Sunday, February 20, 2011

Illustration Tip/Keeping it Real with Mary Peterson

Keeping It Real (Or At Least Full of Life)!
by Mary Peterson

My favorite picture books to illustrate are full of action and expression. The two little piglets in PIGGIES IN THE PUMPKIN PATCH race around the farm, make a mess, get into trouble, jump, run, and skid. They are happy, startled, scared, mad and finally, exhausted.

Here's the problem--I'm a very tedious drawer. I tend to get bogged down in details so keeping the action fresh and lively is a challenge. If you love your sketches (as I do) but find the finished art looks over worked and static (as I did), try this: quick sketch from life. Go to places where there's lots of commotion, a swimming pool, train station, construction site, basketball game or dog park and draw as fast as you can. Sketch what you see on the television. Keep a small notebook with you to capture unexpected action. At first capturing the chaos will be frustrating but keep at it. Over time you will hold the memory of those quick responses in your hand and eye and learn to trust their authenticity. Of course, old habits die hard---so if you get bogged down in the studio, YOU be the mover! I keep a jump rope close by for when I need a little action.

Mary Peterson was born and raised in Iowa on a small farm surrounded by cornfields and lots of animals. Those early years in the company of critters large and small continue to provide inspiration for her art. These days she lives in Los Angeles with her husband.
Mary is the co-author and illustrator of PIGGIES IN THE PUMPKIN PATCH (Charlesbridge), which was included in the 2010 Society of Illustrators Original Art Show. She is the illustrator of OCEAN SOUP (Charlesbridge) and WIGGLE AND WAGGLE (Charlesbridge), a Bank Street College of Education Best Books of the Year and recipient of the Early Childhood News Directors Choice Award. Mary's other illustration credits include NO TIME TO NAP (Heyday Books) and CAT ON WHEELS (Boyds Mills Press).

mary peterson


Saturday, February 19, 2011

Writing & Illustrating Prompt/Animal Math with Illustrator Will Strong

My Writing Tip by Will Strong:

When speaking with both children and adults, the question I am most often asked about writing and illustrating is, "Where do you get your ideas?"  People are sometimes shocked when I answer them.  I tell them there is nothing magical about new ideas.  Ideas don't just happen; they don't just pop into your head unbidden.  Ideas are created and cultivated.

When I talk to kids about making stories I try to focus on simple concepts.  One concept that can work for pretty much everybody is what I call "Animal Math."  You take any boring old animal and add something new to it.

Animal + Object = An Interesting Idea   

It can be that simple.

And it's not just animals.  You can take any two dissimilar things and put them together to come up with a new idea.  Take a caveman and put him in space.  Take an ordinary bath time and add an invasion of sea creatures.  Take a hippopotamus and put him on a bicycle.  

Not all of your ideas are going to be brilliant but that's okay.  I create terrible ideas all the time.  Though I know that if I keep brainstorming and tweaking things around I will eventually come up with something great.

So, that's where I get my ideas.  Once I have an idea that I'm really psyched about then it's time to get down to the tough stuff.  It's time to actually write the thing.  

So, remember to make it fun (for you and the kids.)
My name is Will Strong.  I'm a recent graduate from the BYU Illustration Program.  I'm currently illustrating my first picture book.  It's a collaboration with author Rick Walton called "I'm Not Afraid of Bunnies."  It will be released as an e-book this summer.

I also run a non-profit website for teachers (and everybody else) called  Creative Kid Central is dedicated to making creativity a part of children's lives.  My favorite part of C.K.C. is the Creative Writing Prompts section.  It's full of open-ended stories and other ideas to get kids to enjoy writing.

My motto in all the work I do is "Make It Fun."  When you are working with kids, fun is always the key element.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Writing & Illustrating Tip/Developing Character with Leslie Helakoski

"We like this story, but we don't like the art."  I heard this comment for years. Each time I sold a picture book, I held out hope that I would be able to illustrate my own work. I knew I could draw, so what was the problem?

The problem was that good design and execution are not the same thing as good children's book illustrations. For me, the answer lay in better character development.

Just as we strive to develop strong characters when we write, we must develop them even further when we illustrate. We have to do more than show what the text is saying, we have to show something extra about the character than can be seen visually.

Authors often fill out character trait forms to get to 'know' their characters. I do the same sort of thing when I start drawing. I make many rough sketches until I start noticing specific character traits that come out as I work. Here are some questions I ask myself when I start
sketching a character:

1. How is this character different from others of his species. (What physical traits make him/her stand out? Big feet, nose size, crazy hair? Bowlegged?)
2. What does the character's stall/home look like? (Neat, messy, extravagant?)
3. What does she love/hate to eat?
4. What does she look like as he moves? (Graceful, clumsy, joyous? This can lead to showing her tripping in a scene or maybe wearing toe shoes and mooning over pictures of ballerinas)
5. What is the predominant emotion in each scene?
6. What fears/strengths does she have? (Does she shrink back from others? Tower over them? Have a nervous tick?)
7. Show attitude!
8. Will I know something personal about this character just by looking at her in this scene or is she a generic space filler?
9. Can I emphasize emotion from the way I place her on the page? If she's feeling uplifted, should I show her high up on the page? If she's feeling left out, maybe I can show her far from the others in the spread? Or,
using perspective, show her small and other characters large to emphasize how she feels?
10. Is she intentionally doing something contrary to what the text says?
11. Do I show different view points and vary the size of the characters?
12. Are there any bigger than life characters I can compare mine to, that help me amp up my character? (Is my wanna-be beauty more of a Zsa Zsa Gabor or more of a Phyllis Diller?)
13. Can I exaggerate a point or understate it?
14. Does something about my character change over the course of the story?
When I finally started developing my characters more on the drawing board, my art was picked up along with my text.

Of course, I also spent a lot of time viewing other's illustrations and learning just by absorbing--which sometimes just takes time. But I did find that as an illustrator, I have to do all the things I do as a writer.
Revise, develop strong characters, show changes, show humor and emotion. Include more information than you see at first glance. And I thought all I had to do was draw.

ABOUT LESLIE: Leslie Helakoski writes humorous picture books and sometimes (but not always) illustrates them. She lives in Michigan with her husband, three large (as opposed to small) children, and one literally small dog. Her latest book, Fair Cow, is about a dairy cow who dreams of winning blue ribbons at the state fair. She gets beauty advice from a pig but finds something is wrong with her shape, her hair, her hooves and even her walk. How can she compete?

Book trailer for Fair Cow:
Book trailer for Big Chickens:

Previous books:
Woolbur (Harper Collins, illustrated by Lee Harper) Nominated for 9 state
book awards.
Big Chickens (Dutton, illustrated by Henry Cole) Michigan Reads Award,
Great Lakes Great Books Award
Big Chickens Fly the Coop, 3 state book awards
Big Chickens Go to Town
The Smushy Bus

PERSONAL NOTE FROM LYNNE MARIE: I had known Leslie previously from an online critique group, but you can imagine what a pleasure it was to meet her in person at the Highlights Foundation Writer's Workshop at Chautauqua in 2001.  Just another example of the fabulous(!), talented(!) people you can meet at those spectacular(!) writing retreats, which you have noticed, I cannot say enough about (LOL).

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

ILLUSTRATION TIP/Capturing Action & Emotion with Layne Johnson

LAYNE JOHNSON, on Illustrating Action

Well I just found out my book OFF LIKE THE WIND! The First Ride of the Pony Express, written by author Michael Spradlin, won this year’s Western Heritage Award from The National Cowboy Hall Of Fame and Museum in Oklahoma City. How exciting! When I think back to working on that book, I recall certain ideas I had as I first read the manuscript, and later as I was designing each spread for the art. The first thing that made me really want to illustrate the story was a biggy. It had loads of ACTION. How many times have authors been told, “Give the artist something to illustrate!” What illustrators hate to see in picture book manuscripts are the dreaded “talking heads.” Or no change of location. With OLTW, that was definitely not a problem! The action varied from location to location with various perilous interactions. When I paginate a manuscript the question is what to illustrate on each spread or page. It was especially challenging but fun with OLTW, because there was so MUCH to choose from.

When faced with this most exciting phase of a book, I must look at what or what not to illustrate. A picture book doesn’t have the luxury of video where multiple thing can be acted out. I must choose that wonderfully magic “moment” which can relay the essence of the scene. Am I asking the reader to think, react, or simply be a part of a scene? Do I illustrate what’s about to happen, what’s happening now, or what just happened, i.e. anticipation, excitement, or reaction. These are all valid things to paint, but must be balanced throughout the book. This is where the true art comes in . . . pacing.

I don’t believe in talking or writing down to children. They are smarter than we give them credit for. And they aren’t delicate flowers, though we try to make them that at times, usually for our own overprotective reasons. The children of yesteryear knew more about life because they grew up with it. And the children of today deserve to know what the past was really like. Knowledge is strength.

Once I decide what to illustrate, I then look at how to build tension, create empathy, make a scene explode, or the opposite – how to create a resting point, something serene. Ultimately I want to make a child feel like he or she is there. Empathy is everything. Panoramic skies can make you feel like you’re really in an expansive environment. Dangerous critters or weather may threaten. There may be hostile people. This is GREAT! Stories must overcome real obstacles; otherwise it can be a boring read.

So look at the scenes below with these things in mind. Also, watch for point of view, perspective, directional elements that guide to focal points, color, etc. They aren’t accidental, but hopefully somewhat invisible. “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!”

Visit my website at
See my book trailers on YouTube!


Bottom Row: L to R, Layne Johnson, Jennifer Ward, Me!
I think one of the best things about the Highlights Foundation Writer's Workshop at Chautauqua (besides the fabulous mentors, invaluable learning experiences, wonderful opportunities, absolutely delightful staff and beautiful, quaint & relaxing location) is the people.

At Chautauqua 2002, I had the distinct pleasure of meeting Layne Johnson, Jennifer Ward and Matt Faulkner (not pictured) as attendees and becoming pals for the week. 

Here were are, admiring one of Layne's projects at the Welcome Center. I am still a great fan of his remarkable work and am pleased to be able to showcase it here.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Writing Prompt/Pondering Possibilities with PB Writer Samantha Vamos

Ask "What If?" by Samantha R. Vamos

I have an extremely simple “What if” writing exercise, which I typically perform several times a day.  Almost every day, I hear a little voice in my head pose the question, “What if _________” in response to a situation.  Here’s an example.  The other day I peered out my front door and discovered a box.  I neither recognized the labeling, nor the sender’s name, and the idea occurred to me – instead of opening the box to find an item I had ordered online, what if all that I found inside was a mysterious code and a cryptic note from a friend, or a telephone number and a photo of a friend in a setting I did not recognize?  Sometimes I answer my “What if” questions by writing my imagined responses and evaluating whether any of the answers evolve into threads that may be sewn together as a storyline. 

The idea for The Cazuela That The Farm Maiden Stirred occurred to me after performing my “What if” exercise.  I was in the kitchen gathering ingredients to make pancakes and realized I lacked both milk and eggs.  At the time, my husband and I lived in Chicago, Illinois and did not own a car.  That morning was bitter cold with gusty winds and the prospect of walking to the subway or waiting for a bus to the nearest grocery store was not appealing.  Suddenly, I thought what if I lived on a farm and I could simply call one of my animal “neighbors” for a pail of milk or a basket of fresh eggs?  Envisioning myself a farm maiden, I smiled and my story took off from there.  I never finished making pancakes that morning, but I did manage to write a first draft of our story!

One more thing:  there is a recipe at the end of The Cazuela That The Farm Maiden Stirred, but it’s not for pancakes!

Samantha’s Picture Books:
Before You Were Here, Mi Amor (Viking, 2009, illustrated by Santiago Cohen)
2010 Washington State Book Award for Picture Book
“Best for Babies” - Parents Magazine

The Cazuela That The Farm Maiden Stirred (Charlesbridge, 2011, illustrated by Rafael López)

Alphabet Trucks (Charlesbridge, Fall 2013)


Book Trailers:
The Cazuela That The Farm Maiden Stirred
Before You Were Here, Mi Amor

Book Contest:

More About Samantha and Her Books:

Samantha attended Georgetown University Law Center, and once upon a time, practiced law in Washington, D.C. and Chicago, Illinois.  Now she’s a full-time mom and part-time writer, who, upon moving to the Pacific Northwest, has added coffee to her already significant chocolate addiction!

Before You Were Here, Mi Amor (Viking, 2009), her first children’s picture book, won the 2010 Washington State Book Award for Picture Book and was featured as “Best for Babies” by Parents Magazine (May 2009).  Samantha’s second picture book, The Cazuela That the Farm Maiden Stirred (Charlesbridge, 2011, illustrated by Rafael López) released February 1, and is an amusing tale of five farm animals, their farmer, and a farm girl.  From the book jacket:

"When a farm girl starts cooking, all the animals want to help.  The cow contributes milk, the hen offers eggs, and even the duck makes a special trip to the market.  While the pot is bubbling merrily on the stove, everyone dances and sings - but who is watching the cazuela?  Samantha R. Vamos and Rafael López serve up a spicy tribute to the classic nursery rhyme "The House That Jack Built" in this bilingual celebration of community and food.” 

In The Cazuela That the Farm Maiden Stirred, as the action builds, the Spanish words repeat.  At the book's end, a glossary with pronunciation and recipe are provided.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Picture Book Marathon Update: Day Thirteen & Fourteen

My Picture Book Marathon tally spelled out "Sweet" success as I handed in my count of 7 completed picture book drafts on Sunday for the week, a total of 12 since the Marathon started on February 1st!  It hasn't always easy to find the time to write a complete draft each day.  I have given up some of my favorite t.v. shows, checked Facebook less, and as Lora and Jean recommended, made it a daily task to ponder and list three possible ideas to work on the next day.  I have noticed myself finding a rhythm, and more and more, doing productive work on my writing and storytelling has become part of my daily routine.
I think being in the holiday spirit got my creative juices flowing, as a holiday book poured out of me on Sunday, but it wasn't a Valentine's Day book!  Of the 14 picture book drafts I've written, there are 7 that I consider worth pursuing with more revisions, and this one is definitely one of them. 

One of Lora and Jean's recent blogposts discussed writing what you know. Monday's picture book draft was inspired by my little one, who has neurological tics and makes humming noises or perhaps something else, when the tic shifts over time.  It's about a little hippo who blinks, hums and flicks his tongue and his attempt to convince the other animals to let him play with them in the watering hole. I am happy that even in the first draft I feel it has humor, compassion, tension, and ultimately, understanding. I hope that after much thought and many revisions, it will one day be a GOOD story.  Read on, to see what I mean...

This weekend, I asked my 6-year old daughter (who has been reading picture books and chapter books unassisted for some time) what topics she liked to read about in picture books. She replied, "Well, just about anything that's good." I asked her what she meant by good, and tried to get her to pick some topics in particular. She titled her head and said, "Didn't you understand? Anything that's GOOD!" She gave me examples...FLORA'S VERY WINDY DAY (by Jeanne Birdsall), DESERT ROSE AND THE HIGHFALUTIN' HOG (by Alison Jackson), JULIUS, BABY OF THE WORLD (by Kevin Henkes), SUCH A SILLY BABY (by Steffanie and Richard Long). All these books are extremely different in style and topic, but I think I know what she means. A good story, well-told!

So keep on writing those drafts every day -- you're stretching your creative muscles, exploring new things (situations, characters, voices, places, conflicts). You're on the right path to creating that good story, well told!

Writing Advice from Illustrator Will Terry/How Not to Kill 'Em with Color

Ok -- I admit it. I am an author who is a wanna-be illustrator. I study art and pictures probably just as much as I study words and text. You might not even know that about me, so maybe I am a "closet" wanna-be illustrator.  Then, one of my favorite picture book illustrators, Will Terry, releases his video series "How to Illustrate Children's Books" and "Digital Painting in Photoshop" and I tell myself I must have him Guest Blog over at my blog pond so that other writers who are closet wanna-be illustrators can come out and stretch their wings along with me. But does sweet, humble Will mention it in the following post? No. So here's the link. Enjoy the creative process (and the color aspect - but in moderation, of course)!

And without further to-do, here are some enlightening anecdotes from Will Terry:
I feel like the brother of three sisters all over again sneaking into their bedroom with one mission – get to the barbie dolls, rip as many heads off as possible before their screams forced me to run and hide. Part of me feels that I don't belong here. I got horrible grades in school. I'll bet that most of you did well in school. I'll bet that most of you enjoyed writing as a child – I didn't. I'll bet most of you have no trouble with reading comprehension – I did and still do. I lived in the shadow of an older sister who over-achieved in school. Why am I confessing all this? Because it's part of who I am and I feel lucky to have found what I'm good at. It pains me to realize that the world is littered with souls like mine but who never found themselves or were never rewarded for their talents. I grew up feeling inferior to those who excelled in reading, writing, and math. I was afraid of you guys.

Ok, that was a very heavy way to start out but I feel I owe it to my counterparts to push this message whenever I can for awareness. The public school system is broken – it looks to strip mine a few skills from those who posses them while leaving the rest feeling unwanted and discarded.

I thought I would talk about a very important lesson I learned a few years ago. It was very painful but I'm so glad I allowed myself the opportunity to open up to new possibilities. Often we get to a comfortable place in our craft and we don't want to receive criticism – we stop practicing what we preach. I'm in a critique group called Brotique (a bunch of guys trying to write picture books) and I have no trouble accepting criticism on my writing. I think it's because I have very few hours writing in relation to the time I have spent refining my illustration style.

A few years ago I met David Small (caldecott winner for So You Want to Be President? ) at a writing conference out here in Utah. I had the chance to go to dinner with him after the conference and he started talking about professional critiques. He said most professionals don't really want an honest critique. I gulped because I realized that I was in that camp. Why would I want a professional critique? After all I'm a professional right? I know what's good about my work and I don't need anyone telling me different. As he talked I thought about it and one thing I learned early in life is that whenever you're confronted with an opportunity that seems painful or difficult it usually is followed by growth. Also life is too short to say “no” to new experiences – I know too many “no” people and they're boring – I don't ever want to be accused of being boring.

So I found myself volunteering for his critique – almost like I was hearing my voice from across the table. Mr. Small then looked through me - “Ok, but let me warn you.” Uh oh. “I'm too old and I've wasted my breath telling artists what they want to hear to long to sugar coat my feelings any more – in other words I'll tell you exactly what I think of your work.” GULP - ok. What had I got myself into?! Luckily he didn't do it right at the table so everyone could see me melt into my chair. “I want you to send me the book you're most proud of and I'll look it over and get back to you.” Sheesh – what a relief – I could still back out gracefully – at least nobody at the table would know that I chickened out.

This would be a boring story if I had chickened out so of course I didn't. That which does not kill me makes me stronger – so after a trip to the post office (I sent him “The Frog with the Big Mouth”) I waited to hear from David. A few weeks later I summoned the courage to call him and take my flogging. After the small talk I said so what did you think of my book? His response came with another disclaimer. “Ok, but there are illustrators I've lost touch with after I've commented on their work – some people can't handle criticism.” I assured him I was well prepped and ready for my lashes – not in those words but you get the point.

Anyway quite simply he said that I have beautiful illustrations but I don't give the reader any rest from my fully illustrated color spreads. He went on to ask, “Are you trying to kill your audience with color and visuals?” “Not everything is as important as you're making it.” “In order to have a crescendo you have to have rest – a place to build from.”

WOW! He was right. I was trying to kill the viewer with color. How did he see through me so easily. In fact I remembered looking at picture-books in college wondering why every illustration wasn't treated with equal value? I remember thinking that most books were lacking a consistency in image quality. But I was making a horrible mistake. I wasn't looking at the book as a project but more as an excuse to showcase artwork. I felt silly. Was I trying to kill the viewer with fully illustrated color spreads? I was trying to wipe out the planet with my color! “I wanted to blow the viewer off their chair with color – If you gaze upon my work I'll burn your retinas kind of color – and the funny thing is that I can't stand movies that have 20 min action scenes where the story fall apart. Talk about blind.

So I thank you David Small – I have to admit that it took me a few months to fully accept your gift but it has changed me in a good way. I'm trying to be more sensitive to the story. Ask myself more questions. What can I do to enhance the plot, characters, etc. When should I underplay the illustrations? When should I unleash my powers?

What did the author intend? Will the reader understand the text better if I put this or that in the pictures?

In the end I now look at each manuscript as the first half of the completed project. And I'm happy to share this experience with you – perhaps you too can improve your craft if you let go a little and allow for the fact that you just might not know it all.

I'm now working on another book (Senorita Gordita) for Albert Whitman by Helen Ketteman (a total sweetheart) and this time I'm going to get it right – or as right as I can with my current skills.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Picture Book Marathon Day Twelve / On the Twelfth Day of Marathon...

On the 12th Day of Marathon, my true love (my little sweetheart Kayla) gave to me...another great idea to pursue <3

And, to be truthful, I think this one is one of the winners!

Lora and Jean mentioned in their Day 11 Marathon Post that Katherine Paterson recommends to "Write what you know," or "would like to know." At the recent SCBWI NY11, Newbery award-winning author Lois Lowry gave similar advice. "Things that happened way back when. Then told and shaped, and told again." And "What if? What if? Alway there. So many answers. Be aware." Another snippet included: "a phrase and little more -- imagination, take wings, soar!"

So, be aware!

In my own writing, I often include overlay imaginative fiction upon factual events. Events that happen in my life. In my son's life. In my daughter's life. School events. This day's draft was no exception. In a left-handed way, the basis for my inspiration came from making Valentines for my daughter's First Grade Class.  Of course, realizing that so many books exist about Valentine's Day, I found a way to approach the school celebration from a different angle, focus on a learning aspect, add some fiction and fun and hopefully learn more about snails in the process! Got you intrigued? Hopefully it will be a book someday and you will get to read first hand what I am talking about.

But my point is that you can use real-life for inspiration and write about day-to-day things without really writing about those tired topics. Just be aware of the parts that work, then push the box a little further, and think outside of it.

So, go ahead, write what you know or what you want to know, and give it a twist <3

Picture Book Marathon Day Eleven / Sowing Your Story Seeds All in a Row (Structure)

For Friday, I discussed my top ten methods for finding inspiration. My idea for Picture Book Marathon Day 11 came from reading the fun and fabulous book, JACK OF ALL TAILS, written by a former critique group partner, Kim Norman. Please visit her at her website:

Of course, my idea really has nothing to do with this wonderful book, in which "Members of the Kibbleman family take on jobs training people to live with their pets, wallowing in mud like the Munson's pot-bellied pig or lying in front of the television and passing gas like Mrs. Philpott's dearly-departed boxer dog MacTavish." That's the beauty of it!

Just  one little detail, if you will, sent my mind flying off in a different direction, to a different place, with a different character and a different situation, and voila -- my story was born! But I digress (and of course wanted to share the title of a thoroughly enjoyable book)...

Here's where the sowing comes in. Just like every day is different, so is every idea or seed for each story. Some practically grow on their own, some require lots of sun light and water. Others might make you roll up your sleeves, put your arms deep down into mucky earth and pull them out by their roots. The point is, you have to do what it takes.

With Manuscript #11, a structured format worked easily. I had my flawed but engaging character, setting, situation and problem in my head. All I had to do is let them loose for the fun and frivolity to begin. From there, my character made three aggravated and humorous attempts to solve her problem and finally, when it seemed that all hope was lost, she came up with an unexpected solution -- just like in so many of the books we know and love <3 Structure! It worked for me today, and at the end of it all, I had tapped out a promising first draft.

Please come back and visit  my blog for more Picture Book Marathon Updates and other techniques for letting your ideas turn into drafts (as well as tips, thoughts and tricks from other Published Authors and Illustrators).

Lynne Marie is the author of HEDGEHOG GOES TO KINDERGARTEN, Scholastic, April 2011
visit for updates

Writing Advice/Opening Doors with Ruth Spiro

My bubble is about to burst (grin) as I happily introduce to you Picture Book Author and Bubble Gum Day (a FUNdraising holiday) Founder, Ruth Spiro!


The “Door Opener” - Your Ticket Out of the Slush Pile
By Ruth Spiro

One of my favorite picture book manuscripts has made its way through a long list of publishing houses, and it’s been rejected by all of them. But I don’t hide my rejection letters in a drawer. Instead, they’re displayed on a bulletin board above my desk, so I can read the delightful notes hand-written at the bottom:

“You’re welcome to send other manuscripts…”

“Please do consider us for future submissions!”

“Got anything else up your sleeve?”

Did you hear that?


It’s the sound of a door opening.

I’ve received nearly a dozen “good” rejections to this one manuscript – personal letters from editors passing on it, but inviting me to submit others. I think of the letters not as rejections, but as invitations. So, although it remains unsold, I fondly consider this manuscript my Door Opener.

My first picture book, Lester Fizz: Bubble-Gum Artist, was the first manuscript I ever submitted, and it was acquired by the first editor who read it. (Yes, that’s a lot of “firsts!”) Unfortunately, subsequent sales haven’t come as easily. That picture book editor is now focusing on YA at another house, and since I don’t have an agent, my submissions to other publishers usually landed in the slush pile.

But, my Door Opener became my golden ticket out of that pile. Now I have invitations to send my work directly to those editors, and replies come quicker, sometimes even with helpful comments.

A Door Opener is not a sub-standard manuscript. It’s the very best representation of your writing ability. That means a flawless, intriguing cover letter atop a well-targeted, well-written manuscript. Anything less and you’ll probably find yourself with just another form rejection.

Of course, I still hold out hope for finding my favorite manuscript a home. I’m told that editors sometimes pass on a manuscript for reasons that have little to do with the story or the quality of writing. Perhaps the market will change, or a new editor will see its publishing potential. But even if that doesn’t happen, this manuscript has served an important purpose in my writing career by opening doors that may lead to future sales.

Submit your best work, and then listen for the click.

Maybe doors will open for you, too!

Your assignment:  Create a Wish List for your manuscript.

1) Print your favorite manuscript and hold it in your hands. Close your eyes.
(On second thought, read these questions and then close your eyes!)

2) Imagine you’re holding, not a stack of papers, but a finished book. Feel the weight of it.

3) As yourself these questions:

What does the cover look like?
Can you see your name? What color is it? How big is it?
In what style are the illustrations?
Soft and soothing? Bright and bold? Realistic? Playful?
What size is your book?
Is it tall? Wide?

With that image in your head, visit the bookstore and the library to find books similar to yours. Note the names of the authors, illustrators and the publishers. If you plan to seek representation, go the authors’ websites to find the names of their agents. Otherwise, compare your list of ideal publishers against the Children’s Writers & Illustrator’s Market or the SCBWI Market Survey ( to check submissions policies.

Create your Wish List, and start submitting!

Ruth Spiro’s first picture book, Lester Fizz, Bubble-Gum Artist, is published by Dutton. Her essays and articles have appeared in FamilyFun, Child, Woman’s World, and several Chicken Soup for the Soul titles. Her web site is

Ruth frequently speaks at schools and conferences, and is the founder of Bubble Gum Day, a FUNdraising holiday. Read about it at

Ruth Spiro Children’s Book Author & Freelance Writer Writing Ruth never imagined she’d be a writer - until she tried it. Now she writes books for children, including the award-winning Lester Fizz, Bubble-Gum Artist. Her articles and essays have been published in CHILD, Disney’s FamilyFun, The Writer, and Chicago Parent. Ruth’s stories have also been included in popular anthologies, notably The Right Words at the Right Time, edited by Marlo Thomas, and several Chicken Soup for the Soul titles.
Speaking Students are surprised to hear that as a writer, Ruth trolls the beach for seashells and story ideas, and also plays with toys so she can write reviews about them! Because of her wide range of
publishing experience, Ruth is uniquely qualified to discuss the many “jobs” a writer can have. Her presentations combine a real-life example of the writing process with a discussion of creativity,
individuality, and artistic expression. Ruth’s previous appearances include the Chicago Tribune Printer’s Row Book Fair, Millennium Park Family Fun Festival, Illinois Young Authors Conference, Illinois Art Education Association, Illinois School Library Media Association and the VA Festival of the Book. She has presented programs and writing workshops for students of all ages, and also developed the Writing for Moms™ program.

Background: Ruth graduated with a B.S. in Communications from the University of Illinois and worked for advertising agencies in both account management and broadcast production. She earned an MBA from Loyola University of Chicago, and coordinated several large-scale research studies, including a grant from the National Institutes of Health. Ruth has attended the Highlights Writer’s Workshop at Chautauqua and the Iowa Summer Writer’s Workshop. Her writing has earned awards from Writer’s Digest magazine, Willamette Writers, Half-Price Books, and Byline Magazine.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Picture Book Marathon Day Ten / Top Ten Places to Get Ideas

Due to planning an extremely last-minute vacation which my little one sorely needs, I am behind with my agenda, so please pardon me while I play catch up with Marathon Updates and Guest Author Blogposts. Thanks!


On this Tenth day of Picture Book Marathon, I thought it might be good to throw some kindling wood on the fire (for anyone who is struggling for ideas) and discuss my Top Ten Places to Get Ideas.

I'll begin by discussing "Hedgehog Goes to Kindergarten," which will be my first published picture book from Scholastic (coming April 2011).  This idea for this book was inspired by the real experience of my son going to school and being worried about having someone to sit with on the bus, and owning hedgehogs. Hedgehogs tend to be very nervous if they don't feel safe, and, they spike up if they are jostled or hear loud noises, so this fact added further tension to my plot, and provided the perfect main character. Thankfully, I was able to add a lot of other fun and favorite things in this book. Please visit in April to find out more about it!

So, back to discussing the places where I often get my ideas:
1.  Real life problems and experiences
    *Like in "Hedgehog Goes to Kindergarten" above
2.  Talking to people I know / Listening to Conversations
     *I got my idea for "Tooth Truth" from a story my sister told my daughter about something my niece and
     nephew did when they lost their teeth
3.  Reading Non-Fiction Books
    *I got the idea for "Pig for President" when I read some factual information about how smart pigs are!
4. Real-life Pets
    *"Jump" was inspired by an African bullfrogs we raised from an egg in a kit
5. Holidays
    *"Woodchuck Woes" was in part inspired by Groundhog Day
6. Reading Classics
    *I tried my hand at rewriting "There Was an Old ____" with my own unique spin on it!
7.  Giving stories to Characters in other Books
     *Chomp the Crocodile, who quietly appears in "Hedgehog Goes to Kindergarten," has her own story to
        tell in "Chomp's Picture Day Countdown."
8.  Sequel
     Spike the Hedgehog gets off the bus and enjoys Kindergarten in "Hedgehog's 100th Day
    of School" and other stories
9.  Sometimes, I just put words (characters, props, actions, dialogue snippets, settings) on little
slips of paper and put them into a fish bowl. I'll draw them out one at a time, and build a story
from them gets its own momentum. You would be surprised how it works. And you can always
cheat a little if you have to!
10.  The ideas just pop into my head! Sometimes I play around with them, sometimes, I let them simmer.

Bonus: Take a walk, read a magazine, do some yoga, exercise, soak in the tub! You would be surprised at what ideas can sneak up on you when you relax your mind and aren't looking!

I hope you all find this helpful. Please feel free to leave your comments and share any other ideas you may have.

Lynne Marie