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by Sue Fliess

When I do school visits, the number one question I get is Where do you get your ideas from? And that is probably the toughest question of all to answer! What I really want to say is, Pass…next question please?

Alas, since I get asked this question so often (from adults as well), I’ve thought about it plenty. Inspiration is such a wacky thing to me. My answer is usually not what people expect or want to hear, and requires immediate explanation. I say: I get ideas from the things, people and places around me. I know, so vague, right?! But what I’ve come to realize is that, over time, I have trained my brain to always be looking for a story.

For example, I was in an airport once and saw a poster advertising some travel product. There was a goat on it. Bam! I got an idea for a story from seeing this goat. I cannot tell you why, but this goat spoke to me. I’ve also gotten ideas from hearing portions of conversations, even from kids mispronouncing words.

Another time, I was discussing a title change of one of my books with Tammi Sauer, between sessions at a conference. I told her my pirate book, which I’d titled A Pirate’s Life, was going to be changed to HOW TO BE A PIRATE, per the editor, and that I was trying to warm up to the idea. Tammi said, Oh, but then you could do more ‘How to Be a’ books. Of course…genius! That evening, I scrawled out what would become HOW TO BE A SUPERHERO. I sold it, and then went on to sell HOW TO BE A PRINCESS, which pubs this May!


Just this fall, I hired a handyman to hang numerous photos in my house. One of them was of my kids in front of the Hatteras lighthouse. He made a comment about how much he loved lighthouses. It prompted me to think about why I love them. And just like that I got an idea for a picture book from listening to my handyman. Will let you know if it finds a home…

Finally, I am writing or thinking about writing so much, that, yes, I sometimes dream about it at night. Usually the ideas I get in my dreams are complete garbage, but occasionally they’ll at least spark an idea. This time, however, was different. In my dream, a friend asked, ‘What are you working on?’ and I answered with confidence, ‘I’m writing a fractured nursery rhyme called Mary Had a Little Lab.’ Of course, in real life, I was writing no such thing. I have a Labrador retriever, so I figured that is why I had that answer. My first reaction was, boy, that’s a dumb idea. But then I thought, What if lab is short for laboratory? So I wrote MARY HAD A LITTLE LAB about a girl inventor who makes her own pet sheep, and it publishes this March with Albert Whitman & Co.

Watch the trailer here:

I once got an idea for a story because I tried to remember a book that someone else had written. When I blurted out a title, I knew I had the title wrong as soon as I said it. But then I thought, gee, that’s a pretty great title. Surely, it was already a book. But it wasn’t. So I wrote it. My agent is shopping it now. Maybe it will be a book, after all.

So, Storystormers, start training your brain now to see the story in everything. Take a walk without your phone. Ask What if? Make things talk to you, read, observe your surroundings—as in, really look at things. Listen and hang out with creative people. There are lots of great ways to get inspired, and while these are just a few, I hope they’ve jolted your creative veins.


Sue Fliess has published over 20 children’s books including We Wish For a Monster Christmas, How to Trap a Leprechaun, From Here to There, A Fairy Friend, Tons of Trucks, and many Little Golden Books. She’s written for O Magazine, Writer’s Digest, Huffington Post, Walt Disney, and more. Sue lives with her family in Virginia. Visit her website at

Sue also has a counting board book coming out this June with Scholastic called HAUNTED HALLOWEEN. 

And though she doesn’t have a cover yet, this fall, look for Amazon/Two Lions to publish the hilarious adventure, MRS. CLAUS TAKES THE REINS, which follows Mrs. Claus as she takes over Christmas because Santa wakes up too sick for the gig. Here’s an illustration from the book:

Sue is giving away a picture book critique.

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!

by Sue Fliess

One of the most popular questions I get from people is, “What inspired you to write this book?” I always hesitate a little because I wish I could say that everything I’ve produced has been a product of sublime inspiration. The truth is, many times, the end product has strayed quite a bit from the original inspired idea. That’s not a bad thing. It’s called editing. And often those edits lead you down unexplored, unexpected, paths to the story that will actually appeal to readers. What I’m saying is, it’s all good. It’s just not always what your original intention was.

Tara has invited me to elaborate here on one such project, RACE!, which COMES OUT TODAY! and of which I’m very excited—and also very proud. Thanks, Tara! As short as this story is, it has a looong history.

Back in 2007 or 2008, I wrote a character-based story about cars, in which a boy was obsessed with toy cars. I had it critiqued by Elizabeth Law, and while she liked it, she had very good pointers on making it stronger. But she called out one scene in particular, where the boy was crashing his cars. She said, “You should think about also writing a story about crashing cars. But you’ll need to find just the right house.”

So, in 2009, I started a new project called CRASH!, which was exactly that: a smashing, crashing, shaking, braking story, set at a demolition derby. My agent, Jennifer Unter, started submitting it (in 2010) and we got a lot of interest! But it was getting rejected because there was ‘too much crashing’ or it was ‘a little too violent’. Well, yes, I wanted to say, have you ever been to a demolition derby? Alas, one editor asked for a revision to inject a main character car. And ‘small car’ was born. He won the whole derby, against all the odds. It was perfect! It was just what she wanted! And then they turned it down.

Jennifer and I agreed to put it aside for a while, which was fine with me.

Fast forward to 2015. As is my style, I pull this manuscript out again and try to rethink it. Maybe I just needed to take out some of the ‘more violent’ crashing language? I softened it up a little, (still called CRASH!) but I stayed true to the story arc of a small car ending victorious, just fewer bumps and bruises along the way. Jennifer started submitting it again and one editor (Sonali Fry at little bee THANK YOU SONALI) asked if I wouldn’t mind changing the theme from a demolition derby to something else.

As I always say, I’ll try! We talked about it, and both agreed that making it about a race instead, had great appeal. It didn’t change the story theme, just the setting, and I was able to keep so much of the text as-is because there’s still a lot of squealing and screeching, vrooming and swerving, and even conking and bonking that goes on in a race. And during this revision, I added a layer. In the end, (spoiler alert!) it’s revealed that a young boy is actually playing with his toy cars in his homemade backyard racecourse. So RACE! is now a real book—woot! My critique group still refers to this story as CRASH!, as do I sometimes, but RACE! is proof that in publishing, you can’t always rush to the finish line.

Maybe the sequel should be Slow and Steady?

Wow, what a long and winding road for RACE! Thanks for sharing the story behind the story, Sue. Also thanks for providing a copy for a giveaway!

To enter the giveaway, please leave one comment below. A winner will be randomly selected in a few weeks!

Good luck, RACING FANS!

And Happy 4th of July!

Winner of the 2018 Irma S. Black Award and the SCBWI Crystal Kite!
black kite

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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My Picture Books


illus by Melissa Crowton
Tundra/PRH Canada
June 4, 2019

illus by Ross MacDonald
October 1, 2019

illus by Vivienne To
Spring 2020

illustrator TBA
Sourcebooks Jabberwocky
August 2020

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