A Picture Book Without Pictures

A picture book without pictures is like the Pips without Gladys Knight:

Click the image to see the YouTube video

For the life of me, I can’t remember whose writer/illustrator blog featured this clever insight — but I concur.  I’m so thankful to have Elise Hylden, writer and illustrator, in our writers’ group.  She continually challenges me to say more with less.  At the 2011 MN SCBWI Conference, Illustrator Dan Santat noted the brilliance of children’s book author, Mac Barnett.

During a break, to uncover the secret of brilliant writing, I purchased Barnett and Santat’s collaboration, Oh No!  Was I surprised to find that the number of words in
Oh No! equals the number of times I use the bathroom in a day.  Yet the book was, as Santat promised, brilliant.

The illustrations that poured out of Barnett’s initial idea make the book.  Obviously, Dan Santat is one of the most brilliant illustrators Mac Barnett has ever met. The book is what it is because Barnett trusted.  He had faith in his illustrator to transform his thoughts into an out-of-this-world adventure.

I don’t have his trust — yet.  Sometimes I leave words, intending that they can be cut later, clutching to them as if to a life vest that holds my vision.  Barnett is more secure.

Barnett doesn’t need a critique group, but I wonder how Oh No! would fare under the scrutiny of the status quo.  I can see the margin scribbles on his manuscript:

       This makes absolutely no sense.

       You might need to explain this for blind kids.

       A giant frog seems a highly illogical choice to solve your protagonist’s dilemma.

       You don’t even tell your protagonist’s name for — wait!  You don’t ever tell your
protagonist’s name! Where is your character development?  Will she capture an audience if we don’t even know her name?

(My daydream has more words than the book.)

Just when I’m wrapping my head around Oh No!, Brian Snelznick comes out with
The Invention of Hugo Cabrat and Wonderstruck — thick, honkin’ books of silence.

Interestingly, these books that speak softly and carry big sticks are by men. My husband would be thrilled by this audibly “quiet”, visually “loud” trend — if he knew about it. Are these works possible for us word-abundant females?

Maybe I need more silence to see and hear clearly.

2012 MN SCBWI Annual Conference

Compliments of Quinette Cook, Regional Advisor, MN SCBWI:

2012 MN SCBWI Annual Conference

Saturday, October 13, 2012, 9 a.m. – 5 p.m.
U of M Continuing Education and Conference Center, St. Paul

Early Registration (Postmarked by September 28): $125 member, $150 non-member
Registration After September 28: $150 member, $175 non-member
Portfolio and manuscript reviews will be available again.

Download a registration form.

Click for more information.

Does your writing need a little magic? Does your artwork want for a few
new tricks?

Do you lack focus and wish for a little more hocus-pocus to make your work
come alive?

Then join us for an amazing day that will awe and inspire. You may not be
able to pull rabbits from a hat, but you just might come away with a few
fun ideas, some great information and new friends.

Speaker include (subject to change):
David Small, Illustrator (Stitches, The Gardner, The Quiet Place)
Sarah Stewart, Author (The Gardner, The Quiet Place)
Stephen Shaskan, Author/Illustrator (A Dog Is A Dog)
Linda Pratt (Wernick & Pratt Agency)
Minju Chang (Book Stop Literary Agency
Sara Sargent (HarperCollins)

Room For More

I love having children in our home. Our children and grandchildren bless us abundantly, but there will always be room in my heart for more.  Therein lies my motivation to author picture books. I can write more children into the world and introduce them to our grandchildren.  I can name, incorporate family traits and idiosyncrasies, and hit the backspace when they get too sassy or unmanageable.

The other morning I awoke to a dream that my husband and I had adopted a little boy.  Before I was coherent I murmured to my husband, who was in the bathroom, out of earshot, “Thank you so much.  I LOVE him.”

Now I realize the boy I’d “adopted” is the protagonist in my latest picture book manuscript.  Like my own kids — the more I nurture him, the more I know and love him.

To add flesh to my picture book characters and story, I’ve made a dummy for each manuscript.  (A dummy is a 32-page mock book to assist in structuring a story.) Since I’m artistically-challenged, I use Microsoft Publisher to incorporate clipart.  This serves me well to create reader-friendly  stories for “test drives” with my grandchildren and others.

Unfortunately, (or fortunately — depending upon the day), there’s no clipart that truly depicts my family – even those adopted in my dreams.  Ironically, the clipart protagonist I chose (from iclipart.com) has red hair.  No one in our immediate family has red hair. Perhaps I chose a red-head because I didn’t want anyone to recognize who he might be in real life.  Or, maybe I’m subconsiously fashioning him after a young Napolean Dynamite NapoleonDynamiteor my red-headed cousin that I haven’t seen since childhood: Bobby Bill.  Hmmm…come to think of it…

Just yesterday I tried changing the color of my protagonist’s skin and hair because I thought potential agents might be looking for a more exotic approach.  Then I realized how silly that was.  When the “real” illustrator gets ahold of my stories, the characters will look exactly as they are meant to look.  It’s like giving birth.  Initially, I won’t know who’ll come out, but I’ll trust the one/One fashioning them for life in the world.  After all, I already love my “children” before I behold their faces, because I’ve already held them in my heart.

Sometimes a character is really mini me (an older, female Napoleon Dynamite). One manuscript is about terminal tardiness.  The story line came to me after pulling on two locked doors minutes after closing time.  First, I stood at the post office door with a time-sensitive document, then at the optical office across town with old, worn contacts in my eyes.  All of the fruitless running made me late for a dinner date with my husband. I hated the feeling of disappointing him with my carelessness.

Interestingly, our daughter thinks the story’s about her brother, our oldest son.  (Sorry son – it’s in the genes.)

Our granddaughters point at the characters in a story and argue, “I’m her.”

“No, I’m her!”


“How ‘bout all of us be her?”

It’s fun to see the character(s) they most identify with – and to learn why. (Usually it’s whoever’s wearing pink.)

I’m excited by the opportunity to create new possibilities, relive lessons learned, investigate ones not learned, and ensure happy endings where they’re missing.  The best thing about writing children’s books?  The children we create can stay children forever.  And, they can live on — long after we’re gone — so our children’s children can enjoy them, too.


Do you know who wrote this poem?  I’d like to give the author his/her due.  A friend found it on a crumpled piece of paper by a country road. It’s a powerful anthem for all who care about children.


There are little eyes upon you,
and they’re watching night and day.
There are little ears that quickly
take in every word you say.

There are little hands all eager
to do everything you do,
And a little one who’s dreaming
of the day he’ll be like you.

You’re the little slugger’s idol.
You’re the wisest of the wise;
in his little mind about you
suspicions ever rise.

He believes in you devoutly,
holds all that you say and do.
He will say and do in your way
when he’s grown up just like you.

There’s a wide-eyed little boy
who believes you’re always right.
And his ears are always open
and he watches day and night.

You are setting an example
every day in all you do.
For the little one who’s waiting
to grow up to be like you.

Put a fork in it

“Put a fork in it.”  That’s what my well-meaning husband says about my latest manuscript.  I feel like the tortoise in a race — stuck on a treadmill, while he runs laps around me.  Writing well is not for the impatient or faint of heart.  The more I write and revise, the more I thank God for every day I’ve waited to submit my words, every rejection I’ve received, or every one yet to come.  If publication is a last ditch effort toward immortality, it is sheer mercy that some writing will not outlive us.

A Work In Progress

The longest minutes of my week happen when others critique my work.  Sometimes, to cope, I daydream about how the classics would fare after Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) evenings at the coffee shop.  Consider Madeleine L’Engle’s  A Wrinkle in Time.

      Draft one: It was a dark and stormy night. (Passive. Show, don’t tell.)
      Draft two: It stormed darkly. (Adverbs diminish the power of the verb.)
      Draft three: It stormed. (Borrrring.)
      Draft 378: It was a dark and stormy night. (Perfect. Why didn’t you say that in the first place?)

       Journal entry: Writing is hard. (Passive. Show, don’t tell.)