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by PB Crew 22

When you want a great idea, ask your crew! PB Crew 22 is a group of authors and illustrators with picture books releasing this year. We have been so inspired by Storystorm this month and in years past. That’s why we wanted to give you not one, not two, but 19 ways to come up with your own ideas for your next picture book!

Brittany Thurman: Begin with Poetry

As I wrote a free verse about the power that exists when we recognize our full potential, I thought over my childhood. How many times did I let self-doubt inhibit my goals? Too many. What would have happened if I kept going even when I did not know what the outcome would be? With FLY, illustrated by Anna Cunha, published by Caitlyn Dlouhy Books, I show what it feels like to soar through a childhood dream.

Storystorm Idea:

Begin with poetry. Poetry allows for us to encompass emotions associated with heart. Write a sonnet, create a tanka. While you create, think over a goal you wanted to achieve as a child. Rhyme or no rhyme, through poetry, write about the goal and its associated feeling. Now, turn that poem into a picture book.

Jonathan Hillman: Try an Unconventional Point of View

BIG WIG, illustrated by Levi Hastings (Paula Wiseman Books, February 2022) was inspired by the drag phrase “wig flew,” which is a way of saying you’re blown away or astonished by something. For example, if you see a fierce look or a show stopping dance move, you might say, “girl, my wig flew!” As a first time picture book writer, I knew I wanted to explore LGBTQIA+ identities, and I loved the idea of a wig as an unexpected entry point for that exploration.

Storystorm Idea:

If you have a picture book in progress, try rewriting it from a different point of view. The more unexpected the better! If you don’t yet have an idea, pick an overused picture book character and try shifting the perspective. What aspects of the story can only this viewpoint character draw out?

Elizabeth Brown: Find the Little Known Stories Behind Everyday Things 

For LIKE A DIAMOND IN THE SKY: JANE TAYLOR’S BELOVED POEM OF WONDER AND THE STARS, illustrated by Becca Stadtlander (Bloomsbury, February 2022), I wondered about the origins of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” the lullaby most children sing. I discovered it comes from a poem titled “The Star” by Romantic-era writer, Jane Taylor. Her struggle to become a published poet will inspire young readers and writers everywhere.

Storystorm Idea: 

Look for the magical stories behind everyday things. When you discover that spark, plot, write, and revise (a lot!) to make your story shine!

Eija Sumner: Explore Somewhere New and Gather Up Details

CROCODILE HUNGRY, illustrated by John Martz (Tundra, February 2022) was inspired by a trip to the Zoo with my family and my then-toddler asking, “What do Crocodiles eat?” The flamingo pond was conveniently the next attraction at the zoo and well, it was the beginning of a story.

Storystorm Idea: 

Start with an outing or a place you’ve been, something outside your normal routine. What do you see that’s unique? What kinds of conflicts might naturally develop? Can these details form the beginning of a story?

Viviane Elbee: Read Book Reviews About Other Books

I WANT MY BOOK BACK, illustrated by Nicole Miles (Little Bee Books, March 2022) was inspired by a book review in Goodreads. A librarian reviewer mentioned wishing she could find

a book that celebrates the wonder of libraries without resorting to magical, unrealistic events. After a brainstorming session, I imagined a child who wants to keep “his” library book all to himself but ends up discovering the joy of sharing stories.

Storystorm Idea:

Scan reviews of other books to see if anyone makes a comment that inspires you to brainstorm ideas for a different type of story.

Jorge Lacera: Draw on Your Own Experience

PRUETT AND SOO, written by Nancy Viau (Two Lions, March 2022) is about how changing the rules can change the world. This message resonated with me deeply (challenging the status quo is a fundamental building block to change) and as an illustrator, I loved digging into the ways my character designs, shape language, and color choices could expand on this theme. I drew on my experience as an Art Director in video games to create appealing, modern characters with very different shape languages and a color palette that subtly changes from monochromatic to bursting with full color by the end of the book.

Storystorm Idea: 

Artists, think about the theme of your project. How can you draw on your own unique experience and background to create art that deepens and enriches that theme?

Blythe Russo: Characters Are Key!

In early 2016, I made a quick drawing of a sloth in a unicorn onesie and immediately fell in love with the character. Then, after almost four years and multiple failed plotlines, SLOTH SLEEPS OVER (Viking, April 2022) was born.

Storystorm Idea:

Take 15-30 minutes to draw a character (I’m talking to illustrators AND writers). Just let your brain move your hand around a piece of paper and who knows what (or who) may appear to spark some new ideas.

Ellie Peterson: Use your powers of observation!

How does a hug-junkie write HOW TO HUG A PUFFERFISH (Roaring Brook, May 2022), about a Pufferfish who is anything but? Observation! It’s allowed me to notice kids who cringe when clobbered with hugs and who positively BLOW UP when touched repeatedly without consent. I’ve learned about the issues and feelings kids deal with simply by watching them, and you can too.

Storystorm Idea:

Observe kids in a variety of settings: airports, supermarkets, your public library! (Just don’t be creepy.) Note children’s group dynamics, behavior, and body language. Journal about the problems kids encounter, how they solve them, and the issues that arise from their efforts.

Dianne White: Find Inspiration in the “Extraordinary Ordinary” 

A walk around the block and BROWN BEAR, BROWN BEAR inspired LOOK and LISTEN, illustrated by Amy Schimler-Safford (Holiday House, May 2022). I wanted to write a guessing game that was an ode to the extraordinary, ordinary things a child might see/hear on a walk.

Storystorm Idea:  

Find inspiration in ordinary/ extraordinary concepts that spark your imagination. Make a list. Mix your ideas with a bit of inspiration from your favorite books. What structure will you use? Will you have a refrain? Will your story rhyme? Free write until you discover your unique take on familiar concepts.

Laura Lavoie: Consider Inherent Conflict

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I got the idea for VAMPIRE VACATION, illustrated by Micah Player (Viking, May 2022) from a 2019 Storystorm post by Jen Betton. Jen wrote about creating characters with inherent conflict, and the idea of a little vampire who desperately wants to visit a sunshine-y beach came to mind.

Storystom Idea:

Brainstorm a character with an inherent trait that could conflict with the character’s dreams, goals, or desires.

See Laura’s Day 15 Storystorm post about catchy, clever titles!

Valerie Bolling: Think of Activities You Enjoyed as a Child

TOGETHER WE RIDE, illustrated by Kaylani Juanita (Chronicle, April 2022), and RIDE, ROLL, RUN: TIME FOR FUN!, illustrated by Sabrena Khajia (Abrams, Sept. 2022), were both inspired by children and the activities they love to do outside. I enjoyed these same activities as a child — riding my bike, jumping rope, and playing hopscotch.

Storystorm Idea:

What do you see kids doing, saying, or dreaming about that could become a story? What are the events, occasions, and milestones that bring children joy? What stories are there in the communities that children inhabit—family, school, neighborhood?

See Valerie’s Day 21 Storystorm post for more ideas!

Cynthia Harmony: Pair Your Memories with Current Events 

MI CIUDAD SINGS illustrated by Teresa Martinez (Penguin Workshop, June 2022) was inspired by my community in Mexico City coming together in the aftermath of the 2017 quake. Paired with my own memories of living through one of the biggest earthquakes as a child and my love for the city, I found the source for a story I needed to tell.

Storystorm Idea:

While scrolling through current global events, catch those that connect with you. Is it something you lived through, that inspires you, that you love? Write from that personal space so the “heart” of your story can resonate with your readers.

Lisa Tolin: Steal from Your Children

My debut, HOW TO BE A ROCK STAR, illustrated by Daniel Duncan (Putnam, August 2022), is inspired by my own little musicians. My son was obsessed with playing guitar the way other kids are into dinosaurs or trucks. A lot of music-themed books use stage fright as a source of conflict, but my son was too young to know there was anything to fear. When I switched to a how-to format and focused on the fun we had at home, the joy came through.

Storystorm idea: 

Start writing from joyful or funny memories: What were your happiest moments with your children, or as a child? Write down the funny things kids and parents do. (Bonus, you can tweet them.)

Lori Alexander: Think Back and Mash-Up

MINI MIGHTY SWEEPS, illustrated by Jeff Harter (Harper, August 2022), is based on memories of my kids and how much they loved to “help” when they were younger, even when their assistance caused bigger messes. I mashed this idea with vehicles to come up with the story of a little street sweeper who creates some bumps in the road when she tries to help the city trucks do their big jobs.

Storystorm Idea: 

Take a fond feeling, event, or emotion from childhood and assign it to a fun inanimate object. What kind of conflict can you create from your mash-ups?

Jyoti Rajan Gopal: Tell Your Story

My debut AMERICAN DESI, illustrated by Supriya Kelkar (LBYR, Summer 2022), was inspired by my daughters’ experiences navigating being Indian and American and my own experiences straddling multiple cultures. I dipped into those feelings because I wanted to remind young children that it does not have to be an either/or choice between your cultures – it could be a both/and – to embrace it all!

Storystorm idea: 

What is something true about your family/childhood/growing up experience that may have been different from other families? How did that make you feel?

Megan Litwin: Look for Lifelong Magic

The spark for TWINKLE, TWINKLE, WINTER NIGHT, illustrated by Nneka Myers (Clarion, October 2022) came on a dark December drive. One of my then-toddler sons was captivated by all the light, from the snow to the moon to houses dressed for the season. He kept calling out things he noticed, repeating “twinkle lights!” over and over. And when I realized I’ve never outgrown that same feeling of wonder over winter’s bright magic, I knew I needed to write about it.

Storystorm Idea:

Are there things you loved as a child that have never lost their shine? Dig into that magic.

Nicole Chen: Get Specific to What’s in Your Heart

I wanted to write a book celebrating the diversity in families, but hadn’t found that perfect hook yet. There was one line in my drafts that represented my personal experience of familial love as a child. So when I rewrote my story to anchor on how love can be expressed through the things we do for each other, HOW WE SAY I LOVE YOU, illustrated by Lenny Wen (Knopf, Fall 2022), was born.

Storystorm Idea:

Ask yourself why the theme you’re writing about speaks to you. Anchor on it and see if you can structure a whole story around it.

Monique James Duncan: Mommy’s Time

I wanted to write a book paying homage to African American stay-at-home-mothers. TIME, illustrated by Ebony Glenn (Candlewick, fall 2022) is a sweet poem, but is really a resistance against a system that does not allow Black mothers to fully enjoy mothering their offspring free of the knowledge that they can be harmed in a system that is racially biased towards them.

Storystorm Idea:

Think from the perspective of the child. What would they see, say, feel? How would they view an issue? How would they talk about it? Take your thoughts back to when you were a child yourself and adults too will identify.

Megan Lacera: Monsters M.I.A.!

My family is obsessed with monsters. Most of these stories focus on the same monsters over and over again. Sure, Drac and Frank are bloody awesome. But there are OTHER amazing monsters. And as a multi-cultural family with multi-cultural friends, we dreamed of a book that was different than what we already saw on the shelves. And so, Jorge Lacera and I set out to create THE WILD ONES (Lee and Low, Fall 2022)–in which Valentina Gomez and her monster-loving best friends must find a way to save their beloved home from being torn down by greedy real estate developers.

Storystorm Idea:

What kinds of stories are you missing from your bookshelf? There are others out there missing them too. Write ‘em!

PB Crew is offering several prizes: copies of Dianne White’s Green on Green and Winter Lullaby (U.S. only) and critiques of a picture book manuscript from Brittany Thurman, Ellie Peterson, Viviane Elbee, Megan Lacera, Jyoti Rajan Gopal, Lori Alexander, or Lisa Tolin.

Leave one comment below to enter.

You’re eligible to win if you’re a registered Storystorm participant and you have commented once below.

by Lori Alexander

Last October, I headed into our pediatrician’s office with my 12-year-old who could not shake a deep, rattling cough. While we waited in a small, astronaut-themed room I wondered if my son might have pneumonia. While we waited some more, I wondered about this picture hanging on the wall.

As a seasoned Storystormer, I knew inspiration could strike just about anywhere. The image of the baby got me thinking about board books. I knew science-themed board books were selling well. But I didn’t have much interest in writing a book of facts for toddlers. What about a book that showed a baby’s current skills and how they might tie-in with a future career? I made a few notes in my phone, snapped the picture, and got back to checking my son’s temperature with the back of my hand.

One year later, I’m excited to share FUTURE ASTRONAUT (Cartwheel/Scholastic), illustrated by the amazing Allison Black. Part of the “Future Babies” board book series, upcoming titles include FUTURE ENGINEER, FUTURE CEO, and FUTURE PRESIDENT. And because I’m such a fan of Allison’s, here’s a peek inside Book #1 and a few words from the illustrator herself:

Allison, your style is so perfect for the youngest “readers.” Is this your first time illustrating board books?

Thank you! This is not my first time working on board books.  I currently have three published, but I think this series is really special and I can’t wait for them to be released! I love making board books because I have a one-and-a-half-year-old son and it’s nice to be able to read to him without worrying that he’s going to rip, eat or destroy them!

How did you get your start in children’s publishing?

I’ve always been interested in children’s publishing, but I didn’t get really involved in it until 2016. That year I was approached by a couple of publishers who had discovered my art through my stationery line and my work with Target. I enjoyed making those books so much that I decided to get an agent and leave my job to be able to focus on this type of work – and I’m so happy I did!

What else are you working on, if you’re able to share?

Right now I’m working on a few books (which is all I can say about those), as well as developing some new items for my shop. I just released my Fall line a couple weeks ago so now I’m focusing on holiday products. I’ve also started to write some children’s book manuscripts. There’s a lot more work to be done on those (authors really are amazing!), but it’s exciting to try something new!

Plan for the future and pre-order a copy of FUTURE ASTRONAUT today.

Lori will give away one copy of FUTURE ASTRONAUT to a lucky commenter (in the future, release date is June 2019)!

Leave a comment below and a random winner will be selected next month.

Good luck.


Lori Alexander is the author of picture books BACKHOE JOE (Harper, 2014) and FAMOUSLY PHOEBE (Sterling, 2017) as well as the FUTURE BABY board book series (Scholastic, 2019). She also writes non-fiction for older readers. ALL IN A DROP, a chapter book biography of scientist Antony van Leuwenhoek releases in fall 2019 from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, followed by A SPORTING CHANCE, a biography of Ludwig Guttmann, the founder of the Paralympic Games, in 2020, also from HMH. Visit her at lorialexanderbooks.com and follow her on Twitter @LoriJAlexander.

Allison Black is an illustrator and designer specializing in cute and colorful creations. Originally from Upstate New York, Allison now lives in Columbus, Ohio with her husband, son and four pets. Allison’s career started as a designer for Target where she developed items ranging from Christmas ornaments and Easter baskets to party décor and apparel. In 2017 Allison left Target to focus on children’s book illustration and to work on her own line of products. She now has six published books and has another ten in progress! You can find Allison’s books, stationery and more in her online shop, Hip-Hip. In addition to making art around the clock, Allison has a particular love for goats, guinea pigs and gummy bears. Visit her at allisonblackillustration.com, shop for art at hip-hip.com and follow her on Instagram @allisonblackillustration and @hello.hip.hip.

by Lori Alexander

DVD extras, artist interviews, author’s notes…I love going behind the scenes to learn how my favorite things were created. Here are some tidbits from the making of my latest picture book, FAMOUSLY PHOEBE, by the numbers:

24th idea:
In November 2014, deep into Picture Book Idea Month (now Storystorm), I jotted down my 24th idea: “A girl’s family takes so many pictures of her, she thinks she might be famous.” My daughter had been pestering me to take a picture of her new haircut and post it to Facebook. She was only seven! Kids these days. (Lesson learned: inspiration is everywhere.)

5 pitches:
After completing the month-long challenge, I had 30+ snippets of story ideas (some better than others). I selected my favorite five and crafted them into two-sentence pitches, like jacket flap copy. I emailed the five ideas to my agent, Kathleen Rushall, to see if she fancied any of them. FAMOUSLY PHOEBE stood out the most to her, so I expanded that idea into a complete story. (Lesson learned: a second opinion can be helpful, be it from an agent or a trusted critique partner)

9 critiques:
Once I finished my first draft, I sent it to various critique buddies, a few at a time. After receiving feedback and letting suggestions resonate for a couple days, I made revisions. Then the new draft went out to more fresh eyes. PHOEBE had at least nine critiques before I shared the completed story with my agent. (Lesson learned: take the time to get it right)

12 art notes:
Too many? Not sure, but there were lots of spots with little jokes and no way to understand them from the text alone. My critique partners didn’t seem bothered by them and neither did my agent. She loved the story and we were ready to submit. Hot dog! (Lesson learned: I’ll never know if I’m adding too many art notes)

13 rejections:
Ugh. Was it the art notes? We received no concrete feedback from editors on changes to be made. Some already had new-sibling stories in their pipeline. Others just weren’t feeling it. My agent continued to submit to editors, reminding me of her ever-encouraging mantra, “It only takes one.” (Lesson learned: don’t give up)

1 sale:
Sterling Children’s Books made an offer, about three months into the submission process. Hooray! (Lesson learned: rejection stinks but persistence pays.)

2 editors:
The acquiring editor for FAMOUSLY PHOEBE, Zaneta Jung, left Sterling about a year after the sale. Zaneta really “got” Phoebe and helped me revise the story into something funnier and sweeter than the original. I was crushed to see her go. But my new editor, Christina Pulles, has been amazing. She included me every step of the way, sharing sketches, color art, covers ideas. She listened to my suggestions and has been incredibly helpful on the marketing end of things. (Lesson learned: roll with the punches)

1 big thanks:
To Tara, for coordinating Storystorm and for sharing so much valuable information on her blog year-round, and for letting me celebrate the release of FAMOUSLY PHOEBE here, too. And get ready for your own success stories, picture book writers. Because…

89 days:
Storystorm 2018 is right around the corner!

1 giveaway:
Lori is giving away a signed copy of FAMOUSLY PHOEBE and a bunch of other Phoebe freebies. Leave a comment below to enter. A random winner will be selected in about two weeks. (Lesson learned: it’s fun to win free stuff!)

Lori Alexander is the author of BACKHOE JOE (Harper Children’s), FAMOUSLY PHOEBE (Sterling Children’s) and the upcoming ALL IN A DROP, a chapter book biography of scientist Antony van Leeuwenhoek (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). She happily shares the spotlight with her husband and two children under the star-filled skies of Tucson, AZ. You can find out more about Lori on her website at lorialexanderbooks.com or on Twitter @LoriJAlexander.

September should be “giveaway month” here on the blog, since we’ve got a bounty of books ‘n’ stuff. The winner of THE LAKE WHERE LOON LIVES was Carol Nelson, who was notified, and who exclaimed that she never wins anything. I was tickled to prove her wrong!

And today we’ve got yet another giveaway, from a long-time blog reader and PiBoIdMo participant, Lori Alexander. Her debut picture book, BACKHOE JOE, is being released TODAY! A round of applause for Lori! I sat down with her to discuss the making of a debut. (Well, I sat HERE, while she sat THERE. We did not sit together, although I would have loved to. I mean, look at her! Isn’t she adorable?)

Author Photo_Lori AlexanderLori, there are many truck books on the market because they’re so popular with young children. (In fact, once an editor told me not to write a truck book because of others already out there!) Tell us what makes BACKHOE JOE different and special!

You are right, Tara! There are lots of truck books. When my son was younger, he was crazy about construction. He wore truck shirts and slept on truck sheets and had truck birthdays. We pulled the car over for close-up looks at construction equipment (which set an exhausting precedent on cross-country trips, with me wishing my son had been born a dinosaur fanatic instead. No stops!). We also sought out as many construction books as we could get our hands on. After a while, they all seemed similar to me: a bulldozer pushes, a dump truck dumps, an excavator digs. A playground is built at the end. To mix it up, my son and I had lengthy conversations about what we would do with our own backhoe. Our backhoe could scoop Legos into a pile, dump dirty laundry into the washer, and drive all the neighborhood kids to school (that front loader is roomy!). These dreamy discussions led to the kernel of the idea for BACKHOE JOE which is about a boy who tries to adopt a “stray” backhoe. So, like pirate books and dinosaur books and princess books, BACKHOE JOE joins a crowded subject, but I’m hoping he will dig out some space of his own on the bookstore shelves.

backhoejoeI’m sure he will! (I mean, look at him! Isn’t he adorable?)  And that’s what we all have to do, take a common theme and make it unique! I love the idea of a truck as a pet.

Is this the project that landed you an agent? How did you pitch it?

That is something you hear editors ask for…a fresh twist on a common theme! With Backhoe Joe, it took me a few years to get it right. My early drafts were about a boy asking for a backhoe for his birthday, through a series of letters to his parents, à la I Wanna Iguana. I received some positive feedback from a small publisher, who liked the concept, but wasn’t sold on the letter format. Many more months of big-picture revisions as well as tiny tweaks lead to the current version. I received some positive feedback from agent Mary Kole during a webinar critique, and that gave me the boost of confidence I needed to begin querying agents. I queried with BACKHOE JOE but had two other PB manuscripts ready to go, in case an agent was interested. Lucky for me, one was! And you asked how I pitched it. I believe in the cover letter I said something completely cheesy, like “it’s FANCY NANCY for boys!” Tweet:

Well, that would certainly grab my attention!

What can you share about your debut book experience that’s been most surprising?

While writing BACKHOE JOE, I really tried to nail the page breaks. I studied the page turns in my favorite picture books and read blog posts about layout (Tara’s “Picture Book Dummy, Picture Book Construction: Know Your Layout” is one of my favorites). I submitted BACKHOE JOE to my agent divided into 16 spreads. I thought she might want to remove the breaks and submit it to publishers in paragraph form, but it never came up. I was surprised (in a good way!) when my editor at Harper agreed and the final layout of Joe was exactly how I envisioned it. All that homework paid off!

Another surprise was, although I should have known better, having one sale under your belt doesn’t make it any easier to sell the next book. Rejection—a thing of the past? Not so!

Ha, don’t I know it! They never stop, but they do get easier to swallow. (However, I am not advocating eating your manuscript.)

What’s your favorite line in the book?

My absolute favorite line is on the last page, but I don’t want to spoil anything. I will say Craig Cameron did a fantastic job bringing Joe to life and he set-up the twist ending beautifully.

Aha, I LOVE a twist ending! I think it’s so important for a successful picture book, to surprise your audience, to extend the story beyond the story. Let them imagine what happens next (plus set yourself up for a sequel)!

My second favorite bit is when the main character, Nolan, tries to train Backhoe Joe like he’s a dog. But naughty Joe revs at the mailman, buries his cone in the flowerbed, and digs in the garbage. It was fun to think about the ways a dog and a construction truck might behave similarly.

Sounds hilarious!

OK, one last question. I have a list of fun words I posted recently, which has become quite popular. What’s your favorite word?

This time of year, my favorite word is monsoon.

Yeah, I love ooh sounds!

And now our readers are gonna make ooh sounds (corny segue, Tara) because Lori has a BACKHOE JOE prize pack to give away! Just leave one comment below by September 23rd!

The prize pack includes a signed copy of BACKHOE JOE, bookmarks, stickers, and squishy foam stress “rocks”. (Hey, I could use some of those! Remember, the rejections never cease!)

Thanks, Lori!

backhoejoe prize pack

Lori Alexander lives in Tucson, Arizona, with her husband and two rock-collecting kids. Her family always brakes for road construction so they can admire the dozers and diggers. Lori still secretly hopes a backhoe will follow them home. She is represented by Kathleen Rushall of Marsal Lyon Literary Agency. This is Lori’s first picture book. Visit her at LoriAlexanderBooks.com.

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