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by Lori Mortensen

I love picture book biographies. They’re right up there with chewy, chunky chocolate chip cookies.  With those first delicious lines, I’m drawn into someone else’s world that reveals what shaped them and why their story is important. Unlike biographies for adults that pack in everything but the kitchen sink, I love picture book biographies because there’s only room for the good stuff.  The best stuff.  Stuff that allows readers to sidle up to remarkable people, past and present, and wonder what they might do with their own lives. Short as picture book biographies are, writing them can be challenging. Here are my tips for writing picture book biographies:

Who

Deciding who to write about is BIG. If they’re well-known like Benjamin Franklin or Abraham Lincoln, there’s a million books about them already.  If you’re determined to write about them, you need to find an intriguing episode of their life that hasn’t been told before.  The other option is to write about someone who isn’t well-known, but still has a great story to tell. Whatever it is, it needs to connect with young readers.

How Much

Although you may be tempted to tell someone’s story from the moment they’re born to their last breath—reconsider. Most trade picture book biographies either highlight the time of the accomplishment, or the formative years which led to their accomplishment. Not always. But mostly. The point is, there are options. One great example of highlighting the important moment in someone’s life is Ruth Law Thrills a Nation by Don Brown, one of my favorite picture book biographers. He opened Ruth’s story with these lines:

On November 19, 1916, Ruth Law tried to fly
from Chicago to New York City in one day.
It had never been done before.

There’s no growing up. No wanting to fly. No wondering whether to do it or not. Ruth Law was ready. Making the flight was the story. Page by page, Brown lets us see what happened the day she flew to New York City and the challenges she faced.

A great example of the second approach is also written by Don Brown in his book, Odd Boy Out, Young Albert Einstein. He opened the story with these lines:

On a sunny, cold Friday in the old city of Ulm, Germany,
a baby named Albert Einstein is born.
It is March 14, 1879.

Why the difference? By starting from childhood, Brown showed readers how Einstein’s brilliant mind worked even at a young age, and how it led to his Theory of Relativity. 

Beyond the Facts

Lastly, when you start writing picture book biographies, it’s tempting to stick close to the facts as if you’re on the ledge of a tall building.  Stray too far and you won’t be safe. Stray too far, and you can’t cling to the pillar of facts. However, the only way to succeed is to step off into the literary void and find your voice. How do you want to tell the story? Let yourself go and find out. It’s okay. That’s what editors and readers want.

This idea was a turning point when I sold my latest release, Away with Words, The Daring Story of Isabella Bird, about the first female member of the Royal Geographical Society.  My first versions were lyrical, but very conservative and I revised the manuscript so many times for my agent, I lost count. Each version was lovely and dramatic, but something was missing. More revisions and rejections followed. In time, I parted ways with my agent and put the manuscript away.

Then, a few months later, I got it out again. I loved Isabella’s story too much to give up on it completely. At that moment, without an editor or an agent waiting for results, I felt a certain freedom to change things up. How did I want to tell her story? When I looked at it again, a metaphor sprang to mind that became the opening heart of the story.

Isabella was like a wild vine
stuck in a too small pot.
She needed more room.
She had to get out.
She had to explore.

You won’t find these words in the research. That’s me, letting go, telling Isabella’s story my way. It made all the difference.

So, the next time you’re writing a picture book biography, remember the good stuff. The best stuff.  And treat yourself to a chewy, chunky chocolate chip cookie.

We are giving away a copy of Lori’s new book AWAY WITH WORDS: THE DARING STORY OF ISABELLA BIRD!

Leave one comment to enter.

A winner will be selected at the end of the month.

Good luck!


Lori Mortensen is an award-winning children’s book author of more than 100 books and over 500 stories and articles. Recent releases include her picture book biography, Away with Words, the Daring Story of Isabella Bird (Peachtree), about the first woman inducted into the Royal Geographical Society, If Wendell Had a Walrus (Henry Holt), Chicken Lily, (Henry Holt), Mousequerade Ball (Bloomsbury) illustrated by New York Times bestselling illustrator Betsy Lewin, and Cowpoke Clyde Rides the Range (Clarion, 2016) a sequel to Cowpoke Clyde & Dirty Dawg, one of Amazon’s best picture books of 2013. When she’s not letting her cat in, or out, or in, she’s tapping away at her computer, conjuring, coaxing, and prodding her latest stories to life.

For more information about her books, events, critique service, and upcoming releases, visit her website at lorimortensen.com.

 

by Lori Mortensen

Inspiration.

The Muse.

The first crumb of an idea.

That’s where all writing begins, right? But what if you’re sitting there and you have no idea where to begin? When I first began writing, I heard the phrase, “Ideas are everywhere.” Although this was supposed to be encouraging, it made me feel even worse. Oh, oh! I thought. I’m surrounded by ideas and I still don’t know what to write about.

Initially, not knowing where to begin shook my confidence and made me wonder if I had anything to say after all. However, as I persisted and kept trying, I discovered the main ingredient.

Me.

Including myself might seem obvious, but at the time it wasn’t. I was a beginner. What did I know? Ideas were somewhere “out there.” However, as I made a conscious effort to notice what stirred my imagination, what to write seemed to grab me by the lapels and say write about this!

Cowabunga!

One of the biggest moments occurred several years ago when I was roaming around my local thrift store and noticed a figurine of a cow happily sitting on a crescent moon. It was one of many used knickknacks clustered on a shelf. Ordinarily, I would have strolled right on by. But this time as I stared at the accomplished cow, I was intrigued. How did she get there? I wondered. In a heartbeat, I knew I wanted to write the story. I bought the figurine and went home. As I wrote, it was exciting to figure it all out. How would she try to jump to the moon? Would she really make it? I loved coming up with the unexpected twist at the end.

Nobody else cared about the cow sitting on the moon. But it stirred my imagination. The story about a spunky cow trying to jump the moon became my rhyming picture book CINDY MOO. I was thrilled when HarperCollins snapped it up.

Houdini Hounds

Then, there were my neighbor’s dogs. Houdini hounds, really, that regularly broke out of their backyard and raced down the street. Moments later, my neighbors sprinted after them. “Come back, Rollie and Wendy!” they yelled.

Although the dogs’ antics certainly annoyed my neighbors, the dogs stirred my imagination. I thought, Wouldn’t it be fun to write a story about somebody chasing a dog? After a few false starts, my story took off–just like the dogs. As I wrote each verse, I couldn’t wait to see what would happen next. How would the determined main character try to catch the dog? Would the main character really catch the dog in the end?

My rhyming picture book, COWPOKE CLYDE AND DIRTY DAWG, became one of Amazon’s best picture books of 2013.

It was the “me” factor once again–the main ingredient—and how I reacted to what I saw.

Imagine

In April, my picture book IF WENDELL HAD A WALRUS will hit the bookshelves. This story began a bit differently. At the time, I’d been reading a variety of quiet picture books where the main character had an inner longing of some kind. I loved the idea of an inner longing and wondered where an inner longing might lead. As I thought about it, I imagined looking up into the clouds and seeing something that pulled at my heart. When “walrus” popped into my head, I was hooked.

A walrus?

The fun, quirky idea captured my imagination. Why would someone want a walrus? What would they do if they got one? Would they really get one in the end? When I came up with the unexpected twist, I was delighted. An editor at Henry Holt fell in love with it too.

So the next time you’re scouting around for an idea, keep an eye out for forgotten figurines, Houdini dogs, and the like. Then, add the all-important main ingredient.

YOU.


Lori Mortensen is an award-winning children’s book author of more than 70 books and over 350 stories and articles. Recent releases include Chicken Lily, (Henry Holt), Mousequerade Ball (Bloomsbury) illustrated by New York Times bestselling illustrator Betsy Lewin, and Cowpoke Clyde Rides the Range (Clarion) a sequel to Cowpoke Clyde & Dirty Dawg, one of Amazon’s best picture books of 2013. When she’s not letting her cat in, or out, or in, she’s tapping away at her computer, conjuring, coaxing, and prodding her latest stories to life. For more information about her books, teacher activities, book trailers, critique service, events, and upcoming releases, visit her website at LoriMortensen.com.

Lori is giving away a copy of COWPOKE CLYDE RIDES THE RANGE, the sequel to DIRTY DAWG.

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!

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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 Jabberwocky
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