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Dear fellow kidlit book creators,

A few years ago, my writing partner gave me a challenge. She dared me to write an epistolary book—the entire manuscript could only be letters between characters.

So I gave it a shot. I decided the main character would be a dog—my old dog!

(BACKSTORY: One day, in about second grade, a scruffy mutt showed up in my front yard. He was dirty, and hungry, and stinky—and he was ours. We fed him, cleaned him up, and named him Auggie. I miss that dog, and still dream about him!)

Initially, my book was a series of letters between two characters: a scruffy dog looking for a home, and the cranky guy he was writing to.

But the story quickly evolved. In my second draft, the dog (named Arfy) was writing letters to every house/business on the street. Each person replied, and they all said “no.” For different reasons. Until the end of the book, where Arfy finally DID find a home.

This book ended up becoming a picture book called CAN I BE YOUR DOG?. And I didn’t realize it at the time, but that prompt from my friend was actually an exercise in writing voice.

In the early drafts, each of the letters sounded really same-y. The butcher sounded like the fire chief, who sounded like the junkyard guy. (Really, they all sounded like me. No good!) So I started playing with the letters, to make each character’s voice sound as different as possible.

Here are some of the parameters I tweaked for each character:

  • VOCABULARY/GRAMMAR: The word choices the character makes, and how they string those words together. How does the butcher sound different from the fire chief?
  • VOLUME: Is this character loud or quiet? And HOW are they loud/quiet? Are they boisterous? Overbearing? Timid? Soothing?
  • RHYTHM: Does this character speak in long, flowing singsongy sentences? Or short, clipped bursts? Or a droning monotone? Or some other pattern?
  • HANDWRITING: Do they write in loopy cursive with a purple pen? Or with a scribbly pencil, with crossed-out mistakes? Or do they type their letter? And what kind of paper do they write on? These things are all still part of that character’s “voice.”

I think the great thing about letter-writing is that it’s all about voice. We get to  leave out the narration entirely, and have the entire text focus on the voice of the characters who are speaking. I mean, writing.

So now, I’m going to pass that challenge along to you!

CHALLENGE #1

Write a letter (or series of letters) between two characters. These characters should be as different from one other as possible.

For instance:

  • The giant is writing a letter to Jack about this beanstalk ruining the resale value of his castle. (What’s the giant’s handwriting like? And imagine the size of his postage stamp!)
  • The hare is writing to the tortoise demanding a rematch. (What’s the hare’s writing-rhythm like, vs. the tortoise’s?)
  • A professional baseball coach is writing to the world’s greatest pitcher, who happens to be a second grade little-leaguer. But the second grader is NOT interested.

OR: design two characters of your choice. They can be people, animals, or fairy tale characters, but try to make them as opposite as possible. In the way they look, the way they sound, and their individual “goals.”

CHALLENGE #2 (BONUS!)

If you’re feeling warmed up, repeat the above exercise, but make the two characters as similar as possible. At least, on the surface. Maybe they’re both eighth-graders passing notes in science class. Or they’re two goldfish stuck in the same bowl. They can have the same age, interests, etc. but their voices should still be absolutely distinct.

Your pal,

Troy

P.S. I love postcripts. A cool way to sneak in one last surprise. And in this case, the surprise is a peek at my next book! Here it is:

I FOUND A KITTY! is the follow-up to my NY Times Bestseller CAN I BE YOUR DOG?. This time, Arfy finds a teeny kitten in a drain pipe. He writes letters to more people in town, hoping to find a home for the poor little cat.


As a kid, Troy Cummings spent all his time writing stories, drawing pictures, and keeping an eye out for monsters. As a grown-up, he pretty much does the same thing. Except now his bed time is 9:15.

Troy has written and illustrated more than forty children’s books, including THE NOTEBOOK OF DOOM series, THE BINDER OF DOOM series, CAN I BE YOUR DOG?, and THE EENSY WEENSY SPIDER FREAKS OUT (BIG-TIME!) He was also lucky enough to team up with the amazing, hilarious Tara Lazar on LITTLE RED GLIDING HOOD.

Troy Cummings lives in Indiana, where he steals jokes from his wife, kids, cats, and goldfish.

Visit Troy at troycummings.net and follow him on Twitter at @troycummings.


Troy is giving away one copy of I FOUND A KITTY after its release on March 3, 2020.

Leave one comment below to enter.

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

Good luck!

by Troy Cummings

Designing a picture book cover is like housetraining a puppy: it requires lots of patience, there are papers spread all over the house, and it’ll inevitably lead to fits of howling in the middle of the night.

But if you can sniff out the good ideas and clean up your happy accidents, you’ll hopefully wind up with something you’re proud to cuddle up with on the couch.

When I wrangle my picture book covers, I try to explore as many different ideas as possible. I start by sketching a few pages crazy loose brainstormy concepts, and then distill those into half a dozen thumbnail sketches.

I draw my thumbnail sketches at about 1.5″ tall. It forces me to work quickly, make big, bold shapes, and to _not_ get fussy with details. I think it’s best to work in b/w at this point; we can save the color decisions for later.

Here are the cover sketches I submitted to my editor/art director for CAN I BE YOUR DOG? It’s a story about a dog who writes letters to every house on Butternut street, in search of a home–so I knew I’d want the cover to involve DOG + MAIL.

DVD COMMENTARY TRACK ON THE ABOVE IMAGES:

1. Big letter: This would have been a pretty static/boring cover; the puppy is too small! But I kept it here in case it gave us more ideas for another direction to follow.

2. Arfy mailing: I like how this one shows us the dog actually sending a letter. It’s sort of already getting the story started—like a bonus page zero of the book!

3. Zoomed-in stamp: I was trying to show the title in a cancellation stamp, but it’s too hard to read. (I ended up stealing this idea for my ABOUT THE AUTHOR photo on the flap. (With my portrait on a 3RD CLASS STAMP.)

4. Special delivery: I liked this one, especially Arfy’s floppy ears.

5. Big puppy: We ended up using this one as flap art, too.

6. Peek: I liked the timidness of the puppy peeking around the corner; we ended up using a variant of this on the back cover.

7. Arfy’s head: This was everyone’s favorite. The scruffy mutt is prominently featured, and it was nice to work the title into the illustration.

Once we’d agreed on a direction, my art director Liz (who rocks!) was able to take my sketch and improve it like crazy. Liz zoomed in on the image, made the title bolder, suggested to bend the letter, and moved my byline out to the background space. I loved all of her suggestions, and we ended up with a jacket that reads pretty well across the room or as a tiny thumbnail image on the web.

The best part about sketching multiple ideas is that none of that work was wasted. I was able to reuse some of my sketches on the flaps/interiors of the book, or for promotional materials.


Troy Cummings is the author/illustrator of more than 30 books, including CAN I BE YOUR DOG?, THE NOTEBOOK OF DOOM, and LITTLE RED GLIDING HOOD (written by the indefatigable Tara Lazar!) You can follow him on Twitter @troycummings, follow him on Instagram @troxcummings, or follow him to the new ice cream shop that opened next door to his studio. (Shrewd move on their part!)

Troy is giving away a signed copy of CAN I BE YOUR DOG?

Leave one comment below to enter. A winner will be selected next week.

by Tammi Sauer

I have been a part of Storystorm (formerly known as PiBoIdMo) ever since Tara introduced it back in 2009. Each year, as a guest blogger, I have shared one of my idea-getting strategies. I’ve mentioned everything from “celebrating the weird stuff in your life” to starting with a setting to playing with various structures. Each year, I have also accepted the challenge to come up with at least 30 picture book ideas.

And, each year, do you know how many of my 30+ ideas are good ones?

25? 10? 5?!

The answer is 1. Occasionally 2.

My other 29+ ideas? They are okay ideas. But okay ideas do not result in offers.

During PiBoIdMo 2013, I jotted down this snippet of an idea: funny rules for having an unusual pet.

I felt the idea had potential. But I needed a story. I needed a beginning, middle, and end. I needed a character readers could care about. I needed conflict. I, um, needed a lot.

Also, around this time, I had been wanting to write a book using the how-to structure.

Hmm.

Then one spring day, while I was in PetSmart with my son, everything clicked.

I saw a rack filled with brochures. Each brochure provided information on caring for a particular pet. There was a brochure on dwarf hamsters, a brochure on guinea pigs, a brochure on geckos.

 

I suddenly knew exactly what I needed to do! I was going to write a pet care guide for a lion!

My favorite part about working on this manuscript was that I wanted the text to play the straight man to the art. I wanted the text to read as if caring for a lion is easy. I wanted the art to show that it is anything but. Because of this, I included more art notes than usual.

CARING FOR YOUR LION sold at auction to Sterling.

We ended up finding the perfect illustrator in Troy Cummings. Not only did Troy get the humor of the manuscript, but he amped it up to ridiculously wonderful proportions. Plus, he created the purrr-fect case cover for this book. (I don’t want to spoil the surprise, so I won’t reveal it here.)

This is what Kirkus had to say about Caring for Your Lion:

“Sauer’s terse text, presented as the steps in the care manual for the lion, are tongue-in-cheek smile-inducing, as are accompanying black-and-white diagrams from the manual. However, their interaction with Cummings’ full-color, digitally created illustrations of a light-brown-skinned child and the full-grown male lion that was delivered instead of a kitten are laugh-out-loud fun. Allow plenty of time to giggle over the details.”

I am so grateful to Tara for creating this challenge. Because of StoryStorm, the following books got their start:

  • Nugget & Fang (HMH, 2013)
  • Your Alien (Sterling, 2015)
  • Your Alien Returns (Sterling, 2016)
  • Caring for Your Lion (Sterling, 2017)
  • Truck, Truck, Goose! (HarperCollins, 2017)
  • Wordy Birdy + a sequel (Doubleday BFYR, 2018, 2019)
  • Knock, Knock (Scholastic, 2018)
  • Go Fish! (HarperCollins, 2018)
  • The Farm that Mac Built (HMH, TBA)
  • Quiet Wyatt (HMH, TBA)

Plus, I recently received an offer on a book that began as an idea in StoryStorm 2017. I think this world needs Tara Lazar Day. Until then, I came up with one small way to celebrate Tara. One of the aforementioned books is dedicated to her.

Tammi Sauer is a full time children’s book author who presents at schools and conferences across the nation. She has sold 29 picture books to major publishing houses including Disney*Hyperion, HarperCollins, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Penguin Random House, Simon & Schuster, and Sterling. Tammi and her family live in Edmond, Oklahoma, with one dog, two geckos, and a tank full of random fish (but no lions). Visit her at tammisauer.com.

 

Tammi is giving away a Caring for Your Lion prize pack to one lucky commenter. A random winner will be selected in two weeks.

This pack may or may not come with a real lion.

You’ve been warned.

Guess who’s gliding your way this October?

littleredglidinghood

Illustrated by the amazing Troy Cummings (of NOTEBOOK OF DOOM fame), this story is a mish-mash of fairytales set in a winter wonderland. (No, not Boston.) It’s all quite fantastically fractured, without cumbersome crutches.

Troy’s got a groovy retro style that pops with personality. I asked him a few questions about bringing Red and her pals to life.

Troy, how were you introduced to LITTLE RED and why did you choose to work on it?

My editor at Random House said she had me in mind to illustrate a fractured fairytale called LITTLE RED GLIDING HOOD. The title alone made me smile. Then I read the manuscript and I shouted “YES! SIGN ME UP!” after the first few page turns.

The story was super-funny, and clever, and full of action. Drawing fairytale characters would be fun, but coming up with ice-skating wintery versions of those guys in frozen-fairytale-land? COME ON!

I really couldn’t wait to start—I filled my sketchbook with character ideas on the bus ride home.

lrgh_first_sketch

These are the first designs I cooked up. Red looks very similar to how she is in the book—although her eyes were much huger in the first draft…but she’s got her little pointy ears on her hood, and oversized head.

02_title

The Big Bad Wolf is probably “badder” in the book. Although it looks like I had already planned on giving him that big awesome puffy shirt that accentuates his chest hair.

And I was also playing with giving each of the three pigs their own skates to match their jobs—with blades that resembled a trowel, a saw, or a scythe. But I couldn’t get it to work, so now they just have plain old skates.

jacket_thumbs

And here are all my thumbnails for my book cover ideas. I try to do a million of ’em to see what kind of ideas I can shake out. They actually picked my secret favorite one for the real cover, which was great.

How did you decide upon the overall look for the book?

Well, it’s a winter story that takes place mostly outside—which would lend itself to white/gray/off-brown/… but it’s also a kooky fairy tale, so I wanted to sneak in as much color as I could. So I got to play and make crazy purple and yellow trees, and give the characters colorful scarves and mittens, etc.

I also tried to differentiate Little Red and the Big Bad Wolf in their designs… she’s short and blocky, he’s tall and lanky. She’s neat, he’s shaggy. She’s got big eyes, he’s got “bad guy” eyes, she’s fully dressed, he’s uh, not…etc. etc.

wolf (1)

And the other thing I tried to do was avoid warm colors, except for Little Red’s actual riding hood…in most scenes, it’s the only red thing we see—it should be brighter and bolder than anything else, hopefully drawing attention to her even when she’s a tiny skater on the horizon.

(With one exception—she takes a break at Grandma’s house in the middle of the book, so I flooded that page with warm/bold colors: the fireplace, the floorboards, and even the walls have lots of warmer colors. Then she’s back outside at the pinky-purple little piggy’s house, out in the snow…)

03_grandma

How does working on an author’s story differ from working on your own?

When I write my own stories, I always start by waaaaay overcooking things. My manuscripts are too long and my words are redundant with my pictures, big-time. The writer-half of me panics that the illustrator-half is going to leave something out, so my copy ends up sounding way too descriptive, like this:

The fuzzy blue frog put on her yellow striped size 3 pajamas before hopping on her new two-wheeled bicycle, which had been colored 30% MAGENTA in Adobe Photoshop CS5.

And then when it’s time to illustrate, I realize that I could have just written:

The frog rode away.

and let the illustration do the rest of the work. I feel like I’m slooowly getting better at this, but I still haven’t totally figured it out.

I also think that when I’m illustrating my own story, I finish by drawing a picture that more or less lines up with what I was thinking when I wrote the story. THE END.

BUT!

When I illustrate someone else’s story, it becomes really fun to work with what they’ve written, and try to come up with images that “complete” the scenes/emotions/ideas they’re setting up. They author will have described characters, events, ideas and emotions, which I should support and illustrate. But the author will also _not_ describe certain events, actions, characters, etc. (on purpose!), letting me complete the scene.

01_opening

For instance, here’s a line Tara Lazar (you!) had written for LITTLE RED GLIDING HOOD:

She swizzled down the river and saw a flurry of friends gathering beneath a banner.

This is all the copy needs to say—the author hasn’t spelled out exactly who has gathered beneath the banner. I get to do that! Then it’s fun to try to come up with something neat/funny that supports the text, but also has little surprises if you spend some time on it. (Who’s hanging out under the banner? Maybe Miss Muffet, bored [setting us up for the spider on page x/] Or Humpty Dumpty, walking with confidence (or nervously holding the handrail?)… Or bo-peep, distracted by something while her sheep are eyeing the exit. (etc., etc.)

I get to play around in this world the author has created, and maybe set up a few characters/events that will payoff later in the story, and (ideally) throw in little details to surprise the reader on subsequent readings.

I also think there’s this really cool thing that happens when an author and illustrator work together:

  1. The author comes up with a story, characters, and a world that I couldn’t have come up with on my own. She puts images in my head.
  2. I, in turn, draw these images and interpret her world/characters/architecture/bowls of porridge/etc., which are likely to be entirely different than what she might have envisioned. (At least, the details might be different—I should be hitting all the right notes to support the voice/tone of her manuscript.)
  3. And then: MAGIC! The difference between what the author had in mind vs. my interpretation ends up being this thing that’s, ideally, better than what either of us could have cooked up on our own… (I say “magic”, but that’s also a result of smart editing/art direction.)

This project was super, sooooper fun. I’m really happy with how it turned out, and it makes me want to work on more kooky fairytales. (Or more Tara Lazar stories!)

Thanks, Tara!

Thanks so much, Troy! You’ve done an incredible job, far better than anything I could have ever imagined! I’m one ecstatic author.

And now, the giveaway…

LITTLE RED GLIDING HOOD will be released on October 27 and you can pre-order now, but…you can get a full sneak peek by winning an F&G of the book (folded and gathered galley version)!

Just leave a comment below (one per person) and you will be entered into a random drawing. You have until Feb 28th to comment; I’ll pick a winner on March 1st!

GOOD LUCK!

And stay warm out there! Especially you Boston folk!

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My Picture Books

COMING SOON:


BLOOP
illus by Mike Boldt
HarperCollins
July 2021

ABSURD WORDS
illustrator TBA
Sourcebooks eXplore
November 2021

"PRIVATE I" SERIES #3
illus by Ross MacDonald
Little, Brown
2022

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