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by Janna Matthies

As a guest blogger during this high-gear month of generating Pi Bo ideas, I’m honored to share in the charge to Inspire! My first word of inspiration is this:

My new picture book, TWO IS ENOUGH (adorably illustrated by Tuesday Mourning), releases today! YIPPEE!!


While this might seem like shameless self-promotion (let’s face it, it is), it is also a reminder that people who only a few years ago were not published can one day accomplish that goal. Furthermore, we published authors—after only 4 books or, I hear, even after 25—are still dreaming, churning out ideas, putting bad ones through the shredder, writing, revising, submitting and hoping for the next book. The dream is attainable, and the process is ongoing for us all. We’re in this together!

My second word of inspiration is where I’ll land for today’s post. And it’s good news in a world where life can be hard. Here it is:

Your tough experiences, and those of people you love, can be fodder for meaningful children’s books.

Which brings me back to my new book, TWO IS ENOUGH. This book celebrates the special bond of love in a family of two—one adult and one child. The idea came when my dear, single friend Christine adopted a baby boy, Carter. When I looked for the perfect gift for them, all I found were stories on a theme of “When WE brought you home…” Clearly not the perfect gift for them. I thought about what kind of book Christine and Carter and families like them might need—something that celebrates what they have without reminding them of what they have not. And the answer was clear: LOVE. Whether shaped by adoption, divorce, death of a parent or something else, two-person families have unique challenges. Still…two is completely, fully, wholly, abundantly enough for lots of love. By honing in on the heart of my friend’s real story, I decided the best approach to this book was to stick strictly to the positives.

I’ve taken a different approach to tough topics in two of my other books: THE GOODBYE CANCER GARDEN and PETER, THE KNIGHT WITH ASTHMA. In writing these fictional books inspired by my own family’s health challenges, I chose to directly address the difficulties and then point toward hope.

One note: When we write directly about tough stuff for our youngest audiences, I believe we must be both honest about the facts and considerate of cognitive and emotional maturity. And because I was not writing a textbook or medical pamphlet, no sterile depiction of treatment events would do! I brainstormed about relatable ways to create a strong story and landed on the bridge-building tool of the metaphor.

9780807565179 Peter cvr

The dragon in PETER, THE KNIGHT WITH ASTHMA is a metaphor for asthma. The brave knight is the child empowered to fight and tame his disease.


In THE GOODBYE CANCER GARDEN, the barren winter ground represents a body with cancer. The seasonal cycle of vegetable gardening is as a metaphor for regeneration and hope. And while I used medical terms like chemotherapy and surgery, I explained them simply amidst a full-bodied story with multi-dimensional characters. We picture book creators, with the powerful combination of words and illustrations, have a unique opportunity to step into dark places and shine a light for our readers.

As an aside, books that help young readers face tough issues often fall within the category of “bibliotherapy” books—particularly those that get down to the nitty gritty like my asthma and cancer books. Even topics like potty training, starting school or how babies are born may fit this category or the broader heading of “concept” books (Check out THE BABY TREE by Sophie Blackall—clever, artistic, fun!). As you pore over piles of pictures books, as all good PiBoIdMo participants should do, notice those that touch on tough topics. Study the ones that transcend the issue and lead you—and ideally the children around you—to laugh, release some tears, take courage, or go plant a garden.

My parting question for you is this: What are the tough topics in the narrative of your life or in the lives of children you love? Consider taking some of these and giving them a shot at redemption through a picture book. What story can you create that will inspire young readers toward hope?

JannaMatthiesJanna Matthies is a children’s book author and guitar-toting early ed music teacher. Her books include TWO IS ENOUGH (Running Press Kids, 2015); THE GOODBYE CANCER GARDEN (Albert Whitman, 2011), which earned a starred review from School Library Journal and 2011 Best Foreign Children’s Book at the Sharjah International Book Fair; PETER, THE KNIGHT WITH ASTHMA (Albert Whitman, 2009); and MONSTER TRUCKS (Piggy Toes Press, 2009). She’s also written for Spider and Humpty Dumpty magazines. Janna lives in Indianapolis with her husband and three kids.

Find her at and on Facebook.

PrizeDetails (2)

Janna is giving away a copy of her new book TWO IS ENOUGH.

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

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

  1. You have registered for PiBoIdMo.
  2. You have commented ONCE ONLY on today’s post.
  3. You have completed the PiBoIdMo challenge. (You will have to sign the PiBoIdMo Pledge at the end of the event.)

Good luck, everyone!

kristivaliantby Kristi Valiant

PENGUIN CHA-CHA is my first book as both author and illustrator, so my process was very different than when I’ve illustrated manuscripts written by other authors.

penguinchachaUsually I receive a manuscript from a publisher, I read it over—that first read tickles the first glimpses of images into my head—and then I decide if that manuscript is one that I want to spend months illustrating.

Illustrating stories by other authors gives me a chance to illustrate ideas that I wouldn’t have had otherwise and brings variety to my work.

For example, in THE GOODBYE CANCER GARDEN, the author Janna Matthies wrote about a family growing a healthy vegetable garden as Mom recovered from cancer. It’s a powerful story of healing. Since I’ve never gone through something like that, I wouldn’t have thought to write that story, but Janna experienced a very similar cancer battle in her own life before writing this hope-filled story. As soon as I read that manuscript, I knew it would be an important book for many families. It was an honor to be able to illustrate it.


Another part of illustrating someone else’s manuscript is to add my own voice to the book through the illustrations. I need to figure out what to add to the story they’re telling, and that may mean showing things in the illustrations that the author never thought of. (That’s why publishers like to keep the authors and illustrators away from each other.)

corasdogIn the picture book CORA COOKS PANCIT by Dorina K. Lazo Gilmore, Cora feels ignored at first by her family. To echo her feelings, I drew a little dog that follows Cora around wanting to play, so he brings her more and more toys on each page. Cora ignores him.

Just as Cora gets her happy ending, the dog gets his own happy ending when Cora finally plays with him. The dog wasn’t part of the text by the author. The dog is my own contribution to rounding out the story with the illustrations. Since parents are usually busy reading the words, they may not even notice the dog, but be assured that the kids who are hearing the story and studying the illustrations definitely notice that dog! Kids are master picture readers, so that’s always something I think about as I decide how to draw my half of the story in books written by someone else.

My process for PENGUIN CHA-CHA was different from the start because the illustration came first instead of the manuscript. Way back in 2007, I drew an illustration of penguins dancing. I used to be in a swing and Latin dance group and I liked penguins, so I decided to combine two things I liked to create a fun portfolio piece.


Around the same time I had tried my hand at writing my first picture book manuscripts about other subjects. I had a meeting with an editor and showed her my picture book manuscripts and also my portfolio. She remarked about how much more my face lit up when we got to the dancing penguin illustration than when I talked about my manuscripts!


So I realized I really needed to write about the things that make my face light up. Makes sense, right? So I wrote story after story about dancing penguins. It was much harder to write a wonderfully marketable picture book than I thought it would be! What remained constant were the dancing penguins, but the plots of the stories were all over the place. Those penguins danced for years as I figured out my story. I even licensed them out as wrapping paper at some point. I finally sorted out my story as it played as images in my head. I only wrote down the words that I felt were necessary and not shown in the illustrations. In the end, my editor at Random House asked me to add in a bit more text. I may be the only picture book author that’s happened to—usually they want to cut words!


Writing my own books allows me the freedom to draw my favorite subject matter and favorite kinds of characters and things that make my face light up like dancing penguins. And the story usually starts with an image for me. Illustrating someone else’s manuscript brings more variety to my work and new experiences. So I love both!

Speaking of new experiences, I’m currently illustrating a picture book written by Danielle Steel called PRETTY MINNIE IN PARIS. For research, I visited Paris—what a lovely city to experience! The story combines Paris, a fashion runway show, a long-haired teacup Chihuahua, and a stylish little girl. Oh la la! Watch for PRETTY MINNIE in the fall of 2014.

penguinchachaprizeThanks, Kristi, for giving us a glimpse into your process! 

PENGUIN CHA-CHA releases today!  Happy Book Birthday, Kristi!

And lucky readers, Kristi is giving away a PENGUIN CHA-CHA prize pack! You’ll receive a signed book, magnet, bookmark and sticker! Just leave a comment below by September 5th to enter, and if you’d like to ask Kristi a question, you can do so there, too.

You can learn more about the book at and download a Storytime Activities Kit.

Also follow Kristi’s blog at


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