Monday, March 18, 2019

THE STORY BEHIND THE STORY of Away With Words: The Daring Story of Isabella Bird by Lori Mortensen

Written By Lori Mortensen
Illustrated by Kristy Caldwell

Post by Lori Mortensen

STORY SUMMARY: “Isabella Bird was like a wild vine stuck in a too-small pot. She needed more room She had to get out. She had to explore.”

That was easier said than done in Victorian England. But Isabella persisted, and with each journey, she breathed in a new ways to see and describe everything around her. First, out in the English countryside on her father’s horse. Then, off to America, Africa, Asia, Australia, and more.

Daring Isabella Bird, the first female member of the Royal Geographical Society, challenged society’s boundaries for women and wrote 10 bestselling books about her explorations. “No man,” she once declared, “now ever says of any difficult thing that I could not do it.”


When it comes to picture books, the story behind the story is one of my favorite topics. I’m always curious about where authors get their ideas and equally excited to share the stories behind my stories. I think these behind-the-scenes stories are endlessly unique and fascinating.

For example, I got the idea to write my rhyming picture book Cindy Moo (HarperCollins) when I was browsing around my local thrift store and happened to find a worn figurine of a cow sitting on a crescent moon. As soon as I saw it, I knew I wanted to write a story about how the cow got there.

Another time I was visiting my local library when the words, “Mousequerade Ball” popped into my head. Once I had the title, the story seemed obvious. It would be a counting story where an increasing number of mice would arrive at a ball. This turned into the rhyming, counting picture book Mousequerade Ball published by Bloomsbury.

Then, there were the Houdini dogs next door that regularly escaped from their backyard and raced down the street. Within minutes, my neighbors were chasing after them yelling for them to come back. After one false start and plenty of revisions, this turned into my most popular rhyming picture book, Cowpoke Clyde and Dirty Dawg (Clarion) about a cowpoke trying to catch his dirty dog for a bath. It became one of Amazon’s best picture books of 2013 and inspired a sequel, Cowpoke Clyde Rides the Range.

Most of the time, however, coming up with an idea is a matter of sitting at the computer and making it happen.  That was the case for my latest picture book biography release Away with Words: The Daring Story of Isabella Bird (Peachtree). Like most people, I’d never heard of Isabella Bird before. However, one day when I was at my computer looking for a new project, I decided to research women’s firsts online—first woman doctor, first woman astronaut, first woman lawyer, etc. When I discovered Isabella Bird was the first woman member of the Royal Geographical Society, I was instantly intrigued. After all, how many women explorers did I know? Practically none. Once I delved into some research, I knew I wanted to tell Isabella’s exciting story. 

Much like Isabella’s adventures, writing a picture book about her turned into its own journey with a lot of twists, turns, and detours. One of the first challenges was deciding how to tell her story. After many revisions and approaches, an agent, and more revisions, I thought it was ready. But my agent disagreed. In time, the agent and I parted ways and I put the manuscript away.

Months later, I began working on it again. I loved Isabella’s unlikely story and I wasn’t ready to give up on her yet. This time around, however, a metaphor sprang to mind that became the heart of the story:

“Isabella was like a wild vine
stuck in a too small pot.
She needed more room.
She had to get out.
She had to explore.”

It made all the difference. The metaphor created a thread and captured Isabella’s story in a way that other versions hadn’t.  On the way to publication, there was a new agent, more submissions, more rejections, more editors, the long-awaited offer (Hallelujah!), and then the search for the perfect illustrator. When I began writing her story, I had no idea the journey from first draft to publication would take 10 years. However, when I think about it, it seems only fitting that the manuscript about this wild-vine adventurer would have its own share of bumps and detours along the way.

In 2020, Houghton Mifflin will publish another picture book biography that is still under wraps until the release date is closer. The story behind this story? I was on one of my morning walks when I heard a podcast about someone I knew would make a terrific picture book biography.

Those are just a few of my stories behind the stories. What will your story be?

Lori Mortensen is an award-winning children’s book author of more than 100 books and over 500 stories and articles. Recent picture book releases include Away with Words, the Daring Story of Isabella Bird (Peachtree), If Wendell Had a Walrus (Henry Holt), Chicken Lily, (Henry Holt), Mousequerade Ball (Bloomsbury) illustrated by New York Times bestselling illustrator Betsy Lewin, and Cowpoke Clyde Rides the Range (Clarion) a sequel to Cowpoke Clyde & Dirty Dawg, one of Amazon’s best picture books of 2013. Lori lives in Northern California. When she’s not letting her cat in, or out, or in, she’s tapping away at her computer, conjuring, coaxing, and prodding her latest stories to life. For more information about her books, events, upcoming releases, and critique service, visit her website at and follow her at Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.


Wednesday, March 6, 2019

THE STORY BEHIND THE STORY: Martin & Anne - the Kindred Spirits of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. And Anne Frank


By Nancy Churnin

I was inspired to write Martin & Anne after learning they were both born in the same year – 1929.  I have always written about people who inspire me, people that I think will inspire kids to make a positive difference in the world. Up until now, however, I’ve made it my mission to shine a spotlight on people who were not well known. Both Dr. King and Anne Frank are famous. Still, I couldn’t stop thinking about how different they seemed on the outside – different genders, races, religions, countries, languages – and how similar their hearts, spirit and message were.

That similarity sends a powerful message in a polarized world where it’s been painful to see so many people turn inward to their own separate bubbles and attack those they perceive as different. I thought that if I focus on how much these two people have in common, it may help kids to see how much we all have in common. That’s why I created a project to go along with the book, Kindred Spirits, where I ask kids and schools to reach out to kids and schools in other neighborhoods, cities, states and maybe even countries and explore the dreams and hopes they share. 

The book is dedicated “For those whose lives were cut short everywhere, including Bialystok June 27, 1941. Your memory is a blessing. Love lives on.” That is in honor of all victims of hate crimes, including members of my maternal grandfather’s family who were rounded up into a synagogue that was set on fire by Nazis.

Being hyper aware of where prejudice can lead, I’ve been discouraged and worried to see a rise in hate crimes, bullying and ugly speech. Spending time thinking about the spirit and words of Dr. King and Anne Frank gave me hope. When I would see or hear things that alarmed and frightened me, I would remember that despite terrible things happening around Dr. King and Anne Frank and to them, they never gave up on humanity, that the "arc of the moral universe...bends towards justice," as Dr. King said and that people are "really good at heart," as Anne Frank said.

It's my hope that the book will give that same hope to kids and that these parallel stories will encourage them to come up with new ways that kindness can heal the world. Because the world is waiting for their ideas and actions!

AUTHOR BIO: Nancy Churnin is the author of eight picture book biographies, two of which are due out in 2020. MARTIN & ANNE, THE KINDRED SPIRITS OF DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR. AND ANNE FRANK  is a Missourian in Education March Book Buzz pick and a Children’s Book Council Hot Off the Press pick.  THE WILLIAM HOY STORY, HOW A DEAF BASEBALL PLAYER CHANGED THE GAME is on multiple state reading lists. MANJHI MOVES A MOUNTAIN is the 2018 winner of the South Asia Book Award, a 2017 Junior Library Guild selection, a 2018 Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People, on the 2018 ILA-CBC Children’s Choices list, a Silver Eureka Award-winner and a 2019 Little Free Libraries/Children's Book Council Action Book Club Selection. CHARLIE TAKES HIS SHOT: HOW CHARLIE SIFFORD BROKE THE COLOR BARRIER IN GOLF, winner of the Silver Eureka Honor Award. IRVING BERLIN, THE IMMIGRANT BOY WHO MADE AMERICA SING is a 2019 Sydney Taylor Book Award Notable Book, a 2019 Social Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People. THE QUEEN AND THE FIRST CHRISTMAS TREE is on the 2018 A Mighty Girl list. A native New Yorker and former theater critic for The Dallas Morning News, Nancy is a Harvard University alumna, with a master's from Columbia University. She lives in North Texas with her husband, a dog named Dog and two cantankerous cats.

On Facebook: Nancy Churnin Children’s Books
On Twitter: @nchurnin
On Instagram: @nchurnin

JACKET FLAP COPY FROM BOOK: What’s the connection between Martin Luther King, Jr. and Anne Frank? They seem to be from different worlds, different lifetimes, but they were born the same year, 1929. Across the ocean, the faced similar racial hatreds and reacted to that hate with words of love, reaching out to build understanding rather than divisiveness. Martin & Anne tells their inspiring stories, encouraging all of us to choose kindness whenever we can.


EEK! IT'S A COVER REVEAL for MOLDILOCKS AND THE THREE SCARES by Lynne Marie Art by David Rodriguez Lorenzo

David Rodriguez Lorenzo and I are squealing with excitement to have our Cover Reveal featured on Kathy Temean's Writing and Illustrating!

Please pop in see Moldilocks and the Three Scares Cover revealed, as well as a few other covers joining in the fun!

We would love for you to comment here, or on Kathy's blog to share our celebration!

You can pre-Order our Zombie and Friends HERE:


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Here's the first: Follow, subscribe and comment here (please note that you've done all three) and I will choose one person who can submit a pitch for critique.  Deadline: 3/13/19 
Just in time for PB Party:

Monday, March 4, 2019

THE STORY BEHIND THE STORY with Pat Zietlow Miller and When You Are Brave (Illustrated by Eliza Wheeler)

Everyone has to be brave. Sometimes.
And bravery means different things to different people. One person might do something easily while another person has to screw up every ounce of courage to do the same thing.
I wrote WHEN YOU ARE BRAVE, which releases Feb. 5 from Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, during a time in my life when I had to be brave.
Initially, I wrote it as a pep talk to myself. They were the words I needed to hear at one particular moment.
Later, I wondered if other people might need to hear them too. I started thinking about all the ways we ask – or even expect – kids to be brave. And how we’re often frustrated when they’re not.
  • “Come on! Just hop in the chair and get your hair cut. It’s not like it hurts.”
  • “Get on the bus with the other kids. You’ll find someone to sit with.”
  • “There’s a kid about your age. Go ask them if they want to play.”
  • “Aren’t you a little old for a night light?”
  • “Everyone else in the class is floating on their stomach and putting their face in the water. Just try it!”
It’s easy to forget that things we take for granted can be new and scary to kids. And while some kids are happy to plunge into the deep end or go headfirst down the slide, others need more time and support.  
Or a pep talk.
So I shared my own personal pep talk with my agent and then she shared it with an editor who then acquired it. Of course, there were edits to be done, but the story stayed remarkably true to the first draft I wrote when I was feeling uncertain and worried.
I think that’s because what I wrote was honest. And relatable. When I talk to people who want to write for children, I often say that stories need to have a universal human emotion at their heart. A feeling or moment that makes readers – whether they’re 5 or 95 – think: Oh, I’ve felt that way. I remember that.
Because the kids we’re writing for are people. They might be smaller and less experienced than the adults reading them a story, but they have the same feelings and worries.
No matter how old readers are, they want to feel seen. To have a book that feels like it knows them and what goes on in their life and inside their head.
I hope that this book is the sort of story adults and kids can read together and connect to. I hope it’s the kind of book that can start conversations about how it’s OK to be nervous or scared sometimes and what it means to be brave and how we can support each other as we work to be braver.
A picture book is a joint effort between the author and illustrator, and Eliza Wheeler did such a great job showing bravery in her art. Her use of color as one child figures out how to be brave is inspired, and interestingly enough, the way she drew the main character reminds me of me as a kid.
Which is probably the point.
Of all the books I’ve written, this might be the one I needed most as a kid. Not because I had a horrible childhood. I didn’t. But because I was sensitive. And shy. And prone to worrying.
I hope kids and adults who need this book – for whatever reason – will find it and be reminded of the courage inside them.
Because everyone has to be brave. Sometimes.
More info …

  • If you want to get an up-close look at the wonderful design of the book’s dust jacket, case cover and endpapers, there’s a video pinned to the top of my Twitter feed. And if you want to follow me, I’d be thrilled.
  • If you want to learn more about me, you can visit me at: I’m also on Instagram.

Friday, March 1, 2019

PPBF: THE WHISPERING TOWN by Jennifer Elvgren Illustrated by Fabio Santomauro

Title: The Whispering TownAuthor: Jennifer ElvgrenIllustrator: Fabio Santomauro Publisher: KarBen PublishingDate: 2014

Jacket Flap: It is 1943 in Nazi-occupied Denmark. Anett and her parents are hiding a Jewish woman and her son, Carl, in in their celler until a fishing boat can take them across the sound to neutral Sweden. Worried about their safety, Anett thinks of a clever and unusual plan to get them safely to the harbor. Based on a true story. 

My goodness, this is an awesome and inspiring true tale! I only hope in my lifetime that I could make a difference in someone's lives like this. And I am thankful that this book has sowed seeds that, in the event that I can do so, I will! THIS is what reading is all about. While this book was not about me, or my life, or anything close to it, it spoke to me. And when I closed the cover, I was somehow changed and perhaps even better than I was before. 

I think this is a wonderful book to use as a tool to introduce the Holocaust to little ones without overwhelming them too much. The reason is that although it is a story of the Holocaust, it's a story of humanity, hope and kindness. It's a story of friendship and a clever solution to a problem that god forbid we should ever have again. 

It is a perfect picture book, in a world that I hope will one day united and strive to be perfect. And by that, all I mean is "kind." 

BRAVO! Jennifer and Fabio for your well-woven words and your appropropriately stark illustrations that still manage to show the heart that shines in those who are kind.  

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Thursday, February 28, 2019

MASTER LIST: 2019 The Story Behind the Story - Don't Miss a Story - L@@K Here!

Previous “The Story Behind the Story” Guests:
Evelyn Bookless - Captain Green and the Plastic Scene
Nancy Churnin - Martin and Anne
Nancy Furstinger - The Duchess and Guy
Matthew Benton Lasley - Pedro’s Pan
B.J. Lee - There Was an Old Gator
Heather Macht - The Ant Farm Escape
Gretchen McLellan - Button and Bundle
Pat Zietlow Miller - Brave


THE STORY BEHIND THE STORY: There Was an Old Gator who Swallowed a Moth by B.J. Lee

Here's the Story - 
I’m delighted to share a sub-story behind the story. That sub-story is: cumulative rhyme.  I first encountered the possibility of using cumulative rhyme as a structure for writing a picture book in my critique group, where over the years, several works in progress have been posted using the This is the House that Jack Built and There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly structures.  Being a poet at heart, these structures appeal to me greatly because they are, in essence, poetry and because, while I do write in prose, I have a soft spot for rhyme. I began studying cumulative rhyme and had two works in progress using this format when I encountered the idea for the Gator. My husband and I saw a juvenile gator riding waves in a local lake and it dawned on me how larger-than-life gators are. That's when my Gator character was born! I also thought that it might make a great regional flavored book and, since I was trying to break into picture books, I thought this might be the way to go. The other two works in progress went on the back burner and I focused on bringing Gator to life. I targeted Pelican Publishing because they were regional and because they had already published several There Was an Old...books. My hunch was right and Pelican Publishing responded quickly to my query.

But let me back up a bit. In order to write one of these There Was an Old Lady... parodies, I did a lot of studying. I looked at Lucille Colandro, Jennifer Ward, and Penny Parker Klostermann (a CP of mine). In all three of these authors’ works, I noticed that the MC does not die in the end and I really like the MC not dying. I also like the way that these authors changed up the original.

In Colandro’ There Was an Old Mermaid Who Swallowed a Shark, she actually includes nonfiction material in every other  spread using speech bubbles. In Jennifer Ward's There Was an Old Martian Who Swallowed the Moon, she incorporates a refrain: "Blast off! Beep! Beep!  Zoom!” 

Penny Parker Klostermann also changed up the form quite a bit in There Was an Old Dragon Who Swallowed a Knight. I also loved how she incorporates a mini storyline for the steed,
 "that galloped around at a terrible speed. 
Oh how the Dragon wished it would stop, 
that clippity, clippity, clippity, clop!”                                               and then in the end,
“clippity, clippity, clippity, stop!”

putting an end to the steed’s mad antics and leading into the denouement as well.  Brilliant!

Though I experimented with various of these techniques when writing There Was an Old Gator Who Swallowed a Moth, I finally decided to go with a fairly straight-up version of the original There Was an Old Lady.... I feel that it worked best for my Gator character, and clearly Pelican Publishing agreed!

That's my substory behind the story and I'm sticking to it! :)

Description of There Was an Old Gator Who Swallowed a Moth

Gators and panthers and crabs, oh my! The classic cumulative tale There Was an Old Lady gets a Floridian flourish in this charming adaptation.  Down in the southern swamps a hungry gator accidentally swallows a moth.  Of course, he swallows a crab to get the moth! What will he swallow next? The gator predictably continues swallowing bigger and bigger creatures until the unexpected happens―all over the page! Along the way to its hilarious ending, the story― strengthened by the delightful illustrations―introduces readers of all ages to the many critters, both big and small, of the Florida swamp. With a familiar use of repetition and an abundance of rhythm, this silly story is perfect for read-aloud experiences.

B.J. Lee is a former college music librarian turned full-time author and poet. Her debut picture book, There Was an Old Gator Who Swallowed a Moth, released on February 1, 2019 from Pelican Publishing. Additionally, she is an award-winning children’s poet with over 100 poems and stories published/forthcoming in major anthologies by such publishers as Little, Brown, National Geographic, Bloomsbury and Wordsong. Magazine credits include Spider, Highlights, and The School Magazine. She lives in Florida with her husband, poet Malcolm Deeley, and toy poodle Bijoux.

B.J. Lee is available for school visits including assemblies and writing and poetry workshops with a musical component. She can be reached at

T: bjlee_writer
IG: b.j.lee

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Friday, February 22, 2019

PPBF: Maximillian Villainous by Margaret Chu Greanias Illustrated by Lesley Breen Withrow

Title: Maximillian Villainous 

Author: Margaret Chiu Greanias
Illustrator: Lesley Breen Withrow
Publisher: Hachette Book Group/Running Press Kids, 2018

JACKET FLAP: Maximillian is a Villainous, but he's not villainous. Maximillian Villainous
doesn't have the heart to be a villain. While his famous family pulls pranks on the likes of
Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy, Max spends his time undoing them. But he goes too far
when he brings home a bunny to be his sidekick. Max's disapproving mother challenges
Max and the bunny to be a devious duo; otherwise, the bunny hops. 

If they want to stay together, Max and the bunny have no choice but to go against their 
nature. Will they give in to villainy or will they find a way to stay good and still win the
family's acceptance? 

There are so many reasons I loved this book. First of all, I am a sucker for family portraits 
on the wall (#Truth) and books that start "____ came from a long line of ____." I always 
look forward to the creatives possibilities that come from that phrase. This time villains! 
I appreciate how Maximillian's unique character flaw causes him a host of icky problems. 
And how the sticky mess he gets in when he brings home a cute sidekick, which causes
this ultimatum... 


1. Steal something. 
2. Make someone cry. 
3. Gain fame by being devious. 

The author so completely and cleverly sets up the ending via this challenge, and yet, you 
will be surprised by the sweet and satisfying ending. And that is just another reason why 
I am featuring Max and Bart and their story for Perfect Picture Book Friday. 


PLEASE follow this blog so you don't miss any tidbit of information and please feel free to leave any comment or question you may have. I will do my best to answer all! 

Lynne Marie is the author of Hedgehog Goes to Kindergarten - illustrated by Anne Kennedy (Scholastic, 2011), Hedgehog's 100th Day of School – illustrated by Lorna Hussey (Scholastic, January 2017), The Star of the Christmas Play -- illustrated by Lorna Hussey (Beaming Books, 2018), Moldilocks and the 3 Scares -- illustrated by David Rodriguez Lorenzo (Sterling, pending) and Let's Eat! Mealtimes Around the World -- illustrated by Parwinder Singh (Beaming Books, 2019). You can learn more about her at 

To order the Star in the Christmas Play, click the title. Keep an eye out for MOLDILOCKS AND THE THREE SCARES, coming in August, from Sterling Children's Books! 

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

THE STORY BEHIND THE STORY: Gretchen McLellan, Author of Button and Bundle, Illustrated by Gillian Flint

Button and Bundle is a story very close to my heart.  I was raised in a large, highly-mobile military family and moved more times than any young heart should bear. Some good-byes were tougher than others, but none as tough as saying good-bye to my first friend and the imaginative world we shared.  We both loved dolls and made clothes and furniture and homes for them.  After moving away from her, I can’t remember ever playing with dolls again. I don’t know what happened to my doll either.  Button & Bundle is the story of what happened in my heart. 

We can mark the changes in children’s lives by what they are playing with, as well as what they are ready to leave behind. Favorite toys are often vehicles for a rich imaginative life between young friends.  When children are abruptly separated, they lose this world of play too.  Button & Bundle shows how Button honors and finds a way to keep alive the uniquely personal world of play she created with her friend Bundle and how to move on. 

When I committed myself to writing for children, I was led by the beauty of the form of the picture book and a desire to give voice to the voiceless child. I never saw myself in print until I was an adult, not in a picture book, but in a sociological text about growing up military. That experience was profound, a homecoming and an awakening, and I pledged to give this experience to others to the best of my ability. I pledged to represent the experiences of the Third Culture Kid, particularly the military child, in literature, children who do not have a single home.  

Yet my stories are for all children. In an interview in Children’s Book Insider (March 2017), my editor was asked to describe a book that she knew right away that she had to have. She responded, “I recently acquired a picture book text that I fell in love with immediately. It’s the story of two little girls who are best friends, and one of them has to move away. The author managed to evoke so much emotion in such a spare, simple text that it blew me away.”

Later, in an email to my agent she wrote, “From the moment I opened this submission, I knew it was a special one. As I began to read … I knew this manuscript had everything I was searching for. It’s incredibly sweet and gorgeously written, with just the right amount of sensitivity. I love the way the author honors very young friendship, and accomplishes so much in the spare text.”

Button & Bundle is ultimately a story about the true meaning of friendship, how we learn to love from our friendships and carry this love forward. I am deeply grateful to my amazing agent, editor and her team at Knopf and my wonderful illustrator, Gillian Flint, who brought my Button & Bundle to life.

Button & Bundle is dedicated to my first friend and first friends everywhere.

Jacket copy:

“Button and Bundle are best friends. So are their dolls, Petal and Rose. From hosting tea parties to creating dollhouses to weaving daisy chains, Button and Bundle do everything together. But one day…Bundle has to move away. With a little imagination and a lot of love, Button and Bundle will learn that true friendship lasts, no matter how far apart friends might be.”

Author bio from back flap:

Gretchen McLellan is a picture-book author and former elementary reading specialist who now devotes herself to writing for children and visiting schools. Like Button and Bundle, Gretchen loved dolls and making homes for them with her first friend. And like Button, Gretchen had to say good-bye to her Bundle. After living on three continents, Gretchen settled in Washington State with her husband cat and dog, stunt squirrels, and a doll or two. She celebrates when her children and grandchildren come home. And she hopes you too find a home with her in her books. Learn more at and follower her on Twitter at @gmclellan5.

Gretchen is available for signings, readings, children’s bookstore and school events with interactive story times, puppets and crafts. Please contact her at 360 606-4099 or