Archives for posts with tag: Writing Picture Books


This past weekend I was grateful to be one of the speakers at Wisconsin’s SCBWI conference held in Racine, Wisconsin. As such conferences usually are, it was a time of little sleep and a time of consuming mega-vitamins. Imagine, two days of not having to explain why you want to write for children. Imagine, two days of joyfully talking our particular shop.
In my presentation Friday evening I referred to many books. I promised those in attendance that I would post that bibliography on this blog. And, as time permits, I will try to post bits and pieces from my talk.

Thanks to all in Wisconsin who attended the conference. My plane flight home was a flurry of new book ideas and how to make some old projects better.

Related Bibliography

Ahlberg, Allan. THE ADVENTURES OF BERT. Illus. by Raymond Briggs. Farrar, 2001.


Bright, Robert. GEORGIE. Viking, 1944.

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

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

Goffstein, M.B. GOLDIE THE DOLLMAKER. Farrar, 1969.

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

Hesse, Karen. THE CATS IN KRASINSKI SQUARE. Illus. by Wendy Watson. Scholastic, 2004.


Johnson, Crocket. HAROLD AND THE PURPLE CRAYON. Harper, 1955.

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

Mack, Jeff. FROG AND FLY: SIX SLURPY STORIES. Philomel, 2012.

Marcus, Leonard, ed.  DEAR GENIUS: THE LETTERS OF URSULA NORDSTROM. HarperCollins, 2000.

Moore, Nancy. THE UNHAPPY HIPPOPOTAMUS. Illus. by Edward Leight. Vanguard, 1957

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

Rathmann, Peggy. RUBY THE COPYCAT. Scholastic, 1991.

Rosenthal, Amy Krouse and Tom Lichtenheld. DUCK! RABBIT! Chronicle, 2009.

Scarry, Patsy. THE BUNNY BOOK. Illus. by Richard Scarry. Golden Press, 1955.

Scarry, Richard. RABBIT AND HIS FRIENDS. Golden Press, 1953.

Schwartz, Roslyn. THE MOLE SISTERS AND THE RAINY DAY. Annick, 2002.

Shaw, Charles G. IT LOOKED LIKE SPILT MILK. Harper, 1947.

Stein, David Ezra. POUCH! Putnam, 2009.

Thomas, Jan. A BIRTHDAY FOR COW! Harcourt, 2008.

Winter, Jeanette. SEPTEMBER ROSES. Farrar, 2004.


Voice as Character


For many, one of the challenges of writing is making sure each character has his own unique voice. Who hasn’t received a rejection that referred to our “puppet” or “cardboard” characters? Attending to the body and physicality of our characters can help.

An improv theater exercise has each student walk across the room with a different part of his body leading the way. Try it. Walk across the room with your chin leading the way. Then, with your right shoulder leading the way. By the time the student gets to the other side of the room the way he carries his body has begun to create a particular voice that is not the author’s own.

How does a four-year-old walk across the room? How does an exhausted father walk across the room? Body contributes to voice.

Another way to explore voices is to sink into images (even caricatures) of different people. William Steig’s drawings done long before he thought of SYLVESTER AND THE MAGIC PEBBLE can help our minds play and discover.

Given their body posture and facial expression, how does each of the following characters express their reaction to the scene next to them?

The differences in each character’s response is what makes them unique and interesting.


THE STEIG ALBUM by William Steig. Duel, Sloan and Pearce, 1953.

Voice as Character

I of III

In many ways voice comes down to character whether we are referring to characters in a story or the author/narrator telling the story. Voice is communication and the desire for connection between people. This connection may be face-to-face or leap over years and miles through reading.

A character’s dialogue and action are guided by back-story, but primarily by her immediate wants or needs of the other characters. If a character has no needs or wants why is she in the story? So…what do we, as writers, want or need from our readers? What does our narrator’s voice reveal about us?

As writers and storytellers our primary “want” is capturing and keeping the attention and emotions of our audience. Even if our desire is to do something supposedly more important than keeping their attention such as teaching them something we need answer this reality: How can you teach or inform anyone unless you have their attention? The vital next question is: What are we doing to achieve that “want” of keeping their attention? Volume? Tone? Attitude?

If we encounter resistance to achieving our want in life, we eventually learn that the best tactic is to try another approach. Then another and another. As picture book writers we want the same toolbox of approaches. And, to always being aware of what our storyteller’s voice reveals about us. Warm? Comical? Demanding? Bossy? Scolding? Condescending? Playful? Challenging? Most of all, is it a voice eager to share an experience with an equal?

The Right Word

As writers we know the power of the right word. It is a significant part of writing and revising. Still, many of us feel a resistance toward revising or a sense of failure that must be repaired.

Once again the right word can make all the difference. I was at the Bonn International School in Germany last week to help students with their writing. During a visit to Jen Whitman’s second grade class I learned a new right word. Her students do not revise a manuscript. They revisit a manuscript. What a generous difference and shift in perspective that change of word creates.

When we revisit a place we know what we want to see again, what spots or activities weren’t as engaging as expected, and also what new things we’d like to explore. Perhaps it’s time to stop trying to revise a manuscript, and enjoy revisiting it instead.


 We’ve all felt the warmth of a kind voice, the burn of a scolding voice, and the confusion of a dithering voice. We also know which of these voices kept our attention. Our readers also experience this interaction thanks to the array of picture books today. Later this month we’ll explore the range of voice on two levels. First, the voice of the narrator toward his audience. Second, the differences between a child’s voice and an adult’s voice in fiction.

I’ll be away the next three weeks, but wanted to leave you these wonderful visualizations of voice by Saul Steinberg. Do we write to confuse? To overwhelm? Or connect?

THE CATALOGUE by Saul Steinberg. World Publishing, 1962.

We Will Survive!

While sales figures for picture books are down and many pundits have proclaimed the picture book to be a thing of the past, I loudly disagree. If you’re reading this I know you also disagree. We all have a friend in Julie Hedlund. If you don’t already know her blog “Write Up My Life,” you’ll be grateful the day you find it.

Julie honored me with the request of writing a guest post this month as part of her 12 X 12 in 12 year-long adventure. You can find my guest post titled “From Flicker to Final Manuscript” at  <>.

Thank you, Julie.

Illustrators: Responding to the Text

Kevan Atteberry

#1. What elements of a manuscript first capture your attentions? Plot? Language? Imagery? Tone? Sound? Theme?


Obviously, all of those things play a part in choosing to accept a manuscript, with a light edge given to Plot and Tone.  The story has to engage me. It must be fun, hopefully funny, and when you finish it feels complete. (And as a note, if the tone is odd or bordering on irreverent, I jump at the opportunity. But even above the elements you list, I think a strong, likable character is the thing that most often says, “Do this!” Though I love most genres of picture books, the ones that stand out for me, the kind I like to illustrate are character-driven. I want characters that endear themselves to the reader. Characters with strong established personalities in the text alone, but that I get to flesh out visually. Maybe add my own traits or peculiarities to.

#2. What elements of a manuscript inspire your choice of style, line, and palette? For example, your illustrations in FRANKIE STEIN, LOTS OF LETTERS, and BOOGIE MONSTER are at once related, yet still different from one another.


To be honest, when I am offered a book, the art director or editor has chosen me because of a style they have already seen of mine. In discussion with them, they will reference a sample illustration and let me know that that is why they’ve asked me to illustrate the book. I’ve had editors and art directors make suggestions on both line AND palette. In TICKLE MONSTER, we changed the palette a couple of times because the publisher had a particular vision. I did so reluctantly, but in the end I was certain that they had made the right choice. I LOVE the palette in TICKLE MONSTER and BOOGIE MONSTER—as do others—and give all the credit to the publisher for that decision.

#3. Is there a picture book text that you would love to re-illustrate? What about the text excites you?


If you are talking about a picture book text by anyone, hmmm…let me think. The first book that comes to mind in Mercer Mayer’s, ONE MONSTER AFTER ANOTHER. A charming story with lovely, fun illustrations and characters. There is no way I could improve on what Mayer did, but I could have the best time creating my own spin on it. GEORGE by Robert Bright would be fun, too. A sweet story with an endearing protagonist. Jose Arugeo’s LOOK WHAT I CAN DO is a wonderful illustration-dependent picture book that would be hilarious to interpret.  The text is nearly non-existent so I don’t know if this is a good example of what about the text excites me. It really is just the inanity of the two characters and their one-upmanship. And then I’d really love to illustrate a collection. Where the illustrations weren’t linear but rather vignettes. Each illustration standing on it’s own, not linked to the previous or the next illustration—like a collection of nursery rhymes, i.e. Mother Goose.

#4. As an illustrator, what is it that you most want writers to understand about your creative process?


Probably that ‘I know what I’m doing.’ And to trust me. I will not ruin their story. I will bring it to life and I will treat it with great respect. But the illustration part is mine. It is my half of our collaboration. I am open to any illustration note that is imperative to the story otherwise it is all up to me. And the editor. I don’t want that to sound standoff-ish, I just want to feel comfortable—have them feel comfortable with me—interpreting their story visually.

 THANK YOU, Kevan, for sharing your thoughts. You can find out more about Kevan’s books and illustrations at:

Illus. by Kevan Atteberry

Picture Books Referenced Above

FRANKIE STEIN by Lola M. Schaefer. Illus. by Kevan Atteberry. Marshall Cavendish, 2009.

LOTS OF LETTERS by Tish Rabe. Illus. by Kevan Atteberry. Innovative Kids, 2006.

TICKLE MONSTER by Josie Bissett.  Illus. by Kevan Atteberry. Compendium, 2008.

One Picture Book Text: Multiple Interpretations

Charlotte Zolotow

Charlotte Zolotow both edited and wrote many of the outstanding children’s books of the last 60 years. Thanks to the expanse of her writing career, several of her earlier picture books have been re-illustrated in recent years. The differences in styles, trends and printing technology demonstrate once again how many ways there are to interpret a single picture book text.

pigeons illus. by Bobri

pigeons illus. by Plume

cranes illus. by Bobri

cranes illus. by Plume


As picture book writers, we write to communicate with our young readers, but we also write to communicate with our future illustrators.

Picture Books to Explore

IF YOU LISTEN by Charlotte Zolotow. Illus. by Marc Simont. Harper, 1980.

IF YOU LISTEN by Charlotte Zolotow. Illus. by Stefano Vitale. Running Press, 2002.

ONE STEP, TWO by Charlotte Zolotow. Illus. by Cindy Wheeler. Lothrop, Lee & Shepard, 1981.

ONE STEP, TWO by Charlotte Zolotow. Illus. by Roger Duvoisin. Lothrop, Lee & Shepard, 1955.

THE SLEEPY BOOK by Charlotte Zolotow. Illus. by Vladimir Bobri. Lothrop, Lee & Shepard, 1958.

THE SLEEPY BOOK by Charlotte Zolotow. Illus. by Ilse Plume. Harper, 1988.

THE SLEEPY BOOK by Charlotte Zolotow. Illus. by Stefano Vitale. Harper, 2001.

One Picture Book Text: Two Interpretations

 When Richard Jesse Watson mentioned FERDINAND THE BULL as the picture book text he’d most like to illustrate I hurried to my bookshelves. I have loved FERDINAND since childhood, and some 40 years ago found a German edition illustrated by Werner Klemke.

While we’ve grown used to folktales being illustrated or interpreted by a wide range of artists, it is unusual for a modern text to be re-illustrated. Our initial reaction often resembles our response to the remake of a beloved film. “What have they done?” But exploring such examples can be valuable to those of us who write but not illustrate. It helps us understand how two different artists can experience and envision our words and story.

Though this German edition is out of print, we can see all the illustrations thanks to the Internet. Go to YouTube: Ferdinand der Stier.wmv – YouTube.



Picture Books Discussed

Leaf, Munro. FERDINAND THE BULL. Illus. by Robert Lawson. Viking, 1938.

Leaf, Munro FERDINAND DER STIER. Illus. by Werner Klemke.  Transl. by Fritz Guttinger. Parabel Verlag, Date Unknown.

Illustrators: Responding to the Text

After 100 posts about picture books, I’m yearning to add other voices. I’ve begun to invite illustrators to answer a few questions about how they respond, relate to, and expand a text they didn’t write themselves. In other words, how do illustrators respond to our manuscripts.

Our first illustrator is Richard Jesse Watson.

#1. What elements of a manuscript first capture your attention? Plot? Language? Imagery? Tone? Sound? Theme?

What a clever question, George.  The first thing that captures my attention is the envelope (that is, if it arrives by mail). Things are changing so fast, that the traditional form of mail may be obsolete by the time you get this response. But I’m sure you remember what mail is even though your readers may not.  So, to clarify for you readers of George, I was referring to Medieval Mail, or Snail-Mail, or Analogue Word Transfer, or in other words,  The Hob-Nobbing of Wizards, using paper and ink made from walnuts. .  What was the question? Oh, right, am I intrigued by envelopes?  In a word, yes.  The fact that someone sent me an envelope with yummy words or story, is so exciting.  And the possibility of illustrating those words sends me into a little orbit. An orbit of imaginings.  Ahhh, what might I do with these words?

The tone of the words is what hits me at first.  Does the writer grab me by the…uh,  medulla. Am I intrigued? Is this writing fresh? Not like, Slap!!>>fresh, but original voice fresh. Then the other things follow: Imagery. Sound. Plot. Theme. Etc.

#2. What elements of a manuscript inspire your choice of style, line, and palette?

For example, your illustrations in THE LORD’S PRAYER, THE HIGH RISE GLORIOUS SKITTLE SKAT ROARIOUS SKY PIE ANGEL FOOD CAKE and THE MAGIC RABBIT are at once related, yet still different from one another.

 The final emotional delivery of the manuscript will inspire me to want to illustrate the story or not. As an illustrator, forsooth, even as a reader, I want to be led down a garden path; hopefully one with pretty flowers, and ripe fruit. Some lizards would be cool. Maybe I could be wearing a Davy Crockett hat.  It sure works if you surprise me with your thoughtfully arranged words, maybe startle me!  Amuse me? It does me-the-reader wonders if you can emotionally nudge me, or even wrench me  in some lingering way.  We could also just have fun.  “Good clean fun,” to quote Bill Murray.

But all that to say, a good story will compel me to experiment with medium in some unique way. My goal is to be true to the text but to explore the text and as N. C. Wyeth said, “To paint between the lines.”


 #3. Is there a picture book text that you would love to re-illustrate? What about the text excites you toward doing this?

I would love a chance to re-illustrate THE STORY OF FERDINAND by Munro Leaf. Actually it is so perfect the way it is. Forget I said anything. Ixnay on the what I saidnay.  But I love the anti-war sentiment, and the idea of letting each person be true to their unique gifting. Hard question to answer because I love so much in literature.  I am currently illustrating The Twenty Third Psalm. I would love to illustrate some Washington Irving, some Edgar Allan Poe.  THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS is a book I have always wanted to illustrate.

#4. As an illustrator, what is it that you most want writers to understand about your creative process?

 That illustrators cry real tears. We bleed. We put our pants on one leg at a time.  We eat turkey one leg at a time.  An illustrator’s job is to create a sub-text to the writer’s text.  A children’s picture book illustrator will be telling HALF of the story. One half, your words, one half, our pictures. It is an intimate collaboration. A perfect marriage of text and art. Or like the bishop says in THE PRINCESS BRIDE, “Mayowage…”

THANK YOU, RICHARD for sharing your thoughts.  For a fascinating look at Richard’s work and life please visit his website: <>

THE MAGIC RABBIT by Richard Jesse Watson

 Picture Books Referenced Above

Moore, Clement C. THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS. HarperCollins, 2006.

Watson, Benjamin James. THE BOY WHO WENT APE. Illus. by Richard Jesse Watson. Blue Sky Press, 2008.

Watson, Richard Jesse. THE MAGIC RABBIT. Blue Sky Press, 2005.