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by Erin Dealey

Happy Day 5, Storystormers! This post is about playing with ideas—as an artist. Yep, I’m talking to all of you. Even if your illustrations are stick figures, what you write is ART. And by now you’ve (hopefully) got at least four picture book possibilities in your Idea Notebook and there are more to come. Hooray!

Wait—you do have an Idea Notebook, don’t you? Here’s mine, made from a repurposed book cover.


Many of my ideas stayed right here. Some I’ve gone back to and eventually shaped into manuscripts. A few became books. But having one place to jot ideas down is a huge improvement from my previous method: random scraps of paper + notes in my bullet-ish journal. I also believe that I’m far more creative if I write them down with pencil or pen, instead of going straight to my computer. My Idea notebook is my writer-version of a sketchbook. Do you think Michelangelo headed straight to the scaffolds of the Sistine Chapel or that slab of granite that became David without sketching things out? OK then. Where were we?

The initial idea for my newest picture book DEAR EARTH…FROM YOUR FRIENDS IN ROOM 5 (HarperCollins, illustrated by Luisa Uribe, Dec.1, 2020) is in this notebook. A few years back, I was wowed by a friend’s holiday illustration of a beautiful child-angel holding Earth in her hand. Those you who have read DEAR EARTH know that the main character is not an angel, nor is it a holiday book. So what happened?

Note: If you participated in Storystorm 2019, you’ll remember the fabulous Day 1 post by Cathy Breisacher Pictures Her Ideas and her list of brainstorming questions. As for me, I was so taken with the image of the angel, I wondered: Why is she holding Earth? Is she Earth’s protector? What about Climate Change? Does she take care of the other planets too? How?

That’s when I started playing around in my idea notebook.

I wanted to find a way to show how KIDS could help the angel take care of Earth all year long—not just on Earth Day. Important: Books for kids should be about kids, or kid-centric topics. But how would the angel communicate to the kids? This got me thinking about a format I’ve always wanted to try: a story told only in letters. See my guest post on Lauren Kerstein’s blog for details: 6 Quick-Read Crafty Tips for Writing a Manuscript in Epistolary Format.  (You’ll meet Lauren when she guest blogs for Storystorm later this month!)

Meanwhile, my writing group, the PBJers, made me realize the angel concept might make the book too preachy or worse—a bit morbid (“Aren’t child-angels dead kids?”) Yikes! Their questions and concerns got me thinking—WHAT IF… Room 5 is making New Year’s resolutions and wants to help Earth? What if they write directly to EARTH? And what if EARTH writes back?

What does all of this mean for you, dear Storystormers? On Day 4 of 2020 Storystorm, I hereby challenge you to:

Scroll through the wonderful #kidlitillustration #picturebookillustration examples posted by illustrators on social media. (For other places to find pictures, See Cathy Breisacher: Picture Her Ideas above.) Pick one that resonates with you. Ask it questions. Put the answers in your Idea Notebook so you can play with them and shape them later.

Last but not least, as we work our way through Storystorm 2021, DO NOT STRESS that your ideas are crazy or weird or even morbid or bleh. Instead, let’s think of ourselves as potters. No, not the wand-waving Harry kind. The artist kind. A potter wouldn’t just take some clay, throw a pot, and call it a day. Sometimes we’ll smush our newly thrown pot back into a wad of clay and start over. Sometimes we’ll throw pot after pot and end up with just one that we might glaze and fire. That’s writing, isn’t it? Every one of us is an artist. Storystorm is the start.

Let us resolve to use this month to gather our clay. Then let’s make some art, my friends!

Erin Dealey is the author of 16 picture books & board books (so far), many in rhyme. She is currently revising a middle grade novel which will not go away. And then there were those angsty poems she wrote in college. Dealey’s original career goal was Olympic Gold Medal tetherball player. When that didn’t pan out, she became a teacher, theater director, actor, mom, and author—and welcomes any opportunity to connect kids with words. She lives in northern California with her husband and a very energetic Golden Retriever. You can find her online at and on Twitter @ErinDealey & Instagram @erindealey.

Erin is giving away 1 of your choice–either a picture book critique or a copy of DEAR EARTH…FROM YOUR FRIENDS IN ROOM 5!

Leave one comment below to enter.

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

Three attempts to solve a problem—you’ve been told thirty trillion times this is the way to build a picture book plot. I even covered it in an earlier post.

It’s a tried-and-true method for telling a story. But does an editor reviewing all these similarly-structured submissions feel like she’s been there and read that? Well…….maybe.

There are other ways to frame picture books by using different story structures, as Tammi Sauer once pointed out during Storystorm.

But if those formats aren’t right for your story and you choose a more traditional arc, when is it OK to abandon the “three attempts”? When is it reasonable to break free from this rule?

First, we have to look at the why.

Why do we employ the “three attempts” structure? TO BUILD TENSION.

The main character tries to solve their problem and fails, repeatedly. This tension invests the reader in the protagonist’s struggle. It compels you to turn the page.

However, I wrote a manuscript recently where the protagonist doesn’t even realize she has a problem. The reader sees the problem, but the character is oblivious. It doesn’t make sense for her to attempt multiple solutions because she doesn’t see anything wrong in the first place!

Remember, three attempts builds tension. But that’s not the only way to achieve “what happens next?” excitement and anticipation.

In my manuscript, the humor comes from the reader knowing more than the main character (that’s a kind of “superiority humor”). The humor builds because the protagonist keeps mistaking her surroundings for something else, something that’s familiar to her. That escalating humor adds to the tension—OH NO! DOESN’T SHE GET IT YET?!

There’s also a deadline, an end goal that the reader and the main character both know. But can she get there if she’s so confused? You don’t know. More tension.

Bottom line—if you’ve built tension into your story via another means, you don’t need the three attempts. It certainly didn’t make sense for my story. Who tries to get out of a jam they don’t know they’re in?

Let’s look at picture books that build tension in different ways.

[Meta Device]
THE PANDA PROBLEM by Deborah Underwood & Hannah Marks

In this meta tale, the narrator and Panda argue about who’s the main character. The narrator wants Panda to be the protagonist with a problem to solve. But Panda thinks the narrator is the main character because uncooperative Panda is the narrator’s problem. This story mocks our “problematic” picture book rule. It keeps the tension high as both characters wrestle to control the story.

[Versus Device]
FIRE TRUCK VS. DRAGON by Chris Barton & Shanda McCloskey

A follow-up to Barton’s popular SHARK vs. TRAIN of 10 years ago (wow, time flies!), this new “battle” features a stand off between the reader and the characters. The reader understands what the two friends excel at, but the fire-starter and fire-squelcher don’t ever mention THOSE skills. That’s “superiority humor” again, with the reader knowing more than the characters. The tension arises from wondering if fire truck and dragon will ever get to what’s downright obvious to everyone else.

[Chronology Device]
THE END by David LaRochelle & Richard Egielski

This story is a fairytale told backwards. There’s a surprise each page turn as you discover what happened immediately prior to the current sticky situation. Does that create tension? You bet, as each spread also displays a new predicament.

[Parallel Structure]
OPERATION RESCUE DOG by Maria Gianferrari & Luisa Uribe

The parallel picture book tells two tales which eventually converge. The tension is kept high by a back-and-forth narrative between the two main characters. In this book, Alma misses her military mama. She and Abuela decide to adopt a rescue dog as a surprise for mama’s return. The rescue dog, Lulu, is lonely and afraid, without a family. Both characters face delays in their journey to the dog rescue rendezvous. But at the end, Alma and Lulu finally meet and it’s destiny!

Some of these stories also employ the classic “ticking clock” or deadline to achieve tension. THE END ends at the beginning. OPERATION RESCUE DOG has two ticking clocks—Alma wants to adopt a dog in time for her mother’s return…plus, the Dog Rescue Truck is only open for a limited window. Will they make it there on time?

For the “ticking clock” device, think of Cinderella’s carriage turning back into a pumpkin at midnight!

So while you’re reading new picture books, pay attention to the building of tension. Did the author use three attempts to solve the problem, or a different device? Were you still riveted? Compelled to turn the page? Invested in the main character’s plight? Then take note and try to break free in your own writing!


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illus by Mike Boldt
July 2021

illustrator TBA
Sourcebooks eXplore
November 2021

illus by Ross MacDonald
Little, Brown

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