by Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen

Ask any writer, and he or she will tell you that ideas are hard.

Except…they’re not.

Ideas are easy. I can come up with a new idea for a book once a day. I could probably do it once an hour! I’d have oodles of ideas at the end of this exercise.

Except…they probably wouldn’t be good ideas.

Ideas aren’t hard. Good ideas, on the other hand are as elusive as a greased pig at a county fair. (I assume that greased pigs at a county fair would be elusive. I have no first-hand knowledge of pigs, greased or otherwise, or county fairs. But I’ve definitely read about them, and they sound very elusive.)

I’ve talked about sorting through your ideas on this blog before, and I won’t be repeating the same old story. After all, that would not be a very good idea. Instead, I’d like to share some tips about developing an idea from eh to excellent.

You already know that creating a polished, publishable manuscript involves peer review, professional critiques, and revision. But there is something else I do to get to the strongest possible story: I rely on my sounding board.

We’re all familiar with the dictionary definition of sounding board: “a person or group whose reactions to suggested ideas are used as a test of their validity or likely success before they are made public.” It’s very likely you already have a critique group to perform a similar function on your manuscripts. But I use a sounding board as early as the idea stage.

There are some things to look for when choosing an idea sounding board. First, he or she must be a children’s literature professional. So, no, you can’t bounce your ideas off your spouse or your kids or your neighbor or—heaven forbid—your mother. Those are fine people to consult with when you’re brainstorming or writing, but they don’t count as the kind of sounding board I’m talking about.

Next, you have to choose someone you work well with. This does not have to be someone you will be using as an active collaborator, but it does have to be someone who feels comfortable giving you honest feedback—because telling you something is good when it isn’t is really just a waste of everyone’s time. As Roxie says, ain’t nobody got time for dishonesty.

Thirdly—and this is perhaps the most important—your sounding board should be someone who doesn’t think like you do. In fact, the less your artistic points of view overlap, the better it is. You are already thinking of your idea the way  someone like you would think about it. What you need is someone different, who comes at it from a totally contrasting viewpoint, and who might even bring a completely new skill set.

For me, my sounding board is most often my agent. (After all, I can threaten to fire her if she doesn’t listen to me.) We’ve been working together for over a decade, so there is a high level of comfort there. She’s still unflinchingly honest and I respect her knowledge of the market. Unfortunately, she also tends to nag me about ideas I’ve bounced off her that I…never seem to finish. Which means, sometimes, I have to hide from her—and I have to find a different sounding board. Which brings me to the story I want to share.

A few months ago, my agent nagged reminded me about a Project-That-Shall-Not-Be-Named that I have been trying to write for years. She even asked one of her illustrator clients, Mike Ciccotello, to draw a character sketch to help inspire me. So, of course, I immediately began working on…a completely different project. I guiltily shared that information with Mike. To my surprise, he both liked the new project and had suggestions.

The second project is called CHEESE & QUACKERS. The story centered on a lamb (Cheese) and a duck (Quackers) who have an odd couple-type relationship as roommates at summer camp. I had the idea that the story should be told in sparse text in a comic book-like format, but that would require rich, expressive illustrations. Luckily, Mike had the idea that the story should be told with rich, expressive illustrations in a comic book-like format and therefore should have sparse text.

Thus, the idea bouncing—really an elaborate version of the “What If” game—began.

What if one of them was neat and organized and the other was a slob? (Good idea.)

What if one was a summer camp veteran and the other new to camping? (Also good.)

What if one had lots of friends at camp and the other was totally reliant on his roommate? (We’re on a roll!)

What if the characters wore shirts but no pants? (That’s a hard “no.”)

What if one of them likes pancake batter and jelly sandwiches? (Also no.)

What if we put two llamas in their core friend group so I can name them Dolly Llama and Kendrick Llama? (Umm, of course!)

Because Mike and I were collaborating, the “What If” game was reciprocal and ran concurrently with drafting the manuscript. This typically won’t be the case, but luckily, your sounding board does not need to be a collaborator. The important thing is that he or she needs to be able to ask you “What If” questions to get you to think about things you hadn’t considered, and he or she needs to be able to answer your “What If” questions to toss out new ideas. Answering “What If” questions makes the eventual story become clearer in your head. It also helps you block off the paths you shouldn’t take your character down (see pancake batter and jelly above), which makes the idea stronger.

Sometimes, you need a little feedback.

Sometimes, it’s a long back-and-forth.

Sometimes, you hear something you didn’t expect.But every round of the game helps you hone in on the good ideas, discard the bad ideas, and gets you closer to where you need to get your story.

Mike and I were fortunate to have found a home for CHEESE & QUACKERS, tentatively scheduled for 2022. So we get to continue playing the “What If” game through at least two books. It’s very exciting.

Though, Mike is definitely more excited to play than I am.

Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen is an award-winning children’s book author whose books include Chicks Rule, The United States vs. Jackie Robinson (2019 ALSC Notable Children’s Books List), Duck Duck Moose (CBC Children’s Choice Award Finalist), Tyrannosaurus Wrecks (Junior Library Guild Selection), and the Purrmaids chapter book series. She has visited schools and libraries for the past 15 years, talking to kids about writing, reading, and finding their voices.

She lives in Princeton, NJ with her husband, three children, and an adorable pug named Roxie (featured above). You can learn more about her and her books on her website

Special announcement! Sudipta will be teaching at our premiere Storystorm Retreat at Highlights Foundation, March 5-8, 2020. Learn more about our fun and intensive picture book retreat here!

This event will fill up quickly! Sign up today!

Hope to see you there!


Tara knows it’s Day 17, but she spent over 16 hours traveling on Day 16…so this is a place holder until she gets a good night’s sleep. Look for Day 17’s post later in the day.

In the meantime, say hello to her adorable row mate on the flight. Perhaps he’s got a story idea? “Dog Flies at Sunset”?


Dear fellow kidlit book creators,

A few years ago, my writing partner gave me a challenge. She dared me to write an epistolary book—the entire manuscript could only be letters between characters.

So I gave it a shot. I decided the main character would be a dog—my old dog!

(BACKSTORY: One day, in about second grade, a scruffy mutt showed up in my front yard. He was dirty, and hungry, and stinky—and he was ours. We fed him, cleaned him up, and named him Auggie. I miss that dog, and still dream about him!)

Initially, my book was a series of letters between two characters: a scruffy dog looking for a home, and the cranky guy he was writing to.

But the story quickly evolved. In my second draft, the dog (named Arfy) was writing letters to every house/business on the street. Each person replied, and they all said “no.” For different reasons. Until the end of the book, where Arfy finally DID find a home.

This book ended up becoming a picture book called CAN I BE YOUR DOG?. And I didn’t realize it at the time, but that prompt from my friend was actually an exercise in writing voice.

In the early drafts, each of the letters sounded really same-y. The butcher sounded like the fire chief, who sounded like the junkyard guy. (Really, they all sounded like me. No good!) So I started playing with the letters, to make each character’s voice sound as different as possible.

Here are some of the parameters I tweaked for each character:

  • VOCABULARY/GRAMMAR: The word choices the character makes, and how they string those words together. How does the butcher sound different from the fire chief?
  • VOLUME: Is this character loud or quiet? And HOW are they loud/quiet? Are they boisterous? Overbearing? Timid? Soothing?
  • RHYTHM: Does this character speak in long, flowing singsongy sentences? Or short, clipped bursts? Or a droning monotone? Or some other pattern?
  • HANDWRITING: Do they write in loopy cursive with a purple pen? Or with a scribbly pencil, with crossed-out mistakes? Or do they type their letter? And what kind of paper do they write on? These things are all still part of that character’s “voice.”

I think the great thing about letter-writing is that it’s all about voice. We get to  leave out the narration entirely, and have the entire text focus on the voice of the characters who are speaking. I mean, writing.

So now, I’m going to pass that challenge along to you!


Write a letter (or series of letters) between two characters. These characters should be as different from one other as possible.

For instance:

  • The giant is writing a letter to Jack about this beanstalk ruining the resale value of his castle. (What’s the giant’s handwriting like? And imagine the size of his postage stamp!)
  • The hare is writing to the tortoise demanding a rematch. (What’s the hare’s writing-rhythm like, vs. the tortoise’s?)
  • A professional baseball coach is writing to the world’s greatest pitcher, who happens to be a second grade little-leaguer. But the second grader is NOT interested.

OR: design two characters of your choice. They can be people, animals, or fairy tale characters, but try to make them as opposite as possible. In the way they look, the way they sound, and their individual “goals.”


If you’re feeling warmed up, repeat the above exercise, but make the two characters as similar as possible. At least, on the surface. Maybe they’re both eighth-graders passing notes in science class. Or they’re two goldfish stuck in the same bowl. They can have the same age, interests, etc. but their voices should still be absolutely distinct.

Your pal,


P.S. I love postcripts. A cool way to sneak in one last surprise. And in this case, the surprise is a peek at my next book! Here it is:

I FOUND A KITTY! is the follow-up to my NY Times Bestseller CAN I BE YOUR DOG?. This time, Arfy finds a teeny kitten in a drain pipe. He writes letters to more people in town, hoping to find a home for the poor little cat.

As a kid, Troy Cummings spent all his time writing stories, drawing pictures, and keeping an eye out for monsters. As a grown-up, he pretty much does the same thing. Except now his bed time is 9:15.

Troy has written and illustrated more than forty children’s books, including THE NOTEBOOK OF DOOM series, THE BINDER OF DOOM series, CAN I BE YOUR DOG?, and THE EENSY WEENSY SPIDER FREAKS OUT (BIG-TIME!) He was also lucky enough to team up with the amazing, hilarious Tara Lazar on LITTLE RED GLIDING HOOD.

Troy Cummings lives in Indiana, where he steals jokes from his wife, kids, cats, and goldfish.

Visit Troy at and follow him on Twitter at @troycummings.

Troy is giving away one copy of I FOUND A KITTY after its release on March 3, 2020.

Leave one comment below to enter.

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

Good luck!

by Darshana Khiani and the Soaring20s

It’s the middle of Storystorm, I hope your gears are turning and churning out ideas. If yours are a little rusty like mine, then I suggest starting small by following your curiosity and then letting your imagination take over. From TV shows, doodling, to puppy clothing, ideas are everywhere! Today members from the Soaring20s Picture Book Debut group are here to tell you where they got some of their ideas. Enjoy!

While struggling with a story about an otter, I doodled a secondary character—a sea lion who was roaring while flying a plane. Suddenly the idea to play with sounds that could be made by both animals AND vehicles took over. And before I knew it, I had a shiny new book dummy called ANIMALS GO VROOM!, which will be published by Viking in 2021!

Abi Cushman, author-illustrator of SOAKED! (Viking, July 2020) 

I had an idea for a story while picking up my son at daycare one day. When I arrived, he was playing outside. He started running in my direction as soon as he saw me, but there was a group of kids in his way. Instead of going around, he roared and waved his “claws” at them, like a T-Rex. It worked, but I don’t know what was funniest, his strategy or the disapproving looks he got from the other three year olds.

Joana Pastro, author of LILLYBELLE, A DAMSEL NOT IN DISTRESS, illus. Jhon Ortiz (BM&K, September 2020), and BISA’S CARNAVAL, illus. Carolina Coroa (Scholastic, Spring 2020)

I once read that when Edward White completed America’s first spacewalk in 1965, he was reluctant to return to his ship and when he finally did, he said, “This is the saddest moment of my life.” Immediately, I thought, “Wow! Kids can really relate to that feeling.”  I knew White’s story needed to be shared with young readers so I wrote it.  The Stars Beckoned comes out from Philomel in early 2021.

Candy Wellins, author of SATURDAYS ARE FOR STELLA, illus. Charlie Eve Ryan (Page Street Kids, August 2020)

I’m currently working on a draft inspired by an episode of the non-kid-friendly show, “Drunk History” (Comedy Central). Each episode is a goldmine for highlighting overlooked histories of underrepresented groups, including women, people of color, and the LGBTQ+ community. Try working THAT point of inspiration into a picture book author’s note.

Kirsten Larson, author of WOOD, WIRE, WINGS: Emma Lilian Todd Invents an Airplane, illus. Tracy Subisak (Calkins Creek, 2020) and FIRE OF STARS: The Life and Brilliance of the Woman Who Discovered What Stars are Made Of, illus. Katherine Roy (Chronicle, 2021)

Ideas often come to me as I walk in nature. I think the quiet—wherever I am—opens up my mind and heart and allows me to be more receptive to sights and sounds and ideas! Just the other day I came across some scat—whose? With a lot of fur in it—whose? I am not sure what I will do with that but the discovery sure nurtures curiosity and questions. And who knows where that takes me.

Mary Wagley Copp, author of WHEREVER I GO, illus. Munir Mohammed (Atheneum, April 2020)

I’ve gotten a story idea from watching my kids have a huge fight.

Sam Wedelich, author-illustrator of CHICKEN LITTLE: THE REAL AND TOTALLY TRUE TALE (Scholastic Press, May 2020)

My dad sent me pictures from a local event called Prairie Plowing Days, a demonstration of steam tractors and gang plows to show how farming was done in the early 1900s. The event featured other antique farming equipment, such this tractor. Kansas to Washington, DC, in a tractor?! Research uncovered the American Agriculture Movement’s 1979 cross-country “tractorcades,” which led to the farmers occupying the National Mall for weeks, which led to more protests, which led to Farm Aid, which led to me writing FARMERS UNITE! Planting a Protest for Fair Prices.

Lindsay H. Metcalf, author of BEATRIX POTTER, SCIENTIST, illus. by Junyi Wu (Albert Whitman, September 2020), co-editor with Keila V. Dawson and Jeanette Bradley of NO VOICE TOO SMALL: Fourteen Young Americans Making History, illus. by Jeanette Bradley (Charlesbridge, September 2020), and author of FARMERS UNITE! PLANTING A PROTEST FOR FAIR PRICES (Calkins Creek, November 2020).

When I was a teenager, a song I loved came on the radio. I squealed, “Turn it up! This is the best song ever.” My friend’s Dad scoffed and replied, “Really? This is the best song ever?” That exchange stuck with me and became the kernel that launched the interaction between young Mason and his Grandpa in How Long Is Forever? Mine those long ago memories and you may find your next idea!

Kelly Carey, author of HOW LONG IS FOREVER?, illus. Qing Zhuang (Charlesbridge, April 2020)

I was taking care of my cousin’s puppy who was wearing a onesie (who knew there were dog onesies??) to keep her from licking her stitches. I took the puppy outside to pee and forgot to undo the onesie snaps. You can guess what happened next. That incident spawned a title and a story which I’m working on now!

Melanie Ellsworth, author of CLARINET AND TRUMPET, illus. John Herzog (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, August 2020)

When a book editor read my article for the New York Times about what Julia, an autistic Muppet, means to my family, she asked me if I could write a picture book about an autistic girl with sensory issues. My daughter and I both live with autism and sensory issues, so I thought about what bothers us the most. I settled on sticky hands and created scenes with pancakes and syrup for breakfast and slime day at school.

Jen Malia, author of TOO STICKY! SENSORY ISSUES WITH AUTISM, illus. by Joanne Lew-Vriethoff (Albert Whitman, April 2020)

I’m not an illustrator, but sometimes ideas come to me in the form of images. I was at a writing conference with friends, and I suddenly pictured a sari where the border color was interspersed into the body of the sari, and the sari color was interspersed into the border. I sketched it, and realized it was a metaphor for a girl’s experience traveling to India to visit her grandmother, and the grandmother’s experience traveling to the U.S. to visit the girl. I’LL GO AND COME BACK will be illustrated by Sara Palacios and published by Candlewick Press in 2022.

Rajani LaRocca, author of SEVEN GOLDEN RINGS, illus. Archana Sreenivasan (Lee & Low, July 2020), BRACELETS FOR BROTHERS, illus. Chaaya Prabhat (Charlesbridge, 2021), WHERE THREE OCEANS MEET, illus. Archana Sreenivasan (Abrams, 2022)

I usually get my best ideas from brainstorming. Like with my book THE ELEPHANTS’ GUIDE TO HIDE-AND-SEEK (Sourcebooks Jabberwocky April 1, 2020), I started with the idea of a parody guidebook of some kind, then I brainstormed activities kids like that don’t really have guidebooks (and wouldn’t). Then I brainstormed angles for ways the guidebook could be ridiculous. Soon I had an idea that was much more interesting than the original small seed.

Kjersten Hayes, author of THE ELEPHANTS’ GUIDE TO HIDE-AND-SEEK, illus. by Gladys Jose (Sourcebooks Jabberwocky, April 2020)

A lot of my stories come from the “What If?” game. What if a spunky, creative girl who dances to the beat of her own drum decides to start ballet classes? What if instead, it was an Indian classical dance? These questions led me to write a story about a Indian-American girl trying to find an Indian dance class that suits her. This story is on submission now!

Darshana Khiani, author of HOW TO WEAR A SARI, illus. Joanne-Lew Vriethoff (Versify, Spring 2021)

Soaring20s is a diverse group of authors and illustrators with picture book debuts soaring onto shelves in 2020 and beyond. Visit for behind-the-scenes posts, resources, and giveaways!

You can also follow them on Twitter @Soaring20sPB and Instagram @Soaring20sPB.

Soaring20s is giving away the choice of a picture book manuscript critique or a picture book dummy critique to two different winners.

Leave one comment below to enter.

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

Good luck!


by Lauren Kerstein

As we ponder new ideas this month, I thought it might be helpful to think about the books we loved as children, as well as imagine the books we wished we’d had. Ideas are lurking in those musings. I just know it!

What books did you love most as a child?

  • Think about the books that changed your life.
  • The stories that resonated with you.
  • The characters who still live in your mind and heart.

Whether you were an avid reader or not, I bet you can remember a book that really mattered to you.

I vividly remember a few books that enriched my childhood life. I remember my third-grade teacher reading The Giving Tree (by Shel Silverstein) and crying. I realized in that moment that books have power.

I also remember the impact Pippi Longstocking had on me as a child. Pippi lived life on her own terms. I wanted to live my life like Pippi.

Write the book that will live in children’s hearts the way your favorite book lives in yours.

Second, think about what books you wish you had as a child? Picture your childhood self. What made you laugh? What made you cry? What books would’ve supported you through tough times? What books would’ve made celebrations even richer?

Write the book you would’ve loved as a child.

As you think about your childhood, and books that would’ve helped you, jot down your memories, feelings, and wishes in a word bank. Here’s an example of the beginnings of a word bank about some of my childhood memories.


Teacher crying

Baby pools at preschool that were filled with grass (yuck)

Giving away our dog when my sister was born

Singing outside our house in front of my favorite tree

Collecting tree sheddings and pretending they were seahorses

New Jersey

New York

Bird bones in our backyard

Favorite babysitter, Liz

Skunk spraying dog

Tomato soup bath


Are there any story ideas lurking around in your word bank?

Remember, ideas are flashes of brilliance that sneak into our minds, saying, “peek-a-boo—try to catch me.”

Catch those ideas. Write them down (WITHOUT judgment). Then write down the emotion, themes, dreams, desires, dislikes, and thoughts that live in each idea. Make your idea 3-D so that the manuscript you write will reflect all of the richness of that first flash.

I use a template when I write down new StoryStorm ideas so that I can capture as much of the initial resonance as possible. You can find the template on my website at

Finally, as you write down your ideas, remember all ideas are works in progress until they’re not. Perhaps thinking of an idea as a work in progress will quiet your inner critic for a moment. The idea for ROSIE THE DRAGON AND CHARLIE MAKE WAVES (Illustrated by Nate Wragg) came from my work as a child therapist, my experience as a mom, and my understanding that children want power and control. Who am I kidding? We all want power and control, just like Pippi.

Rosie and Charlie began as a how-to book (How to Put Your Mommy to Bed). Although the manuscript morphed and changed a LOT, the original spark and heart remained. The idea was a work in progress. The heart was not. Ironically, the original flash of the idea (How to Put Your Mommy to Bed) is the basis for the second Rosie and Charlie book that is due out this Fall (ROSIE THE DRAGON AND CHARLIE SAY GOOD NIGHT).

So, reach into your childhood. Remember your favorite books. Mine your memories and think about books you wish you had. Then, catch those flashes of brilliant ideas. Those ideas just may become books children will remember…


Lauren Kerstein is an author and psychotherapist. She is a Jersey girl at heart who currently lives in Colorado with her husband, Josh, their two dragons…er, daughters, Sarah and Danielle, and her rescue dogs, Hudson and Duke. She is represented by Deborah Warren with East West Literary Agency. Lauren’s debut: ROSIE THE DRAGON AND CHARLIE MAKE WAVES splashed to bookshelves in June 2019. The companion volume, ROSIE THE DRAGON AND CHARLIE SAY GOOD NIGHT, is expected Fall 2020. Lauren also has another soon-to-be announced book upcoming in 2020. Lauren is one of the founders of #ReVISIONweek, a judge with Rate Your Story, runs a critique business, and is a long-time member of 12×12. Visit her at, on Twitter @LaurenKerstein, Instagram @LaurenKerstein, or Facebook.

Lauren is giving away a picture book critique.

Leave one comment below to enter.

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

Good luck!

by Aya Khalil

As a freelance journalist, blogger, and now debut picture book author, I am always looking for writing ideas. Some of my best ideas came from my own life experiences—good and bad—especially as a writer of color.

My debut picture book, THE ARABIC QUILT, is based on true events growing up. I immigrated to the United States when I was one year old with my older brother and parents. We lived in several different states, but a memory that happened over twenty years ago gave me the inspiration to write THE ARABIC QUILT.

I spent three years in tiny town called Minot, North Dakota. My brother and I stood out from our classmates, who were mostly white Christians. I was in third grade and remember trying hard to fit in. I don’t remember being teased about my dark brown, curly hair, but until today, remember how my teacher made me feel loved and included.

She asked me to write my classmate’s names in Arabic. My mom helped me that night writing their names and I proudly presented each student with their name in Arabic. My teacher then asked the students to copy their names on their own piece of paper and decorate it. She hung it up to display. Thus, this simple, yet beautiful lesson the teacher came up with was the main inspiration for my debut.

I’ve written many articles growing up as a Muslim American, like how people should stop asking me where I’m from, sarcastic pieces like phrases to avoid while flying and why accents rock. I’ve also written serious essays like learning to drive with my immigrant father and sexual abuse. As a journalist, I’ve interviewed tens of dozens of people for articles. I’ve had people “compliment” me when I interviewed them at “HoW iS yOuR EnGlIsH Is SoOoO gOoD?” Even these micro-aggressions can be turned into a story.

I recently sat with my parents and asked them to tell me stories of when they immigrated to the US 31 years ago. Talk to other people and get their perspectives; look through their lens for inspiration and ideas.

Marginalized writers can absolutely write picture books that are inspired by life events. It can be a mundane scenario that you have a vague memory of. Diverse writers’ voices need to be amplified and you must write them yourselves. Your #ownvoices stories should be told because they’re authentic, even if it is through a fiction picture book. We need our kids and grandkids to physically hold these stories in their hand and inspire them to write, create, and story-tell. It can be something you wrote about in your diary when you were in middle school. Or a story your grandma told you about when you used to bake together. I have a vague memory of me and my grandma walking to a nearby park and picking berries. That can absolutely be turned into a picture book. Or the first happy or sad memory you remember as a kid. Look for old paper or projects your parents may have saved when you were growing up. Re-visit old photos on Facebook from your college or high school years and see what feelings came to mind when you saw them. A picture is worth a thousand words, after all, so why not make it into a picture book?

Aya Khalil holds a master’s in Education with a focus in teaching English as a second language. She’s a freelance journalist and blogger. She’s been featured in Teen Vogue, Yahoo! and other publications. Her writing has been published in The Huffington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, Toledo Area Parent and many others.

Aya is a picture book author and is represented by Brent Taylor of Triada US Agency.  Her first book THE ARABIC QUILT will be out on February 18th, 2020 by Tilbury House.

Visit her at and follow her on Twitter @ayawrites, Instagram @ayakhalilauthor  or Facebook.

Aya is giving away a copy of her debut book THE ARABIC QUILT when it’s released.

Leave one comment below to enter.

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

Good luck!


by Kate Garchinsky

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It looks like…

It smells like…

It feels like…

It tastes like… (optional)

It’s the same color as…

It’s as heavy/light as…

It reminds me of…

I wonder…

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

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


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

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

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

Leave one comment below to enter.

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

Good luck!


by Carrie Finison

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

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

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

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


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

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

Let’s give it a try!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Leave one comment below to enter.

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

Good luck!


by Rajani LaRocca

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

We write with our brains.

Photo by Robina Weermeijer on Unsplash

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Christopher Rusev on Unsplash

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

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

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

Photo by Derek Oyen on Unsplash

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

Photo by Ezra Jeffrey-Comeau on Unsplash

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

Well, there are lots of ways.

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

Photo by Deniz Altindas on Unsplash

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

Photo by Thomas Park on Unsplash

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

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

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

Photo by Chandler Cruttenden on Unsplash

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

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

Photo by Joe Green on Unsplash

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

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

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

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

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

Leave one comment below to enter.

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

Good luck!


by Heidi E. Y. Stemple

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Shore Earwig (A Haiku)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leave one comment below to enter.

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

Good luck!


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January 7, 2020

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