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kristivaliantby Kristi Valiant

Isn’t it fun to hone and revise your hilarious dialogue in your manuscript until it’s just perfect? To give your character another tiny quirk that makes them that much more them? To make sure every little word is important and cut each unnecessary one?

I love details, but they can drag me down too soon.

Most of us have truckloads of ideas now that PiBoIdMo is over. We want to jump into the tastiest one and get writing!

That can be a wonderful way to write a first draft. Find an idea you love for a picture book and jump in headlong. Let the joy of doing your craft show!

But then comes revising, and that’s where the dragging down can happen. I had a bad habit of looking at my first draft and trying to fix the tiniest problems first. I’d fix all my grammar mistakes and look for just the right nuance for every word in each sentence.

I was failing to look at the big picture first: plot and story, a strong or unique concept, character development, an element of surprise, pacing, and so on. Not all of those are right in the first draft. Most, if not all, need some heavy work right away. I was wasting time perfecting tiny details in my manuscripts that needed to change later anyway after I fixed the big problems.

Now I try to look at the big picture first and talk out the major points with my agent before I even write the story. My agent knows the marketplace and can advise me on what might work and what might not before I pour time into a manuscript. You can do that with a trusted writer friend or even by yourself.

When I wrote PENGUIN CHA-CHA, I was figuring out my approach to writing picture books (still am, actually). I knew I wanted to write about dancing penguins, and that was all I had to start. I wrote about penguins dancing in a talent contest, perfected the tiny details, and then realized my story wasn’t unique enough to make it in the market.


I wrote a whole different story about a brother and sister who bought dancing penguins from an exotic pet store, and again, discovered the big overall problems with the story after I spent loads of time sketching up the story into a dummy. (Since I write and illustrate, I submit my stories as a sketch dummy. If you aren’t an illustrator, you submit just the manuscript to publishers without illustrations—the publisher picks the illustrator.)

My final PENGUIN CHA-CHA book is very different than any of my earlier versions. It’s now about a girl who is determined to jitterbug with the penguins at the zoo after she discovers they’re secretly dancing. Random House published the book a few months ago.


I think these processes were necessary for me to learn, and it was fun working those tiny details, so maybe the time wasn’t exactly wasted.

A lot of illustrators go through this same learning experience. I love drawing faces the most. After all, eyes and facial expressions show emotion and the character’s heart. It’s so tempting to get lost drawing those tiny details on a face before I even plan out the rest of the illustration. If you watch kids draw, they start with the faces too. And then later they realize they should have drawn the face smaller to fit everything else on the page or drawn their character in a different spot.


It’s hard to start over with an illustration after you’ve put so much time into drawing the details on the face.

It’s hard to start over with a manuscript after you’ve put so much time into perfecting the written details.

Start with the big picture first. Unless you’re writing and drawing the details just for fun. Then by all means, get lost in those details! And maybe those details will lead to inspire the big picture. In that case, start with the details.

Oh my, we’re all confused now, aren’t we?

So maybe you need to do what you need to do to write your book best. And maybe that’s different than what I do. And that’s OK too.


penguinchachaKristi wrote and illustrated the picture book PENGUIN CHA-CHA. She illustrated Danielle Steel’s upcoming picture book PRETTY MINNIE IN PARIS, as well as the Little Wings chapter book series, THE GOODBYE CANCER GARDEN, CORA COOKS PANCIT, and others. Kristi volunteers as the Regional Advisor of Indiana SCBWI and is represented by Linda Pratt from Wernick & Pratt Agency. She graduated magna cum laude from Columbus College of Art & Design with a major in Illustration. She lives in Indiana with her husband, little girls, and a room full of hippos, monkeys and sneaky penguins.

Visit Krisi online at or on her blog at The penguins do their own dance at


Kristi is giving away a picture book critique. Leave a comment to enter the random drawing.

 You are eligible for this prize if:

  1. You have registered for PiBoIdMo.
  2. You have commented ONCE ONLY on today’s post.
  3. You have completed the PiBoIdMo challenge. (You will have to sign the PiBoIdMo Pledge by December 3rd.)

Good luck, everyone!

Bio photo 2012by Dorina Lazo Gilmore

I grew up in the kitchen with my mama and grandmas and aunties. When I was a little girl my mama sprinkled flour across the counter and let me draw pictures in it while she baked. As I got older, I got to do more grown-up jobs. She taught me how to read recipes, measure ingredients and decipher spices.

I loved being in the kitchen because that’s where I found the greatest samples of food and the best stories cooking.

When I sat at the table with my grandma rolling lumpia, she would tell me about her childhood growing up in the Philippines and Hawaii. Grandma would giggle about the days when my grandpa would dedicate songs to her on the radio. She would share techniques for Filipino cooking, which is as much about the process as it is about the ingredients.

When I would pull up a stool to the counter, my mama would tell me about her adventures in the kitchen with her dad. I learned about our Italian-American heritage. I discovered the secret pasta sauce recipe. My mama unraveled the stories of her dreams, failures and the roots of her faith.

We bonded right there in the kitchen.

Christmas family photo 2012

As a mama of three girls, I spend a lot of time in the kitchen today. We create, we taste, we dream up stories. One day I heard that familiar scrape of the stool across the kitchen tile. My middle daughter, who is named after an Italian chef, wanted to help mama. I happened to be making a Flourless Chocolate Truffle Torte. When she saw the chocolate swirling in the mixing bowl, she looked up at me very earnestly and said, “When does the licking begin?”

A classic line that will go down in history in our family. I am sure it’s also a line that will climb into one of my manuscripts one day.

And that’s just what happens in the kitchen: stories are born. My latest book, CORA COOKS PANCIT, details the story of a Filipino girl who learns to cook her family’s favorite noodle dish with her mama and uncovers some family history in the process. The story came out of my own experience cooking with my grandma Cora.

I happen to have a hand-scrawled copy of my grandma’s pancit recipe. I believe recipes are also a kind of story, a narrative of ingredients and traditions. That’s why we decided to include the recipe for the dish in the back of my book. When I do school visits, I talk about the ingredients with the kids and we cook pancit together.

I also included some details in the book from a Filipino friend who grew up in California’s Central San Joaquin Valley. One day when we were cooking together she told me about her dad who cooked for the hundreds of farmworkers who picked strawberries and grapes in the fields. This added another layer to my original manuscript because I could share a piece of California history as well.

Moise & Dorina gaze at roof

The kitchen can also be a place to test out a lot more than just recipes. If your writer’s brain is blocked, droopy, stuck or uninspired, go feed it. Throw open the cupboards, dig in the refrigerator, turn up the burner and make something. I call it cooking therapy. Sometimes just the act of making myself a snack or cooking up a meal gets my creative juices flowing. While I’m cooking, I’m working out the kinks in my plot or adding nuances to my characters – sometimes consciously, sometimes subconsciously.

Julia Child said, “This is my invariable advice to people: Learn how to cook. Try new recipes. Learn from your mistakes. Be fearless, and above all, have fun.”

Sounds like great advice for writers too.

Bon appétit!


  1. Describe the most delicious meal you can imagine. What are the smells, the colors, the tastes that inspire you there?
  2. Sketch a scene in words or pictures from your childhood that involved food. Was there a traditional dish or meal you often made with your family?
  3. If you were inviting a famous chef to dinner, what you would you serve? Invite your own children or perhaps your inner child to be a part of that story.
  4. What food makes your stomach turn or your nose turn up? Write a story about a child avoiding or facing that food.
  5. Go in the kitchen. Make yourself a snack. Dig in. Then imagine what would happen if that tantalizing snack came alive.


CoraCooksPancitCoverDorina is the author of three books for children, including CORA COOKS PANCIT which won the Asian Pacific American Librarian Association’s “Picture Book of the Year.” Her poetry has also been published in Cricket magazine.

Dorina loves creating healthy recipes for her family and friends. To balance all that eating, she runs half marathons with her hubby and knits. When Dorina is not writing or stirring up stories in the kitchen, she is the director of The Haitian Bead Project. The project features upcycled jewelry made by Haitian artisans who are rising out of poverty. Dorina loves working with the Haitian women and sharing their stories in the U.S.

Visit Dorina online at, Twitter @DorinaGilmore or check out some of her recipes on the Health-full blog at


Dorina is giving away a signed copy of CORA COOKS PANCIT!

This prize  will be given away at the conclusion of PiBoIdMo. You are eligible for this prize if:

  1. You have registered for PiBoIdMo.
  2. You have commented ONCE ONLY on today’s post.
  3. You have completed the PiBoIdMo challenge. (You will have to sign the PiBoIdMo Pledge at the end of the event.)

Good luck, everyone!

kristivaliantby Kristi Valiant

PENGUIN CHA-CHA is my first book as both author and illustrator, so my process was very different than when I’ve illustrated manuscripts written by other authors.

penguinchachaUsually I receive a manuscript from a publisher, I read it over—that first read tickles the first glimpses of images into my head—and then I decide if that manuscript is one that I want to spend months illustrating.

Illustrating stories by other authors gives me a chance to illustrate ideas that I wouldn’t have had otherwise and brings variety to my work.

For example, in THE GOODBYE CANCER GARDEN, the author Janna Matthies wrote about a family growing a healthy vegetable garden as Mom recovered from cancer. It’s a powerful story of healing. Since I’ve never gone through something like that, I wouldn’t have thought to write that story, but Janna experienced a very similar cancer battle in her own life before writing this hope-filled story. As soon as I read that manuscript, I knew it would be an important book for many families. It was an honor to be able to illustrate it.


Another part of illustrating someone else’s manuscript is to add my own voice to the book through the illustrations. I need to figure out what to add to the story they’re telling, and that may mean showing things in the illustrations that the author never thought of. (That’s why publishers like to keep the authors and illustrators away from each other.)

corasdogIn the picture book CORA COOKS PANCIT by Dorina K. Lazo Gilmore, Cora feels ignored at first by her family. To echo her feelings, I drew a little dog that follows Cora around wanting to play, so he brings her more and more toys on each page. Cora ignores him.

Just as Cora gets her happy ending, the dog gets his own happy ending when Cora finally plays with him. The dog wasn’t part of the text by the author. The dog is my own contribution to rounding out the story with the illustrations. Since parents are usually busy reading the words, they may not even notice the dog, but be assured that the kids who are hearing the story and studying the illustrations definitely notice that dog! Kids are master picture readers, so that’s always something I think about as I decide how to draw my half of the story in books written by someone else.

My process for PENGUIN CHA-CHA was different from the start because the illustration came first instead of the manuscript. Way back in 2007, I drew an illustration of penguins dancing. I used to be in a swing and Latin dance group and I liked penguins, so I decided to combine two things I liked to create a fun portfolio piece.


Around the same time I had tried my hand at writing my first picture book manuscripts about other subjects. I had a meeting with an editor and showed her my picture book manuscripts and also my portfolio. She remarked about how much more my face lit up when we got to the dancing penguin illustration than when I talked about my manuscripts!


So I realized I really needed to write about the things that make my face light up. Makes sense, right? So I wrote story after story about dancing penguins. It was much harder to write a wonderfully marketable picture book than I thought it would be! What remained constant were the dancing penguins, but the plots of the stories were all over the place. Those penguins danced for years as I figured out my story. I even licensed them out as wrapping paper at some point. I finally sorted out my story as it played as images in my head. I only wrote down the words that I felt were necessary and not shown in the illustrations. In the end, my editor at Random House asked me to add in a bit more text. I may be the only picture book author that’s happened to—usually they want to cut words!


Writing my own books allows me the freedom to draw my favorite subject matter and favorite kinds of characters and things that make my face light up like dancing penguins. And the story usually starts with an image for me. Illustrating someone else’s manuscript brings more variety to my work and new experiences. So I love both!

Speaking of new experiences, I’m currently illustrating a picture book written by Danielle Steel called PRETTY MINNIE IN PARIS. For research, I visited Paris—what a lovely city to experience! The story combines Paris, a fashion runway show, a long-haired teacup Chihuahua, and a stylish little girl. Oh la la! Watch for PRETTY MINNIE in the fall of 2014.

penguinchachaprizeThanks, Kristi, for giving us a glimpse into your process! 

PENGUIN CHA-CHA releases today!  Happy Book Birthday, Kristi!

And lucky readers, Kristi is giving away a PENGUIN CHA-CHA prize pack! You’ll receive a signed book, magnet, bookmark and sticker! Just leave a comment below by September 5th to enter, and if you’d like to ask Kristi a question, you can do so there, too.

You can learn more about the book at and download a Storytime Activities Kit.

Also follow Kristi’s blog at


coracookspancitWhat makes you pluck a picture book off the shelf? A clever title? The author’s name? What about a charming little girl on the cover, stirring a delicious pot of noodles? That’s what got to me with Cora Cooks Pancit by Dorina K. Lazo Gilmore.

Maybe it’s because I love to cook. Maybe the bright little dot that said “Recipe Included!” spoke to me. (And, by the way, the recipe is delicious!)

But more than anything, vibrant primary colors and Cora’s smiling eyes drew me in. Illustrator Kristi Valiant’s paintings evoke a warm feeling as Cora cooks a traditional Filipino dish with her mama for the first time.

Cora is the youngest of many children and always gets the kiddie kitchen tasks, like licking the spoon clean. Valiant’s opening scene shows the family from Cora’s point of view, as she sits on the floor with the family dog. We see her family from the waist down, spread along the kitchen counter, performing their duties. It’s amazing how Valiant can make the poses so varied and expressive, only working with half a body. Some of the pencil lines remain, creating an illusion of movement—the bustle of the family kitchen.

Valiant’s image presents the conflict immediately: little Cora is not involved with family meal preparation. We feel Cora’s longing to be a “real cook.”

One day when her siblings leave the house, Cora asks to cook with Mama. Mama lets Cora choose the dish. Cora wants pancit.

Mama tells the story of how her own father taught her to make pancit, and Cora feels proud when she gets to wear her Lolo’s red apron.

What follows is a delightful, heart-warming exchange between mother/teacher and daughter/student. Valiant’s illustrations are spot-on, from facial expressions to body language. She gets every detail just right. Even Cora’s feet, slightly off-balance, reveal her trepidation as she prepares the noodles. Sunlight streams in through the kitchen window, framing Cora and Mama in a scene that highlights the special bond created with family tradition.


As usual, I won’t reveal the story’s ending. There’s an oopsie along the way, but there’s also a beaming Cora.

I was so impressed with this book’s illustrations, I asked Kristi Valiant for an interview. Luckily, she agreed to talk to me about the making of Cora and other fun illustration stuff. Watch for it soon!

coracookspancitCora Cooks Pancit
Text by Dorina K. Lazo Gilmore
Illustrations by Kristi Valiant
Shen’s Books, Spring 2009
Want it? Sure you do!

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