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Thursday, July 9, 2015


Okay, this is going to be one of those top ten lists. Don't know why but lists of tips like this always seem to go from least to most so this one will too. Although, frankly, the order changes for me on a regular basis. This is today's version. SMILE!


Please read catalogs digitally. SMILE

NUMBER 10: Study publishers' catalogs thoroughly and regularly. It's the best way to know you're not offering up a book similar to something they've recently published. And to think about the kinds of books they might be looking for.

NUMBER 9: Read interviews with editors and agents. Check out  the kinds of books they've worked on or represented and think about whether yours might be a fit--or not. Check if they are also published and, if so, what they've written. 
Remember, 9 is only a fact finding step.

NUMBER 8: Read PW Children's Bookshelf to see what editors are newly acquiring. But absolutely do NOT worry about trends.

NUMBER 7: Attend SCBWI conferences and listen. LISTEN. LISTEN!

NUMBER 6: Read award winning books. READ more. READ even more!!!

NUMBER 5: Read award winning books aloud. LISTEN!!!!

NUMBER 4: When you think you're ready to send something out, STOP! Let it brew for two weeks and not one day less. Then reread. Revise. POLISH!! Meanwhile, go back through Numbers 10, 9, and 8 to decide who/where to share (and have a Plan B in mind). THEN GET IT THE #%* OUT THERE. Nothing sells sitting on your computer.

NUMBER 3: Stop writing for yourself. Write to sell.  So pick a target audience and get to know them: observe them in action, talk to them, and listen to them.
I love letters and emails from kids with ideas about the books
they want me to write.

NUMBER 2: Find a critique group. Share. Bond. Learn from them. Learn with them.
My group (L-R): Janet McLaughlin, Teddie Aggeles, Susan Banghart, Me, Augusta Scattergood, and Melissa Buhler

NUMBER 1: Write. Write. Write. Breath. Sleep. Eat. Write. WRITE. WRITE!!!!!

And a final thought to those who've asked me, "How many words should there be in a children's picture book text?" Here's what I tell myself: 

Think what you need to say. Then use the very best words you can think of to grab kids and keep them reading (or listening) all the way to the end. Better yet--make them want to read it or hear it again. 

Tuesday, July 7, 2015


Now we're digging into a topic I'm passionate about. SMILE.

Everything I said about writing picture books holds true here except that there's one more thing--RESEARCH.  It's key.

I love the detective work: the figuring out what I need to find out and who I need to ask, ferreting it out, and making sure I've examined the information from every angle. People have asked me how I research my books, which reminded me of my friend who wanted a tour inside my brain to see how I think when I work. So here goes.

Open Heart Surgery I suited up to observe.

Ultimately, for me, it's all about talking to people: experts, researchers, scientists, people with real-life experience being there, doing that, seeing for themselves. 

But to find those people and, frankly, to be worthy of their time talking to me, I read about whatever subject I'm tackling: bats, honeybees, traumatic brain injury, open heart surgery, you name it.

I read books, journals, newspapers, every website with any related snippet (that I trust because there is frankly a lot of crap posted by unreliable sources). I try to think of all the nuances of the subject I should examine. And I look for WHO the people are studying, investigating, observing. I also take note of what school or organization they're affiliated with because that's usually key in tracking them down. Although I have to tell you finding people can be a journey and bring surprises. One of my favorite stories is about interviewing William Shockley, one of the three scientists awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for inventing the transistor. 
William Shockley

I was determined to interview all three of these men and had already interviewed the other two: J. Presper Eckert and John Mauchley. In fact, Unisys (the company that bought the company Eckert founded) flew me to Philadelphia just to lunch with J. Presper Eckert. TALK ABOUT A MEMORY! 

However, try as I might, I couldn't get a lead on contact information for William Shockley. So I decided to back door it. By that I mean I started digging for the man's hobbies and interests. Anything that could connect me to people who were in contact with him. I finally found one. 

William Shockley was an active sponsor of the Repository for Germinal Choice (also known as the Genius Sperm Bank). I contacted them and eventually set up a phone interview. William Shockley began by saying, "I never do interviews." 

I said, "Okay." And started asking him about everyday things. Eased into his work and inventing the transistor. He talked for an hour. It was fascinating. Like holding hands with history. 

And probably the best complement I've ever received was when he said good-bye he added, "You can call me any time." We did talk several more times.

In fact, I'd say I learned my interviewing strategies from William Shockley: 
Always be prepared (know the subject and have meaningful questions). 
Always ease into what you really want to know. 
And when the person is hesitant to share ease around that subject and slip back a little later. 
Always check any quotes to be sure it's what they want to share.

And here's the WHY I always seek out the experts. Years ago when I was working on OUTSIDE AND INSIDE BATS (Atheneum), I wanted to include information about the different ways bats move around. I mean flying is obvious but some hop on the ground and I found a photo in a respected magazine (won't name it for obvious reasons) that showed a bat swimming. I also found reference to bats swimming in a couple of books. So I tracked down a bat researcher and asked him how common swimming was for bats. 

His response was, "PLEASE, don't say they can swim. I know about that photo but it's wrong!"  He went on to tell me he was there when the photo was taken. To his dismay, the photographer threw the bat in the water. So what had appeared to me to be a look of determination on the bat's face was, in fact, panic. To this day, I never tackle any research without thinking, "I have to be sure I find the ultimate source who can tell me the truth."

Children deserve nonfiction  to be absolutely accurate.

Researching my nonfiction picture books has allowed me the privilege of talking to amazing people around the world. Sometimes from remote places. I remember interviewing Scott Powell for ANIMAL SCAVENGERS: ARMY ANTS (Lerner). 

 It was by satellite phone while he was in the jungle watching army ants in action. And Nikita Ovsyanikol in Russia  told me such great stories about his experiences studying polar bears on Wrangel Island that besides ANIMAL PREDATORS: POLAR BEARS (Lerner) I also wrote WAITING FOR ICE (Charlesbridge).  

And there was the day Dr. Melissa Behr shared how she climbed down a frozen waterfall into a mine to try to figure out what could possibly be killing hibernating little brown bats for THE CASE OF THE VANISHING LITTLE BROWN BATS (Millbrook/Lerner). Wow! What dedication to research.

My daughter Holly has often said I should write a book called SANDRA MARKLE'S PEOPLE just telling about all of the fascinating people I've been blessed to talk to and sometimes meet in the course of researching my books. Even better, some I continue to touch base with from time-to-time to hear what they're doing now. A few, I'm even blessed to count as friends.

This was one of several penguin books inspired by my Antarctic experiences.

Of course, I have to admit to having an explorer's soul. So some of the research I've enjoyed most is when I've had a chance to do it myself. Like my three trips to Antarctica. I spent two summers camping out with 160,000+ Adelie penguins watching them raise their chicks. 

And I spent a 9-month long winter in Antarctica working at McMurdo Station and experiencing firsthand the coldest, fiercest winter on the planet. The record was -149F but trust me anything below -50F is COLD. I had to wear goggles if I went outside because my contacts would freeze to my eyes. BRRRRRR!

I was able to be in the water with a dolphin, touching it and looking it straight in the eye.
The phone call I received from June Scobee, wife of the Challenger pilot Francis Scobee, was the most touching
moment in my writing life.

I climbed through the Shuttle training module at NASA, stood under the real Shuttle, was with the press and felt the ground shake the day Sally Ride became the first U.S. woman in space, held a moon rock, and lots more wonderful NASA experiences.

I've helped dissect a giant squid. Been in the operating room watching open heart surgery.

It would take days--months--to list all of the amazing experiences I've had researching my nonfiction picture books.

After the research, the process for writing nonfiction picture books is the same as what I wrote as tips for writing picture books in general.  However, I would add two more key challenges.

Share what's true and factual in a picture book in a way that grabs readers every bit as strongly as any fictional story.

Make it worthy of being read aloud.

One of the biggest complements I've received in a letter from a child was that one of my books was her favorite bedtime read aloud. I also love that nearly every letter I receive from both children and teachers includes ideas for other subjects they'd like me to write about. That's truly special.  

Thursday, July 2, 2015


There's something special about children's picture books.  It's because they are exactly that--pictures and words together just for children.

The very best of them, and I'll share a few of my favorites shortly, are wonderful because they're the perfect marriage of art and text. I've written quite a few picture books and happily many have been honored with awards. 

I'm frequently asked for tips about how I work.  In fact, a writing friend recently said she wished she could have a tour inside my brain to see how I think while writing one of my books. SMILE. So I've given my creative process serious thought and, for me, it comes down to the following:

Have a clear vision.

Think in spreads.

Listen to the story like a reader.

Be willing to tweak to merge text to art.

Okay, starting at the top--Have a clear visionIMHO, the world is full of stories. I'm constantly on the hunt for that special one worthy of a picture book. I watch, read, talk to scientists and researchers. 

While there are lots of different kinds of picture books, I love to tell stories based on real life animals and people. Stories that have tension, characters you care about, moments of humor, moments that will make your breath catch, and even moments that will tug at your heart. 

That may sound like a lot for a thirty-two page book with limited text. But if I do it right, it'll all be there. For me it's often taking a big story, researching and experiencing firsthand whenever possible. 

Next, finding the main through line of the action and zeroing in on the heart of the story. Then putting it all through a sieve (mentally) to squeeze out just enough.

So that step is all getting ready. What I think of as brewing the story in my mind.

Next, is step two--Think in spreads. I'm sure there are lots of picture book writers that jump in and write the story at this point; later figure out how to split it up for the different pages. I think in spreads before I write.  

From my book TOAD WEATHER (Peachtree Publishers)

I lay the book out listing LR pp and the page numbers. I decide if I want to start with a full two page spread or if I want a 1 page intro and then into the story. Then I plan out that all important story arc. I'm happy--in fact thrilled--that my publishers have chosen amazing illustrators to bring my stories to life. But I am an artist (painting in oils and water colors) and I admit to my story leaping to full color life in my head at this point. I imagine where children will enjoy seeing the action spread across two pages. 
From my book FINDING HOME (Charlesbridge)

And where the story will be more interesting broken into one section on the lefthand page and showing what happens next on the righthand page. I also think long and hard about the action moments in the story: what will illustrators be able to show; what will children love seeing.

At last, I write. However, I described this step as Listen to the story like a reader. That's because my writing process goes like this:
I write and read aloud. 
Rewrite and read aloud. 
Revise and read aloud.
Tweak and read aloud. 

 I probably read one of my picture books aloud gazillion times during the course of writing it. And every time I think about children reading it--even better sharing it with others.

You don't believe me? Ask my husband. SMILE! 

I usually start each writing session by reading aloud something I've written that feels like it sets just the right tone, pacing, and rhythm for this new story. Then I dig in. And the story sticks with me even after my work session ends.  

When the text for one spread doesn't feel quite right, it keeps replaying in my mind. And I frequently rush to my computer or grab a notepad to jot down a phrase or wording change to fix that spot later. There does comes that moment when the story feels right. It's like finishing a jigsaw puzzle--the good feeling of all the pieces clicking into place. That's not to say I won't revise more later. SMILE. There's also the editing process. I've been blessed with wonderful editors to work with who ask me questions or challenge me to think about certain parts of my picture books. Then I make still more tweaks. 

And read aloud some more.

The final part is short but critical. The author and illustrator don't communicate--well, we do through our editor but we don't talk directly to each other. The reason is the purest creative process happens when the illustrator can bring his or her own vision to the picture book. I first see the illustrations when they're just sketches. Sometimes, those are very rough sketches. 

From my book RACE THE WILD WIND (Walker)

Other times, they're very detailed. I remember getting the sketches for RACE THE WILD WIND. Layne Johnson's black and white pencil sketches were so amazingly detailed I called my editor and asked, "Are we doing this book in black and white?" 

I believe my role during the illustration process is to make sure anything factual, like anything scientific, is accurately portrayed. But I also believe in doing my part to merge the story with the art. In TOAD WEATHER, for example, I didn't have a moonlit scene. Thomas Gonzalez, though, created an awesome moonlit scene. So I worked the moon into the text. SMILE

Also, I've now written three WHAT IF YOU HAD ANIMAL PARTS books. I love Howard McWilliam's illustrations for this series. And as I worked on the newest book WHAT IF YOU HAD ANIMAL EARS?! (coming out 2016) I found myself giving the kids having animal ears things to do that I knew Howard would turn into super cool art.

Finally, as promised, here's a list of some of my all time favorite picture books by other authors (not in any particular order except as I thought of them):

Possum Magic by Mem Fox
TheVery Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle
The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats
Huge Harold by Bill Peet
Brown Bear, Brown Bear What Do You See? by Bill Martin
Two Bad Ants by Chris Van Allsburg
The Church Mouse by Graham Oakley
Down The Back of the Chair by Margaret Mahy
The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs! by Jon Scieszka
Winnie the Witch by Valerie Thomas
Feathers for Lunch by Lois Ehlers
The Rascally Cake by Jeanne Willis

And lots more but this is a good start. SMILE.  Most of all love the process and the book you write is bound to shine.