I’m happy to be on the #Epic18 blog today talking about the inspiration for my debut picture book, SCARLET’S MAGIC PAINTBRUSH (illustrated by Sandie Sonke, www.SandieSonkeIllustration.com).
My inspiration story starts at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, one of my favorite places in the world. I live in NYC, and visit the Met often to attend art history lectures and to immerse myself in the incredible collection. The Impressionist galleries are always the highlight of my visit. One day a few years ago, while standing in front of a Monet painting, I thought to myself, “I wonder what it would be like to have a magic paintbrush and paint like Monet.” I couldn’t get that thought out of my head. What if I had such a magic brush? What would I paint with it? Would I love painting perfect pictures with this magic brush? And what would happen if I lost the brush? Would my creativity disappear?
I wrote these thoughts in my writing journal. And then I let them simmer in my mind for a while. Eventually a story took shape. After much revision, I sent the draft to my trusty critique partners. And I revised some more. I also workshopped the story and received more critiques. And I continued revising.
A few years later, in September 2018, I attended an SCBWI conference in Texas, where I met my publisher from Clear Fork Publishing, Callie Metler-Smith. I was already working with Callie on my chapter book, THE ENCHANTED SNOW GLOBE COLLECTION: RETURN TO CONEY ISLAND. I had discovered that Callie loved art history and the Impressionists as well, and we spent a day at the Kimbell Art Museum. I talked with Callie about my SCARLET manuscript, she loved the idea, and we signed a contract shortly after!
And here’s the best part: a few weeks ago, when Callie was in New York City for Book Explo, we visited the Metropolitan Museum together. I showed her my favorite Impressionist works, and we took photos in front of the Monet paintings that inspired my idea of a little girl with a magic paintbrush. I know that whenever I visit the Met, I will always be grateful that the beautiful artwork inspired me to write what is now my debut picture book.
Thanks for reading about my book inspiration! I look forward to hearing about how you find your story ideas.
SCARLET’S MAGIC PAINTBRUSH
by Melissa Stoller, illustrated by Sandie Sonke
Clear Fork Publishing, Fall 2018
pre-order at https://www.clearforkpublishing.com/store/p66/ScarletMagicPaintbrush.
Where do writers find ideas? All around us! The idea for my forthcoming picture book took over my brain as I was in the middle of writing an utterly unrelated biography.
In the fall of 2013, I got serious about my long-term plan of writing books for children. I focused on nonfiction picture books. That same time, we moved out of our house in town and into a new home in the country next to a beautiful hayfield. As the months passed, in between bouts of research and writing a pair of picture book biographies, I watched the beauty of the change of seasons around me.
In winter, the landscape was covered with a blanket of white. Snowshoeing across the hayfield, I spotted the footprints and snow tunnels of various critters making their homes in, on, and under the snow: foxes and mice and owls and more. In spring, the snow melted and the squashed brown grass emerged in the mud. In a surprisingly quick transformation, that dead-looking ground cover greened up, the birds arrived, and the field filled with tall grasses waving in the warm breezes.
When the grass grew high enough, on a dry and sunny summer day, it was time to hay. I found the haymaking process fascinating—and charming. First, the big farm tractor pulled the giant mowers that cut broad swathes up and down the field and left the long grasses flat on the ground. Next came the whirring tedders, which "wuffled" the cut grass to aerate it and facilitate drying. When the hay was dry enough, the tractor pulled the big hay rake up and down the field to form long windrows—piles of cut grass running the length of the field. And finally, the baler arrived to roll up the windrows, creating neat bundles out of the loose hay. Mower, tedder, baler, hay! The process had an air of magic to it – making hay was storing summer's grasses so they'd feed the animals all winter long. The rhythms of all these machines seeped into my mind, and I started to hear these lines running around in my head:
"Listen and I'll tell the tale/of storing summer in a bale."
At first, I thought I would write it all down in a poem. It soon became clear, though, that this story wanted to be a book—a rhyming picture book. Many people in my area (including the kids) are involved in haying and know all about it. But I realized that in most of the country, people aren't familiar with what hay is or how it's made. I researched children's books and couldn't find any about haymaking. And so I decided to write one. My book would be informational, and include the facts about hay—because, after all, I'm a nonfiction writer. But I invented a young narrator to tell the story of how we make hay.
Now, with the help of the beautiful art of master illustrator Joe Cepeda, my farmgirl narrator and her mother will soon come to life on the page. I am excited to bring Hey, Hey, HAY! from my country hayfield to kids near and far.
HEY, HEY, HAY! (A Tale of Bales and the Machines that Make Them) by Christy Mihaly, illustrated by Joe Cepeda. Holiday House, coming August 14, 2018.
Available for Pre-order now. See details on www.christymihaly.com/hey-hey-hay.
Dana and I picked our favorite illustrations but truthfully, THE REMEMBER BALLOONS has 40 pages of my favorites. However, I do have a favorite, favorite. At first, I was hesitant to share it because then it wouldn't be a surprise. But I also want you to read the book, and if nothing has convinced you yet, then Dana’s genius will.
This spring when I visited the S&S offices and sat around a table with Dana; Art Director Lucy, Editorial Assistant Alyza, and Cheerleader Husband, I said to Lucy, “the three-panel spread is my favorite” and she said, “it’s because Dana is … an animator.”
Usually when I start working on sketches for a manuscript, I have to read it a few times before I get a sense of how I want to approach the illustrations. But this particular image popped into my head almost immediately when I got to this part in the story.
I have a background in animation and comics, so I wanted to draw this spread as if it were a storyboard or a 3-panel comic. I think when you can see how James is almost able to grab the balloon but then loses it completely, it has a lot more impact than if it were just a single image. Many times, when I visualize a story in my head, I imagine the characters in motion, so part of my process is figuring out how to simplify that into still images on the page.
Dana's history with animation has added such movement and LIFE to these pictures. In this particular illustration, she really shows her animator’s spirit with the three panels and James’ movement across the page as he chases Grandpa’s balloon. I never would have dreamt of conveying it this way! The way Dana breaks up the text and adds these natural yet dramatic pauses. The desperation of James when he can’t catch it and Grandpa, in all his sweetness, as he plods on, unaware that his balloon has flown away. It's beautiful.
This is one of my favorite spreads because the silver balloon holds a special shared memory between James and his grandpa. It reminded me of the memories I shared with my grandfather that were just between the two of us. One of the things that I loved about Jessie’s manuscript is that even though it deals with a heavy subject, there are still moments of joy and lightness that balance it out without sugar-coating the story.
In the beginning and end of the book, I drew James’ grandpa in a rocking chair on the porch, which I imagined would be his favorite spot to sit. My own grandfather would always be in his recliner whenever we came to visit. Also, I live in NYC where nice porches are a real luxury, so maybe I’m just trying to live vicariously through this character.
In my April post, you'll have read a few words about the silver balloon. There is a beautiful spread with the memory inside the silver balloon, but you'll have to wait for that! But look! James and Grandpa share this silver balloon memory. The pride in James’ face, the kindness and love in Grandpa’s, and OH MY GOSH Dana invented a dog and gave him one balloon which is so funny, I want to laugh every time I see it. Because what dog can hold onto more than one memory at a time? I really just want to cozy up on that porch with the three of them and listen to Grandpa and James. (And I totally dig the front porch, too. My grandpa had a front porch that I loved.)
Thanks for reading! We're excited to share our book with you come August!!
Dana and Jessie
THE REMEMBER BALLOONS, written by Jessie Oliveros, illustrated by Dana Wulfekotte
Coming August 28, 2018 from Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers
There are many excellent resources available for picture book writers and illustrators: classes, challenges, workshops, online writing communities, writing organizations, and blogs. The small sampling listed below have all helped me along my writing journey:
Children’s Book Academy - Dr. Mira Reisberg offers many fantastic writing courses, including The Craft and Business of Writing Children’s Picture Books, and The Craft and Business of Illustrating Children’s Books. Daily lessons, weekly live webinars with agents and editors, an interactive Facebook group, critique groups, the opportunity for one-on-one critiques, and a “Golden Ticket” submission contest make these classes extremely worthwhile. Also subscribe to the CBA blog, BLOGFISH, where I’m a monthly blogger focusing on craft. www.ChildrensBookAcademy.com.
Making Picture Book Magic - With small-group learning and interaction, Susanna Leonard Hill’s picture book course is an excellent introduction to writing in this genre, and her ongoing Facebook group provides continued support. https://susannahill.com/for-writers/making-picture-book-magic/. Also check out Susanna’s blog and her writing contests. www.SusannaHill.com.
CHALLENGES AND WORKSHOPS:
12 x 12 - Julie Hedlund’s picture book writing challenge encourages members to write 12 picture books in 12 months. The paid challenge includes monthly webinars, inspiring blog posts, curated resources, an interactive Facebook group, a forum of opportunities for critiques and discussion, opportunities for submission to agents depending on membership level, and much more! Highly recommended for picture book authors at all stages of writing. www.12x12challenge.com. Also check out Julie’s blog at www.JulieHedlund.com.
ReFoReMo / Reading for Research Month - This free challenge founded by Carrie Charley Brown and Kirsti Call offers a month-long community every March where writers read and study picture book mentor texts to help with their own writing. Daily blog posts illuminate the books studies. The Facebook group continues throughout the year. http://www.reforemo.com.
Storystorm - This free challenge every January, run by author Tara Lazar, offers inspirational and useful daily posts about catching and cultivating story ideas. The goal is to think of 30 picture book ideas during the month. Prizes included! The Facebook group and learning continues throughout the year. https://taralazar.com/storystorm/.
Inked Voices - Inked Voices is a paid community founded by Brooke McIntyre offering workshops, webinars, critique group setups, writing forums, and more to help connect writers. https://www.inkedvoices.com.
Art of Arc: How to Analyze Your Picture Book Manuscript - An independent-study picture book writing class created by Alayne Kay Christian, focusing on character and story arcs. http://www.alaynekaychristian.com/page05.html.
ONLINE WRITING COMMUNITIES:
Kidlit 411 - an online group of writers and illustrators from all kidlit genres highlighting resources in the children’s writing field. http://www.kidlit411.com.
Sub It Club - A support group for writers and illustrators interested in submitting to agents and editors. https://subitclub.com.
SCBWI - I highly recommend joining the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and your local SCBWI chapter. SCBWI is the international professional organization for this industry. SCBWI hosts conferences and workshops and offers incredible resources for kidlit writers. https://www.scbwi.org.
Aside from those listed above, Vivian Kirkfield’s Picture Books Help Kids Soar blog is invaluable: https://viviankirkfield.com. Vivian also hosts kidlit writing contests for adults and kids.
* * *
Thanks for reading this sampling of resources for picture book writers and illustrators. I hope you find the above helpful, and I’m wishing you the best of luck as you create your picture books!
SCARLET’S MAGIC PAINTBRUSH
by Melissa Stoller, illustrated by Sandie Sonke
Clear Fork Publishing, August 2018
Available for pre-order at https://www.clearforkpublishing.com/store/p66/ScarletMagicPaintbrush.
I have to say right off that I don’t know how I would have made the journey to publication without the generous kidlit writing community. So many people have helped me in so many ways. So, what’s been the most helpful?
Writing – Top 3
Overall, it’s important to “know thyself.” As I mentioned in another blog post, you have to be able to assess where you’re at and recognize your needs, to leave behind what is not pushing you forward and reach for the opportunities that will take you further. It’s hard to justify paying a lot of money for events when you’re not making any. Take advantage of inexpensive courses until they don’t help you anymore. Then consider a leap that might push you to the next level, maybe out of your comfort zone. Most of all, join the writing community because, as with most things in life, it’s our peers that are the best guides. Reach out and take part. And when you’re ready, share your experience.
Many thanks to the kid lit community! Write on!
AN INCONVENIENT ALPHABET, BEN FRANKLIN & NOAH WEBSTER’S SPELLING REVOLUTION by Beth Anderson, illustrated by Elizabeth Baddeley
Paula Wiseman Books/Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, Sept. 25, 2018
Now available for preorder.