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We’d all like to have a step-by-step guide to creating super-fantastic blockbuster children’s books. I’d buy that guide in a nanosecond. But I’m beginning to think that no such guide exists. I’m beginning to think we all have to figure things out for ourselves. In fact, I’m beginning to think it’s most important that we each learn to understand our own creative process, and when we understand our own unique ways of working we can each make our own unique “guide” to creating our own unique children’s books. Here’s what I’ve done to understand my creativity, and to devise my own “guide” to making children’s books—

Many of us have strong reactions to particular works of art. We’ll walk around a museum and say “Oh I love that painting SO MUCH” but we don’t always explore WHY we like it. So every now and then I make color copies, and tear out magazine pages, and print pictures from the internet, and I plaster my favorite images onto boards that I can move around my studio. I might dedicate one image board to my favorite color palettes, and another to my favorite compositions, and another to my favorite drawing styles. I surround myself with my favorite artwork.

I always notice patterns in my tastes. I seem to love Folk Art and Indian court paintings. I love Lizbeth Zwerger and Kay Nielsen’s work, among others. I ask myself what it is, exactly, that I love about each of my favorite pieces of art. Slowly but surely, I develop a list of qualities that I love in other people’s art. The list of qualities is constantly changing, but it usually looks something like this…

QUALITIES I LOVE IN OTHER PEOPLE’S ART

  • Naïve drawing (from Folk Art)

  • Flat Perspective and Muted colors (from Indian Court Paintings)

  • Compositions with areas of openness vs. areas of detail (from Lizbeth Zwerger)

  • Repeated patterns (from Kay Nielsen)

With my list of aesthetic qualities I love most, I then try to make art that incorporates those qualities. As I’m sketching a book dummy, creating final art, or simply doodling in my notebook, I keep that list in mind. If I stay focused, those aesthetic qualities will begin to appear in my work. Sure, I’m borrowing artistic styles, but by blending those qualities in different ways an entirely new art style emerges: MY style. My tastes are always changing, and so my style is always changing. I imagine someday I’ll settle into a consistent style, like most of my artistic heroes, but for now I’m quite happy making art that represents my current tastes and interests…however fleeting they may be.

From my upcoming book MR. TIGER GOES WILD, coming out in Fall 2013.

I use the same process with writing. It’s a little different, because image boards don’t really work with writings, but I can still analyze what writing I love and why. I make lists of the writing qualities I love most, and I try to incorporate those qualities into a new, unique writing style.

My process for determining HOW I want to write and illustrate is hugely helpful in determining WHAT I want to write and illustrate. If I know I want to combine spare, funny, dry language with flat, graphic, colorful illustrations, I can eliminate all of my picture book ideas that would involve muted colors, syrupy sweet morals, and complicated plots. My style helps me filter my ideas. I can focus on developing the two or three story ideas that will be complemented by my art and writing styles.

Of course, none of this matters if I have zero story ideas. But ideas are everywhere. So I always keep a little notepad with me, to jot down ideas when they pop into my mind. Sometimes the ideas come quickly. Sometimes I go months without having a single idea. But the ideas accumulate over the years, and whenever it’s time to begin a new project, I have my own little “guide” to determine HOW and WHAT to make my next book.

So get to know your own style and tastes. And when you have a better understanding of your creativity you can begin to make your own unique “guide” to creating your own unique children’s books.

P.S. If you’re a writer but not an artist, consider exploring what art styles would complement your writings. You might even want to modify your writing style to better match the style of art you’d like in your books.

P.P.S. If you’re an artist but not a writer, consider exploring what writing styles would complement your art. You might even want to modify your art style to better match the style of writing you’d like in your books.

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Peter Brown writes and illustrates books for young whippersnappers. He grew up in Hopewell, New Jersey, where he spent his time imagining and drawing silly characters. He studied Life Lessons at the School of Hard Knocks, and then got his B.F.A. in Illustration from Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California.

After college Peter moved to Brooklyn and spent several years painting backgrounds for animated TV shows. And then in 2003 he got a book deal to write and illustrate his first picture book FLIGHT OF THE DODO, which is a story that involves bird poop…in case you’re into that kind of thing. Since then he’s written and illustrated three more picture books, and illustrated several other books for young whippersnappers. His books have been adapted into plays and animated short films, they have been translated into a dozen languages, and they include the 2010 E.B. White award winner, Children’s Choice Award winner, and New York Times bestselling book THE CURIOUS GARDEN.

His books CHILDREN MAKE TERRIBLE PETS, YOU WILL BE MY FRIEND! and his latest book, CREEPY CARROTS! are also New York Times bestsellers and award winners.

You can find out more about Peter and his books at PeterBrownStudio.com.

Today I get to interview one of my favorite picture book peeps—Aaron Reynolds. His latest book, CREEPY CARROTS, is a NY Times Bestseller with the phenomenal Peter Brown.

PiBoIdMo is all about ideas. CREEPY CARROTS features a rabbit who’s paranoid that carrots are after him. How did that idea seed get planted?

I remembered as a kid how much I like to be scared. I loved scary TV shows and books. Don’t get me wrong…not REAL scared, not NIGHTMARE scared, but a little scared. I remembered watching shows like The Twilight Zone and how much fun it was to creep yourself out just a little. So I began thinking about ideas that were a little bit scary but mostly silly and an idea sprang to mind about a rabbit who loves carrots…until the carrots start following him. From there, the story came together pretty quickly.

In the book, there’s a question of whether or not the carrots are really following Jasper, or if it’s in his imagination. The grownups in the book don’t believe him…as is so often true in life. It was always clear to me that the carrots were real, they were really following him, and they had a plan.

So did you have the grownups who would be reading the book in mind when you wrote the story? Do you include something in your books to entertain parents and caregivers?

Yep, I always like to have double layers of humor in everything I write. If you look at Shrek and some of the best kids and family stuff out there that Pixar and Dreamworks are doing, there are always gags and jokes that go over kids heads that the adults bust a gut over. That’s the stuff I love and it’s definitely the kind of thing I like to do in my stories. Plus, it keeps me entertained along the way. Don’t get me wrong, I have the sense of humor and maturity of the average 7-year-old, but the subtle references keep my adult self happy as well. 🙂

Peter Brown illustrated the book with a film-noir feel, mostly black and white with the orange of the carrots in a starring role. Was the “classic movie” treatment part of your original concept?

My editor and I talked a lot about the look of the book early on. I was definitely inspired by 1950’s style hokey horror movies (being weaned on Mystery Science Theatre 3000 from early on) and always saw it as a mock-horror picture book, which isn’t exactly something you see every day and felt a little risky, but exciting to me. So a black and white feel was something I was really excited about. I talked about it with my editor, the idea of doing black and white with a single carroty accent color, and I was thrilled to find out that he really resonated with that, and further thrilled to find out that Peter really loved the idea, too. Peter definitely brought his own take on it, and you see that with the rounded corners (throwback to old TV screens) and extreme dramatic lighting, not to mention his homage to Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” on one spread.

How did you know CREEPY CARROTS was a winning concept? Did you sit down and write it immediately after it came to mind, or did you let it marinate a bit?

I didn’t know it was a winning concept at all. As often is the case, I felt like this idea could be a little too far out in left field for most editors to get excited about. Some initial responses were not only unreceptive, but downright offended at the story! But….you only have your own voice. If I can’t trust my own voice, who’s can I trust? I had to believe that the right quirky, goofy editor would snatch this up and that others would just have to be offended. In the end, it worked. But sometimes you think you’re crazy. You think “Can I truly be the only person in the world who thinks this is hilarious?!”

I didn’t sit down and write it immediately. It stewed for about a year before I finally sat down to put it to paper. But once I did, it came out pretty quickly.

Did the title CREEPY CARROTS come first or after you wrote the story?

Actually, the original title was EVIL CARROTS, and it came first, before I wrote the story. But my editor told me that people don’t buy picture books with the word EVIL in the title! Probably for good reason…

And CREEPY CARROTS made the NY Times Bestseller list! How did that accomplishment feel?

Woozy. I literally almost fainted. In the back of your head you dream that something like this might someday happen, but don’t really expect it to. So it was an amazing day.

What’s your best advice for PiBoIdMo participants as they go about capturing ideas?

Hmm. I guess it would be that there’s a fine line between a crazy, out-there idea and a really brilliant one. Who would have thought that a book where a pigeon is begging the reader to let him drive a bus would be a hit? If you’d pitched that to an editor at a conference before Mo Willems wrote it, most probably would have nixed it.

So many picture books out there seem to play it really safe. But there are editors out there that think like you do. So trust your voice. Trust your ideas, even if (and sometimes especially if) they seem out-there and crazy. This is a world where even a crazy story (or a creepy, carroty one) can become a success.

Aaron Reynolds is a New York Times Bestselling Author and has written many highly acclaimed books for kids, including CREEPY CARROTS!, CHICKS AND SALSA, BACK OF THE BUS, and the JOEY FLY, PRIVATE EYE graphic novel series. He has a passion for kids’ books and seeing kids reading them. He regularly makes time to visit schools where his hilarious hands-on presentations keep kids spellbound. Aaron lives in Chicago with his wife, 2 kids, 4 cats, and anywhere between zero and ten goldfish, depending on the day.

Hey, everyone! You can win a signed copy of CREEPY CARROTS! Leave a comment to enter. A winner will be randomly selected in one week. Good luck!

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As a children's book author and mother of two, I'm pushing a stroller along the path to publication. I collect shiny doodads on the journey and share them here. You've found a kidlit treasure box.

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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 eXplore
August 2020

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