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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.

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