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Pat Booksby Pat Zielow Miller

This Thanksgiving, what are you thankful for?

Yes, I know. Your health. Your family. Food on the table. The upcoming football game. And, perhaps, some Black Friday shopping.

Those are all good and worthy things. I am thankful for them too.

But, it’s Picture Book Idea Month. And that means I am thankful for ideas. All kinds of them.

As I writer, I get asked, “Where do you get your ideas?”

A lot.

For a while, I didn’t know what to say.

But then, I figured it out. Or, I should say that Wendy Reid Crisp did. She wrote an essay in a book that is the perfect answer. I wish I could repost it for you here. But, you know, copyright issues.

The essay is on Page 26 of her 1997 book DO AS I SAY NOT AS I DID: PERFECT ADVICE FROM AN IMPERFECT MOTHER. It’s called, “There Are No Big Breaks.”

Anyway it’s about an aspiring actress in New York who is riding the subway and notices a lone grape rolling down the center aisle. She can’t figure out where it came from, but appreciates the absurdity of the moment enough to write a letter to the New York Times. Her letter is printed.

Then, the actress (who, remember, is unknown) goes to an audition. The director thinks her name sounds familiar and finally asks, “Are you the woman with the grape?” She acknowledges that she is. He praises her eye for detail and understanding of human behavior. She gets the part.

Reid Crisp concludes her essay by writing, “There are no big breaks. There are only rolling grapes. Some people see them, and some people don’t.”

To me, successful writers are people who notice the grapes in life. The weird, funny moments. The unexplainable occurrences. The odd socks the mail carrier is wearing. The squirrel that you can’t stop watching because it reminds you of your Uncle Esteban—except, you know, smaller. The snippet of conversation you overheard from the next checkout lane that made no sense but won’t get out of your head.

That’s where writers get their ideas.

sharing the bread cover

For my Thanksgiving picture book, SHARING THE BREAD: AN OLD-FASHIONED THANKSGIVING STORY (Schwartz & Wade, 2015) I got the idea from some weird words that popped into my brain during one of those boring meetings that make you question every career choice you’ve made to get to this point in your life.

The words were:

Mama, be a cooking pot, cooking pot.
Big and round and black and hot.
Mama, be a pot.

They came out of nowhere and raised logical questions: “Who was Mama?” “And why on earth should she be a pot?”

The words made no sense. I hadn’t been thinking about mothers or pots or cooking. But I liked their very weirdness. I emailed them to myself at home and played around with them that night.

In other words, I noticed the grape and decided to do something with it.

Not that it was easy. First, I thought I might create some kind of play or game where kids could pretend to be different items.

Then, I thought the family might find the items instead of being them. Soon everyone was cooking a meal.

But, the rhyme scheme seemed off. So I revamped, using Dori Chaconas’ ON A WINTRY MORNING as a mentor text. When I told her this at a recent Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators conference, she told me she used a different mentor test to write her book, so I guess we’re all sharing the love.

Then, an editor declined the manuscript but suggested the family make a holiday meal. Enter turkey and cranberries and lots of hair-pulling. (What rhymes with turkey anyway? “Murky?” “Jerky?” “Perky?”)

But, I eventually made the story work, and another editor was interested. Anne Schwartz had me revise again. And again. And then suggested I add a rhyming refrain. Which was incredibly hard to do, but unquestionably added a lot to the book.

Some writers carry notebooks to jot down rolling grapes when they see or hear them. Others keep the grapes corralled in their heads. Do whatever works for you, but notice those grapes. They just might end up in the best fruit salad you ever created.

Oh, and because I do get asked this a lot, here’s what the first stanza of the book eventually became after all the revision:

Mama, fetch the cooking pot.
Fetch our turkey-cooking pot.
Big and old and black and squat.
Mama, fetch the pot.

Have an amazing Thanksgiving!

Pat Zietlow Miller has three picture books in print and seven more on the way. Her debut, SOPHIE’ S SQUASH, won the Golden Kite Award for best picture book text, an Ezra Jack Keats New Writer Honor and a Charlotte Zolotow Honor. It also won the Midwest Region Crystal Kite Award and was a Cybils’ finalist. WHEREVER YOU GO briefly made the Midwest Booksellers bestseller list, and SHARING THE BREAD was, at one point, the No. 1 release for new Thanksgiving books. Pat blogs about the craft of writing picture books at She lives in Madison, Wisconsin, with one wonderful husband, two delightful daughters and two particular cats. Find her on Twitter at @PatZMiller.

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