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by Angela Burke Kunkel

In “Steal Like an Artist: Ten Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative,” Austin Kleon writes:

“The best way to get over a creative block is simply to place
some constraints on yourself.
It seems contradictory, but when it comes to creative work,
limitations mean freedom.”

Or, for those author-illustrators or art buffs out there, consider this quote from artist David Hockney:

“Limitations are really good for you.
They are a stimulant.

If you were told to make a drawing of a tulip
using five lines,
or one using a hundred,
you’d be more inventive with the five.”

(While you’re at it, do a Google image search of Hockney’s own tulip drawings. You’ll see everything from paintings from the 70s and 80s to recent iPad sketches. Notice how they’re all different. And notice that this man is in his 80s and still imposing creative challenges on himself.)

My second published picture book, PENGUIN JOURNEY (Abrams Appleseed, October 2021), started as just this type of exercise. I tend to write really long first drafts, over a thousand words, in order to figure out what I need to say. And, in the midst of cutting (so much cutting), I wondered one day: what if I could write a complete picture book draft, arc and all, in under a hundred words? I happened to be thinking about penguins, and a little phrase popped into my head: “waddle waddle.” It was fun to say. But was it a story?

Well, at my desk one day, I wrote a draft repeating the phrase “waddle waddle” as a lone Emperor penguin arrives at their breeding ground, meets a mate, cares for their egg, and copes with the harsh conditions of Antarctic winter. All in . . . 69 words.

My agent and I decided to go on submission with the story, and Meredith Mundy at Abrams Appleseed wrote back with a request: Could I drop the repeated “waddle waddle,” keep the the original spare language and rewrite the concept . . . in rhyme? Revising and resubmitting to Meredith presented yet another set of creative challenges! I had a hard time letting go of “waddle waddle,” and I had never written in rhyme before. But, with Meredith’s careful editorial eye, the story’s new opening lines unfolded:

Packed snow.

Moon glow.


All alone.

They also made room for illustrator Catherine Odell’s beautiful mixed media art. But neither would exist without just sitting down one morning and playing with self-imposed limitations.

For today’s Storystorm, I challenge you to let those ideas flow, but with constraints. What are your tendencies, and how could you do the opposite? In other words, what creative limitations can you impose on yourself? In the idea-generating phase, this may mean stretching your brain in another direction. Do you usually start with character? How about generating an idea that starts with setting instead? Or are you a rhymer whose drafts begin with a couplet? Can you write those few lines sticking with prose (or vice versa)? Or open to a page in the dictionary, or the nearest book, and place a finger on a word at random— where can you go from there? What ideas come up for you?

Sometimes, just sometimes, the habit of letting ideas come without judgement is just a little too open. Or the ideas begin to repeat. If you find this is the case, build a cage of your own making—then see how to break out of it. You just might like what you come up with as you plot your escape.

Angela Burke Kunkel is the author of PENGUIN JOURNEY (Abrams Appleseed, October 2021) as well as DIGGING FOR WORDS: JOSÉ ALBERTO GUTIÉRREZ AND THE LIBRARY HE BUILT (Random House/Schwartz & Wade, 2020). After soaking up the sun in the Southwest for a number of years, she now lives in Vermont with her family, two dogs, a guinea pig and a rapidly-growing bearded dragon (really, it’s rather alarming). Angela works as a school librarian and is a former English Language Arts teacher. Visit her at, on Twitter @angkunkel and Instagram @angkunkel.

Angela is giving away a picture book critique to one Storystorm participant.

Leave one comment below to enter.

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

by Colleen Paeff

The year or two leading up to the publication of an author or illustrator’s debut book is a rollercoaster ride of exciting milestones (“I signed my contract!”), new experiences (“Hello, Copy Editor.”), and sheer terror (“You expect me to read my book aloud in front of how many children?”). And, like a rollercoaster, it’s best experienced with friends. That’s where debut groups come in.*

The Soaring ‘20s Picture Book Debuts is a collective of picture book authors, illustrators, and author/illustrators with debut picture books being released in 2020** and beyond. We’ve pooled our resources, talents, and sympathetic ears so none of us has to experience this ride solo—and that’s fitting because we certainly didn’t get this far on our own. We’re all in the happy position of awaiting the release of our books thanks to the authors, illustrators, teachers, editors, or agents who looked at our work and offered targeted feedback to help improve it.

And now we’d like to do the same for you!

To celebrate the launch our new website, we’re giving away 20+6 free manuscript, dummy, or portfolio critiques in the MEGA SOARING ’20s CRITIQUE GIVEAWAY!

If you’ve been in the picture book game for a while, you probably already know the value of a thorough, thoughtful critique. But if you’re new to writing or illustrating for kids or you’re on the fence about whether or not to hand your baby over to a set of critical eyes, allow some of our members us give you a nudge:

“Critiques have been an essential step (many steps! multiple flights of stairs!) on my path to publication.”

Angela Burke Kunkel, author

“If you’ve put your all into your work-in-progress and are ready to see it with fresh eyes, a critique is a fun way to open new pathways in your brain and to rekindle your enthusiasm for your work.”

Shelley Johannes, author/illustrator
MORE THAN SUNNY (Abrams, Spring 2021)

“The more we embrace the journey of improving and collaboration, the more we learn and the better we become as authors, illustrators and artists.”

Sam Wedelich, author/illustrator

“I’ll always remember how Jo Whittemore, author of FRONT PAGE FACE-OFF, critiqued me years ago. She called problems in my manuscript ‘opportunities.’”

NoNieqa Ramos, author
BEAUTY WOKE (Versify/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, spring 2021)

“The more you have your work critiqued, the less personal it becomes. You learn to listen for the gems of advice, questions, concerns, and ideas that other readers/writers have for you. Then when you take those gems and apply them to your work, the proof is in how much your writing is improved and how much your skill grows as a storyteller. And while this process sometimes has you feeling vulnerable and exposed, ultimately when you send your writing out into the world, you will feel so proud of it!”

Anna Crowley Redding, author

Convinced? Go to our website to enter to win a free picture book manuscript, dummy, or portfolio critique in the MEGA SOARING ’20s CRITIQUE GIVEAWAY by midnight on September 15 and you could be one of 20+6 lucky winners!

*We’re not the only game in town! Check out KidLit411’s list of Debut Year Groups (scroll all the way down to the bottom).

**One of us got bumped up to 2019! Look for Author Saira Mir’s MUSLIM GIRLS RISE: INSPIRATIONAL CHAMPIONS OF OUR TIME (Salaam Reads/Simon & Schuster) on October 29.

Big thanks to Tara for letting us share the news about our giveaway on her blog!

(And Tara says thanks right back!)

Like this site? Please order one of my books! It supports me & my work!

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