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I was chatting with my editor last week about my upcoming book with Mike Boldt, ALIEN IN THE DOGHOUSE (working title). I mentioned my philosophy about picture book art notes—how they describe the action that needs to happen for the story to work.

While I teach this at writing conferences and workshops, I never Tweeted it. So…

…and this resonated with a lot of picture book writers.

New writers often hear “don’t use art notes”—but that’s not correct.

I believe some editors/agents say that because new writers tend to misuse art notes. The mistake is overusing them—writing visual instructions that are unnecessary or superfluous. It’s like writing [bunny hops away] when the text already says that the bunny skedaddled.

Misused art notes can also dictate what things should look like when that’s not a writer’s job. Art notes like [she has pigtails] or [green ball] aren’t the writer’s decision. The only time something like that is necessary is when the appearance of pigtails or a green ball act as important plot points. Can the girl have short, curly hair? Can the ball be orange? Does the story still make sense? Then leave out the art notes.

Art notes should only be used when it’s not clear what’s happening from the text alone. Like when you want to be subversive:

She smiled!

How will anyone know your character is supposed to look upset? Art notes! Erm, I mean ACTION NOTES.

Then Kevin asked me a question…

So, here’s my newest book from Tundra, YOUR FIRST DAY OF CIRCUS SCHOOL, illustrated by the fabulous Melissa Crowton.

I set out to write a story with mostly visual puns and jokes, and this book is the result.

Here’s one of my favorite pages…

My manuscript reads:

Don’t worry, the bus has an endless number of seats! [clown car]

How else is the illustrator supposed to know the school bus is really a clown car?

Then there’s this page…

My manuscript reads:

Walk this way! Your big brother will show you the ropes. [tightrope]

Now, truth be told, I imagined the brothers on a high wire, carrying a balance stick and walking into the school, hence the “walk this way”. However, coupled with the previous page, which had to show the BIG TOP, this was the best way to illustrate the entire spread. Notice I did not dictate exactly how or where the tightrope should go. All the illustrator needs to understand is the literal tightrope.

And this is another hilarious page…

My manuscript reads:

You can let off some steam during recess [circus train], but watch out for other stuff that steams! [poop]

Ahh, what’s a picture book without some well-placed scatological humor?

That’s how I approach art notes, as action notes. Note that I don’t even write “art note” between the brackets—the brackets and italics is enough for the editor and illustrator to know what they are.

I try to be as succinct as possible so I don’t interrupt the flow of the story.

But Tara, I hear you ask, what do you do when the art notes are so plentiful, it does interfere with reading the story?

Well, take a look at the grid format solution. It’s how my agent and I submitted YOUR FIRST DAY OF CIRCUS SCHOOL!

And now that it’s back-to-school time, how about a giveaway?

I have 3 signed copies of YOUR FIRST DAY OF CIRCUS SCHOOL!

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

Good luck—with your art notes and the giveaway!

 

Narwhals are fascinatingly cool, and lucky us, there’s a whole buncha new books that feature these unicorns of the sea. One such hilarious take is Ben Clanton’s new _____ book series NARWHAL AND JELLY. I asked Ben to share the backstory of his most awesome underwater adventure…

Ahoy Tara,

I’m thrilled you like NARWHAL AND JELLY! Thank you!

NARWHAL: UNICORN OF THE SEA! started out as a PB, or actually a series of picture books. There have been a number of iterations, but ever since NARWHAL first swam into my brain I knew one book wouldn’t be enough for me.

I first got it into my head that I wanted to make a book featuring a narwhal after seeing the book POLAR OBSESSION by Paul Nicklen several years ago. The book has some absolutely stunning photographs of narwhals in it and my mind was o-fish-ally blown. I must confess before seeing Nicklen’s book I didn’t really know about narwhals. That such a creature which seems so fantastic actually exists caught my imagination. I started doodling little narwhals even more than monsters, dragons, robots, or my other usual favorite subjects.

However, my first attempts at writing a story about one of these little narwhals didn’t turn out so great. Most of my initial ideas centered around a narwhal getting lost at sea and separated from its pod. I finally realized I was trying to force too serious of a story on this narwhal when standing in line for ice cream (Molly Moon’s in Seattle). Something about the smell of newly made waffle cones in the air and thinking about how they look like horns (or perhaps a narwhal tooth?) flipped a switch in my head and it suddenly clicked for me that Narwhal is the sort of character that is as sweet and awesome as waffles and ice cream AND that Narwhal’s story should be too.

Jelly, who is a bit of a worrier and skeptic, wasn’t so sure about this new approach for a narwhal story, but that night I came up with three stories (“Narwhal,” “Narwhal’s BEST WEEKEND EVER,” and “Narwhal’s Pod of Awesomeness”) and made quick storyboards and even a mock-up. By the next day I had several more book ideas featuring Narwhal and Jelly. And then a flood of new story ideas by the day after that.

At the time, I just assumed that these stories would/should be picture books. That was the format I was most familiar and comfortable with, but after submitting to several publishers the feedback I received from pretty much everyone was more or less the same . . . the characters are great but the stories seem slight. It was Tara Walker (Tundra Books) that mentioned the stories when viewed together seemed to add up to more than the individual parts. She encouraged me to consider exploring the format and page count. I resisted this idea at first. I didn’t mind the books being light on plot. Actually, that was a part of the appeal to me and one of the reasons I felt they worked well. But as is usual for me with any suggestion Tara gives me that I don’t agree with (which is rare) . . . I eventually came to see she was right. So I tried combining a couple of the stories into a long picture book. It felt forced. It wasn’t until I started to add panels and bonus materials that i found a way to make three 32 page “picture books” into a 64 page ______ book.

This process took years in which I kept revisiting the format and what I ended up with . . . it doesn’t exactly neatly fit into the typical designations of “picture book” or “chapter book” or “early reader” or even “graphic novel.” I suppose “graphic novel for early readers” is the closest. Yet it is really a bit of a hybrid.

Somewhat ironically, even though Tara and Tundra Books had encouraged me to explore the format they weren’t entirely sure about the unusual one I had come up with, but I had been fully converted. I was sure this was the way to go. It took awhile but Tara and Tundra finally decided to take a chance on it.

And aren’t we lucky that they did!

Thanks, Ben and Tundra!

Tundra is giving away a copy of the first NARWHAL AND JELLY book, so leave ONE COMMENT below to enter. A winner will be randomly selected soon!

7ate9

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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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My Picture Books

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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