KidLit in Color is a group of traditionally published BIPOC creatives who write picture books, early readers, chapter books, and middle grade novels. We nurture, amplify diverse voices, and advocate for equitable representation in the publishing industry. Some of our members have  decided to share the ideas and inspiration that sparked their stories, featuring BIPOC characters. Whether you’re writing about BIPOC characters or not, you’ll gain new story ideas to add to your Storystorm list.

 

Valerie Bolling: Focus on Family

RAINBOW DAYS: THE GRAY DAY, illustrated by Kai Robinson (Scholastic, May 2, 2023), was inspired by my nieces. The main character’s name is Zoya, which is a combination of my nieces’ names, Zorah and Anyah. Zorah loves to read and write, and Anyah loves art. Zoya is a character who loves to create art with her dog, Coco. I channel Anyah when I think about the art projects that Zoya would enjoy delving into with Coco by her side. Anyah paints beautifully, so in THE GRAY DAY, the first book in this early reader series, readers will get to see Zoya exhibit her painting skills. And similar to Anyah, Zoya loves sparkles, so glitter is a complement to much of her art!

  • Storystorm Idea:
    Who in your family might provide inspiration for a story? Is it a nephew who always makes you laugh? Is it a quirky aunt who gives gifts that no one really wants? Is it a grandfather who’s so warm and loving that all of the kids want to sit next to him on the couch? Is it a cousin who has a unique hobby that you’d like to know more about? Is there another family you know that has some interesting characters you could write about? Exaggerating is welcome and encouraged!

 

Alyssa Reynoso-Morris: Family, Food and Love

PLATANOS ARE LOVE, illustrated by Mariyah Rahman (Atheneum Books under S&S, April 11, 2023), was inspired by my childhood experiences cooking with my grandmother. It is a delicious picture book about the ways plantains shape Latinx culture, community, and family, told through a young girl’s experiences in the kitchen with her abuela. The main character, Esme, was named after one of my grandmother’s Esmeralda. I also chose this name for her because Esme means love and LOVE is the main theme of this book. Esme learns about her ancestors and how platanos (plantains) are more than just food.

  • Storystorm Idea:
    Think of the storytellers in your life. Think of fun things you do together. Think about the stories they shared with you. Think of the stories you made up together. For me—my Abuela—is my inspiration. Everyone knew her for her stories and the animated way in which she retold them. As I got older I would often join her in retelling her tales. When she passed away, writing down our stories was my way of keeping her memory alive. When I need inspiration I often think of her and the stories we used to share together.

My grandmother grew up in an impoverished town in the Dominican Republic. She had a second grade education because in her generation girls were meant to be married off and not invested in. She taught herself to read and write by memorizing the Bible. She was not a “writer” in the traditional sense but she was the best storyteller because she could make you laugh and cry and feel so many emotions all at once. She was captivating and to know that two generations later I get to publish my version of our stories brings me immeasurable joy.

 

Kaitlyn Wells: Mine Your Emotions

I wrote my first picture book as an exploration of my painful childhood experiences growing up Black biracial in Texas—but from the perspective of my dog. A FAMILY LOOKS LIKE LOVE, illustrated by Sawyer Cloud (Penguin Random House/Flamingo Books, May 2022) also highlights the joy of knowing you’re loved no matter what you look like. To make that connection more accessible to young readers, I remembered that my own dog Sutton looks completely different from her own family, too. She’s also a dog who sees the best in everyone. Telling a difficult story with my pup as the conduit fit perfectly with the premise, and also made the story a bit easier to write.

  • Storystorm Idea:
    Mine your childhood emotions for the rawest experience you can remember. To help bring those difficult feelings to the forefront, grab a token to root yourself in yesteryear. It can be craft dough, a Ring Pop, a favorite song from the second grade, or anything that’ll help those memories reappear. Sit in the emotions as you draw a mental memory map of what situations, people and places sparked them. Then you can start to build out scenes around them until you have the framework of a story. I like using this “heart mapping method” because it gives my writing a certain level of authenticity that I couldn’t achieve otherwise. It’s not easy to do because our emotions can physically and mentally drain us. But with some practice you’ll learn to welcome the experience rather than run from it.

 

Natasha Khan Kazi: A Needed Character

When my children entered preschool, I asked their teachers if we could share Ramadan in the classroom. My then four-year-old wanted to share old and new traditions, and I couldn’t find a book that encompassed everything we were looking for. That’s how MOON’S RAMADAN (Versify / HarperCollins 2023) was first drafted. It began as a first-person POV poem, essentially a love letter to Ramadan. I let the draft sit for weeks as I contemplated what was missing. The answer was holiday magic, what I needed as a Muslim child and what my kids need now. Ramadan doesn’t have the imaginative characters of Christmas or Easter. The story needed to be told from the POV of Moon, my magical main character, as she visited diverse families all over the world.

  • Storystorm Idea:
    Brainstorm the characters and stories you needed as a child or the children in your life might need now. Don’t forget to mine your memories for the magic you needed, too. Let those real world events plus imaginative elements simmer and see what you cook up!

 

Aya Khalil: Favorite Family Traditions

My inspiration for my characters are my grandmothers and mom. In this intergenerational story, Zain, a young boy and his grandma bake Eid cookies, ka’ak. I have memories baking with my grandmother when she used to visit us from Egypt. It wasn’t perfect and it was messy, but there was always love and fun involved. Zain reminds me a lot of my own seven year old son because of his love for his grandma and lack of patience!

  • Storystorm Idea:
    What are some of your favorite traditions with your families? Especially holiday traditions, are there special treats you baked together with your family and shared with others? How did those traditions make you feel? Try to remember all of the senses involved: smell, texture, sounds around you in the kitchen and home during those moments.

 

Alliah L. Agostini: Mix Memories with Wonder

The protagonist of BIG TUNE: Rise of the Dancehall Prince, illustrated by Shamar Knight-Justice (FSG, March 2023) was partially inspired by my Jamaican-American husband. I was working on another dance/music-focused manuscript that just wasn’t gelling when a friend/critique partner asked “What if one of the kids was too shy to dance?”. That made me think of my husband, the best dancer I know. But he’d always recollect being too shy to dance at family parties in 80’s/90’s Brooklyn, so his goal-oriented, math-loving side redirected him to lay low and collect cans and bottles to return and earn his own money, instead. This gave birth to BIG TUNE, a story that celebrates quiet yet tenacious kids, while also reflecting our Caribbean heritage.

  • Storystorm Idea:
    Ask What If?. If you’re working on a fiction manuscript with an essence that you love, but something isn’t working, don’t be afraid to take a variable of the story and start considering other options. Perhaps it’s the setting or the time period, the central conflict, or even an attribute about the main character. Inevitably other parts of the story will have to evolve in order to support this shift, but have fun! Note: if it’s non-fiction, you can do the same. Although facts are facts, there are a number of different approaches to the same story. Asking those ‘what-if’ questions might uncover fascinating, unexpected under shared truths!

 

Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow: Write the Story That Heals You

I write for kids but I write for me too.

Whether it’s reclaiming names, undoing harmful single stories about Muslims, or working through Black pain to assert Black joy, I write to heal and that has often produced my most resonant stories.

Two weeks after my father’s death, I sat down to write SALAT IN SECRET (illustrated by Hatem Aly, Salaam Reads/Simon & Schuster, June 2023). It also happened to be two weeks before my youngest child’s seventh birthday, a religiously significant year when Muslim children are encouraged to commit to salat or praying five times a day. I thought of my deeply religious Muslim father who performed salat everywhere even on the street as a chauffeur, cab driver, and ice cream man and how excited he would have been for his grandson. My balm was writing Muhammad who is determined to pray all five prayers when his unapologetic Muslim father gifts him a salat rug on his seventh birthday. However, too shy to ask for a place at school, Muhammad tries to find a secret place as many Muslim kids and adults like me do–another wound I needed to heal.

  • Storystorm Idea:
    What are your wounds? Don’t be afraid to list out your pain. Children experience painful moments and need stories that speak to those too. Lay it out on paper, then write the story your inner child needs to heal.

 


Visit the entire KidLit in Color group online at KidLitinColor.com and follow along on Twitter @KidLitinColor.

KidLit in Color is offering the following prizes (one winner for each):

  • Valerie Bolling will offer a 15-minute AMA.
  • Kaitlyn Wells will offer a 15-minute AMA or picture book manuscript critique.
  • Alyssa Reynoso-Morris will offer a 30-minute AMA or a picture book manuscript critique.
  • Natasha Khan Kazi will offer a 15-minute AMA or a PB non-rhyming fiction manuscript critique.
  • Aya Khalil will offer a 15-minute AMA or a PB non-rhyming fiction manuscript critique.
  • Alliah L. Agostini will offer a 15-minute AMA or a copy of Big Tune or The Juneteenth Story.
  • Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow will offer a 15-minute AMA.

You’re eligible to win if you’re a registered Storystorm 2023 participant and you have commented only once on today’s blog post. ↓

Prizes will be distributed at the conclusion of Storystorm.

by Jessica Shaw

Hello Storystormers!

I’m honored to be a guest blogger this year! My debut picture book, THE GREAT COOKIE KERFUFFLE, released on August 9th, 2022 from Amicus Publishing. It’s beautifully, whimsically, and adorably illustrated by Pauline Gregory.

Let’s get to it! We’re all here because we love writing and we love good advice and we love inspirational lists, yes?

But a list like this…

  1. Be patient
  2. Be persistent
  3. Do your research
  4. Write, write, write
  5. Read, read, read

…is not super helpful.

Yes, yes, okayyyyyyy. These things are important.

But plenty of writers have been doing all these things for a long, long time and they still haven’t signed a contract. Am I right?

I want to share a better list. One that’s a bit more specific and concrete.

These are things that have helped me advance my writing career. I hope they help you, too!

  1. I frequently submitted poems and short stories to children’s magazines. I (eventually) wound up with numerous published pieces…and, yes, a few dollars in my pocket!
  2. I sought out calls for nonfiction material and work-for-hire books for educational publishers. I wound up with numerous NF book contracts and (more) dollars in my pocket! (This was way out of my comfort zone, but gave me a much-needed boost in confidence.)
  3. I participated in critique groups and exchanged manuscripts with individual critique partners as well. It’s helpful to get feedback at different stages from different people. If you only share our work with one group of writers, try shaking things up! Make some new connections and get some fresh eyes on your story!
  4. I spend time around kids. (Full disclosure—I teach Pre-K, so this isn’t something I had to go out of my way to do.) If you don’t interact with children in your normal day-to-day, try volunteering at a library, elementary school, or church nursery.
  5. I joined Twitter and followed other kidlit people: authors, illustrators, publishers, editors, and agents.  For a while it seemed I was just tweeting into a void, but over time I grew my follows/followers. Twitter is a great platform for staying abreast of current events in the industry, learning about individual agents’/editors’ personalities and preferences, and supporting other creators. Be yourself, be kind, be approachable, but be professional.
  6. I participate in Storystorm! Like many of you, I return to Storystorm year after year. Keep your idea lists handy. When I’m stuck, I look back through those lists until something sparks. I re-read old Storystorm blog posts, too! Inspiration at your fingertips!
  7. I keep evergreen themes in mind. Evergreen books are numerous, but their appeal is broad and timeless. Don’t be afraid to write a tried-and-true story, just be sure to give yours a fresh spin. Take a look at your Storystorm idea list. Would any of your ideas fit with an evergreen topic?
  8. I analyze picture books. If I love a book, I make a note of the book title and the reason(s) for its appeal. Zany humor? Flawless rhyme? Lovable characters? Clever wordplay? Likewise, when you read a book that falls short of your expectations, ask yourself why.
  9. I consider adding an educational element. I tend to write the story first…because story should always come first…but if I’m happy with the story and it lends itself to an educational element, I’ll try to work that in. The Great Cookie Kerfuffle is, at its heart, a book about the importance of friends (hello, evergreen topic), but it’s also a counting book (hello, educational element), and that broadens its appeal.
  10. I storyboard. Page turns are everything. Even if your “illustrations” are stick figures and smiley faces, laying out the pages of a story will show you if the amount of text is balanced throughout the book, and if the text on each page spread lends itself to an exciting page turn. Did I mention page turns are everything?
  11. I put away stories I love (when necessary). This one took me years to master. I tended to get hung up on that *one*, special manuscript for a loooong time because, come on, how could this thing NOT sell? I mean, if THIS story doesn’t get published should I even be wasting my time writing?! I wanted validation. I wasted precious writing time. I’ve learned to give my manuscripts a reasonable shot out there and then…put them in the drawer. It’s not a “bad story” drawer or a “retirement” drawer. It’s a “wait-here-while-I write-my-next-great-story” drawer.
  12. I invest in myself. Attending conferences and writing workshops (and paying for the occasional professional critique) elevated my writing, inspired me, opened up submission opportunities, and put me in the company of kind, talented kidlit creators who became friends and critique partners. I only wish I had invested in myself sooner!

Happy New Year and Happy Writing!


Jessica Shaw is the author of THE GREAT COOKIE KERFUFFLE (Amicus Publishing, 2022). Her work has appeared in Highlights for Children, Highlights High Five, Ladybug, and Hopscotch for Girls magazines. She is the author of numerous non-fiction titles for Rosen Publishing. Jessica teaches Pre-K and lives in the Texas Hill Country with her family.

Visit her at AuthorJessicaShaw.com or on Twitter at @_Jessica_Shaw.

Jessica is giving away two signed copies of THE GREAT COOKIE KERFUFFLE, one each to two winners.

You’re eligible to win if you’re a registered Storystorm 2023 participant and you have commented only once on today’s blog post. ↓

Prizes will be distributed at the conclusion of Storystorm.

by Patricia Tanumihardja

Write what you know—I’m sure you’ve heard this phrase before. What exactly does it mean? To put it simply, you take something from your life—experiences, relationships, where you live, people you know, even your job!—and use it to build a story.

My debut picture book RAMEN FOR EVERYONE (Atheneum Books, March, 2023), illustrated by Shiho Pate, is a great example of how I applied this mantra to my writing process.

 

Brainstorming Ideas

In my other life, I’m a food writer and cookbook author. Surprise, surprise, that many of my story ideas involve food, eating, and/or cooking!

Over my years of PiBoIdMo-ing and Storystorming, I’ve come up with dozens of story ideas that fit the bill. This is what my list of ideas looked like one year:

  • Monster family owns a bakery
  • Caveboy learns table manners
  • Crazy mashup menu: clam chowder ice cream, spaghetti and meatball sundaes, pickles and cream cheesecake
  • Girl wants to be a sushi chef even though it’s against tradition
  • Boy loves noodles

In the same vein, you can write what you know regardless of what you do.

If you’re an engineer or science teacher, your brainstorm list could include:

  • Girl builds a rocket/see-saw contraption to fly to Mars

If you work in fashion,

  • Boy incorporates found objects into his wardrobe to create statement fashion clothing

What about banking?

  • Boy picks up pennies he finds to save for …

 

Big Picture Themes

Of course, an idea is just an idea. The next step is tying your idea to a central theme or thread that will be the unifying element of your story.

If you read several books written by the same author, you’ll notice a pattern. Kelly DiPucchio often writes about friendship (OONA, POE WON’T GO), Ame Dyckman likes writing stories about family (DANDY, WOLFIE THE BUNNY), Pat Zietlow Miller’s books empower children to be their best and truest selves (BE KIND, WHEREVER YOU GO).

Family and culture are two themes that are very close to my heart, so I often brainstorm themes along these lines:

  • Boy connects with grandmother while cooking Lunar New Year favorites
  • Girl stands up for little sister even though she’s annoying
  • Cousins from opposite sides of the globe learn to play together despite their differences
  • Boy wants to grow up to be just like his dad

Do you see a trend?

 

Choosing Which Ideas to Pursue

So you’ve come up with 30 (or more!) ideas, now what do you do? How do you decide which story idea to pursue? Again, think about writing what you know.

In 2014, I was developing recipes for an upcoming cookbook. One of those recipes was ramen. My son, who was 4 years-old at the time, loved to eat noodles. And he was in awe of his dad and wanted to do everything his dad did. I put two and two together and came up with this storyline: Boy loves ramen and wants to cook the perfect bowl of ramen just like his dad.

Of course, you should also factor in other things, especially that you will be spending a lot of time on your manuscript (it took me 7 years of writing and revising before I finally sold mine!). You must be passionate about your idea.

 

Conflict  

Every story needs a conflict. Conflict gives your characters obstacles they have to overcome before they can reach their goals.

So I wasn’t done yet.

To come up with a situation that kids could relate to, I did some time traveling back to my childhood. One incident stuck out: I loved (and still do!) “Hello Kitty” and other Sanrio characters. I wanted to draw these characters perfectly but I was never satisfied. There were times when I would get so frustrated and rip up my drawing paper. One day, a friend saw one of my drawings and asked if she could keep it. I was thrilled and realized that just because it wasn’t perfect doesn’t mean it couldn’t be appreciated.

Finally, I plugged everything I had into this matrix:

MC wants___ but can’t because of CONFLICT/OBSTACLE. Finally, he discovers___and achieves___.

Hiro loves ramen and wants to cook the perfect bowl of ramen just like his dad. But nothing goes according to plan and dinner is ruined. Finally, he discovers he can use his ingenuity and succeeds in preparing a meal that his family loves.

These were the guideposts I used to write RAMEN FOR EVERYONE which launches March 14, 2023!

It’s your turn now. Go ahead, mine your life and experiences and go forth and write what you know. I’m cheering for you!


Patricia Tanumihardja was born in Jakarta to Indonesian Chinese parents and raised in Singapore. As an immigrant twice-over, she’s brimming with stories to tell, and hopes that children of every color and creed will see themselves reflected in books, whether hers or other #ownvoices authors. Pat has two more picture books coming out this year: THE SUGAR PLUM BAKERS: AND THE 12 HOLIDAY TREATS (Disney-Hyperion, Fall 2023) and a picture book biography about Malaysian-born shoe designer Jimmy Choo. In addition to being a children’s book author, Pat also writes cookbooks and loves to weave food centric themes into her stories for young people. Don’t be shy to hit her up for some favorite recipes! Pat lives in the Washington D.C. Metro region with her husband and son where she enjoys bubble tea, dumpling-making, yoga and hiking. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram @ediblewords and online at EdibleWords.com.

Patricia is giving away copy of RAMEN FOR EVERYONE (Atheneum Books, when it releases on March 14th)!

You’re eligible to win if you’re a registered Storystorm 2023 participant and you have commented only once on today’s blog post. ↓

Prizes will be distributed at the conclusion of Storystorm.

by Karen Henry Clark

No one is more surprised than I am to be a second-time guest for this month of inspiration.

I appeared in 2014 for PiBoIdMo. When Tara scheduled me back then, my debut SWEET MOON BABY: An Adoption Tale was soaring. By the time my blog turn arrived, things had changed.

It was out of print.

My agent was gone.

I faced an avalanche of rejections.

Panicked, I asked writing friends about my PiBoIdMo assignment. “Be positive,” they urged. I wrote a peppy post about the power of SCBWI and critique groups. The easy boosterism made me feel guilty.

Then I remembered an education professor who explained inspiration was not magic dust to sprinkle around the classroom. He said, “Share what you know and show who you are. Some kids won’t care, but for some it will ignite the sparks to inspire themselves.”

I deleted my 2014 draft post and started over, referring to The Little Engine That Could, the story my mother read to me repeatedly. Having reached the mountaintop, I wrote:

My engine flew over the edge, crashed at the bottom of the canyon, and someone spray-painted LOSER on my caboose. But you can write down there, too. I am.

500+ followers commented. They appreciated my honesty and felt encouraged for themselves and for me.

Success. I inspired folks.

But I quit, instead of following my own advice.

Eventually, though, I re-read those kind comments and decided they might be right. I started revising a manuscript about Nancy Pearl, respected as a librarian’s librarian. In the 1980s we’d worked in a Tulsa bookstore and become friends. After moving to Seattle, Nancy’s career blossomed as a library sensation, author, critic, and TV host.

Successful though she was, we both knew her childhood had been shaken by challenges. The story had universal appeal for any child who felt different.

On a self-imposed dare, I applied to Jane Yolen’s Picture Book Boot Camp, certain I wouldn’t be accepted.

Shoot; I was.

In 2015, our group gathered in Jane’s living room. I chatted with the day’s speaker, a librarian, and asked if she knew my friend Nancy Pearl. She did. “I’m writing a picture book about her,” I said.

Suddenly Jane, who had overheard me, asked, “Why don’t I know about this? That will sell.”

No one, absolutely no one, wants to disappoint Jane Yolen. I returned home and interviewed Nancy repeatedly. Years of drafts flew by like time-lapsed calendar pages. I could not make it work. I wasn’t writing a story; I was building a word wall and banging my head against it.

But I couldn’t quit this time.

Nancy was waiting.

Jane was waiting.

500+ followers were waiting.

Down in that canyon, instead of quitting, I realized I needed a sabbatical from words.

Because the 1950s are the setting for Nancy’s childhood, I went to a fabric store and pretended to design her bedroom and clothes.

Assorted retro fabrics, like a horse print, beige/rust plaid, blue with daisies, ditsy flowers in pink, and a pink raised-dot chenille. Notions like white pom-poms, green ric rac, white daisies, gold tassels, and old buttons.

Horse-print throw pillow.

Chenille bedspread.

Plaid and floral shirtwaist dresses.

Trims and buttons.

The story unfolded in my heart like yards of gingham. I saw it. I felt it. I tried again.

LIBRARY GIRL sold.

Library Girl cover: young girl with dark hair, pigtails and glasses, sitting cross-legged reading a book, piles of books and horse figurines surrounding her.

Back cover text: "Books saved me. Frances Whitehead at Detroit's Parkman Branch Library showed me, a miserably unhappy child, that books are places where you can find yourself and lose yourself. I became a librarian, so I could help other children then way she helped me. LIBRARY GIRL is more than my story. It's the story of how librarians change lives with the magic inside books." ~Nancy Pearl. Image of young Nancy riding her bike with glowing outlines of three horses and one bird racing along with her.

Never quit. Go on sabbatical from feeling stuck in your manuscript. Maybe a fabric store won’t work, but discover a place to wander, without the frustration of words, beside your characters.

The story, seemingly out of nowhere, will unroll itself before your eyes.

Karen and Nancy sharing a look and a signature on LIBRARY GIRL.

 


Karen Henry Clark decided to become a writer when she was aged four years, quickly learning the living room wall was not the best medium for an author. She worked as a bookstore clerk, teacher, college administrator, and copywriter but never forgot her childhood ambition. Her first book, Sweet Moon Baby, was about adopting her daughter from China. Library Girl, her second, was inspired by her friend and legendary librarian Nancy Pearl. In “Margin Notes,” Karen blogs about the magic in everyday life’s small moments at KarenHenryClark.com or Facebook.

Karen is giving away a copy of LIBRARY GIRL plus a Nancy Pearl librarian action figure to one winner.

Nancy Pearl action figure with red shirt and cape!

You’re eligible to win if you’re a registered Storystorm 2023 participant and you have commented only once on today’s blog post. ↓

Prizes will be distributed at the conclusion of Storystorm.

by Rebecca Gardyn Levington

When people ask what I do for a fun, I tend to be brutally honest:

I have playdates with words!”

Sure, I get some strange looks (I get a lot of those anyway), but it’s the truth! Playing with words is my favorite way to spend the day.

I love the sound and rhythm of words and how they can come together in new ways to create a specific mood or emotion. I enjoy puns, idioms, lyrical language and trying on different points of view. I love writing in rhyme because, to me, a rhyming poem or picture book is one big puzzle. When, after hours of tinkering, I’m able to uncover the perfect word that exactly encapsulates the meaning and feeling I’m after AND perfectly slides into my meter, I get SUCH a high! (Anyone else?!)

And when I stop to think about it (as I did to write this blog post) I realize that most of my picture book manuscripts began as poems, and most of those poems were created during a playdate with a single word.

Take my debut picture book, BRAINSTORM! (illustrated by Kate Kronreif), for example…

There I was, Butt In Chair, waiting for my Muse to arrive (she is, like me, usually running late) when I began brainstorming about how weird the word “brainstorm” sounds. (You know how the more you think about a word, the weirder it sounds?)

And then it began raining outside and I thought: “So now, I’m brainstorming about ‘brainstorm’ in a rainstorm!” (It was very meta). And that led me to wonder what a “brain-storm” might look like? Brains falling from the sky?….um, eww… Or maybe…. IDEAS falling from the sky?!”

KER-PLINK!

 Suddenly all these images of a child playing outside in a literal storm of ideas, pictures, story titles, themes, nouns, verbs, characters, beginnings, middles, endings, etc. completely flooded my mind (pun absolutely intended).

Before I could grab my umbrella, I had a picture book on my hands!

The idea for my upcoming picture book, WHATEVER COMES TOMORROW (illustrated by Mariona Cabassa), was similarly sparked during a word playdate.

For the last three years, I’ve participated in a Poem-A-Week Challenge with three of my amazing critique partners. And in late November 2019, our weekly prompt word was: “Surprise!”

I began my playdate by thinking about all the unexpected surprises we experience in life and how we never know what tomorrow might bring.

I jotted down this stanza:

Tomorrow may bring thunderstorms,

or snow or sunny skies.

Tomorrow may bring visitors.

A gift. A big surprise!

The poem started out as a simple list of musings about all the random surprises life throws at us. But pretty quickly (by drafts two and three) I found my thoughts going much deeper.

I thought about how I personally dislike ANY surprises (and did so even as a child). And when I considered why, I realized that my dislike of surprises is very much connected to my struggles with anxiety and fears of the unknown.

And thus, WHATEVER COMES TOMORROW (after many, many drafts) turned into a poem picture book about managing all those worried feelings. It is essentially a mantra written to myself and to other kids (and adults) like me, a reminder that we have faced and overcome many hard things in the past, and we will continue to do so in the future. Whatever comes tomorrow, we will find a way through. We will journey on.

The word “surprise,” by the way, was cut in later drafts, but if it wasn’t for that initial word playdate, I would never have written what will soon be my second published book!

So, now it’s YOUR turn to plan a playdate with a word! Here’s your assignment:

Step 1: Pick a Word, ANY Word!

 Don’t think too hard! If you have trouble, open a dictionary at random and point with your eyes closed, or use a word generator like this one: https://randomwordgenerator.com/.

Step 2: Try One of These Exercises…

  • Set a timer for 2 minutes. Without lifting your pencil, write down everything your word reminds you of. After the timer goes off, search your list for any seeds of ideas!
  • Plug your chosen word into Rhymezone.com and write down on a piece of paper all the words that rhyme with it. Often rhyme pairs spark associations that lead me to unusual or interesting stories.
  • See if there is an idiom, pun, or saying that contains or is related to your chosen word. I get many ideas this way. I love this search tool for finding idioms: https://idioms.thefreedictionary.com/cheer
  • Determine what part of speech your word is, then randomly pick two additional words from two other parts of speech. Ex: if your word is a noun, pick a verb and an adjective. (You can use the word generator above for this). Now, brainstorm a story around those three words.

Okay Storystormers, I’ve just one last word for you… THANKFUL! This is my 7th year participating and I am so thankful to be here on this journey with you all.

Wishing you a HUGE DOWNPOUR of ideas this month (and all year long!)

 


Rebecca Gardyn Levington is a children’s book author, poet, and journalist with a particular penchant for penning both playful and poignant picture books and poems – primarily in rhyme. Her debut picture book BRAINSTORM! (Sleeping Bear Press, 2022) hit bookstores last summer. She has six more rhyming picture books being published in the next two years, including WHATEVER COMES TOMORROW (Barefoot Books, March 7, 2023), AFIKOMAN, WHERE’D YOU GO? A Passover Hide-and-Seek Adventure (Penguin Random House/Rocky Pond Books, 2024), and I WILL ALWAYS BE… (HarperCollins, 2024). Rebecca’s award-winning poems and articles have appeared in numerous anthologies, newspapers, and magazines. She lives in the suburban jungles of New Jersey with her husband and two boisterous boys. Find out more about Rebecca at RebeccaGardynLevington.com. Follow Rebecca on Twitter @WriterRebeccaGL and Instagram @RebeccaGardynLevington.

Rebecca is giving away THREE prizes: a copy of BRAINSTORM! (US), a copy of WHATEVER COMES TOMORROW (US, when it releases on March 7th), and a 30-minute Ask-Me-Anything Zoom Session!

You’re eligible to win if you’re a registered Storystorm 2023 participant and you have commented only once on today’s blog post. ↓

Prizes will be distributed at the conclusion of Storystorm.

by Hillary Homzie

Hello, Storystormers. Can you believe we’re almost at the halfway mark? By now, you’ve accumulated dozens of ideas, possibilities, and nuggets of inspiration. I wanted to walk you through a germ of an idea and show you how it became my informational picture book, IF YOU WERE A PRINCESS: TRUE STORIES OF BRAVE LEADERS FROM AROUND THE WORLD, which came out October 18, 2022, from Simon & Schuster, Aladdin Books.

Let’s go back to Storystorm 2018 where I had a long list of glorious half-baked ideas.

I decided to pick one idea and start to develop it.

Usually, I like to begin with a title, often something high concept. That basically means from the title alone (or a quick one sentence pitch), you understand the premise. For example, the film Snakes on a Plane. You get it, right?

You probably wouldn’t be surprised to hear that my middle grade Queen of Likes is about a middle schooler who is too obsessed with the number of likes she gets on her social media account.

Or that Pumpkin Spice Secrets revolves around an incident in a coffee shop that leads to keeping a secret from a best friend.

However, nothing with a cool resonant title was materializing. Instead, when I gazed at my list of Storystorm ideas, I zeroed in on a general concept: princesses.

Ugh! Weren’t there already a million princess books out there? Did the world really need another one?

So then I started to ask myself why? Why do princesses interest you, Hillary?

Well, as a kid I loved fairy tales. According to Bruno Bettelheim in Uses of Enchantment, fairy tales help children symbolically navigate anxieties and dilemmas.

Okay. Dig deeper. Go back to your childhood. Kick up some memories.

When I was six, we moved to Sussex, England where the ruins of the Lewes Castle loomed over our street. Princesses felt very real, and I became enamored with Princess Anne.

Now, ask again why. Why were you so fascinated by Princess Anne?

Because at my new school I was bullied for having a funny American accent and didn’t know how to stand up for myself. Princess Anne was a fearless Olympic-level athlete who notoriously stood up to a would-be-attacker.

Tip #1:
Ask yourself why a subject matter interests you and keep on digging. Continue asking why until you truly understand what motivates your interest in a subject.

In my case, I was attracted to a strong female role model to help me navigate a difficult and lonely time in my childhood.

Tip #2:
Write down a list of 5 or 6 role models (they can be famous or from your personal life). Next to the person’s name list three of their positive qualities. Now see if you can find some commonalities and circle them. For me, it would be bravery–someone who stands up for themselves and others.

If you’re writing nonfiction, try to find someone who embodies a dominant quality you are seeing in your role model. If you’re writing fiction, think about how you can create a primary character who embodies this quality.

My next step was to dig into some research to see if I could find other princesses who embodied qualities that I admired.

Oh my. Eureka! There are so many cool princesses.

A princess from Iraq with an MD/PhD who did cancer research at Harvard and founded the United Nations International Day of Women and Girls in Science. A princess from Korea who loved astronomy and established one of the oldest astronomy towers in the world. A princess from Uganda who was the ambassador to the United States. The list went on and on. Honestly, I could easily write two more books on this same subject. The hardest thing was leaving women out. After all, so much of women’s history has been neglected. In fact, I discovered that no book existed documenting the accomplishments of real princesses, now and in the past, from diverse lands. (This gave me even more motivation to push forward.)

Now that I had so many treasures, I tried to stuff all my newly found facts into my draft. But the feedback I kept on getting from my critique partners—your manuscript needs to be trimmed.

At first, I balked.

And then I discovered a little trick.

I crafted a simple narrative that a child as young as 3 or 4 could follow and used those nifty facts as supplementary material for sidebars and a 5-page appendix. Not only was the researcher in me thrilled, but, suddenly, as a bonus, I had a book that was appropriate for preschoolers as well older elementary school students.

Tip #3:
Consider how you can write a book that might appeal to different age groups by writing side bars and appendices that younger kids might skip but might appeal to older children.

This isn’t something that you must reserve only for nonfiction. You can also use supplementary material in fiction as well. In the KATE THE CHEMIST middle grade series, Author Kate Biberdorf and I included a chemistry definition at the start of each chapter.

My final piece of advice is not to get mired in judgement at this point in the Storystorm process. Simply allow yourself to be delighted and have a royally good time!

 


Hillary Homzie is the author of eighteen books, including the picture book, IF YOU WERE A PRINCESS: TRUE STORIES OF BRAVE LEADERS FROM AROUND THE WORLD and the ELLIE MAY as well as the ALIEN CLONES FROM OUTER SPACE chapter series, which was in development as an animated television show for ABC Australia. Her middle grade QUEEN OF LIKES was optioned by Priority Pictures and is a PJ Our Way selection. She teaches at Sonoma State University, the Summer Graduate Program in Children’s Writing, Literature and Illustration at Hollins University and for the Children’s Book Academy. Hillary especially loves coaching others to find their voice. The Los Angeles Times called her teaching: “very attentive and appreciative and encouraging.”

Visit Hillary online at HillaryHomzie.com and follower her on Twitter @HillaryHomzie and Instagram @hillary_homzie.

Hillary is happy to give away a free signed copy of her new book IF YOU WERE A PRINCESS: TRUE STORIES OF BRAVE LEADERS FROM AROUND THE WORLD, illustrated by Udayana (prize available to US).

She is also happy to give away a 30-minute Zoom critique of your picture book manuscript or the first five pages of your novel.

You’re eligible to win if you’re a registered Storystorm 2023 participant and you have commented only once on today’s blog post. ↓

Prizes will be distributed at the conclusion of Storystorm.

by Diana Murray

My 13-year-old daughter must be an imposter. That’s the only explanation for her neatness and love of cleaning. How could she possibly be my offspring?

I sure wish I had some of her tidying tendencies. But even though I’m very messy (GRIMELDA THE VERY MESSY WITCH is basically my autobiography), I do like to keep things in categories. Categories are important. Categories keep the chaos contained. My messy piles of papers are sorted by categories.

And my bookshelf is organized in categories like this:

  1. Humorous picture books
  2. Lyrical picture books
  3. Non-fiction picture books
  4. Early readers
  5. Chapter books
  6. Board books
  7. Novelty, game and joke books
  8. Signed books (can’t mix these treasures in with everything else!)

So you might imagine my horror, when my well-meaning, impressively talented and patient daughter began to rearrange my bookshelf…by color! *gasp*

Yes, it looked beautiful and Instagram-worthy. But I could not find anything! After all, I would never think to myself, Hmmm, I could really go for a “blue” book right about now.

Anyway, the point is, I like categories. One reason I like writing in rhyming metrical verse is that there is a lot of built-in structure. I find it comforting when compared to the cavernous open spaces of free verse and prose.

I sometimes feel the same way about inspiration. Although inspiration can come from many places, starting with something as simple as a title, at least for me, is a little less overwhelming than “sky’s the limit”. When I wrote SOMEDAY, MAYBE (illustrated by Jessica Gibson, Holt/Macmillan, March 2023), I began with the title. While stirring up ideas one day, I gave myself the task of coming up with a phrase that would begin a sentence. I imagined it would be a phrase that would repeat throughout the book. I mucked around with a list of different options and didn’t really love anything. But I kept coming back to that file anytime I was looking for inspiration for a new project. About a year or two later, something struck me about “Someday, maybe…”. I guess I just had to be in the right mood to be “feeling” it. I began to write “Someday, maybe cars will fly.” Finally, I liked the direction it was going in! I’ve always been a sci-fi fan so the rest of the manuscript sort of rolled out after that.

Back to categories. Have you ever noticed that there are different kinds of titles? I recently saw a fun post on Twitter called “Title Tryouts” (by Nancy Sanders, via @BrittanyPomales, via @jencowanwriter). I started thinking more about titles and decided to try to nail some down. You will notice that some of the categories overlap. Also, it’s important to remember that even though the title can be a starting point for inspiration, that doesn’t mean that you’re forcing it up. You just write down the title and then you see if it sparks something. The passion will come from a memory or an association. The title is just the jumping off point.

Remember how I mentioned the “novelty, jokes and games” section on my bookshelf? Well, sitting on that shelf is a small collection of Mad Libs. I used to love doing those as a kid and I continue to enjoy them. All you have to do is fill in the blanks, and voila! You can surprise yourself with your own unique story. The following exercise is a bit like a titles-only Mad Libs. For added inspiration, I’m also including examples of published books from me, Tara, and others.

Types of Titles
[fill in the blanks to make your own]

The Meta title:

a. The [_______] Book
b. This Book is [______]

Published Examples: I Thought This Was a Bear Book (by Tara); The Book of Rules; The Quiet Book; The Monster at the End of This Book; Don’t Push the Button; This Book Just Ate My Dog!; What Would You Do in a Book About You?; Snappsy the Alligator (Did Not Ask to Be in This Book)

 The Negation Title:

a. Don’t [_____]!
b. Never [verb] a [noun]!
c. No More [plural noun]!

Published Examples: Nope!; No, David!; You Don’t Want a Unicorn; It’s Not Hansel and Gretel; If You Ever Want To Bring a Piano to the Beach, DON’T!; I Will Never Not Ever Eat a Tomato; I Don’t Want to Be a Frog!; I Dare You Not to Yawn; Hey, You’re Not Santa!; I Ain’t Gonna Paint No More!; No Nibbling!; Not a Box

The Celebratory Title:

a. “Hooray for [_____]!”
b. “[______] Party!”
c. “Let’s go [____]!”

Published Examples: Unicorn Day and Mermaid Day (by me); Rah, Rah, Radishes!; Hooray for Hat!; The Great Big Poop Party; Where’s the Party?; Go, Girls, Go!

The One Word Title (often with an exclamation point):

a. [plural noun]!
b. [action verb]!
c. [adjective]!
d. [quiet word]

Published Examples: Bloop (by Tara); Nope!; Ducks!; Dude!; Square; Brave! Found; Stuck; Kaleidoscope

The Lyrical Musing Title (which often repeats throughout the book):

a. When You [verb]
b. Tomorrow is [____]
c. Once Upon a [____]
d. On a [adjective] Day
e. If I Had a [noun]

Published Examples: Someday, Maybe (by me); I Wish You More; This Could Be You!;  Wherever You Go; The Wonderful Things You Will Be; On The Night You Were Born; Once Upon Another Time; My Love For You; Whatever Comes Tomorrow

The Question or Instruction Title

a. How to [verb] a [noun]
b. Where’s My [noun]?
c. Can You [verb] a [noun]?
d. Who Do You [verb]?

Published Examples: Help Mom Work From Home! (by me); What Do You Do With an Idea?; Field Guide to the Grumpasaurus; How to Catch a Unicorn; How to Meet a Mermaid; Where’s the Party? Where’s My Butt?; Where is My Balloon?; How to Babysit a Grandma

The Popular Song or Fairytale with a Twist Title

a. Twinkle, Twinkle, Little [noun]
b. Hush Little [noun]
c. Rock-a-bye [noun]
d. Old MacDonald had a [noun]
e. The Three Little [plural noun]

Published Examples: Little Red Gliding Hood (by Tara); Mary Had a Little Glam; Cock-a-doodle-OOPS!; There Was an Old Dragon Who Swallowed a Knight; Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Car; Moldylocks and the Three Scares; It’s Not the Three Little Pigs; The Three Ninja Pigs; Hush, Little Monster; It’s Raining Bats and Frogs

The Unexpected or Opposite Word Pairing Title

a. [adjective], [opposite adjective]!
b. I Love [unpleasant plural noun]!

Published Examples: Love Stinks! (by me); Yummy Yucky; Goodbye, Friend! Hello, Friend!; Duck, Duck, Moose; Z Is for Moose; P is for Pterodactyl; Digestion the Musical; Good Night Baddies; Creepy Carrots; Mushroom Rain; Bad Apple’s Perfect Day; The Obstinate Pen; The Crab Ballet; I Got a Chicken for my Birthday; Animals in Pants; Vegetables in Underwear; Goodnight, Veggies (by me)

The Rhyming Title

a. [noun] in a [noun]!
b. [adjective] [noun that rhymes]

Published Examples: Doris the Bookasaurus (by me); Don’t Be Silly Miss Millie!; Sheep in a Jeep; The Cat in the Hat; Fancy Nancy; Here’s What you Do When You Can’t Find Your Shoe; How To Train Your Pet Brain; Wordy Birdy; Green as a Bean

The Alliterative Title

a. [adjective] [noun beginning with same letter]
b. [any holiday][noun beginning with same letter]

Published Examples: Sleepy Snuggles (by me); Creepy Carrots; Horton Hears a Who; Bee-Bim Bop!; Penguin and Pinecone; Battle of the Butts; The Bold, Brave Bunny; Sam’s Super Seats; Jabari Jumps; Larry’s Latkes; Normal Norman (by Tara)

The Onomatopoeia Title

a. [sound], [sound], [sound]!
b. [sound]!
c. [sound]?
d. The [sound adjective] [noun]

Published Examples: Boo! Hiss!; Bump in the Night!; Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type; Eek, You Reek!; Splish, Splash, Splat!

The Silly, Nonsense or Made-up Word Title

a. [made up word]
b. [silly/unique proper name]

Published Examples: The Thingity-Jig; Hogwash!; Nerp!; Du Iz Tak? Best Frints in the Whole Universe; My Name is Wakawakaloch; The Red Ear Blows Its Nose

The Character Title

a. [character name] the [adjective] [noun]
b. [adjective][rhyming name]

Published Examples: Bloop (by Tara); Ned the Knitting Pirate (by me); Grimelda the Very Messy Witch (by me); Doris the Bookasaurus (by me); Lady Pancake and Sir French Toast; Tiny T-Rex and the Impossible Hug; Henny; Fancy Nancy; Crankenstein; Stellaluna; The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend; Oona; Warren and Dragon; A History of Underwear with Professor Chicken; Groggle’s Monster Valentine (by me)

The Counting or Quantifying Title

a. One [adjective] [noun]
b. Too Many [plural noun]!
c. Ten Little [plural noun]
d. Too [adjective]!

Published Examples: Double the Dinosaurs (by me); One Snowy Day (by me); Five Fuzzy Chicks (by me); Dozens of Doughnuts; Millions of Cats; Counting Kisses; One Hundred Shoes; One Big Pair of Underwear

The Clever Wordplay or Pun Title

a. [literally any pun]

Published Examples: 7 Ate 9 (by Tara); The Monstore (by Tara), Happy Llamakkah!: A Hanukkah Story; Wondering Around; Pirasaurs; Hey, Hey, Hay!; The Friend Ship; Nerdycorn; Not Yeti; Kung Pow Chicken; Un-BEE-lievables; Shampoodle; Mice Skating; Brainstorm!

This is far from an exhaustive list. And as I mentioned, there is A LOT of crossover between the groups. Why not a #6 (question) #8 (unexpected) and #9 (rhyming) combo, for example: “How Do You Hug a Bug?” Or perhaps you’re tempted to get in touch with your inner 8-year-old and fill in “butt” or “burp” for all the blanks. Well guess what? I didn’t add it here, but there could honestly be a whole category just for titles that feature butts, burps, poop, underwear and farts! So go right ahead.

Are there any other categories you would add? Have I missed any of your favorite books? I’m sure I’ve left out some of my own and I’ll be kicking myself later. But hopefully, filling in these blanks and perusing the other existing titles will give your inspiration a jolt! Have fun! And feel free to use this as an excuse to procrastinate on your cleaning chores. I know I will!


Diana Murray is the author of over twenty books for children, including the bestselling UNICORN DAY series, an ILA/CBC Children’s Choice Book, a 2019 Goodreads Choice Finalist, and 2022 Amazon Best Book of the Year (UNICORN NIGHT board book edition). Some of her recent and forthcoming titles include LOVE STINKS! (Step-into-Reading/Random House), SOMEDAY, MAYBE (Holt/Macmillan), FIREHOUSE RAINBOW (Little Golden Books), and MERMAID DAY (Sourcebooks). She grew up in New York City and still lives nearby with her husband, two children, and a dancing dog. Visit her at DianaMurray.com and follow her on Twitter @DianaMWrites.

Diana is giving away a picture book critique.

You’re eligible to win if you’re a registered Storystorm 2023 participant and you have commented only once on today’s blog post. ↓

Prizes will be distributed at the conclusion of Storystorm.

Woo-hoo!  The fab #JewishBoardBooks group is here to brainstorm some small but mighty ideas on Day 12 of Tara Lazar’s Storystorm Challenge!

PIPPA’S PASSOVER PLATE by Vivian Kirkfield

Small but mighty—that’s a great way to describe board books. According to Webster’s Dictionary, a board book is a book for young children with pages made of heavy laminated paper or cardboard. But honestly, a board book is so much more than that. Studies show that the greatest amount of human learning takes place between ages 0-3 and that exposing children to books well before they are ready to read could have a huge impact on literacy.

Are you thinking of writing a board book? Most board books have very low word-counts and only a few images on each page—sometimes, just one.

Why then does PIPPA’S PASSOVER PLATE work as a board book even though it has over 300 words, plus multiple characters and many images on each page?

  • The rollicking rhyme and repeating refrain create a fun read-aloud.
  • The animals, like cat, mouse, fish and owl are familiar to very young children.
  • The illustrations created by Jill Weber are joyful and vibrant.
  • Each page provides opportunities to seek and find Pippa and her friends.

Most board books can be divided into three main categories:

  1. Concept Book: introduce ideas such as counting or ABCs.
  2. Picture Book: usually about one subject such as animals or trucks.
  3. Story Book: has a plot and several characters and often teaches a lesson.

PIPPA’S PASSOVER PLATE falls into the “story book” category, with a simple plot and a holiday layer woven throughout.

So, here’s your challenge, dear friends: Make a list of the holidays or other occasions you celebrated when you were a kid – and then create a board book manuscript! And if you keep it to 50 words or less, you can enter it my #50PreciousWords International Writing Contest in March. Who knows…it might become a real board book one day.

 

COUNTING ON SHABBAT by Nancy Churnin

Why did I write a board book? Because I wanted to thank and encourage little ones everywhere to realize the joy they bring with the simple gift of their presence.

COUNTING ON SHABBAT is inspired by seeing joy in my mother, a retired teacher, when little ones visit with kisses and chaos. Board books benefit from a simple structure. I built 10 spreads around counting from one to ten as we get ready for Shabbat, a weekly celebration where we light candles and prepare a feast to welcome a day of rest. My hope is that children who start by counting objects will sense that we are also counting on kindness as the arrival of a diverse family brings joy to an elderly man who might otherwise be alone.

In board books, it’s important to keep things simple. COUNTING ON SHABBAT clocks in at 48 words and features a gentle rhyme that helps kids anticipate what the ending word on each page might be. I included more illustration notes in this manuscript than I ever had because I knew that the book must be visually driven. Even so, it was a delight to see illustrator Petronela Dostalova take the concept and run with it in her own unique way.

I hope this book will give Jewish children pride in our weekly celebration of love and light, open a window to this happy holiday for non-Jewish children, and spark fresh ideas of how we can all build bridges of love among all ages, faiths, and communities.

 

SHEEP SAYS SHALOM  by Ann D. Koffsky 

Board Books are deceptively simple. As an author, they appear oh-so-achievable. 50 words? I can write 50 words, no problem!

But be wary, oh ye aspiring board book authors. Board books are, as I said, DECEPTIVELY simple. Every word has to be just so, and the concept has to be made of such sturdy stuff, that you can tell it with the fewest of words, and it will still connect to readers. For my book, Sheep Says Shalom, that concept was based on the three meanings of the word SHALOM: Hello, goodbye, and peace. So, I actually got extra meaning out of that one, singular word. ( It almost felt like cheating!)

For me, coming up with that idea, that concept, is the most challenging part of writing any book, but especially for board books.  And it’s at this part of the writing process that I most often can feel stuck.

I recently had the opportunity to spend time with Jewish legendary storyteller, Peninah Schram, along with my friend Chana Stiefel, and Chana asked Peninah: “How do you get past those moments, when you are stuck?” Peninah’s answer was also deceptively simple. She described how she has a practice of finding the time to daydream each day. She lies down in a comfortable space, puts on relaxing music, and lets her mind wander freely.

And you know what? I tried it and it works! So this is my challenge to Storystormers out there: try out Peninah’s Practice. Take 10 minutes and let you mind wander. And see what comes your way.

 

MAZAL BUENO by Sarah Aroeste

Board books have immense value besides simply being a baby’s first entry into the world of books. For many children—and their adults—board books can also serve as the first entry into unfamiliar cultures. It can be their very first glance into new worlds, customs, and languages.

As an activist promoting a minority culture, Sephardic Judaism, I believe board books are critical to creating understanding and empathy in families. I purposely chose this medium to convey simple, universal themes for wider audiences to learn about my culture.

MAZAL BUENO! celebrates the milestones in a child’s life—from first giggles, to first foods, first words and more. Every family can relate to these awe-filled moments! While it looks like Spanish, the refrain of mazal bueno (congratulations) is a combination of Hebrew and Spanish, also known as Ladino, which is the language of Sephardic Jews. Cheering with a mazal bueno to acknowledge wonderful occasions is a part of everyday life for Sephardic Jews, which is the point of the book. Mazal Bueno is about normalizing the Sephardic experience and exposing more families to the many ways Jews look, speak, and live!

I knew that I was writing a niche book, but I didn’t let it stop me. Providing windows into new cultures—at the earliest possible age—is vital to fostering caring kids and families. So my advice to all of you: don’t let fear get in your way. Write what you feel families need to read, keeping in mind the possibilities that a board book format offers. Even the most basic of concepts (a mazal bueno!) can open up minds and worlds.

 

CHALLAH! by Varda Livney

For me, writing a board book is trying to get a smile from (or get a simple idea across to) a little human who has no interest in complicated plot twists, wordy descriptions, or character development. Then it’s trying to relax as it dawns on me that that little human is probably at this moment chewing on the masterpiece that I sweated so much to create.

My board book, Challah! is coming out in October. I decided to make a book introducing Shabbat (Sabbath). I started by doodling wine, candles, a festive dinner table, challah, and a family of bunnies (of course).  I drew a word bubble coming out of the baby bunny’s mouth, saying “Challah!” Turns out it was his first word, and, in the tradition of baby bunnies everywhere, this bunny did not stop saying “Challah!” all week long. Would he ever learn a second word? (Spoiler alert: yes.) Eventually all that doodling morphed into a book!

There are many ways to come up with ideas, but here’s what worked for me with CHALLAH!:

Big cup of coffee, quiet room, butt in chair, doodle, daydream, free-associate, write, trashcan, repeat.

BTW, this little blurb is longer than my book.


Writer for children—reader forever…that’s Vivian Kirkfield in five words. Her bucket list contains many more than five words, but she’s already checked off skydiving, walking along the ocean floor, and visiting critique buddies all around the world. When she isn’t looking for ways to fall from the sky or sink under the water, she can be found writing stories in the picturesque village of Bedford, NH. A retired kindergarten teacher with a masters in Early Childhood Education, Vivian inspires budding writers during classroom visits and shares insights with aspiring authors at conferences and on her blog, Picture Books Help Kids Soar, where she hosts the #50PreciousWords International Writing Contest and the #50PreciousWordsforKids Challenge. She is the author of many picture books that have garnered accolades such as Junior Library Guild Selection, Eureka Honor Award, Best Science STEM Book, and Social Studies Notable Trade Book. You can connect with her on her website VivianKirkfield.com, social media, or just about any place people with picture books are found.

Nancy Churnin is an award-winning children’s book author who writes about people that inspire children to be kind and make the world a better place. Her Dear Mr. Dickens won the 2021 National Jewish Book Award and 2022 Sydney Taylor Honor and is a Junior Library Guild Selection, a National Federation of Press Women 1stPlace winner and on the Bank Street College Best Children’s Books list. Nancy is that author of 10 picture book biographies and will welcome six more books, including her board book debut, Counting on Shabbat, in 2023. Additional honors include: Two Sydney Taylor Notables, Social Studies Notable Trade Books for Young People; the South Asia Book Award, Children and Teen’s Choice Book Awards finalists; starred reviews from School Library Journal, Kirkus Reviews and Publishers Weekly; and multiple state book lists. Nancy lives in North Texas. Her books come with free teacher guides, resources and projects on her website, NancyChurnin.com. Follow her on Twitter @nchurnin.

Determined to help preserve Sephardic culture, Sarah Aroeste draws upon her ancestral roots from N. Macedonia and Greece to present traditional and original Ladino (Judeo-Spanish) songs with her unique blend of Balkan sounds, pop, and jazz. Since 2001, Aroeste has performed and given musical talks across the globe and has recorded eight albums. She also pens Sephardic-themed books for children, including Buen Shabat, Shabbat Shalom (Kar-Ben 2020), the first PAL board book with Ladino words, and the upcoming Mazal Bueno (Kar-Ben 2023). Bringing Ladino books and music to young and old, Aroeste has garnered wide critical acclaim for her efforts to introduce Sephardic culture to new audiences. Visit her at SarahAroeste.com or on social media as @saraharoeste.

Ann D. Koffsky is the author and illustrator of more than forty books, including Under the Sea Seder, Visual Thinking (for Young Adults) with Temple Grandin, What’s In Tuli’s Box, and the Kayla & Kugel series. Several of her books have been PJ Library selections, and her book Noah’s Swimathon received a Sydney Taylor notable mention from the Association of Jewish Libraries. Sheep Says Shalom  will be out  August 1, 2023 from Green Bean Books. Find free coloring pages and see more about her work on her website Annkoffsky.com. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram as @JewishArtbyAnn.

Varda Livney lives (and doodles) on a kibbutz with her family and 1,000 other assorted people, dogs, cats, cows, and olive trees. Visit her at VardaArt.com and follow her on Instagram @vardaart.

**Most of these board books won’t be out until the fall, but if winners are patient, they will be sent as soon as they become available.***

  • Vivian Kirkfield: PB Critique OR Copy of PIPPA’S PASSOVER PLATE
  • Nancy Churnin: copy of COUNTING ON SHABBAT
  • Sarah Aroeste: copy of MAZAL BUENO!
  • Ann Koffsky: 15-minute Zoom Critique
  • Varda Livney: Copy of CHALLAH!

You’re eligible to win if you’re a registered Storystorm 2023 participant and you have commented only once on today’s blog post. ↓

Prizes will be distributed at the conclusion of Storystorm.

by Lydia Lukidis

Greetings and salutations, fellow Storystormers! I’ve been following Tara’s blog for many years now so it’s an honor to be here today. Woot, woot!

Carlton of "The Prince of Bel Air" doing his signature dance, then climbing on the couch and doing a backflip...while papers flutter around him.

No doubt, you’ve already been jotting down brilliant ideas and the Storystorm posts have been helping you unlock new brainstorming techniques. Today, my post will focus on nonfiction (though these strategies can also be applied to fiction) and HOW to develop your ideas.

We all have our strengths and weaknesses. For example, I’m an idea machine. I literally find everything fascinating and pretty much any topic can get my creative juices flowing. I’ve been keeping a document where I jot down all my ideas throughout the years.

So, what then? What do you do with all these ideas? I confess that my document is now over 100 pages long. Yikes.

Spongebob reading a very long list that just keeps unrolling longer

Too. Many. Ideas.

My mind feels overwhelmed. Although I find a spark in every single one of these ideas, I also struggle with how to develop them. To ease this process and stop my over-active mind from going mad, I practice the art of discernment.

  • Does the idea stand out?
  • Does it have what it takes to form a narrative?
  • Can an engaging hook be developed?
  • Is there enough kid appeal?

Kid appeal is essential, especially with nonfiction. It’s possible to take complex scientific processes and break them down in a way that children can understand, but you have to find the right “in.” Take a look at these nonfiction mentor texts that do a great job at making STEM interesting and fun for young readers:

Four book covers: Water is Water, No Monkeys No Chocolate, 13 Ways to Eat a Fly, Eek You Reek!

I admit that my stubborn mind sometimes chooses topics that I feel a deep passion for, but that don’t necessarily engage children. I forget to focus on what matters to a child. Or, I can’t seem to find the right way into the material. And yes, some ideas may ultimately not make the cut, and that’s okay.

Another critical element is the hook. When I started writing my new book DEEP, DEEP DOWN: The Secret Underwater Poetry of the Mariana Trench, I had no hook. I just knew I wanted to write about the Mariana Trench so I metaphorically dove into the research. I wrote the first few drafts as a starting point, but they weren’t strong enough because there was no hook driving the narrative forward.

Deep, Deep Down cover: dark blue with a glow of a deep sea rover, highlighting an octopus, a reef, and an axoltlol.

And then I had some enlightening conversations with two of my nonfiction mentors; Melissa Stewart and Kirsten W. Larson. They both passed on this GEM that I will share with you:

Interesting facts are not enough to sustain a nonfiction book!

Sure, children love fun facts but there has to be more. Especially when it comes to expository nonfiction, the text can’t read like a research paper or an encyclopedia just spewing out facts.

So…how does one craft a stellar hook? This is the only equation that worked for me so far:

HOOK = TIME + RESEARCH

I’ve never been able to find the hook right away. For some ideas, it took several months, and for others, several years. Don’t rush or force it, and respect the process. One day, it will reveal itself to you. And if it doesn’t, put it aside or let it go. Only a small portion of your ideas will blossom into published books. Let it be.

To help all you Storystormers out, I created this handy checklist you can download and use. Once you’ve jotted down all your ideas, you need to put them to the test. My checklist has six essential ingredients, and if your idea passes all of them, it has great potential!

This is what it looks like:

1- Does the idea stand out? Study the market. If there are books about this idea, make sure your angle is unique.

2- Does the idea have what it takes to form a complete narrative?

3- Does the idea have enough kid appeal? Focus on what children care about.

4- Did you find the right "in"? Find ways to make the information relatable.

5- Did you develop an engaging hook? HOOK= TIME + RESEARCH!

6- Do YOU feel enough passion for this topic to sustain you through years of researching and writing?

If you reply YES to all 6 items, your idea has potential! Happy Writing!

Click here to download the PDF.

I used this checklist for DEEP, DEEP, DOWN and it passed all 6 steps. A year later, Capstone acquired the manuscript. While there are no guarantees in this business, we can all agree that a stellar book begins with a stellar idea. I wish you all luck as you sift through your own ideas and mine the true gems!

 


Lydia Lukidis is the author of 50+ trade and educational books for children. Her titles include DANCING THROUGH SPACE: Dr. Mae Jemison Soars to New Heights (Albert Whitman, 2024), DEEP, DEEP, DOWN: The Secret Underwater Poetry of the Mariana Trench (Capstone, 2023), THE BROKEN BEES’ NEST (Kane Press, 2019) which was nominated for a Cybils Award, and NO BEARS ALLOWED (Clear Fork Media, 2019). A science enthusiast from a young age, she now incorporates her studies in science and her everlasting curiosity into her books.

Lydia is an active member of SCBWI, CANSCAIP, 12 x 12, and The Authors Guild. She’s very involved in the kidlit community and also volunteers as a judge on Rate your Story. Another passion of hers is fostering love for children’s literacy through the writing workshops she regularly offers in elementary schools. Lydia is represented by literary agent Miranda Paul from the Erin Murphy Literary Agency.

Visit Lydia online at LydiaLukidis.com and follow her on Twitter @LydiaLukidis.

Lydia is happy to give away a free signed copy of her new book DEEP, DEEP DOWN: The Secret Underwater Poetry of the Mariana Trench, illustrated by Juan Calle (prize available to US & Canada).

You’re eligible to win if you’re a registered Storystorm 2023 participant and you have commented only once on today’s blog post. ↓

Prizes will be distributed at the conclusion of Storystorm.

by Justin Colón

Many of us look upon cartoons with a sense of childhood nostalgia, reminiscing upon the good ol’ days when we sat mesmerized in front of our television sets for hours while watching Sunday morning cartoons. I myself loved watching Nickelodeon’s “Hey Arnold!,” “The Wild Thornberrys”, “The Fairly Odd Parents” and “The Rugrats”; Disney’s “Gargoyles”; PBS’s “The Magic School Bus”; Cartoon Network’s “Dexter’s Laboratory”, and so many, many more that it hurts to leave them out. Yet, until recently, I had left cartoons behind. So why did I return to them?

Before Covid arrived, my acting career was gaining traction after nearly a decade of rigorous training, booking co-starring roles on television. But then the pandemic sidelined me. The idea of sitting at home watching television shows that I could no longer audition for stung. So, I leaned into something that didn’t sting . . . beekeeping. Seriously, I did. But the other thing I leaned into was cartoons.

In many ways, cartoons are like picture books. They’re often dismissed as being solely for children, and thus abandoned in adulthood, when in reality they can be enjoyed by all ages. They’re a highly-visual storytelling medium packed into a condensed format.

While the stakes may be high for the characters within them, cartoon shows are generally low stakes for viewers. These low stakes can help us unplug from reality and tap into our imagination, thus inspiring new ideas. In fact, sometimes I’ll watch an episode of a cartoon show and find that the tiniest moment or element within that show could be expanded into an entire picture book concept. The low stakes and high entertainment value combined with the color and music helps me slip into a childlike state that benefits my own storytelling as a writer. And it might do the same for you!

Watch a modern-day cartoon and you’ll likely find a substantial amount of heart, emotionally compelling stories and character arcs, and fresh takes on familiar concepts and layered themes with wonderful language (filled with fun repetition and sounds) that can inform your own craft. Interestingly, many cartoons often have a takeaway lesson, and yet it’s delivered in an entertaining, non-didactic way, very similar to effective picture books.

And for those of you interested in developing your humor skills, cartoons are excellent for this! Afterall, they’re exaggerated, eccentric, and over the top in comparison to reality, often making them ripe with humor. Keep a close eye on the pacing, structure, situations, and character relationships and interactions with each other and the world around them. You can take this exercise to the next level by observing cartoons intended for different age levels to see how the humor differs in approach and execution. How might you translate this into your own ideas, writing, and stories?

Go check out some picture books by Tara Lazar, Tammi Sauer, Josh Funk, Ryan T. Higgins, Adam Rex, and Julie Falatko, and others, and I bet you’ll find that they all share a cartoon-like quality (and I say that as high praise).

When Tara Lazar mentored me, one of the first things she noted was that my stories had an ACME-like quality to them. This is evident in my books THE QUACKEN (Simon & Schuster) and IMPOSSIBLE POSSUMS (Disney-Hyperion), both written during my cartoon-filled pandemic lockdown and debuting fall of 2024. Here’s the pitch for the latter:

When a lonely possum with a flair for villainy attempts to create his very own henchman but ditches the instructions to his new possum-making machine, it leads to a series of mishaps as it pops out all the wrong creatures, each with a chaotic agenda of their own.

While writing it, I wasn’t yet watching cartoons, but I was thinking of this book playing out in a manner similar to the over-the-top mischief, mishaps, misunderstandings, and mayhem often found in cartoons. I knew I wanted to combine the over-the top voice of Plankton from Spongebob Squarepants with the loveable villainy of MINIONS. Thinking back to those “mentor texts” provided lots of new ideas to explore while drafting and revising. Something as simple as a character’s voice (the style of it, not necessarily the sound) or an image might inspire ideas for your own work.

Shortly after selling the manuscript, a fellow writer who wrote for the cartoon series Pinky and the Brain excitedly reached out to share that my story reminded him of the series (though it wasn’t a mentor text). Well, once the illustrator and humor extraordinaire James Rey Sanchez signed on, he mentioned that this book gave him Pinky and the Brain vibes, a show he watched as a kid. And, because it’s a sparse text manuscript with LOTS of action, our editor sent him all the art notes . . . all 16 of them! And the story is being brought to life with a style that matches the cartoon-like quality of it.

In short, cartoons are safe and comforting and can help us release tension while easing anxiety and depression and improving mental health. But they can also inspire new ideas and take our craft to new levels. Now go watch some cartoons!

But first, let me know in the comments below . . . What were/are some of your favorite cartoons?


Justin Colón is a Latino author with several forthcoming picture books, including IMPOSSIBLE POSSUMS (Disney-Hyperion, 2024) and THE QUACKEN (Simon & Schuster, 2024). He is also the owner/director of The Kidlit Hive (kidlithive.com), a new program offering webinars, workshops, multi-week classes, and mentorships for picture book creators. In his other life, Justin is a professional, formally trained voice and on-camera actor and has co-starred in shows such as Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Gotham, The First Wives Club, Sneaky Pete and Limitless. He is represented by Jennifer March Soloway of Andrea Brown Literary Agency. To learn more about Justin, you can visit JustinColonBooks.com and follow him on Twitter at @justinrcolon

Justin is offering one lucky winner a webinar package consisting of passes to attend three webinars, free of charge, via The Kidlit Hive, as well as a 30-minute AMA session to discuss querying, submission, ideas, etc.

You’re eligible to win if you’re a registered Storystorm 2023 participant and you have commented only once on today’s blog post. ↓

Prizes will be distributed at the conclusion of Storystorm.

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