Picture Book University EXTRA! Take a Children's Writing Course

Hope all of you are busy writing outside on these beautiful spring days! As it happens, I've just had the wonderful experience of participating as a judge for a picture book contest. I read about 100 manuscripts and it gave me some ideas for new blog posts. :-)  PBU Extra! is supplemental material for those that might need a bit of specific advice.

I've had many people come to me, asking for advice--from friends to friends of friends to my critique clients. I can tell by the first page whether someone has just decided to venture into this business sight unseen--meaning with no training at all. I want to make it clear that writing picture books, although seemingly simple, is anything but easy. In fact, I had been published in Highlights for Children and I still couldn't break into picture books. Why? Because I'd had no training in writing them! I didn't know how to set them up, even though I'd read a lot of them.

If you want to get published, you will have to invest in this as a career. If you don't want to be bothered with extra education, then you really need to think of something else to do. I mean, if you're a professional, didn't you go to college to learn your trade? A doctor goes to med school, a lawyer goes to law school, a business person gets their business degree. Why in the world wouldn't a picture book author learn the art of picture book writing? Yet time and time again, I see picture books written by people who obviously have never taken a class about writing for children.

Is this you?

Are you writing and writing and writing, sending out manuscript after manuscript and either getting silence or rejection? Or are you the person who on a whim has this funny joke or idea and thinks kids will like it? So you write it out and feel it must get published. Your kids laughed after all!

If you think you don't need training, I will wish you great good luck and send you on your way. But if you just didn't realize there were classes out there, and you really want to succeed, then I have some great advice for you!

1. Take Institute for Children's Literature--I cannot be any more clear or loud about this school. It
will teach you everything you need to know about writing for children. I say start here because if you don't, your learning curve will be high and long. They will pair you up with a published author that will mentor you through many manuscripts and you will start "seeing" like a child and therefore, write better for them. I was published in a children's magazine only 9 months after taking this course! But I couldn't write picture books well, so if you want to write those...you will need even more education.

2. Do my free PBU workshop--This is a great start for you and it won't cost you a cent! I would advise doing the lessons one at a time and at the end of each lesson, do the assignment. They can be done at your own pace, but DO THEM! By the time you're finished, you will have a better understanding of how to set one up. And you will have read and studied over 80 picture books! After you're done with this...you STILL need more help! (Sorry...but you will...)

3. Take a picture book class--The one I can endorse is Anastasia Suen's Intensive Picture Book Workshop. She will go through one of your manuscripts with this intense class while you and seven others critique as well. It's amazing how she can fine tune a manuscript. I put PRINCESS PEEPERS through her second workshop and sold it! I would never have been able to write that manuscript if I hadn't taken the first course, though.

4. Other classes--I've heard from around the blogosphere of other picture book classes. I cannot vouch for them, but I know good things about the teachers themselves and they are either editors or highly accredited authors. So I will list them here:

Picture Book Academy--Many different authors participate as mentors.

Writer's Digest picture book workshop--ongoing classes. Check to find availability.

The Loft--picture book course--taught by picture book author, Molly Beth Griffin

Revising and Reimagining Your Picture Book--by Harold Underdown and Eileen Robinson. The workshop is full but they are offering a discount for those who want to join in on the recordings.

5. Join a critique group--Only after you've done all that, NOW you are ready for a critique group. You have to get the basics down first before others can even start making your work better. A great way to get a group is in Anastasia Suen's class. It's set up like a critique group and in my class, we started one. ALL of my fellow critique group members became published: Katherine Rollins, Barbara Kaninnen, Dianne White. How's that for rate of return?

6. Get a professional critique--I only advise this if you've done all of the above yet you still can't get an agent and you still can't get published. Having a professional look at your work is amazingly better than having someone on your writing level review it. A GREAT way to find out if you have a good story is to join Rate Your Story. For a minimal annual fee, you can have one manuscript a month reviewed by a professional. If you score a 6 or better, I'd say your manuscript is worth paying a professional to help you.

I happen to offer a professional critique service. I must say that all those who do pay for my service are well on their way to achieving their dream. Why, you say? Because people who are not ready to invest in their work are not ready to succeed. I can say I'm very proud of all of my clients. They really are a cut above the rest! It's fun being the mentor to these talented writers. :)

I hope this post is helpful to you. I can honestly say that over the years, those who don't give up do get published. They keep honing their craft, keep learning, and one day...they get that fabulous call.

Someone wants to publish your work!

Crack open the celebratory libations! HOORAY!

Happy writing,

Rate Your Story Contest

There's a cool contest out there I wanted to let you know about from RATE YOUR STORY. If you don't know about this awesome, informational website and tool, you should check it out. They have a wonderful newsletter jammed with insider information as well as the ability for you to get your stories rated by professional authors--every month!

I am one of the authors who participates in rating these stories--for free!  So, if you have a wonderful manuscript just waiting out there, send it in! A win in a contest like this will get you noticed as having something that an agent/editor might want.

If you'd like to check it out, go here: RATE YOUR STORY WRITING CONTEST

Some of the things a judge will look for:

1. Marketability--is it unique? Will children love it?

2. Emotional connection--did it make them feel something? Laugh? Cry? Bond with the characters?

3. Understanding of how to write picture books--meaning, the author thinks in pictures and the story will be enhanced by illustrations. In fact, without pictures, it wouldn't be a whole package.

4. Under 600 words. This is not a hard and fast rule, but I've found in rating lots of stories and through my own critique service that if a story goes over 600-650 words, usually, it needs to be cut or the story needs to be restructured.

5. Style elements. How does the author use these to delight their readers? Are they cleverly used? If you're not sure what I'm talking about, please read my post about style elements here: PBU Style Elements.

6. A unique, twist ending--something that surprises the reader, makes them say, awww, or just knocks it out of the park!

If you want examples of stories I think would help you and are wonderful to study, go through my PBU workshop and see the picture books I highlight. All of them are masterpieces in my opinion.

You have until March 31st to get your entries in!

Happy writing and...


SOLD! My New Character Driven series!

Just wanted to share that I will be having a brand new princess series coming by Two Lions! We finally decided on the name--don't get hung up on a character's name. Over the many picture books I've written, only one actually has the name I came up with in the beginning (Princess Peepers). 

So, it's entitled, BRIANNA BRIGHT, BALLERINA KNIGHT! It's about a spunky princess who's searching for her talent.Through lots of trial and error (re: much slapstick), she ends up with TWO! 

How did I get a new series? By holding onto the tenets I found by studying these types of books. I knew publishers needed them, and I set out to find a story that hasn't been written. UNIQUENESS is key! Plus humor helps. My spunky princess is funny and my editor wants more adventures. 

If you want to write a character driven story, please read my lesson on this topic and do the assignment! Character Driven Picture Books. Study these types of books!


Picture Book University: Kid Focus

If you've done all my lessons up to now, you should have a pretty good grasp of how to write a picture book. You've read at least 85 picture books--right? If not, go back and do the lessons you missed. ;-)

Now I want to draw your attention to your latest WIP (work in progress). I've noticed the new writer often forgets who their audience is--KIDS! Sometimes, a grandmother will write about characters suffering from arthritis or the plot will focus around adults and adult wants and needs. Or the jokes will be funny only to grown ups. That has no place in children's literature. Sure, you'll see the double entendre here and there just for adults (even the ending of Princess Peepers has a pun specifically for adults), but the focus is always kid centered. I think of it as a camera lens. Is your camera on yourself? The parent? The grandparent? If so, bring the lens down...keep going...yes, there! To that kindergartner running around your house. See the world the way they see it. If your manuscript doesn't pass the kindergartner test, you need to go back and revise.

If you don't have a child to study, I suggest you get one. Rent a kid! Ha! Well, not really, but maybe you could go out with your friend and ask to bring along their kindergartner/first grader. Volunteer at church to teach Sunday school for the K-2 crowd. My youngest child is 13 now and I no longer have elementary kids around, but I've always taught K-3rd graders at church. In fact, I teach K-3rd on Wednesdays and 4th-6th on Sundays--I know my audience. I watch and observe them. I know how they think. Don't have a church? Volunteer at a local library for reading time on the weekends (or weekdays if you don't have a 9-5 job). It's important for you to understand what's important to your audience. Otherwise, you have no business writing for them.

The best example of an author who really gets the mind of a child is Kevin Henkes. He's a great author to study for kid centered stories. One of my favorite picture books is Lilly's Purple Plastic Purse. It's a wonderful book to study for other elements, too, such as rhythm, plot, etc., but for our purposes here, I'm going to show you how Henkes makes sure his camera is on the child.

Lilly's Purple Plastic Purse by Kevin Henkes

Genre: Character driven, humor

Synopsis: Lily loves a lot of things, especially her teacher, Mr. Slinger. That is until he takes away her favorite purse. In order to seek revenge, Lily draws nasty pictures of her teacher, but her teacher, in turn, writes a sweet note which makes Lily feel bad. In the end, she apologizes, making everything better.

I'm not going to go over plot and style elements but I'd advise you to do that! You could learn a lot about rhythm and repetition from this story.

Kid Centered Elements:

  • Lilly loves things a child would love--school, pointy pencils, squeaky chalk, shiny hallways, etc. and her teacher. We don't see her loving things like a massage of her sore hands. If you have a character that needs a massage--please revise this. Children are like rubber. They don't get aching muscles!
  • Lilly describes her teacher as a child would--about things a child would like--his interesting glasses and shirts, how he greets the class, the inviting way he arranges the classroom, and the snacks! 
  • Lilly pretends to be her teacher--she plays with her brother--exactly what a child would do at that age.
  • Lilly liked to draw--and the drawings are very much like what a child this age would do.
  • She rides the bus, and raises her hand and volunteers in the classroom
  • Lilly gets a wonderful, musical purse that she adores. This is so much like what a kid would care about and become obsessed over.
  • Lilly indeed obsesses over this prized object and gets in trouble with her beloved teacher. She can't wait for show and tell to show off her purse.
  • Lilly is embarrassed, but after she loses her beloved purse, she almost cries and then she gets angry exactly how a child would. I know. I've taken up things from children before and if it's special, it's hard for them not to cry and get upset.
  • Lilly seeks revenge like a child would--Lilly loved to draw pictures of her teacher--so she drew a mean one that called him a big fat mean Mr. Stealing Teacher. All the things she writes shows her emotions--she deals with her anger and grief exactly the way a 5 year old would. 
  • Even though the teacher is nice to her when he gives her back the purse, she's still angry and tells him so by saying she doesn't want to be a teacher when she grows up (when earlier she wanted to be like him.)
  • But when Lilly gets a sweet note from her teacher, she feels bad just like a child would when they thought about their actions.
I'm not going to go through the whole thing, but my biggest suggestion to you is if you haven't read this book, please do. Unfortunately, these days, editors are not wanting books of this length. I think it's sad because the character can't be shown eloquently enough without many scenes and words like this. Oh well! I can't change the system. Keep your stories to 500 words or less and keep them KID CENTERED.

Assignment 9: 

  • Check out ten books at the library. Some great authors to look at for kid centered perfection are Kevin Henkes, Tom Lichtenheld, Lauren Child, Doreen Cronin, Kelly DiPucchio,
     and Kate McMullan
  • Write a plot synopsis for each one and identify how the author's camera lens is focused on the child.
  • Write elements which are very kids centered. Are there some that are not? Can you think of reasons why the adult-like element might have been allowed? (Usually there are good reasons.)
  • Take a look at your WIP. Is it kid focused? Are parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, little old lady from down the street overwhelming the story? Can you replace a parent with a sibling to take the story down to a more kid centered focus? Are you truly looking through a child's camera lens? Are parents making jokes and not the child?

If you know some stand out kid centered picture books, please post them below. This might help your fellow picture book writers pick out some great examples!

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Happy reading and writing!


Picture Book Analysis: Daddies Do It Different by Alan Lawrence Sitomer

In honor of rhyming Wednesday, I've decided to do a picture book analysis of a non-rhymer that has rhythm--so much so that it can be classified as poetry. And if you want to write something like this, you need to do it well, so let's see why I think this book is so great structurally.

Today's book is entitled, Daddies Do It Different by Alan Lawrence Sitomer.

SPOILER ALERT! My picture book analyses will reveal the climax/ending to every story. So be forewarned!

Genre: Journey, Cycle of the Day, Rhythmic text

Synopsis: A child relates all the things Daddy does differently than Mommy throughout the day but there's one thing they do exactly the same.

Plot elements: A Cycle of the Day story.

  • In the morning, getting dressed--ways Daddy is different from Mommy
  • breakfast time
  • going shopping
  • making lunch
  • going to the park
  • birthday parties
  • playing dress up
  • bath time
  • bed time
  • hugs and kisses
Twist: All through the book, Daddy does everything differently but in the end, Mommy and Daddy both love the child just the same. A touching, sweet ending! If you get your audience to say ah...usually, you'll have a winner.

Throughout the book, there is a repeating phrase of "But daddies do it different." Which binds the text together and children love to be able to join in this repeating phrase. Although this isn't a rhymer, the text is rhythmic: "When I leave the house with Mommy, she packs a tasty snack, brings a bit of juice, and takes an extra sweater." Can you feel the rhythm here? And then the next line leads into the repeating phrase: "But daddies do it different..."

Style Elements:

  • Lines have catchy beats.
  • visual humor throughout (in the scene above, daddy is putting bananas up his nose to make the child laugh.)
  • Use of active, interesting verbs: jingles, gargles, whup
  • Visually interesting--there's an active, fun picture on every page, (eg; Daddy has bubbles on his head in a room full of bubbles in the tub with the dog joining in the fun).
  • Use of made-up words for rhythm, (eg. "He tickles me so much, I get crazy-hyper-nuts")
  • Use of similes/metaphors, (eg, "we jump like kangaroos; make a fort of waffles, drives like a race car, etc.)
  • Sweet, twist ending
If you can think of a catchy repeating phrase and can do a rhythmic story line with lots of action on a subject that hasn't been done, you'll have a winning picture book every time. 

If you like these posts, feel free to click the like button below or tweet it to your friends. Next up, I will start back with Picture Book University, lesson 9. My school visit schedule is winding down--only two more to go this season, so stay tuned!