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When I graduated from art school I wanted to get paid work right away. I wanted to be the super success story with two book deals my first year out of college, or something awesome like that. I thought the best way to do that was to write what I thought art directors would want to hear. That would surely get me a publisher.

Every time someone critiqued my illustrations, I took everything they said to heart and changed my work. I thought, “If this person wants to see me do this, then I will do it. Then I will get a job.”

But it didn’t happen.

At the end of the first year, I had a portfolio filled with work that I wasn’t passionate about, a handful of stories that meant nothing to me, and still no major book contract.

I can’t predict what other people want to hear. Everyone has different taste. Adjusting my stories to accommodate everyone’s opinion was too stressful.

When I was thoroughly discouraged and thinking about applying to beauty school or something, Peter told me to sit down and just think about things that make me happy. What made me happy when I was a kid? What struggles did I overcome and what really excited me? What makes me laugh and what makes my heart feel tingly and emotional? What do I want to read? That is what I should write about.

Not what I think anyone else wants to hear.

Peter is great at tapping into the mind of his inner child. I encourage you to connect with your inner child, too. Ask child-you what makes them feel stuff. Luckily, we have all been a kid at some point, so thinking like a child just takes a little effort. When I searched my memories for child-Kayla, I discovered a whole bunch great material.

My spirits lifted and suddenly I was bursting with ideas. Puppies! Frosting! Koala Bears in suits! Farts! Disco Balls! Doodles! I have lived with myself my whole life, I know what images I want to hear and what images I want to see. Why try to guess the ideas of other people when there are so many ideas inside of ME?

When you write what you know and what means something to you, the reader can tell. Kids will know you had fun writing your story because they had fun reading it. Even if your story is not meant to be fun or happy, if you feel deep emotions about your work, then so will your audience.

Jonathan Safran Foer was given a great piece of writing advice from Joyce Carol Oates when he was working on EVERYTHING IS ILLUMINATED. She told him to feel more.

That makes a lot of sense to me, and it seems to work really well with the children’s book world. Childhood was all feeling. Think of something from your life today and then see it through your memories as a child. I’ll start. Pizza for me now is “super cool”. But when I was a kid, pizza was “SLAP ME IN THE FACE, IT’S THE DOMINOES DELIVERY GUY!!”

Also, I love puppies today, but when I was a kid I used to pray for a hundred of them until my belly knotted up and I nearly squeezed the stuffing out of half a dozen stuffed animals.

For the “getting down to business” part of illustrating I try to start with a loose grip on the pencil. If I’m uptight and trying too hard, I end up with a dry, rigid drawing or I just freeze up and no drawing gets made. I’d like to broaden that too. Getting uptight (i.e. fearful and judgmental) about my life as a children’s book illustrator usually results in some serious paralysis as well. I want my drawings and my life to be playful. I’m not drawing medical illustrations after all.

Also, I try not to reject drawings or ideas too early on, because there’s no telling where it will end up. I usually start a drawing by making shapes. If it’s a head, then I play with shapes until a cool head shape shows up, then I add to it and play with it. It’s a little like staring at a textured surface or clouds and all of sudden you see a lion or a dog. I trust that my right brain will make associations and see something that I find interesting.

So hold your pencils and yourselves loosely my friends, and don’t worry about feeling so near sighted, because your brain will naturally rise up to meet creative challenges and will associate it’s way to the end of the drawing or story.

Now I’m gonna throw an awesome quote at you:

Writing is like driving at night in the fog.
You can only see as far as your headlights,
but you can make the whole trip that way.

And finally, if you guys need lasting inspiration then pick up a copy of HENRY IN LOVE by Peter McCarty. It’s a masterpiece!


Kayla Skogh has been illustrating stories for the iPad app FarFaria for over a year. Stories she’s illustrated include: Bats, Where the Bears Sleep, Elephants. Kayla is Doodle’s mother. Kayla also does custom pet portraits.

Kayla is giving away this darling signed print to a PiBoIdMo’er who completes the challenge. Comment here to enter and then if you complete 30 ideas by the end of the month and take the PiBo-Pledge posted in December, you’ll be eligible to win!


Peter Harren is represented by Kelly Sonnack of the Andrea Brown Agency. Peter is the father of Doodle.

Ooh, something to win from Peter, too! Same rules apply–comment here *and* complete the PiBoIdMo challenge.

Both winners will be randomly selected in December. Good luck!

I bumped into Peter Harren on Etsy where I discovered his adorable illustrations. We had a few convos and I encouraged him to join SCBWI. Peter and I got in touch again a couple weeks ago as he was gearing up for the SCBWI mid-winter conference. So I asked him to blog about it as a first-timer. Take it away, Peter!

The co-founder of SCBWI Lin Oliver is hilarious. Part of her first day welcome address (at 7:30 am or some ridiculous turd hour like that) was this quote from the famous body builder Ronnie Coleman:

“Everybody wants to be a bodybuilder, but nobody wants to lift no heavy-ass weights.”

Of course the conference was going to be awesome, but Lin knew that it had a shadow for some people. The days were packed with activity starting at the wee hours and there was going to be a serious amount of information whipping past our heads. As Lin said, it was going to be work. And for people like me and my fiance Kayla Skogh (kick-ass children’s book writer and illustrator), one other shadow, one big shadow, was the socializing.

We’re introverts, and peppered throughout the info package for the conference and people’s advice for us was some scary stuff— “you gotta network”, “introduce yourself”, “mingle”  and “talk to people”. We spent 5 years of our lives in New York City squashed up against people and still, the mention of a Saturday night Gala for networking and “fun” made our mouths dry.

The good news for us was children’s book people are really sweet. There were so many warm smiles and rosy cheeks. I think there were over 1000 people, and something like 70% of them were ladies. With 700 children’s book ladies in there you could really feel the nurturing energy. There were lots of hugs. When I remember the Ballroom I see a peach colored glow coming from the room.  And as for the structure of the weekend, it went beautifully. It was really well organized and there were some nice breaks and awesome lemon poppy seed bread.

Now, on to the juice. I’ll share the words of wisdom from all the children’s book world royalty that I deemed worthy of note taking. I guess that’s called ‘noteworthy’. And before I start I should mention that everyone felt the children’s book industry is strong and steady. One guy even said it was robust!

Unfortunately, I didn’t write down who said what, but it’s safe to assume they’re a serious-ass children’s book professional of some sort.  Also, all these quotes are in reference to picture books. So, here’s some quotes:

  • “The keys to a good picture book are: character driven, brief, witty, light on text, and very young.”
  • “Great children’s books have clear ideas, an emotional arc, simplicity, and compositional variety.”
  • “Keep the story moving, don’t waste pages.”
  • “Illustrations need to be narrative on their own.”
  • “Make sure the left to right action is strong and promotes page turns.”
  • “Character Driven!”

After writing those quotes I’m realizing that they don’t feel as huge as they did when I first wrote them down. I guess that’s evidence of a real benefit to the conference; being there. The conference was hugely inspiring and motivating. And the main reason I went was the portfolio review. My portfolio and book dummy were viewed by over a hundred editors, agents, art directors and book professionals.

If you want an in depth view of the conference you can go to and find tons of information and videos of the conference. They had a whole team of people blogging the crap out of it.

And just for the fun of it, I added one of my pages of notes.

The bird’s lyrics are from Devendra Banhart’s song “Be Kind” which was in my head all weekend. In stressful situations I try to remember to be nice to myself and avoid judging myself for being anxious. This song shows up a lot when I need it.

Peter Harren is an aspiring author/illustrator. Track his progress at

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