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Being an artist and doodler at heart, I thought I’d share with you my sure-fire way of getting creative ideas flowing for me. It’s quite simple really: sketching. I carry two sketchbooks with me everywhere I go: a large one for anything work-related, and a smaller sketchbook for on-the-go sketching whenever the mood strikes me.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: “Hey, not all of us are as artistically inclined to just pick up a pencil and start drawing!” No problem. The same thinking that I use for drawing while looking at people and places around me can be applied for you writers who might need a jumpstart for coming up with ideas for characters.

When I first moved to Portland, I would ride the bus back and forth to work daily. I loved noticing all the different assortment of people who’d ride along with me—some regulars, some not so regular. I began to bring along my 5 x 7 inch notebook to record some of these interesting characters and to at least capture the moments that might otherwise be lost if I didn’t somehow sketch them down.

At first, I was drawing my surroundings, mostly:

Then I’d muster up the courage to start drawing others around me while sitting, hoping that maybe no one would see (or care) that I was perhaps drawing them. I had to be stealthy.

As I found my groove, I’d capture the little things, the little moments that might’ve been overlooked: the pencil with a large eraser stuck in a young woman’s hair, the tilt of a hat on an older gentlemen’s head, the way a woman would read the morning paper.

Every once in a while, a really interesting person would show up on the bus and I’d start sketching feverishly, capturing the details the best I could, as well as jotting down notes:

The regulars were always an interesting bunch, as well. One day I decided to draw only them, since I’d see them every morning, along with some notes and details to help me remember the little things:

Out of these daily sketching sessions, I’d eventually gather a great deal of character ideas. Great for character development. For some, I’d make up backstories in my head while I was sketching them. This character building would even spill over into my work while coming up with characters for the picture books I’d illustrate, especially the City, Baby! books. It might’ve been a simple pose that someone on the bus did for a brief moment, and the ideas would snowball into a fully-fledged character with pathos and perhaps their own story arc.

If you don’t have a sketchbook, that’s fine. A notebook or anything with pages for you to write something down should work out perfectly. Or, if it’s more convenient, Post-It notes. Whenever creative lightning would strike, but a sketchbook is nowhere to be found, Post-It notes always did the trick for me! And you can always collect and stick them into your sketchbook when the time is right:

It’s all about observation. Being aware of your surroundings, of the people around you, and taking in all the details.

Here’s a spread from NEW YORK, BABY! with plenty of characters gathered on—yup, you guessed it, a city bus:

Like I said earlier, you don’t have to be an artist to do this sort of thing. You can simply write down what you see. And you don’t have to be on the bus, either. This exercise can be done while waiting for your flight, while eating in the food court at your favorite mall, or watching TV. Recording the little moments that happen all around you. By building up this assortment of details, of moments, you are adding on to your cache of characters. Whether it be actual sketches or scribbled down notes, being aware of the canvases around you can be constant jumping off points for any type of character, whether human or human-like. The ideas for character development are limitless.

Best of luck with creating your characters!


Ward Jenkins is an animator, illustrator, and lover of all things aesthetically pleasing. He is the designer behind PiBoIdMo 2012’s logo and badges, and his sketchbook shared here today is online at Flickr. Ward illustrated Michael Phelp’s HOW TO TRAIN LIKE A T-REX AND WIN 8 GOLD MEDALS, Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen’s CHICKS RUN WILD as well as Chronicle’s NEW YORK, BABY! and SAN FRANCISCO, BABY! Catch him blogging at Ward-o-Matic and if you like his art, you can get some for your walls at his Ward-o-Matic shop (Tara’s favorite, which hangs in her home, is “Speaking in Color”).


Ward is generously giving away a signed copy of NEW YORK, BABY! and SAN FRANCISCO, BABY! to two winners who comment below. Remember, one comment per person, please. Winners will be selected in one week. Good luck!

by Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen

I have something that’s so real.

Reality is your friend. That’s the best piece of advice I can give anyone about anything. Really.

Of course, it strikes even me that someone who makes a living distorting reality (i.e., writing fiction) would be so high on reality. Yet, here I am, with my message to other writers about elevating their fiction by keeping it real…

Now, let me take a step back and tell you that I wasn’t sure what this post was going to be about when I came up with this reality idea. (It was really only based on Tara’s brilliant Vogue cover.) Should I talk about the business of publishing, or the craft of writing? Should I talk about balancing life and art, or about using literature to explore life through art? I could see the positives in each of those approaches, and it made it really difficult to get started. So then I thought, maybe I could touch upon a few of these topics? Not all in one post, obviously, but maybe Tara would let me guest blog a few more times?

That’s my plan, at least. Shhh. Don’t tell her.

I’ve decided in this round, I’m going to focus on how we can use the reality of life to create meaningful art. So, to get back to where we started:

Reality is your friend. That’s the best piece of advice I can give anyone about anything. Really. But especially when it comes to writing fiction, reality is your best friend. It’s reality that makes your fiction come to life.

Whenever I’m at a school to talk about writing with kids, I spend a lot of time telling kids that every book is an autobiography. Obviously, that doesn’t mean that in my private moments I am a vampire pig (à la HAMPIRE) or a chicken in pajamas (à la CHICKS RUN WILD). But every book I write is informed by my own reality. In some way or another, I am every one of my main characters. My kids are my main characters, too, sometimes individually or sometimes as a blended product, but there’s always a piece of me. Because, at the end of the day, if the only way to be a successful storyteller is to write what you know, well, is there anyone we know better than ourselves?

The temptation when we start writing is to create something grander, bigger, more than ourselves. After all, my life is fairly boring—barely want to hear about it!—so why would anyone else want to read about my reality? So we start out creating characters that are better than everyone else, smarter, prettier, more talented, more perfect. Their adventures are epic. Their adversaries are the embodiment of evil.

And the result is often—not always, but often—unbelievable. In the “no one would believe this and therefore this story rings false” way.

As much as readers turn to literature to escape, to experience things that they cannot do, the reality is (and, remember, reality is your friend) that no reader likes to read about someone better than him for too long. The main character has to be relatable to keep a reader’s interest. And how do you craft a relatable character?

By making sure he is just a regular guy (who finds himself in extraordinary circumstances.) Basically, by keeping him real.

(This is hardly new advice. In fact, I’ve given this advice myself in a different form in my picture book workshops – that you should always make sure your main character is interesting, but well and truly flawed. Because it’s the flaws that keep him real.)

So, how do we use reality to craft fictional characters? Obviously, we can’t just write about ourselves or our kids exactly as we are. (Trust me, I’ve tried that. That’s a little too much reality.) The trick, I’ve found, is to choose interesting traits (perhaps from several different sources) and blend them together to create a new, fictional character grounded in reality.

Here are some examples:

In HAMPIRE, Duck desperately wants a midnight snack, but is worried about running into the dreaded Hampire. The reality: every night, I want a midnight snack, and every night, I am convinced that if I step foot off my bed, the monsters will get me. The fiction: I am not a duck.

In PIRATE PRINCESS (available in May 2012 from HarperCollins), Princess Bea dreams of the pirate life, but when she boards the pirate ship, she realizes she’s awful at deck-swabbing (she has no housekeeping skills), she can’t be their galley cook (no culinary talents), and she is an ineffective lookout in the crow’s nest (she get’s seasick). The reality: I have no housekeeping skills, I have no culinary talents, I get seasick, and I think I’d look dashing in a pirate hat. The fiction: while Princess Bea doesn’t like to dress in silk, brocade, or chintz, and can’t stand the idea of being married to a prince, I love dressing up and look forward to a life with my Prince Charming (yes, Daniel Craig, I’m talking to you!).

In my forthcoming chapter book series, THE SPECTACLES OF DESTINY, the main character, Destiny, discovers she needs glasses. She’s worried about what she will look like (especially about whether they will make her nose look big) and what others will think of her glasses, from her friends on her soccer team to her classmates in the fifth grade. This one is complicated, because I drew from a lot of different sources of reality, so here’s a little chart of some of the sources:

Something about Destiny The inspiration
She wears glasses My daughter Brooklyn and I both wear glasses, and we both initially worried about what other people would think of them.
She’s concerned about the size of her nose. I’m concerned about the massive size of my nose.
She’s in the 5th grade. My daughter Bella is in the 5th grade.
She loves soccer. Bella and Brooklyn both love soccer.
She plays goalie. Brooklyn plays goalie.
She’s super smart. Bella and Brooklyn are both super smart.
She’s afraid of spiders. I’m afraid of spiders.
She’s Indian American. My whole family is Indian American.
She lives in New Jersey, outside Philadelphia. We live in New Jersey, outside Philadelphia.
Her first pair of glasses are dark tortoiseshell. Brooklyn’s first pair of glasses are dark tortoiseshell.
Her second pair of glasses are black with zebra-printed sides. Brooklyn’s new pair of glasses are black with zebra-printed sides.
Her glasses let her see bits of the future clearly. Brooklyn’s glasses let her see the present clearly.

Obviously, I could go on and on with more examples of traits that I drew from my life or from my children’s lives. But you’re getting the idea. Here’s something I would add, though: in every place in the revision process where my editor asked for more detail, the things I added were inevitably true things about someone in my house.

So, one more time, let’s go back to the beginning: reality is your friend.

Do you believe me yet?

Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen is the award-winning author of many, many books for children, including picture books, nonfiction for young readers, and a forthcoming chapter book series called THE SPECTACLES OF DESTINY (due out in 2014). Her picture book QUACKENSTEIN HATCHES A FAMILY was selected for the California Readers 2011 Book Collections for School Libraries. BALLOTS FOR BELVA was named to the 2009 Amelia Bloomer List and received an Oppenheim Toy Portfolio Gold Award in 2008 and FLYING EAGLE was a National Science Teachers Association Outstanding Science Trade Book selection for Students K–12 in 2010. Her science book, NATURE SCIENCE EXPERIMENTS, was named a finalist for the 2011 AAAS/Subaru Science Books & Films Prize for Excellence in Science Books. And her books CHICKS RUN WILD (named one of Bank Street’s Best Children’s Books of the Year in 2012) and HAMPIRE! (nominated for a Maryland Black-Eyed Susan Award) are her personal favorites, and just fabulous.

Sudipta speaks at conferences, educator events, and schools across the country, teaching the craft of writing to children and adults. She lives outside Philadelphia with her three children and an imaginary pony named Penny. Learn more about her and her books at

P.S. If you love Sudipta’s author headshot above, her photographer LifeArt Imaging is currently running a Groupon. Click here! 

by Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen

I have no new ideas.


No plan. No flashes of inspiration. No idea where to find an idea.

This is not a new dilemma for me.

The longer I’ve been writing, the more successful I’ve gotten, the harder it becomes to find those ideas that get me excited. Sounds counterintuitive, doesn’t it? Shouldn’t it get easier with experience?

For me, it hasn’t. But that hasn’t stopped me from writing. (After all, this is the sweetest job on earth – not only do I get to create something from nothing, a lot of the time that I’m working, I’m in my jammies in my bed.) So, what’s a girl to do? How do you pull a good idea out of the air?

I don’t really know. But Tara invited me to blog so I thought I’d give y’all some possible places to start.

Look for Nuggets, not Multitudes
Everyone knows you can’t just sit down to write a picture book about a chicken and think that’s all the brainstorming you need to do to run with it. Just “chicken” is too generic, too common, too…uninspired. But what if that’s all you have? Don’t you need a complete plot, a big idea…a whole roaster, so to speak?

Let the chicken be your nugget, no pun intended, and build from there. (And who am I kidding? I totally intended the pun. See below. I don’t stop with the puns.)

I started with a chicken nugget once. I hadn’t written a chicken book. Chickens are adorable. Instant winner.

But I quickly realized that I needed more. For someone to give a cluck about my chicken book, I needed to add some garnish. So I started thinking about chickens and what they do. Eventually, I brainstormed about chicks – but there were so many chick books already. Baby chicks, fluffy chicks, chicks and salsa…the list went on and on. All these chicks in all these books, all running wild…
And then it hit me. CHICKS RUN WILD.

I took my nugget and grew it to a title. And from there, I…well, ran wild with it. Now, let’s be honest, I took this title and then did what writers all over the world do every day: I wrote about what I knew. CHICKS RUN WILD grew into the story of little chicks at bedtime who don’t want to go to sleep quite yet—it could be an autobiography of bedtime with my own children. So, easily, I could advise you to take inspiration from your life—but you get that everywhere, don’t you? Besides, my point is I only got to writing about what I knew after starting with a small nugget of inspiration. I nurtured that nugget and kept it warm and safe until it grew into a fully formed…idea.

What’s in a Name?
OK, let’s shift gears. No more chicken puns. Let’s talk names instead.

Is there anything more immediately suggestive than a character’s name? Think Willy Wonka, or Shrek, or Fancy Nancy—just the names create an image in the reader’s mind. Characters can grow to be iconic – if developed correctly. But you certainly can’t know ahead of time which of your characters will become iconic.

That doesn’t mean you can’t start with character.

The truth is, I think the best place to start is character. When you have an idea for a great character, you need to let him run free (run wild, perhaps?) even before you figure out exactly what that character will do in the story. A strong character will find his story.

Years ago, I wanted to write a story about a vampire pig named HAMPIRE. A pig with fangs and a Dracula cape. Preferably a vegetarian. But that’s all I knew about him.

It took years—YEARS—to find his story. For a long time, I didn’t have a story for Hampire—but he lingered in my thoughts, waiting for me to figure him out. I had dreams about him, I had nightmares about him—and I wrote draft after draft about him. In the end, he still had fangs, still wore a cape, was still a vegetarian—but everything else about him changed many, many times. And that was OK.

Be Patient
I probably haven’t told you anything here that you didn’t already know, and there’s certainly not anything earth shattering in looking for inspiration as small as a title or a character. But what I want to leave you with is the most important idea about ideas of all:

Be patient.

You can’t force a good idea. You can’t coerce your brain into generating a good idea, nor can you keep working at a bad idea to turn it into a good idea. And, honestly, the more you try to force yourself, the harder it gets to tell the difference between the good ideas and the truly horribly awful ones.

So, be patient. Work on ideas you have, and don’t be afraid to heavily edit as you’re writing. In fact, don’t be afraid of crumpling up a lot of paper and tossing things into the trash—sometimes, the best way to find a great idea is to sort through and dispose of all the bad ideas around it.

I won’t lie to you and say that after dispensing all this advice, I was hit by inspiration and walked away with a great new idea to work on. I didn’t. I still don’t have any ideas for my next picture book. But I also know that when the idea does come, it like won’t be accompanied by a flash of lightning and a gospel choir. It will come from a word, or a phrase, or an image that strikes me and lingers. And that’s where the work begins.

Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen is the author of many, many books for children, ranging from fourteen picture books to over a dozen nonfiction books for young readers. Her picture book Quackenstein Hatches a Family was selected for the California Readers 2011 Book Collections for School Libraries. Ballots for Belva was named to the 2009 Amelia Bloomer List and received an Oppenheim Toy Portfolio Gold Award in 2008 and Tightrope Poppy, the High-Wire Pig was named one of the Best Children’s Books of the Year in 2007 by the Children’s Book Committee at Bank Street. Flying Eagle was a National Science Teachers Association Outstanding Science Trade Book selection for Students K–12 in 2010 and was named one of the Bank Street’s Best Children’s Books of the Year in 2010. Her science book, Nature Science Experiments, was named a finalist for the 2011 AAAS/Subaru Science Books & Films Prize for Excellence in Science Books. And her books Chicks Run Wild and Hampire! are her personal favorites, and just fabulous.

Sudipta speaks at conferences, educator events, and schools across the country, teaching the craft of writing to children and adults. She lives outside Philadelphia with her three children and an imaginary pony named Penny. Learn more about her and her books at

Do you have a love/hate relationship with bedtime? It’s a cozy time to snuggle and read a book with the kids, but it’s also when they refuse to settle down to sleep. Mom, can I sleep in your bed? Dad, can I have a glass of water? Could you fluff my pillow? Can we read one more book? Please? Five more minutes? Pretty please with sugar on top?

Ey yi yi. It’s enough to drive any mama hen wild! And it does in Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen’s new picture book, Chicks Run Wild.

In her Coop Sweet Coop, Mama has five chicks to put to bed. She tucks them in, gives them each a peck goodnight, but when she closes the door, they leap out of bed and cause a riotous ruckus. Feathers fly and Mama’s patience wears thin.

At first Mama scolds her chicks, but when she realizes her little ones are not ready for dreamland, she does something unexpected. Chicks Run Wild lets both parents and kids know it’s okay to break the rules every once in a while.

With a bright and cheery color palate, Ward Jenkins creates an adorable brood of five chicks with distinct personalities. One chick always has one eye opened, awaiting Mama’s departure. And there’s other fun details, like a spoof of the Beatles’ album cover Abbey Road, and Mama’s favorite read, Gone with the Wing. Sudipta’s jaunty rhyme makes you want to get up and shake your tail feathers with the family.

Bedtime is going to be a lot more fun with Chicks Run Wild. When your kids ask to read one more book, you’ll happily pick this one.

Want it? Sure you do!

Chicks Run Wild
Story by Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen
Illustrations by Ward Jenkins
Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
January 2011

by Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen

If you’re like me, writing is work. By this I mean it is my job, my primary source of income (therefore, work) but also that it is just plain HARD. There is nothing so depressing as trying to come up with something new and fresh to write about—and coming up with nothing.

That happens to me a lot.

So what do you do?

Well, I really don’t know the answer. But here are some tricks I use to muddle through those times when I have nothing to write about.

1) Start with character. I truly believe that the most important aspect of a picture book, what drives its popularity the most, is a charismatic main character. The premise, the setting, the cutesy word play and rhyme—all of these are secondary to character. So if you need to brainstorm only one thing, work on that viable character list.

The trick to creating a truly charismatic main character is to blend flaws with flair. Don’t just come up with fifty cute character traits. Give your main character some faults, some defects—he will be infinitely more interesting.

2) Something old into something new. There are so many examples of authors who take an old idea and make it into something modern and fresh. The entire genre of fractured fairy tales is built on the premise that recognizable is always a benefit for marketing, but recognizable AND fresh is money in the bank. Now I’m not at all recommending that all you do is read a collection of Grimm’s fairy tales and add a hippopotamus to each story (don’t do that, because it was my idea first). But if you can take inspiration from something your audience will recognize and then take it to a brand new place, where is the downside?

Some examples of this in my own work:
THE HOG PRINCE – we know it’s a frog prince, not a hog prince, but Eldon does not.
QUACKENSTEIN – isn’t every monster story better with a duck?
THE TWELVE WORST DAYS OF CHRISTMAS – believe it or not, in addition to a Christmas song, this is a sibling story

3) Look at your own life. And I mean this as way to eliminate bad ideas. When you’re having a hard time with inspiration, there is the temptation to use your own children or grandchildren as your muses. Trust me, this is a bad idea. Because as cute as their latest antics are to you, they very rarely make for good picture books. Save yourself. Don’t do it.

4) Exercise. Well, do a writing exercise at least. When you’re really stuck you could reinforce your writing ability by taking a book that is perhaps not one of your favorites and then rewriting it the way it should be. Obviously, you can’t then try to publish your version of Dora the Explorer (because Nora the Explorer or even Eleanora the Explorer is simply not going to be fresh enough to merit a whole new franchise!). But the exercise will show you that you are not only able to create a new story but one that is better than something that was actually published (which means there is hope for you yet) and, again, you never know where that road will lead.

5) When all else fails, take a breath. Sorry, guys, sometimes the ideas are not going to come. No matter how much you force it. When you are really and truly stuck, stop trying so hard. Instead, work on revising older manuscripts—maybe you can whip one of those into shape. Or perhaps the something old that you will turn into something new will come from your own pile of older ideas.

Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen is the author of 18 non-fiction books for children and several picture books. Her newest release, QUACKENSTEIN HATCHES A FAMILY, will be followed by CHICKS RUN WILD in January. Enter the CHICKS contest at!

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