Archives for posts with tag: creative process

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There are many ways to tell a story and share the interactions between two people. One way is reading the letters the two people write to one another. The letters between John and Abigail Adams share a vibrant story in American history. Collections of letters are regularly published, and read by those eager for an inside look at people’s lives.

Letters can also be a form of fiction. Because the primary audience for picture books has limited if any ability to write, it is not a common form in children’s books. Still, Karen Kaufman Orloff has now demonstrated twice how letters can be a vibrant and tongue-in-cheeky form of picture book fiction.

I WANNA IGUANA published in 2004 captures every child’s desire for a pet, and that child’s never-ending attempts to bargain. By making the story a cycle of notes from child to parent and parent back to child, Orloff is able to “cut to the chase” and focus on dialogue like a play. Choice of words, phrasing, and tone become even more significant. As readers, we discover the relationship between the boy and his parents through their letters.

It is a wonderful book to read aloud to children. As writers, we can also learn a lot from studying how Orloff develops character through dialogue. Not only what is said, but also how it is said. And in addition, the tone and the love beneath the words.

We can also learn a lot from Orloff’s dedication to the sequel I WANNA NEW ROOM published in 2010.

“For my editor, Susan Kochan, who guided me and waited patiently until I got it right.”

Good writing takes time. Sure, there is the occasional strike of lightning, but time and patience are a writer’s wise friends. I WANNA NEW ROOM is solid sequel about this family that writes notes to one another. A large part of the solidity is that it shares a fresh story,  acknowledges the passage of time, and takes the main character to a new level of maturity.

May we all be as fortunate in our lives and writing.

Books Discussed

I WANNA IGUANA by Karen Kaufman Orloff. Illustrated by David Catrow. Putnam, 2004.

I WANNA NEW ROOM by Karen Kaufman Orloff. Illustrated by David Catrow. Putnam, 2010.


Why We Read…and Write



Writing about the photographer’s dilemma, John Szarkowski stated:

“…what shall he include, what shall he reject. The line of decision between in and out is the picture’s frame…The photographer’s edge defines content. It isolates juxtapositions. The photographer edits the meanings and patterns of the world through an imaginary frame.”

The Photographic Eye

Szarkowski may have been thinking about photography, but his words also apply to our process and choices as writers. Who among us hasn’t tried to include everything in a manuscript only to end up with a muddled mess?

As writers our “imaginary frame” takes many forms. Genre. Length. Point of view. Where we begin and end the narrative. First or third person. Like the photographer, we are wise to explore all the options our frame can offer before pressing click or print.

Joel Meyerowitz

I know writers who thought they were working on a picture book, but it was better when reframed as a novel. I’ve had a poem that ended up better expressed and framed as a picture book story. And vice versa. We have nothing to lose and much to gain by telling ourselves to “Look again” at our manuscript. Explore alternative frames or edges. Literally try different points of view.

Joel Meyerowitz

Central themes or common threads can often be found throughout an author’s work. With the best authors this does not mean repetition, but rather a collection of different perspectives, different frames just like the many ways John Meyerowitz explored the St. Louis arch.

Joel Meyerowitz

It is also how we read. No single story or book can represent the only truth because there is no single truth. Both reading and writing let us continue to look through a wider and wider range of frames. The result—a life that is forever growing wider and deeper.

“A writer is not so much someone who has something to say as he is someone who has found a process that will bring about new things he would not have thought of if he had not started to say them…One implication is the importance of just plain receptivity.” William Stafford

Books That Encourage One to “Look Again”

*THE ARCH by Joel Meyerowitz. Little, Brown & Co., 1988.

FAMILY SCRAPBOOK by M.B. Goffstein. Farrar, 1978.

GALEN’S CAMERA by Jill Kalz. Illus. by Ji Sun Lee. Picture Window Books, 2006.

*THE PHOTOGRAPHER’S EYE by John Szarkowski. The Museum of Modern Art, 2007 (1966).

TAKE ANOTHER LOOK by Tana Hoban. Greenwillow, 1981.

THE TURN-AROUND, UPSIDE-DOWN ALPHABET BOOK by Lisa Campbell Ernst. Simon & Schuster, 2004.

*WRITING THE AUSTRALIAN CRAWL: VIEWS ON THE WRITER’S VOCATION by William Stafford. University of Michigan Press, 1978.

*Published for adults


Why We Read…and Write



Though we humans may be initially resistant, most of us eventually take delight in discovering multiple or conflicting realities. This is the center of everything from jokes to optical illusions. It is why we read. We are eager to experience someone else’s perspective on a situation. To see how they solved it, or at least lived through it.

While there may be great differences in the number of words and pages, novels share this reality with picture books. At the same time adults are pretending they’ve solved the question of who’s what and what’s what, children are still actively taking delight in the exploration. As picture book authors, we have the chance to join and share the fun.


What is truth? Ed Young’s retelling of the classic tale THE LOST HORSE is a prime example. How can one be sure what good luck or bad luck really is until one knows the full context and circumstances?   Mike Mulligan and his steam shovel, Mary Ann, struggle to reach success that soon becomes defeat. That is, until they take a different perspective and triumph under fresh definitions. Roslyn Schwartz’s mole sisters find delight in the midst of what most would view as a terrible day. How? Perspective the acceptance of more than a single reality.


Context and mercurial definitions are at the heart of vibrant concept books, as well.  In her many picture books, the singular Tana Hoban invited children to look and then look again and again. Edward Carini’s TAKE ANOTHER LOOK invites us into the realities of optical illusions. And, if I may, my own WHITE IS FOR BLUEBERRY requires children to realize multiple truths.

Take a look.  Then look again. One of the world’s greatest gifts is that there is always something new to see.

Books That Encourage One to “Look Again”

*THE ARCH by Joel Meyerowitz. Little, Brown & Co., 1988.

GALEN’S CAMERA by Jill Kalz. Illus. by Ji Sun Lee. Picture Window Books, 2006.

THE LOST HORSE by Ed Young. Harcourt, 1998.

MIKE MULLIGAN AND HIS STEAM SHOVEL by Virginia Lee Burton. Houghton, 1939.

THE MOLE SISTERS AND THE RAINY DAY by Roslyn Schwartz. Annick Press, 1999.

*THE PHOTOGRAPHER’S EYE by John Szarkowski. The Museum of Modern Art, 2007 (1966).

TAKE ANOTHER LOOK by Edward Carini. Prentice-Hall, 1970.

TAKE ANOTHER LOOK by Tana Hoban. Greenwillow, 1981.

THE TURN-AROUND, UPSIDE-DOWN ALPHABET BOOK by Lisa Campbell Ernst. Simon & Schuster, 2004.

WHITE IS FOR BLUEBERRY by George Shannon. Illus. by Laura Dronzek. Greenwillow, 2005.

*WRITING THE AUSTRALIAN CRAWL: VIEWS ON THE WRITER’S VOCATION by William Stafford. University of Michigan Press, 1978.

*Published for adults

Replacing the Inner Critic

Writers in all genres battle with their “inner critic.” Some writers spend so much time lamenting and discussing their inner critic they have little time left to write. Many writers also talk about getting rid of their inner critic, but fail to explore possible replacements.

For myself, the opposite of the dastardly “inner critic” is the nurturing “inner editor.” In other words, creating my own version of the ideal editor. Two drawings by master artist/cartoonist, Saul Steinberg, offer a visualization of both sides of this writers’ coin.

Inner Critic

* Doubting

* Undermining

* Snide

* No way to please

* Second guessing your every word and move


Inner Editor

* Encouraging voice as he/she also challenges

* Doesn’t tell you what to write, but asks vital questions that help YOU discover what to do

* A supportive and curious energy moving toward a richer creation

* Eager to read and examine your efforts

* Honest when it comes time to say “I believe you can do a better job.”

* Literary cheerleader who is not impressed by your ego’s need to be loved


If you have the power to generate an “inner critic” you also have the power to generate your ideal “inner editor.”


THE CATALOGUE by Saul Steinberg. World Publishing, 1962.

THE COMPLETE CARTOONS OF THE NEW YORKER edited by Robert Mankoff. Black Dog & Leventhal, 2004.

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.

Touching With Words

UNCLE ELEPHANT by Arnold Lobel


In the darkness the child wants to talk

It is touching with words that he strives for…

[from Dialogue With a Child by William Kloefkorn]

I recently spoke about writing picture books to students at the University of Washington. One student’s questioning statement was shared with a tone of frustration. “Everybody says you shouldn’t write to teach a lesson. But a lot of good picture books do have a lesson.” It’s true. The difference comes down to the author’s intent, tone, respect for the child, and ultimately aesthetic gesture.

I believe William Kloefkorn’s poem (above) can guide us. He refers to the child wanting to touch with words. The difference between a book that happens to include a new awareness (aka a lesson) as opposed to a book that intends to teach a lesson is this:

The first is the author’s attempt to touch with words. The author’s attempt to connect with the child and share.

The second is not touching with words, but instead using words like a wagging finger telling the child what to think.

We don’t even have to think of our own childhood to grasp which approach is most affective. We feel the same way as adults. Wag a finger at us and we’re ready to resist. But reach out to share, and we’re likely to listen and explore.

The choice of tone and approach is ours to make with each new manuscript.

Learning to Appreciate What We Can’t Do

Part II

Related & Recommended Websites and Blogs

32 Pages: A Passion for Picture Books

Donna McKinnon explores picture books with passion and a discerning eye. Her “Stuff I Follow” will take you to even more great sites.


36 Pages

After a long and honored career as a graphic designer Craig Frazier has turned his attention to picture books.  To quote: “Some of my favorite designers and illustrators put their talent to work on those pages. Their books simply rise to a different level. I am going to look at those books, talk to their creators, and share the inspiration.” I also look forward to exploring his monograph about his process as an illustrator, THE ILLUSTRATED VOICE.


The Picture Book Junkies Blog

Five working illustrators share their thoughts and insights about making picture books. Enjoy!

Beginnings–Part II

Like movies that establish setting, tone, and characters during the opening credits, many picture books today begin to establish their story before the first page of text. Authors who are also illustrators are able to introduce characters and even conflict on the title page, verso, and the page typically used for dedication.

Of course, writers who do not illustrate their own texts have no control over opening illustrations. But there are still some options involving text. A VISITOR FOR BEAR by Bonny Becker and Michaela Muntean’s DO NOT OPEN THIS BOOK offer two interesting examples.

Becker’s narrative is unusual for a picture book in that it begins with a prologue. It serves as a springboard for the action to come, and stimulates an immediate sense of tension.

No one ever came to Bear’s house.

It had always been that way, and Bear

Was quite sure he didn’t like visitors.

He even had a sign.

Illus. by Kady Macdonald Denton A VISITOR FOR BEAR

The first page of narrative is the loud and clear dropping for the proverbial second shoe.

One morning, Bear heard a tap, tap, tapping on his front door.

When he opened his door, there was a mouse, small and gray and bright-eyed.

“No visitors allowed,” Bear said, pointing to the sign. “Go away.”

The young audience knows Bear is going to say, “Go away” before he says it. The prologue has already pulled us into Bear’s way of thinking. We want to know why Mouse didn’t respect the sign.

One could say Michaela Muntean’s prologue is the book’s cover and title page. DO NOT OPEN THIS BOOK! is presented as a dialog balloon on the cover. Naturally, we open the book.  It’s a book. Pages two and three depict the surprised expression of the character we saw on the cover. Then BOOM we enter the narrative hip-deep in tension.

Illus. by Pascal Lemaitre. DO NOT OPEN THIS BOOK!

Excuse me, but who do you think you are, opening this book when the cover clearly says DO NOT OPEN THIS BOOK!? If a sign on a door reads DO NOT ENTER, do you enter? Of course you don’t. The least you would do is KNOCK FIRST!

In this case we (as reader) are not only pulled into the story’s tension, we ARE the cause of tension.  Each reader is the antagonist. One can’t get more involved that that.

These approaches won’t work for all picture books, but there is no reason not to explore such options. Play is the name of the game. Free play is our source of fresh ideas.

Picture Books Discussed

DO NOT OPEN THIS BOOK by Michaela Muntean. Illus. by Pascal Lemaitre. Scholastic, 2006.

A VISITOR FOR BEAR by Bonny Becker. Illus. by Kady MacDonald Denton. Candlewick, 2008.

Outside the Box:

Nurturing Fresh Ideas


As writers we are frequently asked, “Where do you get your ideas?” Although usually expressed with genuine interest, the question is thoroughly off the mark. Ideas are not discovered at a “where”, but rather through action. We are also frequently told, “You need to try thinking outside the box.” One way to do this is to actively step outside our box–look outside our genre and outside writing for guidance and inspiration. Two of my favorite books on the action and play of creating are by a jazz violinist and a cartoonist for THE NEW YORKER. My third favorite source or activity that nourishes “outside the box” thinking is exploring books, websites and blogs that focus on the visual arts. A favorite recent discovery is the work of a photographer who had a create deal of fun drawing new realities for dead flies. Trust me. You’ll see.

FREE PLAY: IMPROVISATION IN LIFE AND ART by Stephen Nachmanovitch is a mega-multi-vitamin for anyone in the arts. My copy bought in 1993 has been highlighted in multiple colors over the years and its margins continue to record new thoughts and impressions. Sample quote: “Practice gives the creative processes a steady momentum, so that when imaginative surprises occur they can be incorporated into the growing, breathing organism of our imagination.”

THE NAKED CARTOONIST by Robert Mankoff is a rich blend of humor, reflections on creativity, and specific exercises to stretch one’s thinking. Sample quote: “…boredom is your creative friend. When you’re bored, you seek stimulation. If you are denied external stimulation, you’re forced to make do with what’s in front of you.”


Photographer Mangus Muhr’s witty creations that began with dead flies demonstrate the power of both imagination and context. A seemingly nothing becomes quite something once we give it a relative place in the world.


If Muhr can create so many different contexts for a dead fly, we have the same scope of possibilities for any character or sliver of story that captures our imagination. If, that is, we stay active: asking questions, playing with juxtapositions, and forever leaping outside the box.


As Robert Mankoff says, “Getting ideas is like getting a loan. If you already have money, it’s easy to get more. Likewise, if your mind is already stocked with ideas and associations, more are likely to come your way.”

Cossack Dance

Related Books & Sites to Explore

DEAD FLY ART by Mangus Muhr. (photographer)

FREE PLAY: IMPROVISATION IN LIFE AND ART by Stephen Nachmanovitch. Tracher, 1991.

THE NAKED CARTOONIST by Robert Mankoff. Black Dog & Leventhal, 2002.



THANK YOU BEAR by Greg Foley

An empty box, especially a large one, is one of the delights of childhood. Year after year adults shake their heads as children spend more time playing with the empty box than the toy that came inside it. So how can an empty box beat a toy for attention? Possibility. Interaction. Creative control. When the Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi said, “It is not making things that is difficult, but putting ourselves in the condition to make them.” I believe he was referring to the artist’s and writer’s need to keep rediscovering the empty box. Our need to keep returning to a sense of openness and play.

Four picture books explore the theme of the empty box, and do so in four different ways. NOT A BOX by Antoinette Portis offers the most direct and interactive approach to the topic. The reader/audience becomes the inquisitor.

Why are you sitting in a box?

It’s not a box.

Clearly, an empty box can become anything the mind creates.

Leslie Patricelli’s THE BIRTHDAY BOX addresses the setting or occasion for an empty box. In this case it’s a birthday. While the box contained the gift of a puppy, the birthday boy quickly takes the dog on a series of imaginary adventures thanks to the box’s endless possibilities. Both action and text insure we understand that the empty box was the greatest gift.

THE BIG BROWN BOX by Marisabina Russo not only celebrates the possibilities of an empty box, she also adds a gentle plot of sibling rivalry. Sam lays claim to the box that protected the new washing machine. It becomes a house. Then a cave. Then a boat. With each new reincarnation of the box, Sam’s younger brother begs to join the fun. But Sam rejects him time and again. Their mother’s quiet wisdom saves the day. She gives the little brother his own empty box. Together the brothers turn their respective empty boxes into individual spaceships and play together.

As writers, one of the most important things we can do to maintain Brancusi’s “condition to make things” is to keep returning to our own empty box of possibilities. And, to approach each new idea as its own empty box that could become anything if we allow our imagination to play.

Greg Foley’s THANK YOU BEAR explores the theme of the empty box in a way that addresses our inner self-doubts and our outer critics. Bear finds an empty box and decides to give it to Mouse. On his way one animal after another proclaims it’s not so great, old hat, and too small.

Who among us hasn’t shared a new book idea only to have others tell us that it’s not so great, old hat, too small or too big? Foley’s addition to the classic empty box theme is the relationship between giver and receiver. In a way, he is celebrating what librarians refer to as the right book at the right time. When a rather dejected Bear finally gives his empty box to Mouse, Mouse looks at it this way and that.

Then Mouse crawled inside

the empty box and said,

“It’s the greatest thing ever!”

And so it is with our story ideas, our own empty boxes. No idea or book will be right for everyone. But if we keep returning to the empty box and playing with possibilities we will most certainly enjoy the process, and have a better chance of being the right book for the right reader at the right time.

It all begins with emptiness.

Picture Books About Empty Boxes

THE BIG BROWN BOX by Marisabina Russo. Greenwillow, 2000.

THE BIRTHDAY BOX by Leslie Patricelli. Candlewick, 2007.

NOT A BOX by Antoinette Portis. HarperCollins, 2006.

THANK YOU BEAR by Greg Foley. Viking, 2007.