is best known for her rowdy, rollicking dinoadventures. She’s helped many writers forge their way through storms with her card deck, Fiction Magic: Card Tricks & Tips for Writers. Deb is a creativity coach who claims that outsmarting her own fierce inner critic makes her more qualified to lead storm troopers than all her training, teaching, and years of coaching experience. Visit Deb at


Deb is generously giving away three prizes: two 15-minute creativity coaching sessions and one set of Fiction Magic cards.

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

Good luck!

***STORYSTORM REGISTRATION IS CLOSED. You can still join in the challenge by reading the daily posts and jotting down ideas, but you will not be eligible to win STORYSTORM prizes.***


Oh, Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore…

That’s right, Picture Book Idea Month has been blown away by STORYSTORM! Need to know why? Check here.

STORYSTORM is a month of brainstorming new story ideas. This event is open to any writer seeking inspiration, support and community.

How does STORYSTORM work? It’s simple…

  • Register here by signing your name ONCE in the comments below. Teachers participating with a class can register under the teacher’s name.
  • Registering makes you eligible for prizes.
  • Visit this blog daily ( for inspirational essays by guest bloggers—professional authors, illustrators and experts in creativity.
  • Instead of visiting the blog directly, you can receive the daily posts via email by clicking the “Follow Tara’s Blog” button in the left column—look under my photo for it.


  • After you have read the daily inspiration, jot down a daily story idea in a journal, computer, anywhere you like to write. Some days you might have no ideas, but some days you might have five or more.
  • At the end of the month, if you have at least 30 ideas, sign the STORYSTORM pledge and qualify for prizes.
  • Prizes include professional consults, signed books, original art, writerly gadgets and gizmos.

Remember, do not share your ideas publicly. They are YOURS. No need to  prove that you have them at the end of the month. The pledge you will sign is on the honor system.

Are you in? Awesome. Pick up your Official Participant badge below and affix it to any social media account you wish. (Right click to save to your computer, then upload it anywhere.)


May I suggest a STORYSTORM journal to keep those ideas safe?


Go to the CafePress STORYSTORM Store here:

All proceeds ($3 per sale—only if you use our URL) will be donated to Reading is Fundamental (RIF), to help put books into the hands of underprivileged children. Please remember to enter the store via If you search CafePress instead, we do not receive the funds.

Other merchandise will go on sale once the event begins, but you can order your journal now.

The final piece? Join the STORYSTORM Facebook discussion group. You need friends for the journey!


The group is completely optional, but it remains a year-round source of writing information and support, mostly focused on picture books, I admit, because that is where this all began.

Registration will remain open through JANUARY 7TH.

What are you waiting for? Register and go celebrate! I’ll see you back here on New Year’s Day.



Many thanks to S.britt for the logo design and Troy Cummings for the banners and badges.



Sorry for the delay. I’ll have Alex Trebek entertain you while you wait…


Well, that was certainly interesting, Alex. Umm, thanks.

(P.S. This kid did it better.)


In the meantime, need to know why PiBoIdMo became STORYSTORM? Check it.



Here it is, the moment you’ve been waiting for…



OK, maybe not what you were expecting. A little holiday humor. Let’s move on…

Those of you who participate in Picture Book Idea Month already know I moved the annual writing challenge to January instead of November. And you also know I changed the name. The new, much-easier-to-pronounce moniker is…


Did that just blow your mind?


I hope so!

The new logo was designed by talented illustrator S.britt (of NORMAL NORMAN fame).

Now, I hear you asking some questions.


The original challenge—to create 30 picture book concepts in 30 days—was named “Picture Book Idea Month” or “PiBoIdMo” for short. Everyone pronounced the awkward acronym a different way. And if you managed to say it, it didn’t make sense to others.

“STORYSTORM” is a portmanteau of story and brainstorm that is more immediately understood.

The new name signals a broader scope—any type of writer interested in being inspired in January can now join the challenge. Novelists, short story writers, non-fiction authors and even teachers and their students are welcomed. Any writer, anyone who wants to brainstorm for a month. 

The goal is for STORYSTORM participants to jot down 30 story ideas in January. Then everyone will have thirty new shiny ideas to ponder, flesh out and write in 2017.


PiBoIdMo was originally held in November because it was modeled after NaNoWriMo, which runs at that time. But November is so busy with the start of the holiday season. Starting fresh in January—a new year, new goals—will hopefully prove to be both inspiring and motivating.




After the slam-dunking of presents down the chimney is over. In other words, Boxing Day. In other, other words, December 26th.

Registration will remain open for the entire first week of January. You do not have to register, but doing so makes you eligible to win prizes—agent consultations, books, critiques, and a whole lotta fabulous stuff that even Santa can’t make possible.

So THANK YOU for being patient while I pondered these changes. More announcements soon—like the guest-blogger line-up!

But in the meantime, join our STORYSTORM Facebook group which is active year-round for friendly support and discussion.




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

As a children's book author and mother of two, I'm pushing a stroller along the path to publication. I collect shiny doodads on the journey and share them here. You've found a kidlit treasure box.

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My Picture Books


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

illus by Ross MacDonald
Fall 2019

illus by Vivienne To
Spring 2020

illustrator TBA
Sourcebooks Jabberwocky
Spring 2020

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