Archives for category: Picture Books-Reviews

The Alchemy of Ideas

People are forever asking writers, “Where do you get your ideas?” Many assume they arrive like pearls dropped from above by a muse resembling Tinker Bell. Some writers believe they do. Others strap on pith helmets and go hunting. Still others announce they are blocked, locked in a box that lets nothing in or out.

Valeri Gorbachev’s picture book WHAT’S THE BIG IDEA, MOLLY? is wonderful to read and share with children. It also has a great deal to offer any writer in search of ideas. Primarily, that it is not so much a search for ideas, but rather an openness and receptivity to what arises in one’s life. And, an openness and receptivity to seeing what arises from different perspectives.

Molly loves words and loves to write poems, but she can’t find an idea. Friends arrive to discuss what they make for Turtle’s birthday gifts. When they all decide to draw Turtle a flower Molly says they can’t all give the same gift. “We need to think.”

Rabbit, Goose, Frog, Pig and Molly (mouse) all go to the spot where they do their best thinking. Fortunate are writers and artists who know their spot! All but Molly return with an idea. Unfortunately, all of them have the same idea. They’ll draw a tree for Turtle!

So, where do writers get their ideas? Molly discovers her idea in what appears to be a problem. There are differences to be found even within similarity. Problems may spark possibilities. Each friend draws a tree for Turtle, but a tree in a different season. And Molly writes a poem for each tree and season.

Gorbachev’s story concludes (and reopens?) with Molly wondering if “I will get another big idea tomorrow. I am ready for it.” Where do writers get their ideas? By being open and ready for them.

WHAT’S THE BIG IDEA, MOLLY? by Valeri Gorbachev. Philomel, 2010.

"What One Sees" by Richard Stine. 1995.

Different Kinds of Quiet

Publishing, like much of life, is filled with contradictions. My writing friends and I have all received rejection letters saying words similar to “beautifully written but too quiet.” Many writers receive such rejections. Yet, visit an independent bookstore or the new displays at the library and you’ll find recently published quiet books. Editorial tastes, goals, timing, and fame of the author all come into play. This can be frustrating. But it can also be an opportunity to enrich our writing. Instead of just grumbling, “what do they mean too quiet!” we can explore the different kinds of quiet.

A BEACH TAIL by Karen Lynn Williams is a wonderful example of a quiet, dynamic picture book.  It is quiet because no characters shout, and the action is minimal and leisurely. In addition to this, the setting is warm and intimate. Intimate, that is, until the young protagonist loses all sense of safety.

Gregory and his father are alone on the beach. Gregory plays in the sand. His father warms him to stay where you can see me. Gregory is totally absorbed in the lion he is drawing in the sand. As he draws, the tail of the lion grows longer and longer. It loops around objects resting on the beach. Gregory is lost in the reverie of exploring how long the tail can be. Suddenly he can’t see his father. He’s lost and accidentally disobeyed his father.

There is tension, feat and action, but A BEACH TAIL remains quiet in both tone and pace. Rather than can crying for help in a panic, Gregory takes a significant personal action. He decides to solve the crisis on his own. Both boy and narrative gently retrace their steps along the lion’s long tail. This book is certainly quiet. But it is so rich with characterization, tension, and action it far from being “too quiet.”

When we find a new picture book that seems quiet like A BEACH TAIL, let’s make the opportunity to explore what makes it quiet and how it might be different from our own rejected manuscript. Does our manuscript have tension? Are the experiences in our narrative significant to our characters? And, most important, does our protagonist experience growth? If our protagonist grows it creates the opportunity for our reader to grow. And that is vibrant action.

A BEACH TAIL by Karen Lynn Williams. Illus. by Floyd Cooper. Boyds Mills, 2010.

Delayed, but next: Learning to Appreciate What We Can’t Do: Related & Recommended Websites and Blogs

Bitten: Smitten With Words

Writers and young children love words like a painter loves paint. We love the sounds, the combinations, and the play of words as we stretch their meaning. Two very satisfying picture books explore the occasional confusion, but also the poetry of using words in fresh ways.

In Barbara Williams’ ALBERT’S IMPOSSIBLE TOOTHACHE Albert’s toothache is impossible because Albert is a turtle. Turtle have no teeth. Still, Albert insists on staying in bed due to his toothache. Various family members try to convince him he is wrong. They even accuse him of hiding in bed out of fear. But Albert persists. Only his grandmother takes the time to listen and explore the possibilities of language.

Where do you have a toothache?” asked Albert’s grandmother.

“On my left toe,” said Albert. “A gopher bit me when I stepped in his hole.”

A toothache is a toothache is an ache from being bitten.

Young children and writers revel in similes and metaphors. Such comparisons and juxtapositions expand and enliven our world. A LITTLE BIT OF WINTER by Paul Stewart celebrates the poet’s search to describe and evoke.

As a hibernating creature, Hedgehog has never experienced winter.  What is it?  What’s it like? He asks Rabbit to “save me a little bit of winter for when I wake up.” But how can one save winter? Rabbit finally decides to save a giant snowball that he wraps in leaves. By the time spring returns and Hedgehog wakes Rabbit’s ball of winter has melted to a mass of leaves with only a tiny ball of snow inside. Hedgehog looks and sniffs trying to learn about winter. Then he picks it up.

Ouch,” he cried. “It bit me.”

That,” said Rabbit, “is what winter feels like.”

Anyone who’s experienced winter has certainly felt its bite.

ALBERT’S IMPOSSIBLE TOOTHACHE* by Barbara Williams. Illus. by Doug Cushman. Candlewick, 2003.

A LITTLE BIT OF WINTER by Paul Stewart. Illus. by Chris Riddell. Harper, 1999 (1998).

*To see how two different artists interpret the same text, take a look at the 1974 edition of William’s story then titled ALBERT’S TOOTHACHE and illustrated by Kay Chorao (Dutton).

Kafka, Picture Books, and Spiderman

Linking Franz Kafka with picture books may seem absurd, but influences of his short story “The Metamorphosis” can be found in many books for young children.

These picture books are certainly fantasies, but the character’s metamorphosis is the single element of fantasy. Each narrative begins with a straight-faced leap from a very high diving board. The impossible literally happens, and must be dealt with in the real world. They are the ultimate “fish out of water” tale even though the (former) fish remains in his home water.

Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” begins:

One morning, when Gregor Samsa woke from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a horrible vermin.

THE MAN WHO LOST HIS HEAD by Claire Huchet Bishop begins:

Once upon a time there was a Man who lost his head.

LOUIS THE FISH by Arthur Yorinks begins:

One day last spring, Louis, a butcher, turned into a fish. Silvery scales. Big lips. A tail. A salmon. Louis did not lead, before this an unusual life…

David Small’s IMOGENE’S ANTLERS begins:

On Thursday, when Imogene woke up, she found she had grown antlers.

Like Kafka’s salesman, these three characters discover their transformation as they wake in bed one morning.

Other sudden and extreme transformations occur in picture books, but the change is more internal.  These tales are less like Kafka than they are Spiderman where a spider bite transforms a nerd to superhero. Susan Meddaugh’s dog, Martha, is suddenly able to speak after consuming a bowl of alphabet soup. In WEEZER CHANGES THE WORLD, David McPhail’s dog begins as a typical puppy chewing toys and tinkling on the rug. But once “something striking” happens (lightning) Weezer begins predicting weather, playing piano, helping doctors solve diseases, and more.

Scott Santoro’s FARM-FRESH CATS offers a third type of poker-face dive into the extreme. It’s not an individual who is suddenly transformed within or without, but agriculture. A farmer checks his field and discovers that his crop is no longer cabbages but cats. Once again, the drastic metamorphosis is identified as something unexplainable. Then, on with the action and story’s arc.

These stories featuring outrageous events have a distant relationship to the tall tales found in folklore. But the two genres have more differences than similarities. While tall tales pile one impossible situation on top of another, these Kafka style picture books stick with one or perhaps two impossible actions. The traditional narrator of a tall tale is also very tongue-in-cheek. The narrator knows he’s telling a lie and with a wink let’s the audience knows that he knows that they know he’s telling a lie. It’s all part of the game and the fun.

In contrast, the tone and voice of Kafka-style picture books are both poker-faced. There may be humor, but it is based in characters’ coping with the transformation rather than the outlandish events that occur and their descriptions.

Why not play with our own dives off the high board into the impossible? This approach can provide rich exercise opportunities. We’ve got nothing to lose but opportunities.

Sample Picture Books That Echo Kafka’s Leap Outside Reality

A BAD CASE OF STRIPES by David Shannon. Blue Sky Press, 1998.

IMOGENE’S ANTLERS by David Small. Crown, 1985.

LOUIS THE FISH by Arthur Yorinks. Illus. by Richard Egielski. Farrar, 1980.

FARM-FRESH CATS by Scott Santoro. HarperCollins, 2006

THE MAN WHO LOST HIS HEAD by Claire Huchet Bishop. Illus. by Robert McCloskey. Viking, 1942.

MARTHA SPEAKS by Susan Meddaugh.  HoughtonMifflinHarcourt, 1995.

WEEZER CHANGES THE WORLD by David McPhail. Beach Lane, 2009.


There are good picture books, and then there are picture books that are so good they ring like the ping of good china. WHAT THE LADYBUG HEARD by Julia Donaldson has the ring of the very best china. A large part of its ping (if you will) is Donaldson’s use of sound, pattern and rhythm.

The text begins in verse as it introduces the multiple farm characters including “a ladybug who never said a word.” Donaldson then identifies each animal by the sound it makes (moo, cluck etc) and still works in rhyme. By introducing these animal sounds Donaldson also follows Chekhov’s famous maxim: If you show a gun in act one you better shoot it by act three. But, of course, we don’t know that until the conclusion.

Donaldson uses rhyme to link her list of characters to story’s conflict.

“And one cat meowed while the other one purred…

and the ladybug never said a word.

But the ladybug saw,

And the ladybug heard…”

What the ladybug heard is a plan to steal the prize cow. When she finally speaks she echoes the rhymed plan just as she heard it from the robbers. Donaldson then brings the story back to its chorus—

And the cow said, “MOO!”

And the hen said, “CLUCK!”

“HISS!” said the goose

and “QUACK!” said the duck.

“NEIGH!” said the horse.

“OINK!” said the hog.

“BAA!” said the sheep.

“WOOF!” said the dog.

Concern. Suspense. Then the miniature hero makes her move.

But the ladybug told them not to fear,

And she whispered her plan into every ear.

Donaldson provides a sense of direction, but readers can only hope. It is at this point that the author shoots the proverbial gun identified in act one. The litany of animal sounds (with an ingenious twist) turns out to be the winning plan that saves the cow and captures the thieves.

The thieves are taken away, and it’s back to the chorus of animal sounds again. But despite what the ladybug heard and said and planned, the story ends full circle just as it began. All the animals and the farmer shout their cheers: But the ladybug never said a word.


WHAT THE LADYBUG HEARD by Julia Donaldson. Illus. by Lydia Monks. Holt, 2010.


BOOTSIE BARKER BITES is as fresh today as it was at publication eighteen years ago. Its theme of dealing with a bully appears in many other books that have come and gone. The reason BOOTSIE remains is its writing and illustration beginning with the title and cover. Bottner’s title literally evokes the sharp and bold nature of the bully, Bootsie: B-B-B! Imagining optional titles quickly shows what would be lost.




Rathmann’s depiction of Bootsie on the cover is worthy of a classic melodrama poster.  She may have a cutsie nickname and be dressed for tea and sporting a hat worthy of Bella Abzug, but Bootsie’s gritted teeth and artificial grin are a warning to all.  We don’t even know who the protagonist is, but we are already on his/her side. 

Bottner’s voice and tone keep BOOTSIE immediate and fun.  Rather than writing as adult with a lesson to share, Bottner’s (unnamed) protagonist tells her own story from the trenches of childhood.

My mother and Bootsie Barker’s mother are best friends. When Mrs. Barker comes to visit, she always brings chocolate donuts, fresh strawberries, and Bootsie.

The voice is direct and seemingly powerless in a world of adults.

I tell my mother I don’t like playing with Bootsie Barker.  My mother tells me I have to learn to get along with all kinds of people.

Later when Bootsie is coming to spend an entire night, the young protagonist snaps.

I can’t stand it anymore. Bootsie Barker is a DINOSAUR!” I shout, “and she’s PLANNING TO EAT ME ALIVE!”

Bottner’s text stays true to the realities of childhood, and in doing so gives the young victim an opportunity to grow.

My mother looks surprised.

“Sweetheart,” she says, “tell Bootsie you don’t want to play that game.”

I go to my room to think it over.

Charlene [her salamander] and I spend the morning inventing a new game.

Giving Bootsie a dose of her own medicine solves the dilemma and saves the day.  Bottner’s victim is now victor, and shares a smirk of her own as she concludes her story;

Bootsie throws a tantrum on the sidewalk.

So Bootsie’s parents take Bootsie to Chicago.

Which means I don’t have to wish Bootsie takes a rocket to outer space.  Although if she does, it’s fine with me.

This is a picture book to savor, share, and study.

BOOTSIE BARKER BITES by Barbara Bottner. Illus. by Peggy Rathmann. Putnam, 1992.

Halloween is coming.  Children, teachers, and librarians will be looking for Halloween-related books.  Yet, one of the best picture books that takes place near Halloween has very little to do with the holiday.

Felicia Bond’s masterful THE HALLOWEEN PLAY is a book to enjoy, and a book that has much to teach those of us writing picture books. Originally published in a small trim size in 1883 as THE HALLOWEEN PERFORMANCE, Bond’s story takes place on Halloween.  But it is not about Halloween.  Herein lies the truth of a holiday picture book with a life beyond the holiday.

THE HALLOWEEN PLAY is about inclusion, about the “special” student, and about the joy that is experienced through inclusion.  Bond’s text appears to be simple.  A classroom of mice is rehearsing for its Halloween play.  Invitations are sent out.  An audience appears on the appropriate night. The play begins.

“Roger stood backstage.  He had a small but important role.”

At this point we are drawn into Roger’s story.  He waits.  Listens for his cue.  Then appears on stage wearing a giant jack-o-lantern costume.  He doesn’t dance or sing or speak any lines.  But HIS part becomes the centerpiece of the finale.  Roger, as well as everyone else in his class, experiences deep joy and satisfaction.

“Before he went to bed that night, Roger’s father took a picture of him.”

“But Roger didn’t need a picture to remember.”

No matter what we use as the time and place for our story, we want to make sure it goes deeper that the place and date.  What are the human needs and emotions of the story?  What is universal about our character’s emotional journey?  In other words, what is true? 



“The line of the story must be pure, and must carry itself along without visible strain. Each word must lend its muscle. And the rhythm by which the words attach themselves to each other, by which they roll and move, must be economical but forthright. In all these qualities, the language of the picture book resembles the language of the poem.”  Donald Hall

Hall, Donald.  THE OX CART MAN.  Illustrated by Barbara Cooney.  Viking, 1979.

The story behind THE OX CART MAN is a journey itself.  When Donald Hall left Michigan and moved to his grandparents’ farm in New Hampshire a cousin told him the story of an ox cart man.  In time, Hall retold the story as a poem, “The Ox Cart Man,” that appeared in THE NEW YORKER (October 3, 1977).  He revised it slightly when it was published in his collection KICKING THE LEAVES (1978).  Then again when it was published in OLD AND NEW POEMS (1990). Children and picture book fans know the poem in yet another form–the picture book which received the 1980 Caldecott Medal.

Hall’s picture book is an excellent example of how the rhythm and cadence of a text can echo and evoke the story’s subject matter. How did he do it?  What decisions and revisions did he make? We can learn by exploring his process. Many of Hall’s drafts can be viewed online thanks to the Milne Special Collections site at the University of New Hampshire Library:

May you enjoy the journey.

Begin at the Beginning by Amy Schwartz is a gem and a vitamin.  Published in 1983 with lovely black and white illustrations, it was re-illustrated in color and published in a larger trim size in 2005.  In a nutshell, it is the story of all of us who long to create our best work.  But, like young Sara, we can become so preoccupied and burdened with making something “wonderful” we find ourselves blocked or frozen in fear.  And, like Sara’s family, our well-meaning friends all have suggestions as to what we should do.  Their help only increases the burden. Sara’s mother is the muse and editor we long to find.  She calmly guides Sara away from the stress of creating something “wonderful” to focusing on what she knows and loves.  In this case, it is the tree outside her bedroom window.  We hear it from writing teachers everywhere, but Sara learns and lives it.  The more specific one is, the more universal the connection through story and art.


"Yours Truly, Louisa" by Simon Puttock


Louisa the pig has opinions.  The farm is too dirty, and the farmer should do something about it.  To that end she writes a series of anonymous letters to the farmer.  He tries to make improvements.  But Louisa wants more and more improvements. Simon Puttock’s wry fable moves at a lively pace.  Crisp scenes and dialogue drive the story that eventually finds Louisa leaving the farm in disgust.  And, of course, returning once she discovers the grass is not always greener (or cleaner) on the other side.

Puttock’s story appears to be simple, but evolves with a deft shift as to which character truly has a problem and who is responsible for resolving it.  The gem of Pottock’s writing is that he begins with the demanding child or self-righteous adult as the “victim” and concludes by showing that the “victim” has the power to affect his own dilemma.

As  serious as that may sound, Yours Truly, Louisa remains light-hearted and playful thanks to Pottock’s text and Jo Kiddie’s deadpan illustrations.  Cheers.

Puttock, Simon.  Yours Truly, Louisa.  Illustrated by Jo Kiddie.  HarperCollins, 2009.  ISBN: 978-0-06-136634-5