Friday, July 24, 2009

Making What's So Hard about Writing Picture Books Less Hard

Oh, if only Ann Whitford Paul’s hands-on, right-on and thus write-on guide Writing Picture Books had been available when I first began writing.
[Note: the President at that time bore the initials J.C.]

Alas, Writing for Children wasn’t in vogue then.
The singular format (and art form) “picture book” was often labeled “picture storybook.”
The IBM Selectric typewriter reigned supreme, unaware the word processor planned to stage a coup.

I cut my writer’s teeth, I learned my craft, courtesy of:

(1) Lee Wyndham’s Writing for Children and Teen-agers (Writer’s Digest, 1976) and Phyllis Whitney’s Writing Juvenile Stories and Novels (The Writer, Inc., 1976);
(2) my sky blue, kite-embellished 1978 "I"-less Society of Children’s Book Writers membership card;
(3) the bounty of children’s books (published past and present) residing on the shelves of my Wilmette Public Library’s Children’s Bookroom.
I took selected books apart, physically sometimes, from the inside-out.
[See my September/October 2009 SCBWI Bulletin article “The Book That Changed Me.”]
I studied particular and favorite authors’ careers from their first book to their most current.
I read each book first as a reader, then again, as a writer.
I learned the stories behind the stories, taking heart and hope.
Writing for Children classes were few and far between; Children’s Book Writing Groups hard to come by.
Keeping me afloat was SCBW’s Manuscript Exchange which allowed me to learn from fellow Illinois author Berniece Rabe.

Writing a picture book text is Hard Work. Period.
It is not for the weak, in body or spirit.
The writer must dig often and deep through countless drafts to arrive at the bare bones of a story that not only can live and breathe on the page, thanks to the illustrator, but capture and resound in a reader’s heart.
Such efforts demand determination, patience, passion, persistence.
Reading and studying Ann Whitford Paul’s Writing Picture Books won’t make writing a picture book easy, but it’s certain to make writing a picture book eas-i-e-r.
As will the following resources, thanks to technology and the popularity of Writing for Children, that both fortify and enhance all you learn from Ann Paul’s book.

(1) Mem Fox’s website -
Mem Fox once wrote, “Writing a picture book is like writing War and Peace in haiku.”
Like Ann Paul, Mem Fox gets picture books.
Her website offers opportunities to hear and see Mem read, and to learn the stories behind her stories.
Check out her 20 Do’s and 20 Don’ts as well as her “So, you want to write a picture book” listed under the section “For Writers (And Potential Writers).”

2) SCBWI’s Picture Book Master Class with Tomie DePaola
Imagine 90-minutes up close and personal with Caldecott and Newberry Honor Awards medalist Tomie DePaola, illustrator of over 200 books, author of over 100!
This DVD Master Class, produced by SCBWI, features a one-on-one conversation between SCBWI Executive Director and best-selling children’s book author Lin Oliver and Tomie that offers inspiration, information, insights and encouragement for anyone writing the picture book today.
Purchase is available on the SCBWI website.

(3) A YouTube-available video of A School Visit by best-selling Author/Illustrator Jarrett J. Krosoczka.
Sit yourself down in the school auditorium, surround yourself with kiddos, and listen and learn how and why Jarrett makes books.
The illustrator piece to picture books is something picture book writers need to know.
And, if you’ve already successfully published a picture book, take a peek at how a fellow author presents. Jarrett’s website – – is also worth visiting.

And, look for my TeachingAuthors review of Ann Paul’s Writing Picture Books in early Fall.

Writing Workout:
Write a Name Poem

Mem Fox declares: story begins with a character in trouble!
Editor Melanie Kroupa took that Truth one step further while helping me revise my middle grade novel, The Confe$$ion$ and $ecret$ of Howard J. Fingerhut (Holiday House).
“Who a character is gets him into trouble,” Melanie taught me. “But who a character is gets him out of trouble.”

Once I defined Howie’s Howie-ness in a name poem, he was ready, willing and able to travel his plotline.
In Chapter One, I let Howie share the poem with his fellow fourth-graders so my readers would know Howie too.
H = hopeful
O = original
W= willing
I = intelligent
E = enthusiastic
Coincidentally (?), junior businessperson Howie Fingergut’s traits are those of any budding entrepreneur.

Define your characters, plural (!) - Hero, Side-kick, Villain, in a name poem, to come to know who and what they are.
Try using adjectives, next verbs, then nouns.
And remember Ann Paul’s tip: characters have flaws!


jama said...

Great post. Love this blog :)! Thank you.

Mary Lee said...

Fabulous writing tip! I'll see how my fourth graders do with name poems when they're writing fiction (or even nonfiction, come to think of it) this coming year!

Esther Hershenhorn said...

Name poems work with both fiction - and - non-fiction.
I make all my students - no matter their ages (!) - complete this exercise to nail their characters, plural.
Oh, were this blog available when I began writing picture books.
My journey to publication would have been considerably shorter.
So glad it's reaching (and teaching)authors.

Anonymous said...

As a fellow IL writer/teacher, Thank YOU! for this post. I'm putting together a lesson plan for creating characters and will def. use your character name poem exercise!
: )
Mary Jo Campbell

Esther Hershenhorn said...

Both Howie and I thank you, Mary Jo.
I came upon name poems as a way into character while sitting in a fourth grade classroom at Frances Parker School in Chicago, researching fourth graders so I could tell (and nail) Howie's story.
So far the Name Poem Strategy has never failed me.
Esther Hershenhorn