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There are many clever picture books being released, but I don’t want you to miss the cleverest:

This non-fiction story looks at a horse who made scientific history. It’s a fun ride for all ages (just look at the cute illustration of Hans by Mike Lowery)! 

Like OLD ROCK a few weeks ago, I learned about CLEVER HANS via SCBWI’s free webinars, and I felt compelled to reach out to author Kerri Kokias about this equine wunderkind.

Kerri, how did you first learn about Clever Hans?

I learned about Clever Hans in an Introduction to Psychology class I took in college.

Oh wow, back in college! So you held onto the idea for a long time before writing it. What was the spark that made you say—hmm, maybe this is a picture book?

When I began writing for children and brainstorming ideas for writing a narrative non-fiction picture book, Hans immediately came to mind. Since Hans had stayed on my mind for the twenty-some years since college, I knew there was a strong hook to his story. And the idea of a horse that could count, tell-time, solve math problems,  read, spell, and more has obvious kid appeal. I also knew how Hans’ story ended and that he had a lasting scientific impact. It felt almost like the story could write itself! Although, of course, it’s never that easy.

It never is!

Did the story go through several rewrites? Did you have to change tack (pun intended) anywhere in the process?

Ha! Good joke, Tara. No, it’s that the research proved to be more involved than I originally anticipated.

Before I spent a lot of time digging up sources, I did a quick survey of what was more widely known about Hans in popular culture. It didn’t take long for me to notice the discrepancies that I’d have to sort out. I ordered a copy of the original research report on Clever Hans, which was written in 1911 and translated from German. I spent a lot of time reading, rereading, and generally slogging through those 275 pages. The language used in that time period (and in research reports in general) can be long-winded and dry, and the fact that the text was translated, so I wasn’t even reading what was originally written, meant I needed to slow down to make sense of everything.

Luckily, my education and professional background in social science research had acclimated me to parsing through research reports, which helped. I also tracked down as many original newspaper reports as I could find, which was super fun—especially when they included old photographs!

Mike Lowery incorporated wonderful details of the time period including the style of dress and architecture.

Mike, can you tell us about your preparation for CLEVER HANS?

I was especially excited about this book because it takes a look at Germany in the early 1900s. My wife is from Germany so for the past decade, I’ve had the pleasure of getting to go and explore the country when we visit our family and friends there. I did a LOT of research into what Berlin looked like around that time and even worked in a few real hotels, cafes, restaurants, and even a newspaper stand. The drawings in the book are simple, but I wanted to also get the clothing just right. Luckily my wife was able to help by finding books about clothing from that period, too.

It looks very authentic, Mike!

Kerri, do you have any funny behind-the-scenes story about “the making of” this book?

It was always a happy surprise to see Mike’s illustrations through his process. When I was writing the book I kept wondering how an illustrator would handle the story since the setting doesn’t change much and the characters are more or less limited to Hans and a variety of old, white men. But oh my gosh, Mike added so much personality and humor in the illustrations!  I’ve laughed out loud at several discoveries and continue to notice new details with each reading.

OK, you have to give me an example of a LOL moment!

Of course! Several examples come to mind…

There’s a scene where Hans is tired of answering questions and he has the best grumpy expression I can possibly imagine on a horse.

There’s a scene where a confused chicken is watching Hans be questioned…

…and another where there is a bird on a scientist’s head and a snake peeking out of his pocket.

At one point scientists wondered if Hans could be psychic and Mike drew a hilarious spread of his interpretation of Hans as a psychic mind reader.

And I think my all-time-favorite is of when a scientist tried to imitate Hans answering a question by getting on his hands and knees and tapping out his answer like Hans did.

Those are all hilarious, especially grumpy Hans. I did feel his frustration with being constantly questioned and trotted out for entertainment. His contribution to science and scientific study proved to be crucial, though, and I’m glad kids today can learn about him through this fascinating and fun book!

Congratulations to you and Mike. I’m giving CLEVER HANS four hoofs up! 

CLEVER HANS is available now from Putnam/PRH!

Kerri is also giving away a copy, so just comment once below to enter.

A random winner will be selected in two weeks.

Good luck!

by Kerri Kokias

This poster hangs above my living room couch.

It reads, “The things that made you weird as a kid—make you great today.” It was made by artist, designer, and creativity coach, James Victore, and it’s a message I think we can all apply to coming up with story ideas this month. I see it as a more specific way to think about some of the more common mantras you hear as writing advice. Such as, “Write what you know.” Or, “Write the book you wish you had as a kid.” So, if it feels helpful to you, perhaps brainstorm some ways you were weird as a kid and how you might be able to apply these to your story ideas.

I’ll start. The first thing that comes to mind is that I was painfully shy. Like, want-to-be-invisible, freak-out-if-a-teacher-called-on-me shy.

I feel like I can come up with an endless number of story ideas simply by focusing on this one personality trait and tapping into the emotions I remember having around it.

But there is another level that I think we might be able to apply this quote. First, take that thing that made you weird as a kid and look at ways it has already influenced your writing projects.

I can’t think of a single story I’ve written (yet!) that was inspired by my shyness, or prominently features shyness as a theme or dominant character trait. However, in retrospect I do wonder how much my shyness contributes to my writing style. I tend to use understated text and write illustration-driven picture books. For example, my book SNOW SISTERS! is a sparse 58 words and was written to have the illustrations portray much of the plot and character development.

I wouldn’t necessarily consider myself a shy adult, but even today it’s natural for me to observe people more than I interact with them. I’m a writer who thinks visually before using words, and I am perfectly comfortable having the illustrations drive my stories. Knowing this about myself, I can also use these patterns in my writing style to inspire future ideas. For example, I can ask myself what types of stories are best told with sparse, understated text? I bet you have your own patterns in your writing that you can use to spark future ideas.

In summary, here are some questions from this post that you might want to consider:

  • How were you weird as a kid? (Feel free to think of more than one answer!)
  • How can you apply this trait, and the emotions you remember feeling around it, to new story ideas? (I know you can come up with more than one answer here.)
  • Can you recognize ways this trait may already be influencing themes or patterns in your writing?
  • In what ways can you channel these established themes/patterns to come up with new ideas?

Learn more about James Victore, his art, and his thoughts on creativity at JamesVictore.com. I have no doubt he has other quotes that can be used to inspire story ideas.


Kerri Kokias credits most of her story ideas to her “fly on the wall” personality. This means she’s both a keen observer of social interactions and a nosey eavesdropper. Snow Sisters! is her first picture book. She lives in Seattle, Washington with her family. You can learn more about Kerri at KerriKokias.com or connect with her on Facebook or Twitter @KerriKokias.


Kerri is giving away a copy of her picture book, SNOW SISTERS!

Leave ONE COMMENT on this blog post to enter. You are eligible to win if you are a registered Storystorm participant and you have commented once below. Prizes will be given away at the conclusion of the event.

Good luck!

by Kerri Kokias

I’ve been quietly participating in Storystorm (formerly PiBoIdMo) since 2009. You know the type, the writer who lurks on the sidelines, observing and taking notes, but not necessarily being vocal in the comments. Well, it’s time for me to speak up!

I owe Storystorm a big THANK YOU for helping me come up with the idea for my debut picture book, SNOW SISTERS!, which is illustrated by Teagan White and being published by Knopf in January.

Actually, many of my current manuscripts incorporate elements of ideas I came up with in Novembers and Januaries past, and Storystorm has also changed the way I recognize and record ideas throughout the year.

I always think it’s funny when Storystorm participants ask, “What counts as an idea?”

For me, it’s any thought that gives me a little tingle or flash of curiosity. I’ve never tried to come up with 30 developed book ideas. Instead I record little bits of inspiration. I may think of a potential character, a structure, a title, a nonfiction topic, a plot or concept idea, or even just a few words that I like the sound of together. I jot the idea down by category and when I’m ready to start a new story I pull out my list and combine ideas from here and there.

For SNOW SISTERS! I had the idea of writing a story in mirrored language in 2010. I took note of the idea but never tried to do anything with it.

In 2012, I made a note about writing a story about sisters who were opposites.

In 2013, I took note when an editor questioned on Twitter why there weren’t any books about characters who hated the snow.

I pulled out my idea list and brainstormed ways that the different past pieces of inspiration could work with that concept. Through the process of writing and revising, the story didn’t end up implementing the ideas in the way I first thought; the sisters aren’t exactly opposite, they just have their own distinct personalities, which gives them room to connect in unexpected ways. And neither hate the snow, they just interact with it differently. And that specific editor didn’t connect with the story…but someone else did!

And now, 8 years after its first piece of inspiration, it’s a book!

So, thank you to Tara, all of her guest bloggers, and all of the participants over the years for keeping Storystorm going strong! I very much look forward to being a participant and guest blogger this coming January.

Kerri’s writing features unique structures, playful language, humor, tension, tenderness, simple text, and complicated characters. She has a good vision for how text and art can work together to tell a complete story. Kerri credits most of her story ideas to her “fly on the wall” personality. This means she’s both a keen observer of social interactions and a nosey eavesdropper. She lives in Seattle, Washington with her husband, two children, and three dogs.

You can learn more about Kerri at KerriKokias.com. Or connect with her on Facebook or Twitter @KerriKokias.

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My Picture Books

COMING SOON:

THE WHIZBANG WORDBOOK
illustrator TBA
Sourcebooks eXplore
2021

BLOOP!
illus by Mike Boldt
HarperCollins
2021

"PRIVATE I" SERIES #3
illus by Ross MacDonald
Little, Brown
2022

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