Welcome to Inkygirl: Reading, Writing and Illustrating Children's Books (archive list here) which includes my Creating Picture Books series, Advice For Young Writers and IllustratorsWriter's and Illustrator's Guide To Twitter, interviews, my poetry for young readers, #BookADay archives, writing/publishing industry surveys, and 250, 500, 1000 Words/Day Writing Challenge. Also see my Inkygirl archives,  and comics for writers (including Keiko and Will Write For Chocolate). Also check out my Print-Ready Archives for Teachers, Librarians, Booksellers and Young Readers.

I tweet about the craft and business of writing and illustrating at @inkyelbows. If you're interested in my art or other projects, please do visit DebbieOhi.com. Thanks for visiting! -- Debbie Ridpath Ohi

Entries in writing picture books (15)


Comic: What NOT to say to a children's picture book author on a first date


Writing or illustrating a picture book? Browse my free Picture Book Creation Resource (including templates)

I've been gradually compiling my "How This Picture Book Was Created" resources, advice from the children's book writers and illustrators I've been interviewing, and the thumbnail sketch and layout templates I use for my own writing and illustrating process. Here's the link to my CREATING PICTURE BOOKS resource.

There is no charge. All I ask is that you pay it forward someday.


Common mistake by new picture book writers: assuming that short = easy or quick.

I once asked my editor at Simon & Schuster Children's, Justin Chanda, what he finds is the biggest mistake that aspiring picture book writers tend to make. His answer:

"The one that I see most often, and it covers a multitude of sins, is they do not take the time to really hone their project. Writers have so many ideas they want to work on one, move on to the next, flood an editor with a bunch of projects… Thing is, picture books take time. There is craft, there is fine tuning, there is CUTTING OF TEXT. All of this takes time. A book needs to be read aloud. It needs to be tweaked and made sure that every word is there for a reason — a good reason. Rushing to get through, or assuming that short = easy or quick is a recipe for disaster.

"That and thinking rhyming solves everything are the biggest mistakes."


Biggest misconception about writing picture books: thinking that short = easy/quick

One of the biggest misconceptions about writing picture books, I've noticed, goes something like "While I'm working on my REAL book, I think I'll write a picture book or two for some extra cash. They're so short, after all."

Here's my post about why short does NOT mean easy when it comes to writing picture books. Includes links to my free picture book thumbnail templates!


Three Questions with Jackie Azúa Kramer & Maral Sassouni, debut author & illustrator of THE GREEN UMBRELLA (NorthSouth Books/Simon & Schuster)

I'm delighted to be one of the stops on THE GREEN UMBRELLA blog tour! The story is fun and imaginative, with gorgeous art. The underlying message of sharing, generosity and looking out for one another is even more important these days. 

Click to read more ...


Misconceptions about writing picture books: why short does NOT mean easy

NOTE: This is an updated version of a post I made a while back. For those illustrate as well as write, feel free to use my free picture book thumbnail templates.

So many people think that short = easy, especially when it comes to picture books.

And while yes, it's easy to crank out a picture book manuscript in terms of wordcount, writing a picture book story that a publisher will want to acquire is an entirely different animal.

At this point, I can imagine a number of you leaping up and saying, "You shouldn't worry about the market! Just write the story that you were meant to write!"  I partly agree.

However, if your goal is to be PUBLISHED, then I strongly advise you to go to local children's bookstore and  library; I guarantee you will save yourself much heartache and wasted effort. Familiarise yourself with what's being published. Let yourself fall in love with some of these picture books and then ask yourself why you enjoy them so much.

A few common mistakes that new picture book writers make:

Click to read more ...


Advice For Writers, Taxidermied Piranhas and Family Memories:Three Questions with Sylvia Liu

Photo credit: Copyright K. Woodard Photography

Sylvia Liu is an environmental lawyer turned children’s author and illustrator, inspired by aliens, kraken, cephalopods, and the oceans. She lives in Virginia Beach with her husband, two daughter, Siberian kitten and guinea pig. 

A MORNING WITH GRANDPA is Sylvia's debut picture book! The story won Sylvia the 2013 New Voices Award from Lee and Low. Such a sweet and inspiring story, gorgeously illustrated by my friend Christina Forshay, whom I met through the SCBWI Illustration Mentorship program.

Thanks to Sylvia and Christina for letting me be part of their A MORNING WITH GRANDPA book tour!

Click to read more ...


Free Picture Book Thumbnail Templates for Writers and Illustrators

With some sketches for picture book NAKED! (Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers, author Michael Ian Black)

When I was asked to illustrate my first picture book (I'm Bored) and I started researching picture book formats, I was confused. I knew a standard picture book had 32 pages, for example, but I discovered that these 32 pages might also include the title page and other non-story pages. Plus some books had the story beginning on the right-hand page while others started on the left. 

Click to read more ...


A comic for those who think that picture books are easy to write

Anyone who thinks that picture books are easy to write because they're short needs to read this advice from my Simon & Schuster editor, Justin Chanda.


Comic: What NOT to say to a picture book writer on a first date


It's easy to write a picture book. It's much harder to write a picture book that will sell.

(Updated February 9, 2016)

So many people think that short = easy, especially when it comes to picture books.

And while yes, it's easy to crank out a picture book manuscript in terms of wordcount, writing a picture book story that a publisher will want to acquire is an entirely different animal.

At this point, I can imagine a number of you leaping up and saying, "You shouldn't worry about the market! Just write the story that you were meant to write!"  I partly agree.

However, if your goal is to be PUBLISHED, then I strongly advise you to go to local children's bookstore and  library; I guarantee you will save yourself much heartache and wasted effort. Familiarise yourself with what's being published. Let yourself fall in love with some of these picture books and then ask yourself why you enjoy them so much.

A few common mistakes that new picture book writers make:

(Also see advice for aspiring picture book authors from my Simon & Schuster Children's editor, Justin Chanda)

- Not reading many, many picture books before they try writing their own.

- Talking down to kids, using a style and language that comes across as awkward and lecture-y.

- Writing what is basically a short story rather than a picture book text. If you don't know the difference, you need to read more picture books.

- Assuming that the illustrator's job is just to draw what is in the text, and therefore including lots of detailed art notes ("Sandy's hair is blonde and her eyes are green, and she is sitting half-crouched with her hand reaching out for the rabid squirrel" etc.).

- Including lots of physical details in the text that could be shown in the illustrations, or left up to the illustrator.

- Assuming that a picture book story HAS to rhyme. Writing a good rhyming picture book is very difficult. Don't use rhyme as a crutch. 

- Not reading their story out loud to make sure it IS fun to read out loud.

- Having a story that is overtly message-y, pushing a lesson the author want young readers to learn. This is a very very VERY common mistake. 

- Assuming that because their grandchildren / niece / neighbor's child / students loved their story, that it's ready to send out to publishers.

- Their story won't easily fit into a standard picture book format (eg 14 pages instead of 32 or 40 pages, etc.). While it's possible to sell a non-standard format picture book, it usually costs the publisher more money....making them less likely to want to take a chance on a first-time author.

- Adding their own illustrations. If you're a professional illustrator and you're sure your style suits the story, then go for it...but be aware that publishers usually prefer choosing their own illustrators. 

- Not having a unique twist or concept. It's ok to write another "Don't give in to peer pressure. Be yourself!" story as long as you do something different and fun to show editors how your story will stand out in the marketplace. Again, READ MORE PICTURE BOOKS and you'll see some great examples.

- Writing in the style of picture books that they remember reading as a child. This usually happens because they're not familiar with picture books being published today. Again, I recommend going to your library or local children's bookstore and READ MORE PICTURE BOOKS.

As you might have guessed from the above, my main piece of advice for aspiring picture book authors is to READ LOTS AND LOTS OF PICTURE BOOKS. If you don't like a picture book, ask yourself why. If you love one, figure out why. Make notes about wordcount and format. Analyze pacing and page turns. Enjoy the illustrations, look at how they complement and enhance the text.

And if you do read lots and lots of picture books and still find you don't really enjoy them, ask yourself if you should be writing one.

If you're looking for extra inspiration, I strongly encourage you to read some of the great "Why Picture Books Are Important" essays in the Picture Book Month website. If you're new to the genre and are looking for an overview of the basics of writing, illustrating and publishing children's books, visit Harold Underdown's The Purple Crayon website.

Good luck!


Do you disagree with any of the above? Do you have anything to add? Any other related topics you'd like me to write about? Feel free to share in the comments section.


Tip For Aspiring Picture Book Writers: Read picture book stories out loud

I've been reading each of my #BookADay picture books out loud in my office. I've read some before, and some I haven't. Reading them out loud emphasizes even more how IMPORTANT it is for aspiring picture writers to read their stories out loud. 

If you find yourself stumbling over awkward phrasing or dull prose, then you know it's time to revise. Yes, the illustrations are going to add a lot to your story but if it's not an enjoyable readaloud, then it's going to be tougher to find a publisher.

I also encourage you to read other people's picture books out loud. If you're in a public place like a library or bookstore and don't want to disturb other people, then read silently. But HEAR the words in your head.

Also advised: be aware of pacing and page turns. More on this in a future post.


Interview: Lisa Dalrymple and Suzanne Del Rizzo on the making of SKINK ON THE BRINK (Fitzhenry & Whiteside)


Author: Lisa Dalrymple - Illustrator: Suzanne Del Rizzo

Publisher: Fitzhenry & Whiteside -  June 2013

I first heard about Skink On The Brink at a CANSCAIP meeting. Not only was the title intriguing, but I love the inspiring publication success story (details below). Lisa and Suzanne are popular children's book presenters; their activity session at Toronto's Word On The Street this past weekend drew over 100 young people! Lisa and Suzanne were kind enough to be interviewed for Inkygirl, and both give a TON of valuable info and insights into their process.

Lisa Dalrymple loves to travel and has lived in such countries as South Korea, Thailand and Scotland. She now lives with her husband and their three children in Fergus, Ontario. Her story, Skink on the Brink, won The Writers’ Union of Canada’s Writing for Children Competition in 2011 and is now a picture book illustrated by Suzanne Del Rizzo. Lisa is also the author of If It’s No Trouble… A Big Polar Bear and its sequel, Bubbly Troubly Polar Bear, coming in October 2013.

Where to find Lisa online: Website - Facebook

Suzanne Del Rizzo loves the squish of plasticine between her fingers. Her illustrations appear in Skink on the Brink (Fitzhenry & Whiteside Spring 2013), written by Lisa Dalrymple. Her cover illustrations appear in the YA novel The Ehrich Wiesz Chronicles: Demon Gate ( Fitzhenry & Whiteside, Fall 2013) written by Marty Chan. She lives in Oakville Ontario with her husband and four children.

Where to find Suzanne online: Website - Twitter - Facebook (personal) - Facebook (professional)


Stewie is a very special skink — he has a beautiful blue tail which gives him a superpower against his enemies. Stewie loves singing his songs and rhymes as he dashes around his home. But as he grows up his beautiful blue tail starts to turn grey — he can't call himself Stewie the Blue anymore! And without his rhymes, his home by the pond doesn't feel as special either. A new Tell-Me-More Storybook about self-esteem, change, and growing up. Includes non-fiction back matter with bonus information and activities.

See the Fitzhenry & Whiteside SKINK ON THE BRINK page for supplemental materials created by Lisa and Suzanne, including coloring pages, activity pages, word searches, and more.

For lots of photos of Suzanne's amazing plasticine-illustration process, read further down in the interview.

A few of Suzanne's plasticine carving tools. Read further for lots of photos of how she created the amazing illustrations in SKINK.

Q. What was your publication process for SKINK ON THE BRINK?


I actually can’t remember when I first started researching and writing the manuscript, but I think it was sometime around 2008. (It usually takes a couple of years for me to develop and craft a picture book story until it is finally submission ready.) During this time, I was also working on other books and I was trying to learn the ropes of the publishing industry by getting out, meeting other writers and professionals, and attending trade shows, festivals, etc.

Christie Harkin, editor at Fitzhenry & Whiteside. Photo from Cynsations interview.In September 2010, I went to Word on the Street in Toronto. I remember that it was first thing in the morning that I saw Christie Harkin, the kids’ books editor at Fitzhenry & Whiteside, getting their booth ready for the day. I knew I wanted to talk to Christie, to find out what she was looking for in a manuscript and to establish a personal connection. However, first I had to walk around for a while to try to summon up the nerve. When I finally did, it was the end of the day and Christie was packing up her supplies to go home! She told me that she was developing a line of “Tell Me More” storybooks. In these books, while the story is, of course, the most important element, there’s also an additional educational component that can be more fully explored in the non-fiction back matter. We both agreed that Skink on the Brink might be a good fit for this line and that I should send it to her.

Suzanne and Lisa do a signing with Michael Martchenko & Loris Lesynski at Toronto's Word On The Street

There was a long period where I heard nothing, but I was getting used to no response if an editor really wasn’t interested. By the time February 2011 rolled around, I had completely given up. I went with a group of friends to the OLA Superconference in February and some of them stopped by the Fitzhenry & Whiteside booth to say ‘hi’ to Christie. When she noticed my nametag, she said, “Hey! You’re the skink lady!” I’d never been so excited to think that she remembered me and my manuscript. We had a “pre-editorial” discussion right there and I went home to create yet another draft of the book I’d now been working on for three years.

When April 2011 rolled around and neither of the books I had under consideration with two separate houses had yet acquired that elusive “yes,” I submitted them both to the Writing for Children competition hosted by The Writers’ Union of Canada. This competition receives between 600-800 entries each year and I submitted every year so, of course, I had no real expectation that I would win.

But then there was a day, the same day that I heard from Tuckamore Press that they were ready to send me a contract for my book If It’s No Trouble… A Big Polar Bear, when the phone rang and Nancy MacLeod informed me that Skink on the Brink had won the competition – and that I was sworn to secrecy for almost a week! By this point, Christie and I had a friendly relationship and I think it may have been my post on Facebook, “This is one of the most exciting days of my life,” that prompted her to get in on the excitement and send me my first official book contract!

Suzanne adding detail to one of her illustration elements. Wow.

In October 2011, we signed the contract and Christie let me know that they were considering Suzanne Del Rizzo to illustrate the book. She sent me a few samples of Suzanne’s work. Of course, I was thrilled! Suzanne’s plasticine artwork is beyond anything I would have imagined for Stewie and his story and I was so excited to see it finally start coming to life.

In January 2012, Christie and I got started on the ‘first round’ of edits, which actually became the ‘never-ending round’ of edits as we kept passing the manuscript back and forth, trying to get some of the rough spots ‘just right’ so that Suzanne could get started.

And then the real fun began. I was so excited that Suzanne would consult with me about the illustrations. Her artwork was fabulous and she wanted to check in with me from a research perspective. We both wanted to make sure that we were using our combined knowledge to make sure that the book was as biologically accurate as possible.

Once the artwork was done, in January 2013, I received the ‘final round’ of edits from Christie and the book went to the printer. Then, in May, Suzanne and I were able to drop by the Fitzhenry & Whiteside office to finally hold the finished book in our hands!


Q. What was your writing/illustration process for SKINK ON THE BRINK?


I wish I could say I have a process that indicated some sort of routine but, working from home for the past few years with small kids around, any routine has been pretty hard to establish. I’m hoping this will improve when my youngest daughter starts school fulltime this year because I know how important it is to have that dedicated writing time. 98% of writing is pure hard work – just keeping that butt in your chair and working, preferably with few to no interruptions! Sure, there’s that other 2% of writing that’s genius inspiration, where the brilliant ideas come to you (usually in the shower) and you hop out, words already flying from your fingertips. That kind of writing can be done almost anytime, anywhere (although I would recommend getting out of the shower first.) But the other 98% is very difficult to do when there are so many demanding distractions of family life and when we all know how tempting it is to give in to distraction in the first place.

At the same time, my kids make huge contribution to my writing process. Getting their input and ideas, as I’m crafting a story is an invaluable part of the process for me. I can’t tell you how many years we’ve spent out in the wilderness on family camping trips, pretending to be skinks and shouting things like “I’m Stewie the Blue” over the pond – and how informative and inspiring it is to see how kids engage with your story when it’s still all coming together in your mind.


My process for this book began with lots of research. I must admit, I’d never heard of a skink before reading Lisa’s manuscript, so I had some homework to do before I even put pencil to paper. I researched all I could online and from books, and took photos at my cottage (which falls within the geographical region of the Common Five-Lined Skink’s habitat) to create a massive photo reference file:

Lisa also provided me with some great shots she had taken while at The Pinery Park where she had seen a Common Five-Lined skink up close. Stewie the skink would be undergoing both physical growth and coloration changes throughout the story, and because this was also a Tell-Me-More story book with accompanying cross-curricular back matter; I wanted to ensure I was maintaining as much biological accuracy as possible.

I envisioned having lots of secondary animals and vegetation to make Stewie’s habitat rich and authentic, so I also needed to familiarize myself with the various animals and plant life that co-exist in his habitat. I then created some sample art for Christie to show at the sales meeting, and after landing the contract, I began thumbnail sketches.

Christie encouraged Lisa and I to get in touch and bounce ideas around. It isn’t always standard for authors and illustrators to discuss a project, but in this case, I think it really helped us achieve something special with this book, it was a fantastic collaboration. It even led to some hilarious “oops” moments...like the time when I made a minor flub and put a moose in one illustration... moose don’t extend quite this far south- oops. Luckily Lisa caught it and it was easily changed to a white-tailed deer. If you look closely on my full- sized sketch:

...you can see the moose, yet in the final plasticine illustration it has been changed to a white-tailed deer:

Once thumbnail sketches were approved I worked up full-sized tight pencil sketches:

Because I work in plasticine, I prefer to create very detailed, tight pencil drawings to show my editor, and ideally make changes at this phase of the project. Each plasticine illustration can take from 20-40+ hours to create, depending on its size and complexity, so it’s much easier to erase a few pencil strokes at this point then to peel off/redo the plasticine final art.

My illustrations are essentially low relief sculptures created in plasticine(modelling clay) and pressed onto illustration board. The final plasticine art is then professionally photographed:

Before I started any final art I premixed the colours, after some initial colour studies, to create a colour chart:

I hang this next to my sketch for quick reference. Then I made up large amounts of my colours so I’d be able to maintain consistency throughout the illustrations. This type of chart comes in handy if I run out of a colour and need to make more. To begin each illustration, I’d smear on plasticine in a thin layer to create the background, then gradually build up and add on, then move onto foreground objects as I go:


(From Debbie: click here for a close-up look at some of the detail in the final illustration)

One of my favorite parts of any illustration is adding the final textures and details to really bring life to the piece. I use a variety of clay sculpting tools but often times I end up using my good ol’ favorites-a large safety pin, toothbrush, toothpick and my fingers. Sometimes I even make my own tools. For Stewie the skink, I made a selection of polymer clay tools that make impressions of reptile scales:

then I used an acrylic gloss to make him glisten.

For intricate parts, I sometimes worked on top of a Ziploc bag that I’d place directly over top of my sketch:

(Note from Debbie: Click here to see details in a bigger version of the woodpecker)

Then I could check to ensure that my sculpted objects were the correct size- plasticine has a tendency to spread and flatten as you work with it, which can be frustrating. So I kept a bowl beside me for my “rejects”...and believe me there were plenty. Faces are especially tricky to get just right. But that’s the great thing about plasticine- it never hardens, so you can just peel off the offensive bits and smoosh ‘em, and start afresh. My kids like to raid the reject bowl (as they call it) and put these bits to use in their own creations.

Having a little kiddo sitting next to me on the floor, working on their own plasticine is one of the best perks about having my art studio in my home. Kids are also the best source of inspiration.

Q. What advice do you have for aspiring children's book writers and illustrators?

Lisa: There is so much important advice out there given by far more experienced writers than me – but you’re not going to hear any of it if you’re sitting in your house staring at a cursor on a screen...

Suzanne: ...or working away in your art studio. And I’m even more “green”, LOL but I am always happy to share what I have found helpful on my pursuit to publication.

Lisa: Get out there and meet other writers and creators. The camaraderie and support of a network of peers is invaluable – for information sharing, providing a shoulder to cry on (or a glass to clink with), for forming critique groups and for gaining access to all that wonderful advice.

Suzanne: Yes, you said it Lisa! We creative types tend to be an introverted lot, but it’s so important to put yourself out there and meet others, connect, share ideas and soak up advice from more seasoned author/illustrators. I have found this community of author/illustrators, both online and in person, to be extremely supportive and encouraging

Lisa: In Canada, some good places to start are organizations for children’s writers such as CANSCAIP and the Canadian Children’s Book Centre (CCBC). Internationally, look into the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). Any festivals, trade shows or signings in your area that have anything to do with books can also be useful places to connect with other writers or industry professionals.

Suzanne and Lisa with their editor Christie Harkin (in red shirt) and friends Jan Dolby & Joyce Grant at Toronto's Word On The Street

Suzanne: The thought of attending a large conference might be utterly terrifying if you are just starting out, so start small. Check out the monthly CANSCAIP meetings, or go to Word on The Street and mingle at your pace, or hop online and get to know the Twitter and Facebook community of illustrators and kidlit writers. I must admit to having a bad case of “imposter syndrome” when I first made the career switch from working in a science research lab, after all I didn’t have an art degree. Could I make a go of it as children’s book illustrator? I decided to be brave and just go for it. The self doubt still creeps up on me some days. But I had to start somewhere. Those first small steps, attending meetings and making initial connections paved the way to bigger conferences and helped me gain my footing as an illustrator.

Joining a critique group is invaluable. We often work in a bubble, isolated, “in the zone” creating, be it painting, sculpting or typing away the hours on our tread-desk. We tend to be our toughest critics which can often lead to self-doubt or worse still the dreaded “analysis paralysis”. Crit groups will not only help you grow as an artist, by pushing you in a direction you may never have considered on your own, but they also give valuable, honest criticism of your work and provide a safe environment to share new ideas, ask those silly questions, and learn about the industry. I belong to a few crit groups, one of illustrators, and another of authors and author/illustrators. Authors and illustrators look at manuscripts (and artwork) from a different perspective, and it can be very helpful to get both types of input, especially if you are interested in writing and illustrating, as I am.

Lisa: A critique group is really important. Even if your writing is already awesome, there is so much to be learned from seeing other perspectives on your work. Engaging with other people’s stories when offering a critique has taught me to see my own work with a more critical eye and helped me to develop further focus and direction in my own writing.

Suzanne: Like I mentioned above, get online and make connections. Joining Twitter, and Facebook is one place to start. Every Thursday at 9pm EST there is a Tweet Chat of kidlit creators, just follow #kidlitart, and check it out. They are a welcoming and fun bunch. Zero2illo is another fantastic resource I found extremely helpful when I was starting up my illustration career. It has many great resources, from setting up your portfolio website to designing a business plan. I also belong to their zero2illo confidential, a crit group of sorts but so much more.

Lisa: If anyone reading this has any further questions, or would like direction to an online critique group for serious children’s writers, they can feel free to contact me through my website. (www.lisadalrymple.com)

Suzanne: Yes, please contact me through my website (suzannedelrizzo.com) if you have any further questions.

Q. What are both of you working on now? Any other upcoming events or other info you'd like to share?


Suzanne and I have decided to dub the past few months “the Summer of the Plasticine Road Show.” We’ve been taking Skink on the Brink and Suzanne’s fun and interactive plasticine workshops to events all over southern Ontario. For the fall, it looks like the Plasticine Road Show lives on! We were recently at Toronto's Word On The Street; I will be at the Family Resource Centre in Peterborough on September 28th, followed by a signing at Peterborough Chapters; we will be taking part in the Creemore Arts Festival on October 5th.

As for what I’m working on now, my third book, Bubbly Troubly Polar Bear, is due out with Tuckamore Books in October 2013.

I’m also very excited about a picture book with a multicultural theme that I’m working on, in which a young Canadian girl travels around the world with her archeologist parents. Through attending school in Thailand, Peru, Jamaica, Scotland and South Korea, she participates in both the differences and the similarities of daily life. I’m hoping to have her experiences to show, through an eight-year-old's eyes, that, while there are many diverse cultures, there can be a common understanding in the sharing of music, food or something as universal as a game of Hide & Seek.


As for me, I just finished a project for a YA novel cover for The Ehrich Wiesz Chronicles: Demon Gate (Fitzhenry and Whiteside, Fall 2013) by Marty Chan. I created the front and back of a steampunk medallion/Infinity Coil in polymer clay and watch components. I also have another Tell-Me-More storybook project in the works with Fitzhenry and Whiteside. I’m working up some of my manuscripts into picture book dummies for submission as well.

Q. How did your book launch go? And how has reception to SKINK ON THE BRINK been so far?

Complete with plasticine activities and a skinktastic chocolate cake:

the official launch of Skink on the Brink was at Story Planet in Toronto, but this summer has actually been a series of exciting launch events. We held a second launch at Roxanne’s Reflections, in my current hometown of Fergus and it was every bit as much fun as the first! Then our favourite event this summer was definitely introducing Skink on the Brink to the Pinery Provincial Park at their annual Savannah Festival.

The Pinery is one of the few places in Canada where the Common Five-lined Skink can be found and it’s the area that inspired the character of Stewie and his story. There was something really special about reading Skink on the Brink right in Stewie’s natural habitat and then working with the kids on their terrific plasticine creations on the very veranda where he’s known to hang out and bask.

The kids at all of our events have been tons of fun to work with and incredibly excited – especially those who managed to catch a glimpse of a real Five-lined Skink in the wild, and Suzanne and I now both have households full of plasticine critters! But the best part is definitely hearing the kids’ enthusiasm for conservation efforts and for protecting skinks and their habitat.


For more interviews, see my Inkygirl Interview Archive.


Picture Book Writing Process: How Hélène Boudreau Wrote I DARE YOU NOT TO YAWN (Candlewick Press)

I met Hélène Boudreau through Torkidlit, and have continued to be impressed by this woman's energy and enthusiasm for kidlit/YA online and offline. I interviewed Hélène a couple of years ago about her book, REAL MERMAIDS DON'T WEAR TOE RINGS, and am delighted to be interviewing her again about her picture book, I DARE YOU NOT TO YAWN.

The book just recently came out from Candlewick, and has hugely adorable illustrations by the French artist, Serge Bloch.

Hélène is an Acadian/Métis writer and artist. A native of Isle Madame, Nova Scotia, she writes fiction and non-fiction for children and young adults from her land-locked home in Markham, Ontario, Canada. She has published five non-fiction and nine fiction books for children and young adults, including the picture book I DARE YOU NOT TO YAWN (Candlewick) and the tween series REAL MERMAIDS (Sourcebooks/Jabberwocky).

You can find more info about Hélène at her website, on TwitterFacebook and Goodreads.

Q. What is your writing process? 

People are often surprised when I tell them it took me three times longer to write and revise my 400-word picture book, I Dare You Not to Yawn compared to my 50,000 word novels from my Real Mermaids tween series but it is absolutely true. That said, the process for creating both is quite similar. When I speak to school groups about my writing process, I do it in terms of the ABC’s of writing. Of course, it’s not as simple as that sounds but it’s really all about:

Aha! Getting your brilliant idea and developing it. Begin! Putting pen to paper (or pixel to screen) and giving into your story with wild abandon. Complete! Seeing your story through to the end, being open to criticism, and not giving up until it is as perfect as you can make it.

Aha! I tend to get my ideas in stages. Usually, when something strikes me as a great picture book concept, I jot it down in my ‘Ideas’ folder and let it knock around in my noggin for a few weeks or months. I poke at it with a stick, wondering how to attack it, then finally one day the moment seems right and I start writing things down.

For I Dare You Not to Yawn, the idea originated when my daughter was about 4 years old. She would do this thing at the dinner table where she’d let out a great big yawny-YAWN then watch to see what would happen. Of course, then I started yawning. Then so did her sister and her dad. Soon, we were ALL yawning until we finally figured out she was doing it on purpose!


Of course! Yawns are contagious! Perfect idea for a bedtime story.

So, that was the kernel of the story. I thought about that for a long time, wondering how I would approach the concept and turn it into a picture book. Because of the subversive nature of my daughter’s antics, though, I knew I didn’t want it to be just a sweet, lulling, comfy bedtime story. Instead, I wanted to turn the idea on its ear and approach it from a slightly different angle, which gave me the idea to write an anti-bedtime story (i.e. a how-to guide to avoiding bedtime). Of course, the ultimate outcome remains the same—making kids feel sleepy and cozy and ready for bedtime—but I wanted the child to be an accomplice with the narrator in a way where everyone understands where the story is going but happily tags along for the ride.

Begin! Now was the time for research. First, I made a list of any yawn-inducing images I could think of: bed time stories, lullabies, comfy stuffies and yawning baby animals. But that wasn’t enough. Since this book was meant to be a read-aloud, I actually needed to use words that mimicked the action of yawning. Mouth-stretching words like rawr and baabaa and of course yawn itself. This would make the reader open his/her mouth W-I-D-E to actually induce the reflex to yawn while reading.

Then, I started writing. Sections of the manuscript came all at once, other parts took more time but the first draft took a period of a few months, I would say. In the initial stages of writing picture books, I organize my writing in a spreads template, which is typically a 5 x 3 table to represent 15 spreads, which is a typical amount in a 32-page picture book.

Breaking text into spreads like this can really help in studying the pacing of a story. I experiment and layout my text in a 5 x 3 grid and also a 3 x 5 grid to see how the story 'chunks up' (that's a technical term *wink*). The story I’m writing at the moment, for example, works best in a 4 x 4 grid and gives the story its best symmetry.

It's wonderfully useful to start thinking in two-page 'spreads' like this when writing picture books because it lends itself well to the illustration end of things. If you take a look at my illustrator's website for I Dare You Not to Yawn, you'll see what I mean. I’ll wait here while you do that. But, please come back. I’ll miss you…

Click image above to visit illustrator's blog post about I DARE YOU NOT TO YAWN

Serge shows a couple of spreads of his illustrations based on the breakdown of my text. In some spreads like (spread 1/ page 4-5) the text only happens on one page, though the art spreads across two. In another, like (spread 2/ page 6-7) the text and pictures are broken up into two distinct entities, and finally in (spread 8/ page 18-19) both the text and the pictures flow over the two pages.

When submitting my manuscript to my editor, though, I don’t use the table since it makes it hard for her to make editorial comments. I format my text like a typical manuscript and label each spread with headings so she can visualize the page breaks. Example:

Spread 1 (page 4-5)

Text, text, text…

Spread 2 (page 5-6)

Text, text, text…

and so on until

Spread 15 (page 32)

Text, text, text…

I keep my ‘illustration notes' as sidebar ‘comments’ or numbered footnotes so they don't clutter the text.

IMPORTANT: be mindful to only add illustration notes when absolutely necessary (ie when the text has a double meaning, which is not obvious, frex).

Complete! Now that I’ve worked on my text and have revised it within an inch of its life, it’s the time to show my work to a few trusted critique friends, my kids, my husband, my agent and whomever else will be gracious enough to read my story. This is the time I’m most possessive of my words—like showing off your newborn baby to the world and daring anyone to tell you it’s not the most beautiful creature they’ve ever seen. But, of course, I need to get over myself and allow the story to be vulnerable for a while. This is the final step before I send my story to my editor so I want it to be the best I can make it. Do I pout? Lots! But it’s for the greater good and I work on my story for a few more months in this manner.

Finally, it’s time to share my manuscript with my editor. By now, I Dare You Not to Yawn had taken about a year and a half to write and revise in its various iterations. I had shared it with at least a dozen people so I had a lot of opportunity for feedback. You would think, at this point, that the story was pretty much ready to send to the printing press, right?

Not so fast, cowgirl.

Before acquiring the project, my editor and I did a pretty intense round of revisions. I worked for weeks to get it perfect then sent it off again, hoping I’d struck the right chord. I must have done something right(ish) because a few days later my agent called with the news that Candlewick would, indeed, like to publish I Dare You Not to Yawn. That was in Fall 2009.

*cue 76 trombones in a big parade*

Can I haz a picture book published now, plz?

Nuh-uh, hold your horses sum’more!

It actually took 18 more months and 6 major revisions for my editor and I to get the text in shape enough so that Serge Bloch could get started on illustrations. Bless my editor’s heart—she was SO patient with me as we worked on draft after draft (after draft). There were times when I honestly thought I should give back my advance money and call it a draw. But I tried to put my trust in the editorial process and we persisted until I heard the precious words; “It’s ready!”.

And as a special treat (or possibly an exercise to discourage anyone from attempting to publish a picture book, like EVER), my editor has given me permission to share the evolution of that text with you here. The following is the step-by-step process (with some, but not all, of the line edit comments and her general editorial comments as footnotes) of how the text changed over that period of a year and a half. There were still a few tweaks after this once we had the context of Serge’s illustrations but you get the picture.

PDF: Evolution of I DARE YOU NOT TO YAWN over six drafts (124k)

In total, from editorial acquisition in fall of 2009 to revisions and illustration to publication in spring of 2013, it was nearly a four year process.

Was it worth it? Totally!

But, hopefully, now you can understand why it took me longer to write, revise, and publish this 400-word picture book compared to my 50,000 word Real Mermaids novels. *wink*

Q. What advice do you have for aspiring picture book writers? 

No matter how good you think your idea is—the next one could be better.

It is so important to be constantly generating ideas as a picture book author because, for example, of the thirty or so picture book manuscripts I have in various stages of development on my hard drive, only two (so far) have been actually published. Those are not great odds but the more you create the better chance you have of success. I often see authors fall in love with ONE idea and work and work and work on that idea at the expense of creating new stories. I admire their tenacity but it might not be the best approach at hitting on not only a good idea but a marketable idea. I try to think of those other 28 ideas on my hard drives as prototypes. Good but not GREAT. Keep it fresh and keep it moving, people!

No matter how good you think your book is—it can be better.

There are so many things authors can do to raise their game. My writing improved by leaps and bounds when I joined a critique group. Revision, revision, revision! It’s the process of sculpting away the excess clay to reveal your masterpiece inside. In my case, though, I can only take my story to a certain point on my own (maybe the ‘good’ point?) but need objective feedback to help take things from ‘good’ to ‘great’. Reading many, many, many books in the picture book genre to get a sense of how the pros do it and reading books on ‘craft’ can be useful as well. Going to conferences, reading articles and joining professional author associations are a wealth of information as well.

It’s not one thing, it’s everything.

No matter how unfair and just-plain-wrong the comments from your critique partner/agent/ editor seem to be—there is usually truth in every critique. It’s your job to pull out the ‘why’ of their reactions.

This can be so frustrating. Just recently, my agent critiqued a picture book manuscript of mine and while she loved the overall concept she thought my ‘punch line’ in spread #13 could use more punch and she gave me a potential example of how I could spice things up. “Are you kidding me?” was my first response, “my idea is MUCH more brilliant! Why can’t she see that??”. (LOL, sorry super agent, Lauren…)

So, I sulked for a while (three weeks, to be exact), asked two other people for their advice in the meantime (one who agreed with her, which made me sulk even more) then got over myself and tried to look at my agent’s comments in a less egotistical/prima donna manner. Now, finally, I am realizing that even though my agent had given me an example of how the story could be better, that was merely a jumping off point for me to push myself and get the story to the next level.

Was she right after all? Begrudgingly, yes. There is a problem with the punch line. My agent was merely pointing that out. Now, it’s my job to figure out how to fix it.

Q. What are you working on now? Any other upcoming events or other info you'd like to share?

At this very moment, I’m working on revisions for the fourth book in the Real Mermaids series. I’m also working on a new picture book, which I hope will be a companion picture book to I Dare You Not to Yawn but that remains to be seen—if only I can sort out spread #13!

You can connect with Hélène at her website, on Twitter, Facebook and Goodreads.


Author @HeleneBoudreau shares revision/editorial notes for 6 drafts of pb I DARE YOU NOT TO YAWN: http://bit.ly/yawnbook (Tweet this)

Revision process = sculpting away excess clay to reveal masterpiece within. @HeleneBoudreau tips: http://bit.ly/16buCyn (Tweet this)


For more interviews, see my Inkygirl Interview Archive.




PiBoIdMo: Picture Book Idea Month

Tara Lazar's Picture Book Idea Month (PiBoIdMo) starts today!

The goal: to come up with 30 picture book ideas in 30 days.

Even if you're not ready to join the challenge but are still interested in reading the daily guest posts about writing, illustrating and publishing picture books (hey, I'm one of the guest bloggers), you should follow Tara Lazar's blog.