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by Julie Segal Walters

In November 2011, I secretly stalked Storystorm (then PiBoIdMo) from afar. I wanted to write picture books, but I didn’t take myself seriously as a writer. So I lurked in the shadows, read the inspirational blog posts, and soaked up everything I could without thinking of ideas, putting myself out there, or participating in the group’s Facebook page in any way whatsoever.

By Storystorm 2012, I had boldly joined a local critique group of other greenhorn picture book writers, and had resolved to stop being so secretive about my desire and efforts to write for children. I decided it was time to publicly try on my new identity, and I hoped that it would fit. So when Maria Burel posted on the Storystorm Facebook wall (with similar trepidation) that she lived in my area and was looking to join an in-person critique group, I invited her to join mine.

You see, for me, Storystorm wasn’t about generating picture book ideas. It was about the people. The community of writers who shared a love for children’s literature and a desire to write stories that would touch a child’s heart, or funny bone, or soul. While I’m constantly grateful for the blog posts and for the opportunity to learn from shared resources, mostly, what drove my desire to participate in Storystorm was engaging with others. I loved interacting in the comments on the Facebook wall! The Storystorm community provided the much needed infusion of interpersonal connection in my otherwise solitary writing effort.

That said, when November 2013 rolled around, I was also in it for the ideas! I was writing more seriously, meeting regularly with my critique group (including Maria), and learning everything I could about the children’s book business and craft. That year, I was deliberate about capturing every idea in my idea notebook, including, on November 20, when I documented the idea, “Find some fun Yiddish saying and make a story out of it.”

This idea surfaced while reading a bedtime story to my son that included Yiddish vocabulary. I have always loved Yiddish, and I think Yiddish proverbs are the perfect combination of hilarious and profound. My father’s parents spoke Yiddish, and I have fond memories of my grandfather teaching me to swear in Yiddish while my grandmother yelled at him to stop corrupting me.

Later that same night, I continued thinking about my grandfather, and decided to spend a few minutes researching Yiddish proverbs. I came across the proverb that became the first line of my book—“If the cat laid an egg, it would be a hen.” (It loosely means, you can’t wish for something to be different from what it is because wishing won’t make it so.)  The proverb inspired me to write more words about different types of animals, and ultimately a full meta-fiction author-illustrator conflict story spilled out.

As far as I was concerned, though, I was merely entertaining myself by writing a funny story based on that day’s Storystorm idea. It was a fun night. But, a few weeks later, I was still amused by the story, so I emailed it to my critique partner, Maria. Maria replied: “JULIE! I LOVE this. Your natural voice comes through so clearly here. Like you allowed yourself to be silly and THIS came out!”

I still get chills when I read her message, because I think Maria’s point—allowing yourself to be silly—is another gift of Storystorm. Sure it’s important to generate lots of picture book ideas. But I think Tara Lazar’s genius in creating Storystorm was in creating an environment that allows us—even requires us—to just be creative. And silly. It’s a brainstorm with no room for an internal editor. It doesn’t require industry savvy, or story arc, or plotting. Storystorm frees our imaginations, and sometimes an unburdened inspiration results in a book.

That book I wrote in November 2013, THIS IS NOT A NORMAL ANIMAL BOOK, sold in May 2014 to Simon and Schuster, and released in November 2017. While I will NEVER write or sell a book that quickly again, I always try to return to that zone of unburdened creative freedom that I learned and nurtured through participation in Storystorm when I think of story ideas or write something new.

All of this was possible thanks to Tara Lazar and the Storystorm community, and I will be forever grateful to you all. But Tara can only lead a horse to water (and, you know, provide the water). It’s up to each of us to drink the Storystorm opportunities. I’m proud that I chose to take a risk, participate in the challenge, and engage with the community. Thanks to Storystorm, I thought of the idea for my debut picture book. But more importantly, I met the critique partner who encouraged me to pursue the book, as well as dozens of other incredible picture book writers and friends. I also learned about Julie Hedlund’s 12×12 [http://12x12challenge.com/] from Storystorm. Through 12×12, I received further critiques on my book, and met the people with whom I would later form Picture the Books, [https://picturethebooks2017.wordpress.com/] the group of 2017 debut authors and illustrators who have become some of my most trusted colleagues and dear friends.

To me, my true triumph, and the real Storystorm success story here, is an achievement we all have the opportunity to share — the enduring gift of creativity, and of connecting with this committed, generous, and supportive community of writers and illustrators.

Thank you all for everything!

Julie Segal Walters is the author of THIS IS NOT A NORMAL ANIMAL BOOK (illustrated by Brian Biggs) (Simon and Schuster 2017). She lives in Washington, DC, with her husband, son, and pesky cat. Before writing for children, Julie was a lawyer and advocate for civil rights and civil liberties, and an international democracy and civil society development specialist. These days, she can be found advocating for her many favorite children’s books to anyone who will listen. Julie is fluent in Spanish and loves to cook, but not bake. She thinks baking has too many rules. You can find her online at juliesegalwalters.com.

Julie is giving away a picture book critique.

Simply leave ONE COMMENT below to enter.

You’re eligible to win if you’re a registered Storystorm participant and you have commented once below. Prizes will be given away at the conclusion of the event.

Good luck!

7ate9

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My Picture Books

COMING SOON:


illus by Melissa Crowton
Tundra/PRH Canada
June 4, 2019


illus by Ross MacDonald
Disney*Hyperion
October 15, 2019

THREE WAYS TO TRAP A LEPRECHAUN
illus by Vivienne To
HarperCollins
Spring 2020

THE WHIZBANG WORDBOOK
illustrator TBA
Sourcebooks eXplore
August 2020

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