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by Mike Ciccotello

We’ve all heard that critique from an editor, “It’s too predictable.” And then, we pull out the rejection Bingo Card and fill in a spot.

Coming up with an unexpected concept is challenging. There are plenty of ways we can apply this “unexpected” element to a story. It could be the overall concept, a plot point, or even a character. For this post, let’s focus on the concept of your story. For me, it’s typically paired with a bunch of planning and work. What? But, Mike, shouldn’t these unexpected concepts just come to us when we least expect them? Well, just because we used the word “Unexpected” does not mean the idea will unexpectedly come to us. I wish it were that simple. Maybe some magical authors have unexpected ideas suddenly popping in their heads all the time. Good for them. I wish them well. I’m so very, very happy for them. Sigh. Still, the rest of us need to spend a lot of time working toward the unexpected. We need to dig deep to find that special something that makes our story sing.

A couple of years ago, my agent asked me to develop a promotional illustration for back-to-school. I immediately started working but knew I needed to get all of my expected ideas out of the way to get to the unexpected. I started drawing a typical back-to-school scene with kids in line at the bus. Which led to adding a dog in place of a child, then an anthropomorphic bus, then an anthropomorphic book with the bus. This process went on for a few days. (Sometimes, this process takes much longer.) Then, one day, I was outside with my kids in their sandbox, playing sandcastle ice cream shop, of course, and the idea appeared in front of me. Well, part of it, anyway. I was staring at a shovel, and it was staring back at me.

But, Mike, what does a shovel have to do with back-to-school? Absolutely nothing, but it has a lot to do with right before you go back-to-school. I started imagining a shovel and a ruler sizing each other up on the beach. Why not, right? So, I played around with the sketch and added a few more items.

That was the first iteration of BEACH TOYS vs. SCHOOL SUPPLIES. It was a fun concept, and I couldn’t wait to develop it. I did more work on the illustration and ended up with this.

My next author-illustrated book, BEACH TOYS vs. SCHOOL SUPPLIES (FSG/Macmillan), will be washing up on shore near you this June.

And here’s the cover. Did you expect a cover reveal in this blog post?

Now, how do you find YOUR unexpected ideas? Take your time. Work through the expected and then keep going. Turn the expected upside down and shake the change out of its pockets. You may find something unexpected there.

Once you find that surprising concept, you can sprinkle in some compelling characters, build a strong narrative, and add a bit more “unexpected” to the plot. You know, all the easy stuff. 😉

Before I go, let’s try something fun—list five random objects around you. Pick the one with the most personality. Now come up with today’s Storystorm idea based on that character.

Happy writing, and don’t forget to talk to your silverware!

Mike Ciccotello received a BFA with a concentration in painting from Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University. He is the author-illustrator of the picture book TWINS and the forthcoming BEACH TOYS VS. SCHOOL SUPPLIES (both from FSG/Macmillan). Mike will also illustrate Bridget Heos’s TREEMENDOUS (forthcoming from Crown/Penguin Random House) and CHEESE AND QUACKERS, a two-book early graphic chapter-book series written by Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen (forthcoming from Aladdin/S&S). He is an active member of SCBWI, CBIG, and was a contributing member of Find him online on Twitter @ciccotello, Instagram @ciccotello and Mike is represented by Rachel Orr. Please contact Rachel at rko(a)

Mike is giving away an an original inked piece of some of the BEACH TOYS VS. SCHOOL SUPPLIES characters.

Leave one comment below to enter.

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

Author Bridget Heos interviews illustrator Mike Ciccotello…

Here it is! The cover of our upcoming picture book, TREEMENDOUS: DIARY OF A NOT YET MIGHTY OAK. It’s due out March 9, 2021 from Crown.

Mike, I love the image of TREE (as acorn) falling and his hopeful expression! It made me think of a leap of faith that changes everything. How did you think of that cover image?

Thanks so much, Bridget. This idea felt good right from the start. It showed our main character taking that leap of faith you mentioned while the backdrop of her mother is hinting at what the acorn’s future could bring. We knew our acorn was going to be the focus. It was just a question of what point during her journey we were going to show. The combination of the vantage point and her falling made this such an exciting part to showcase.

Were there other covers that the Crown team was considering?

Yes, this was one of three designs. I tried a version with our acorn hanging from a branch, dreaming of all of life’s possibilities. Then I did a much different version that showed our acorn in front of a flat backdrop of her mother’s bark. Both of these options tell a story, just not as exciting as the more dynamic perspective that was selected.

You did such an amazing job bringing warmth and life to TREE. Any sketches that show the evolution of ACORN or TREE?

Of course!

Thank you, Bridget and Mike, for showing us a glimpse of your seedling!

TREEMENDOUS hits bookstore (and virtual) shelves on March 9, 2021!


by Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen

Ask any writer, and he or she will tell you that ideas are hard.

Except…they’re not.

Ideas are easy. I can come up with a new idea for a book once a day. I could probably do it once an hour! I’d have oodles of ideas at the end of this exercise.

Except…they probably wouldn’t be good ideas.

Ideas aren’t hard. Good ideas, on the other hand are as elusive as a greased pig at a county fair. (I assume that greased pigs at a county fair would be elusive. I have no first-hand knowledge of pigs, greased or otherwise, or county fairs. But I’ve definitely read about them, and they sound very elusive.)

I’ve talked about sorting through your ideas on this blog before, and I won’t be repeating the same old story. After all, that would not be a very good idea. Instead, I’d like to share some tips about developing an idea from eh to excellent.

You already know that creating a polished, publishable manuscript involves peer review, professional critiques, and revision. But there is something else I do to get to the strongest possible story: I rely on my sounding board.

We’re all familiar with the dictionary definition of sounding board: “a person or group whose reactions to suggested ideas are used as a test of their validity or likely success before they are made public.” It’s very likely you already have a critique group to perform a similar function on your manuscripts. But I use a sounding board as early as the idea stage.

There are some things to look for when choosing an idea sounding board. First, he or she must be a children’s literature professional. So, no, you can’t bounce your ideas off your spouse or your kids or your neighbor or—heaven forbid—your mother. Those are fine people to consult with when you’re brainstorming or writing, but they don’t count as the kind of sounding board I’m talking about.

Next, you have to choose someone you work well with. This does not have to be someone you will be using as an active collaborator, but it does have to be someone who feels comfortable giving you honest feedback—because telling you something is good when it isn’t is really just a waste of everyone’s time. As Roxie says, ain’t nobody got time for dishonesty.

Thirdly—and this is perhaps the most important—your sounding board should be someone who doesn’t think like you do. In fact, the less your artistic points of view overlap, the better it is. You are already thinking of your idea the way  someone like you would think about it. What you need is someone different, who comes at it from a totally contrasting viewpoint, and who might even bring a completely new skill set.

For me, my sounding board is most often my agent. (After all, I can threaten to fire her if she doesn’t listen to me.) We’ve been working together for over a decade, so there is a high level of comfort there. She’s still unflinchingly honest and I respect her knowledge of the market. Unfortunately, she also tends to nag me about ideas I’ve bounced off her that I…never seem to finish. Which means, sometimes, I have to hide from her—and I have to find a different sounding board. Which brings me to the story I want to share.

A few months ago, my agent nagged reminded me about a Project-That-Shall-Not-Be-Named that I have been trying to write for years. She even asked one of her illustrator clients, Mike Ciccotello, to draw a character sketch to help inspire me. So, of course, I immediately began working on…a completely different project. I guiltily shared that information with Mike. To my surprise, he both liked the new project and had suggestions.

The second project is called CHEESE & QUACKERS. The story centered on a lamb (Cheese) and a duck (Quackers) who have an odd couple-type relationship as roommates at summer camp. I had the idea that the story should be told in sparse text in a comic book-like format, but that would require rich, expressive illustrations. Luckily, Mike had the idea that the story should be told with rich, expressive illustrations in a comic book-like format and therefore should have sparse text.

Thus, the idea bouncing—really an elaborate version of the “What If” game—began.

What if one of them was neat and organized and the other was a slob? (Good idea.)

What if one was a summer camp veteran and the other new to camping? (Also good.)

What if one had lots of friends at camp and the other was totally reliant on his roommate? (We’re on a roll!)

What if the characters wore shirts but no pants? (That’s a hard “no.”)

What if one of them likes pancake batter and jelly sandwiches? (Also no.)

What if we put two llamas in their core friend group so I can name them Dolly Llama and Kendrick Llama? (Umm, of course!)

Because Mike and I were collaborating, the “What If” game was reciprocal and ran concurrently with drafting the manuscript. This typically won’t be the case, but luckily, your sounding board does not need to be a collaborator. The important thing is that he or she needs to be able to ask you “What If” questions to get you to think about things you hadn’t considered, and he or she needs to be able to answer your “What If” questions to toss out new ideas. Answering “What If” questions makes the eventual story become clearer in your head. It also helps you block off the paths you shouldn’t take your character down (see pancake batter and jelly above), which makes the idea stronger.

Sometimes, you need a little feedback.

Sometimes, it’s a long back-and-forth.

Sometimes, you hear something you didn’t expect.But every round of the game helps you hone in on the good ideas, discard the bad ideas, and gets you closer to where you need to get your story.

Mike and I were fortunate to have found a home for CHEESE & QUACKERS, tentatively scheduled for 2022. So we get to continue playing the “What If” game through at least two books. It’s very exciting.

Though, Mike is definitely more excited to play than I am.

Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen is an award-winning children’s book author whose books include Chicks Rule, The United States vs. Jackie Robinson (2019 ALSC Notable Children’s Books List), Duck Duck Moose (CBC Children’s Choice Award Finalist), Tyrannosaurus Wrecks (Junior Library Guild Selection), and the Purrmaids chapter book series. She has visited schools and libraries for the past 15 years, talking to kids about writing, reading, and finding their voices.

She lives in Princeton, NJ with her husband, three children, and an adorable pug named Roxie (featured above). You can learn more about her and her books on her website

Special announcement! Sudipta will be teaching at our premiere Storystorm Retreat at Highlights Foundation, March 5-8, 2020. Learn more about our fun and intensive picture book retreat here!

This event will fill up quickly! Sign up today!

Hope to see you there!


by Mike Ciccotello

I absolutely love sketching prompts. If you follow me on Twitter or Instagram (@ciccotello) then you may have seen my 10 minute sketches. Every now and then, I post a question asking readers to share their favorite something… maybe it’s animal, or an object, or maybe a mode of transportation. Whatever it is, I compile all of them into a nice big list and create quick sketches from the prompts. Some of those images become finished character illustrations in my portfolio. A few of those illustrations go even further and have become characters in book dummies.

With visual prompts in mind, I thought we could have some fun generating ideas. All you need to do is look at the pictures and let your imagination wander.

Pick a character…

Pick an object…

Pick a setting…

Now let’s put them together. Combine one item from each row. It kind of makes me think of the board game, Clue. What if we put the raccoon in the living room with the gift? Where is the raccoon? Where is the gift? I don’t want to sway your creativity, but these questions will help define the moment. Let’s leave it there and allow you to finish the scene.

Play around with it. Maybe there are two characters in one settings, or one character with multiple objects. Don’t stop there. If this idea is working for you then get out there and pick some more images of your own. Pull images from the web. Clip pictures from magazines or newspapers.

Look at each item and start to ask questions. Why is this character so special? What are they doing? What’s the dilemma? What is the conflict? How will this character grow throughout your story? Use your fantastic writing skills to develop something unique with your voice.

If you are looking for places to get prompts for writing or illustration, be sure to check these out:

Have fun with it and good luck!

Mike Ciccotello received a BFA with a concentration in painting from Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University. He has fourteen years’ experience in broadcast motion graphics, working at CNN and Fox Business Network. Currently, he is the Art and Design Director at Telos Corporation. His art has been featured on, CNN,, Artists & Makers Magazine, and Industry Magazine. He has exhibited at Johnson & Johnson Headquarters and the NY Design Center. He is an active member of SCBWI, CBIG, Drawn to Picture Books, and a contributing member of Visit him at or follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

Ciccotello is giving away a custom illustrated avatar. It can be in your likeness or just something you admire. But I would suggest it not being Mike. He’s already taken.

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!

Now, go get visual.


Today’s post comes from the mind (and pencil) of illustrator Mike Ciccotello.

Inspiring minds wanna know!


Mike is an aspiring children’s book illustrator. He received a BFA with a concentration in painting from Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University. He has 13 years experience working as a motion graphic designer at CNN and Fox Business Network. Mike is currently the Art and Design Director at Telos Corporation. He is a contributing member of and a member of SCBWI. You can see more of Mike’s art online at

He’s also on Facebook, Twitter @Ciccotello & Instagram @Ciccotello.  

PrizeDetails (2)

Mike is giving away this original art! YES! THIS!!! (Scroll up!)

Leave a comment below to enter. One comment per person, please.

This prize will be given away at the conclusion of PiBoIdMo. You will be eligible for this prize if:

  • You have registered for PiBoIdMo.
  • You have commented ONCE ONLY on today’s post.
  • You have completed the PiBoIdMo challenge.

Good luck, everyone!

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