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by Chana Stiefel

Hello Storystormers! It’s hard to believe we’re already three weeks in. How’s it going? Are you churning out ideas like this?

If not, I’d like to jumpstart your idea machine by training your brain to ask a single question:

Where did that come from?

As you go about your day, start thinking about origin stories. Your fluffy slippers, your toothbrush, toilet paper, jeans, Cap’n Crunch, a nest in a tree on your first walk of the day….just look around. Origin stories are everywhere!

They might revolve around something very small.


Or something HUMONGOUS.


They might be about something incredibly important.


Or inventions that made a big splash!


They might even be about something we cherish.

My next picture book LET LIBERTY RISE (illustrated by Chuck Groenink, Scholastic, March 2) is the origin story of one of America’s favorite icons, the Statue of Liberty. Where did Lady Liberty come from? Most of us know she was a gift from France. But did you know that when she arrived in New York City in 350 pieces, America didn’t want her? Americans were supposed to build the pedestal for Liberty to stand on, but when she arrived, the pedestal was only half built and funds had run out. Liberty’s parts, from her torch to her toes, lay strewn about Bedloe’s Island in rain and snow. But Joseph Pulitzer, a Jewish Hungarian immigrant and publisher of the New York World newspaper, felt that Liberty must stand in New York harbor. He said, if anyone gives a penny for the pedestal, he would print their name in his newspaper. And guess what? Schoolchildren came to the rescue by donating their pennies! The World raised $100,000 to build Liberty’s pedestal! How’s that for an origin story?

Here’s another story that’s near and dear to my heart. A few years ago, I read an obituary about Yaffa Eliach, a Jewish historian who spent 17 years traveling the world to rebuild her village in stories and photos after her community was obliterated during World War II. Yaffa’s collection became the three-story high Tower of Faces in the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. I’m honored to share that this origin story is the subject of my picture book THE TOWER OF LIFE, illustrated by Susan Gal, coming from Scholastic in 2022.

Still a bit stuck? Make a list of things kids love. Then ask: Where did that come from?

THE WILLIAM HOY STORY by Nancy Churnin is about the origin of baseball signs. Did you know that they came from a deaf baseball player who played in the major leagues in the early 1900s?

Of course, these titles are all nonfiction. But this idea can work for fiction too. Here’s a funny origin story.

My picture book MY NAME IS WAKAWAKALOCH is about a cave girl who wants to change her hard-to-pronounce name (ahem). It’s also about the origins of our names and why names are important.

I was named for my great grandmother Chana who arrived in America 100 years ago. You can learn more here. That’s my origin story. What’s yours?

What are your favorite picture books based on origin stories? And if the hunt for an origin-story idea works for you, please let me know!

Chana Stiefel is the author of more than 25 books for kids. Her next picture book, LET LIBERTY RISE (illustrated by Chuck Groenink, Scholastic, 3-2-21), is the true story of how America’s schoolchildren helped build the Statue of Liberty. Her other picture books include MY NAME IS WAKAWAKALOCH!, illustrated by Mary Sullivan (HMH, 2019) and DADDY DEPOT, illustrated by Andy Snair (Feiwel & Friends, 2017). Recent non-fiction titles include ANIMAL ZOMBIES…& OTHER REAL-LIFE MONSTERS (National Geographic Kids, 2018). Her picture book THE TOWER OF LIFE: HOW ONE WOMAN REBUILT HER VILLAGE IN STORIES AND PICTURES (illustrated by Susan Gal) will be coming out from Scholastic in 2022. Chana loves visiting schools and libraries and sharing her passion for reading and writing with children. She is represented by Miranda Paul at Erin Murphy Literary Agency. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter @chanastiefel, and Instagram @chanastiefel. To hear Chana pronounce her name, click here.

Chana will be giving away a signed copy of LET LIBERTY RISE when it launches in March.

Leave one comment below to enter.

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

Author Chana Stiefel is here today to release the cover of her upcoming nonfiction book, illustrated by Chuck Groenink: LET LIBERTY RISE! HOW AMERICA’S SCHOOLCHILDREN HELPED SAVE THE STATUE OF LIBERTY. This book will be released on March 2, 2021 with Scholastic…

But first, Chana shares a few things she’s learned in the process of creating this nonfiction book:

1. Listen to your friends for book ideas!
A few years ago, when humans still ate meals together, I invited my author friends Sue Macy and Jackie Glasthal over to my house for Friday night dinner. Jackie mentioned that she had published a middle grade novel based on the true story of the building of the Statue of Liberty.* Many of us know that the French sent the statue to America as a symbol of friendship. But did you know that America didn’t want it? And New York’s richest millionaires refused to contribute $100,000 to build the pedestal! Joseph Pulitzer, owner of the World newspaper, was outraged. He insisted that the statue stand in New York harbor, the gateway to America. Pulitzer said he would print the name of every person who donated to the pedestal fund—no matter how small the sum or how small the person. Guess who donated their pennies to America’s first crowd-sourcing campaign? KIDS, of course! Right then and there, I knew this story had to become a picture book! Jackie gave me her blessing and offered to help.

2. Do the research!
Researching this book took years. Back when humans could take ferries and visit libraries, Jackie and I met at the Bob Hope Memorial Library on Ellis Island. We pored over archives and took pictures. I also time traveled in the map room of the New York Public Library, scrolling through microfilm of the World newspaper from the 1870s. I read through stacks of books and shared every exciting fact with my family. (You’re welcome, kids!)

3. Practice patience!
Even after you’ve received multiple critiques and edited your manuscript a bazillion times, publishing takes time—enough time to turn copper green. But waiting for a great book deal and the perfect illustrator is worth it! Illustrator Chuck Groenink captured 1870s America oh-so-beautifully, down to the adorable knickers on the newspaper boy. My editor at Scholastic Dianne Hess and I fact checked every single word. (Fab facts: How many stars were on the U.S. flag in 1876? In how many pieces was Liberty shipped to America? Answers below**!)

4. Take nothing for granted.
Publishing a book is an incredible gift and for that I will always be grateful. I hold my torch high for Dianne, Chuck, my family, my critique partners, the kidlit community (thank you Tara!), and my former agent John Cusick. Most of all, I am grateful to Jackie for giving me the gift of this story. Sadly, Jackie passed away three years ago. She stood for liberty, freedom, and friendship and this book is dedicated to her memory. On that bittersweet note, presenting the cover of LET LIBERTY RISE!

*Liberty on 23rd Street by Jacqueline Glasthal, illus. by Alan Reingold, Silver Moon Press, 2006.
**Answers: 38 stars; 350 pieces

Chana Stiefel is the author of more than 25 books for kids. In addition to LET LIBERTY RISE! (Scholastic, 3-2-21), Chana’s books include MY NAME IS WAKAWAKALOCH, illustrated by Mary Sullivan (HMH), ANIMAL ZOMBIES…& OTHER REAL-LIFE MONSTERS (NatGeoKids), and DADDY DEPOT, illustrated by Andy Snair (Feiwel & Friends). She is represented by Miranda Paul at Erin Murphy Literary Agency. Learn more at Follow @ChanaStiefel on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

by Chana Stiefel

Well, Storystormers. We have made it to January 11 already. While many of us have developed an aversion to the news these days, I encourage you to give your morning newspaper a second chance. Why? Because your newspaper is chock full of book ideas! Here’s how it works:

  1. Brew a cup of coffee.
  2. Sit down with your favorite newspaper—or online equivalent. (I still prefer the paper kind.)
  3. Scan the headlines cover to cover.
  4. When a story idea jumps out at you, STOP! Rrrrrrip out the article. (Warning: Get permission from other house dwellers first. If you’re reading online, just save and print.)
  5. Change a few words in the headline and . . . eureka! An idea!

This tried-and-true method has worked for me for both fiction and non-fiction book ideas. Last year, I saw a headline in the New York Times Magazine that read, “How to Brush a Gorilla’s Teeth.” Rrrrrip! The article was about a primatologist who brushes gorillas’ teeth at the Bronx Zoo. Based on the headline, I wrote a fictional picture book called HOW TO BRUSH YOUR GORILLA’S TEETH. It was a funny how-to about tooth-brushing antics and anarchy. My agent loved it and invited illustrator extraordinaire Julie Bayless to sketch a dummy. (We got some nibbles from editors, but no bites…yet!)


A few years ago, I started a file of clips about creepy critters. They slowly evolved into a book idea, which I pitched to National Geographic Kids. While I can’t divulge the title yet, that book is coming out in 2018.

Two recent headlines that have inspired other book ideas:

Some pointers: Magazines work too. (If you’re in a doctor’s office, cough loudly while ripping.) Make sure to scan all sections, including sports, business news, ads, and even obituaries. A well-written obit will make you laugh, cry, and give you a jolt of inspiration…all elements of a perfect picture book. Remember all those icons we lost in 2016? Maybe you’ll be the one to write a picture book biography about Prince, David Bowie, Gwen Ifill, or Carrie Fisher!

Or perhaps a biography of a lesser-known individual will give you the motivation to start writing. Here’s an obit about Norma Lyon, a farmer’s wife, mother of nine, and butter sculptor at the Iowa State Fair. Lyon is famous for sculpting tons of salted butter into life-size cows, Barack Obama, and a diorama of the Last Supper.

Rodney White/Associated Press

Rodney White/Associated Press

Jus’ sayin’. Keep an open mind. The possibilities are as endless as the AP newswire. At the very least, you’ll be recycling and repurposing your daily newspaper.

So rrrrip away and story on!

chanastiefel_head-shot_colorWhen she’s not shredding her family’s New York Times, Chana Stiefel is writing books for kids. Her debut picture book, DADDY DEPOT (Feiwel & Friends), hits bookshelves on May 16, 2017. Chana’s book about creepy critters will be coming out from NatGeoKids in 2018, and WAKAWAKALOCH, a semi-autobiographical picture book (and Storystorm success story) about a cave girl who wants to change her unpronounceable name, will be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2019. Chana has also written 20+ non-fiction children’s books for the educational market. She has a Master’s degree in Science Journalism from NYU. Chana is represented by agent John M. Cusick at Folio Literary. Follow her on Twitter @chanastiefel and visit her at, her authors’ blog and


Chana will be giving away one signed copy of her debut picture book, DADDY DEPOT (after 5.16.17), and a written picture book critique up to 500 words.


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

Good luck!

chanastiefel_head-shot_colorby Chana Stiefel

Back in 2014, a picture book idea popped into my head. Luckily I jotted it down in my handy, dandy PiBoIdMo notebook. Gradually, the idea grew into a story about a girl named Chana who was miffed that everyone was mangling her name (“Shayna-China-Shawna-Kahana”). “I’m changing my name to Sue!” Chana cried to her grandmother.

“Sue’s a nice name,” said Grandma. “But did you know there was another Chana who came before you?” Grandma proceeded to tell her granddaughter all about Great Grandma Chana, her voyage to America, and her amazing qualities. Guess which name Chana chooses in the end? I titled the book THAT’S NOT MY NAME, and sent a draft to my critique group.


The critiques I received were lukewarm. My writing partners liked that the book drew on my personal experience. (Not a day goes by without someone bungling my name. The “Ch” is a throat clearing kh sound, like Challah bread or Chanukah, + Ah +Nah.) I had a feeling that all the Sibhoans, Seans, Xaviers, and Chiaras, of the world could relate. The book also emphasized the meanings of names and the importance of maintaining family traditions. Some of my critique partners found the story relatable, BUT . . . they didn’t like that Grandma solved Chana’s problem for her, which made the story fall flat as a pancake run over by a Zamboni.


How could Chana solve her own problem? I made about 10 different attempts at revision. In one draft, Chana scrutinized old photographs. In another she studied a family quilt. She even tried on Grandma Chana’s name necklace. But all of these ideas were BORING! I was stuck.

Then, in the summer of 2015, I read a guest post by my agent, John Cusick, on the Kidlit Summer School blog. John offered “Three Ways to Jumpstart Your Draft When the Plot Starts to Sag.” Tip #1 was a field trip. “In life, if you’re in a funk, you might need a change of scenery,” John wrote. “Chances are your characters feel the same way. Try switching up the setting.”

I love field trips. (Anything to get away from my desk.) Around that time, I went hiking on vacation with my husband in the Canadian Rockies. We were trudging two miles up a mountain in the rain to get to the Lake Agnes Tea House when BAM! It hit me.


What if I drop my character into a whole new setting and a whole new era? Inspired by the rocks around me I thought: What if Chana is a cave girl named…


(See how I kept the Ch?) And what if she’s really steamed that her friends Oog, Boog, and Goog keep bungling her name? And what if she can’t find a T-shirt with her name on it? And what if she’s inspired to solve her own problem after looking at cave paintings of her great, great, great grandmother, the Mighty Wakawakaloch?

By placing my character in a whole new time and place, I had a fresh, new story with more action, more layers, and lots of humor. My critique partners gave it a thumbs up. I shared it at last year’s NJ-SCBWI Fall Craft Weekend and got rave reviews. When John read it, he tweeted:


Making your agent cry is a good thing (sometimes). We submitted the book to publishers at the start of 2016 and got the obligatory pile of rejections. And then, sometime during Round 2, the wonderful Kate O’Sullivan at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt said yes! She signed with the hilarious illustrator Mary Sullivan (author/illustrator of BALL, TREAT, and more!).

I’m forever grateful to Tara Lazar & the soon-to-be-renamed PiBoIdMo for giving me the spark to get this story started. Without my handy, dandy PiBoIdMo notebook—and the lessons I’ve learned over the years about freely jotting down ideas & then fine-tuning them—none of this would ever have happened. Stay tuned for WAKAWAKALOCH’s debut in 2019!

Chana Stiefel (back of the throat Ch-ah-nah STEE-ful) is the author of more than 20 non-fiction books for kids on topics like exploding volcanoes and stinky castles. Her debut picture book, DADDY DEPOT, will be published by Feiwel & Friends in May 2017. WAKAWAKALOCH will be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2019. Chana is represented by John M. Cusick at Folio Literary. Check out Chana’s work at and on her authors’ blog, which she co-writes with her writing partner Donna Cangelosi, at

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July 2021

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