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by Tammi Sauer

Over the Storystorm years, I have shared many of my idea-getting strategies.

This time around, I want to focus on using a familiar song, nursery rhyme, or chant as a starting point.

While I had heard of this writing exercise many times before, it wasn’t until I saw it presented in Linda Ashman’s (super amazing!!!) resource, THE NUTS AND BOLTS GUIDE TO WRITING PICTURE BOOKS, that an idea popped into my head.

This is what I saw in Linda’s book:

Rework a song or chant. Try rewriting a familiar song, chant, nursery or jump rope rhyme. Here are a few suggestions, but feel free to come up with your own:

  • Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star
  • Baa Baa Black Sheep
  • She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain When She Comes
  • I’ve Been Working on the Railroad
  • Mary Had a Little Lamb
  • You Are My Sunshine
  • Row, Row, Row Your Boat

And this was my idea: Mary Had a Little Glam.

I knew I had to write that story. And, once I felt brave enough to tackle rhyme, I did. Lucky for me, Vanessa Brantley-Newton agreed to illustrate the book.

There are many great examples of books that have sprung from this approach. These are just a few of my favorites:

  • HUSH, LITTLE DRAGON by Boni Ashburn, illustrated by Kelly Murphy
  • I AIN’T GONNA PAINT NO MORE! by Karen Beaumont, illustrated by David Catrow
  • THERE WAS AN OLD DRAGON WHO SWALLOWED A KNIGHT by Penny Parker Klostermann, illustrated by Ben Mantle
  • TEN ON THE SLED by Kim Norman, illustrated by Liza Woodruff
  • THIS OLD VAN by Kim Norman, illustrated by Carolyn Conahan

In February, the adorable TWINKLE, TWINKLE, LITTLE CAR written by Kate Dopirak and illustrated by Mary Peterson will zoom onto the scene. (And both ladies will be guest blogging for Storystorm later this month.)

In March, MARY HAD A LITTLE LAB written by Sue Fliess and illustrated by Petros Bouloubasis will prove quite inventive.

While these books follow the same basic rhythm and rhyme scheme as the song, nursery rhyme, or chant they were based on, keep in mind that you don’t have to marry yourself to this approach. You can use one of those things to simply trigger the basic idea for a story as well.

My upcoming book with Dan Taylor, BUT THE BEAR CAME BACK, for example, got its start when I was listening to NPR. They played the old song “But the Cat Came Back.”

Right away, I thought about what it would be like if a rather large and completely unexpected animal would show up at a kid’s house and decide to make himself at home.

While I didn’t mirror the actual song in my book, I used its title as a stepping stone.

BUT THE BEAR CAME BACK debuts this April from Sterling.

So give it a try. Think about those familiar childhood songs, nursery rhymes, and chants then brainstorm a few picture book title possibilities of your own.

Tammi Sauer is a full time children’s book author who presents at schools and conferences across the nation. She has sold 30 picture books to major publishing houses including HarperCollins, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Penguin Random House, Scholastic, Simon & Schuster, and Sterling. Her book WORDY BIRDY, illustrated by Dave Mottram, debuts on February 6. This book got its start in StoryStorm. It was idea number 19 on her 2014 list.

You can learn more about Tammi at, read her posts at, and follow her on Twitter at @SauerTammi.

Tammi is giving away a copy of the soon-to-be-released WORDY BIRDY to one lucky duck commenter.

Tammi is also giving away a picture book critique. Ooh.

Leave ONE COMMENT below to enter. You are eligible to win if you are a registered Storystorm participant and you have commented once on this blog post. Prizes will be given away at the conclusion of the event.

Good luck!


Vanessasprofile25***To everyone who completed the PiBoIdMo Challenge, the Pledge for you to sign is coming later today. In the meantime, enjoy our first Post-PiBo guest blog with a very talented illustrator!***

by Vanessa Brantley-Newton

When I was going to school, I attended a community school that had been created by the parents and local writers, artist, musicians, and poets. It was a special school because we could not go to white schools. We had some of the best teachers ever! One day, I met this wonderful teacher named Miss Russell. Miss Russell had the biggest, orangest afro I had ever seen in my whole entire life. It looked like a cloud. She wore the shortest dresses and the coolest shoes. I loved Miss Russell. Once she set me on her lap and shared a beautiful book that has stayed with me all these years. It was about a young boy who wore a red snow suit and lived in the hood as far as I was concerned, LOL! The thing that stood out about this boy was that he was brown just like me!

He was beautiful!! His mom and dad looked just like my parents. Even the wallpaper looked like the wallpaper in my own house. I was excited and thrilled. Surely the person was who created this book must have been watching me from his studio window.  The book left me feeling some kind of way. It conveyed all my feelings and thoughts through its beautiful, colorful pictures and collage. I couldn’t remember all the words to the story, for you see I am dyslexic. There was nobody who really understood what that was.  The words didn’t make sense to me but the pictures told me the story.


Everybody is now talking about diversity in children’s books. In 1963 there weren’t many books that had a black child as a main character, and when they were drawn in children’s books of old, black people were drawn very cruelly and just plain ugly. The book moved me so because it would be the first time I would see a black child that looked like me, dressed like me…might have even been me, LOL.

 I loved Peter—he was my little brother in my head. Peter was beautifully illustrated and I related to his story because I had experienced the same thing. Countless other children experienced the same thing. Many years would pass and I would end up in a Barnes and Noble looking for picture books to inspire me as I began to illustrate children’s books myself. I came across “The Snowy Day”.


Now as I told you, I am dyslexic. Reading for me sometimes can be a struggle. The words seem to dance on the page. Numbers seem to move and float around. I push myself constantly to read out loud, and while I make it look effortless and fun, it is a struggle for me still. I took “The Snowy Day” and sat on the floor of B&N and I read it through tears. Every  wonderful and magnificent word.

Nessa Cutout

Finally, words and pictures came together. Comforting memories from the first time that the book was read to me spilled over like warm beach waves. I looked for books written and illustrated by Ezra Jack Keats. I began to do my own study on his work. I copied the man. I wanted to somehow do for other children what this awesome man had done for me. Ezra Jack Keats made me feel so special because he thought that I should have been in a children’s book all along. I wasn’t an afterthought!

The Singing 2

It is important that not only Black, White, Chinese or Indian children be seen in picture books, but that all children see themselves in picture books. That all children get to experience another culture so that their minds broaden. Diversity is needed if we are going to grow as writers and illustrators. I like to call myself “The Multicultural Illustrator”. It is reflected in my work. I come from a very blended background—African American, Asian, European, and Jewish decent—it’s all in there. So if you are thinking that diversity is not important, take it from a little brown girl who was effected by someone’s beautiful pictures.


School girl talk



Once Upon A Time, a little girl wished to be an artist. So, she took her fantastic box of Crayola crayons and drew on the sides of her mother’s clean white stove and white walls. When her mother prepared dinner that night, the crayons melted in a beautiful puddle of waxy deliciousness. She was thrilled! Her parents? Not so much. They made that almost-famous artist get some soap and water and remove and clean up her fantastic masterpiece. Her mom and dad got her a pad of paper and she has been drawing ever since. Vanessa is agented by She lives in Charlotte, NC with her husband, daughter and a friendly cat named Stripes. Visit her at and follow her on Twitter @nesterb.

Her latest book is ONE LOVE, based on the song by Bob Marley and adapted by Cedella Marley.

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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