Some say there are only three, or six, or seven basic story plots. So when you think about the thousands of picture books that have already been published, coming up with a fresh picture book idea can feel like finding a fairy rock in a forest.
Thank goodness for Tara Lazar’s PiBoIdMo (now Storystorm), a month-long brainstorming event when she posts daily articles designed to inspire fresh ideas. While the concept of MAXIMILLIAN VILLAINOUS didn’t come during PiBoIdMo, it is the result of one of its inspirational posts. In 2012, Diana Murray’s post espoused the idea of mashing up two perhaps familiar concepts into one fresh new one. I thought it was so brilliant that it’s become part of my brainstorming M.O. (modus operandi).
Fast-forward to 2013 and my kids were seriously into “Despicable Me.” Not only did they love everything about the movies, but I did too—the colorful characters, their ridiculously ambitious goals, and their fun tools (freeze rays, fart guns, ha!). At the time, I couldn’t recall any picture books set in the villain world.
The idea of a kid rebelling against a strong family tradition of villainy really resonated with me—my parents also held strong (admittedly non-villainous) expectations for their children. This sense of discord was perfect for fostering that immediate sense of conflict that Diana Murray mentioned in her post.
Then with the idea of mashing up concepts, I brainstormed universal themes. One in particular leaped out at me—wanting a pet. I had fun thinking about the unique pets a villain could want—a Komodo dragon, scorpion, piranha, poison dart frog, etc. But with conflict in mind, I began to think about what kind of pet a villain would not want—specifically a villainous family at odds with their kid who, to their dismay, has a heart of gold. Hint: It goes hop, hop.
And so the story of Maximillian Villainous was born. “Maximillian Villainous” comes out August 2018 from Running Press Kids.
Thanks so much for reading!
Margaret Chiu Greanias
MAXIMILLIAN VILLAINOUS by Margaret Chiu Greanias illustrated by Lesley Breen Withrow
Running Press Kids, August 28, 2018
My inspiration for writing the book stemmed from finding few modern portrayals of my tribe, the Cherokee Nation, among children’s books to share with my son. I read Joanne Rocklin’s fictional I SAY SHEHECHIYANU, illustrated by Monika Filipina (Kar-Ben, 2015) and found a great mentor text with the structure and concept I liked. It follows a child’s first experiences through the four seasons as a new sister, going to school, etc., with her saying the Jewish blessing “Shehechiyanu” each time something new is experienced.
While there is not an equivalent blessing in Cherokee that is said each time something new is experienced, there is a culture of expressing gratitude daily and throughout the seasons. So I wrote a nonfiction picture book that starts in fall when the Cherokee New Year occurs, similar to many other cultures and some religions like Judaism. It shows contemporary Cherokee people – families, children and elders - expressing gratitude for the blessings but also the challenges they encounter.
Otsaliheliga [oh-jah-LEE-hay-lee-gah] is the English phonetics for “we are grateful” in Cherokee. While the book is in English, it will feature some Cherokee words written in the syllabary developed by Sequoyah to accompany the oral language. I am happy to have the language included in the book so any child can compare it to how words are presented in English or other languages.
One of the things I am most grateful for about this book is that it exemplifies that it takes a community to create a book. While I may have had the initial idea and written that down, the story and artwork has been reviewed and vetted by fellow Cherokee citizens because no one person is the sole voice for a culture. I cannot wait to share this book with children everywhere next fall.
My debut book is titled TEACH YOUR GIRAFFE TO SKI. A cautious little boy and a thrill-seeking giraffe hit the ski slopes. Whoa - better TEACH YOUR GIRAFFE TO SKI! A little boy attempts to distract his giraffe from the big scary slope by teaching her ski basics on the safe bunny hill.
I got the idea for a ski story during my family’s very first ski trip, which coincided with the 2014 Winter Olympics. My kindergartner and preschooler helped pack, so a menagerie of stuffed animals joined us on the trip.
During the day, the kids were learning to ski, and in the evening, we would watch the Olympics. The kids thought it would be awesome to join the Olympics. The stuffed animals were also highly interested in winter sports - they wanted to be “jumping ski champions” and were sliding down pillows and leaping through the air. My husband and I started making lot of jokes about the skiing giraffe, which made our kids laugh.
After we came home from that trip, I wrote (and revised) several different stories featuring a skiing giraffe. I took the story I liked best to an SCBWI conference critique session and shared it with a fabulous editor, Annie Nybo. She encouraged me to submit the story to her.
I hope you will enjoy this tale about a little boy and his giraffe’s first adventure together on the ski slopes. Perhaps you’ll be inspired to try a new adventure of your own.
Thank you for reading this post!
TEACH YOUR GIRAFFE TO SKI by Viviane Elbee
Albert Whitman & Company, Fall 2018
I am in the serendipitous position of having two debut picture books. I also am a bit unusual in that I co-write with my sister, Becky Cattie. I owned a children’s toy and book boutique in my previous life so I read and bought a lot of picture books. Because I was trying to merchandise books alongside toys and certain themes, I would see holes in the offerings. I always said I would try to write them myself someday, but three kids, a store, and a husband traveling for work, kept me too busy to do so. When my family relocated to the Charlotte area for my husband’s job, I no longer had the store and decided to try my hand at writing picture books. I sent my first story to my sister, who returned it half-changed. So, I realized I had a co-author on my hands.
Our first book is I Am Famous, illustrated by Joanne Lew-Vriethoff, which will have a sequel, I Used to Be Famous, releasing in spring of 2019. It is about a young starlet, Kiely, who is convinced she is famous. The paparazzi (her parents) follow her every move, documenting it all on cameras. It’s exhausting being famous, but someone has to do it. Then she gets her big break, performing at her grandfather’s birthday. When she flubs her performance, Kiely’s worried she’s lost her audience forever. But it turns out that her loyal fans still love her.
I am going to publicly concede my nerdiness here and admit that the idea spark for this book came from a Weird Al song, TMZ. It’s about the paparazzi harassing stars set to the tune of Taylor Swift’s You Belong to Me. There is a line about flashing your underwear and it made me think of today’s parents, constantly sharing pictures of their kids on social media. Becky was a drama major and has worked in casting in Hollywood so this story came naturally to us.
Our next book, is Shark Nate-O, illustrated by Daniel Duncan. Shark Nate-O is about a shark- obsessed boy, Nate. He reads shark books every day, watches sharks on TV, and talks about them nonstop. He even likes to pretend he’s a shark wherever he goes! However, there is one small problem …. Nate can’t swim.
When his older brother makes fun of him, Nate works hard to overcome his fears and learns to swim, finally making the swim team—the Sharks.
I had been considering writing a book about a shark-obsessed boy that I remembered from second-grade. He used to try to eat us as recess. I didn’t have the whole story, however, so the idea just hung out there for a while. Then my own son, Nate, really got into sharks and I found myself reading tons of non-fiction shark books to him every night. We had a shark-themed Christmas that year and my brother called my son “Shark Nate-O.” That was the spark I needed—a great title. And, combined with the fact my son was also in swimming lessons at the time, it all came together.
Thank you for reading!
I Am Famous written by Tara Luebbe and Becky Cattie. Illustrated by Joanne Lew-Vreithoff
Albert Whitman March 1, 2018
Shark Nate-O written by Tara Luebbe and Becky Cattie. Illustrated by Daniel Duncan.
little bee, April 4, 2018.
Several years ago, I came home to find a box in a puddle in my driveway. It was wrapped in plastic, marked with tire tracks, and was postmarked from China. It looked – and smelled - like it had been on an epic journey. As I unwrapped it, an image came into my mind of this tiny package aboard a huge container ship, sailing across the ocean with the sky full of stars. That image was the spark of inspiration for what would eventually become LOVE, MAMA, although it did not end up in the book.
I started writing a nonfiction story about a book being written, printed, and eventually shipped to a little boy. It had interesting technical details, and it had a great image of a huge container ship sailing through a starry night, carrying a tiny package with a heart drawn on it. But the story was lacking something, so I set it aside.*
Around that time, I had a preschooler who lived every moment as the eternal now. When I dropped her off at preschool in the morning, she would cry like I was leaving for the other end of the world and she might never see me again. Trying to give her sense of connection while I was gone, I made a little photo book with pictures of our family that she could look at during the day. I tucked little heart shaped rocks into her pockets and put heart-shaped notes in her lunch box.
One day, as I was rushing to get us out of the house, my daughter noticed her lunchbox was missing a note and said “But how will I know that you love me if I don’t have something from you to hold?” And I realized that, as a pre-reader, she didn’t care what the note said. She cared that I had held that particular piece of paper, and when she opened her lunch box after the longest three hours of her life, that piece of paper still had a magical connection to my touch.
Driving her to school, that image of the container ship came back to my mind, but now I knew that whatever was inside that little package with a heart wasn’t important, it was the tangible connection between two people that mattered – the ability to hold onto the same object, even when separated by time and space.
I rewrote the story as fiction, trying to keep the sense of awe that I felt about the journey of my small package across an impossibly huge distance. I tried to convey the magic of my daughter’s paper heart and connect to the universal experience of missing someone who isn’t with you. Every child is separated from their mother sometimes, whether for a daily drop off at child care, an evening with grandma, or a longer separation.
My children love to pretend to be penguin chicks and sit on my feet, and at some point in my revision I thought about how penguin mothers leave their eggs to go out to sea and catch fish, and then return and sing to find their chicks. I changed my human characters to penguins and created the watery, magical world that Kipling inhabits. The container ship was replaced by a whale and her baby swimming under the stars.
Because there are all kinds of families, and children have all kinds of caregivers in the real world, I chose to make Kipling’s caregiver a blank slate. He or she can be a babysitter, a grandparent, a father, another mom, or whomever the child reading the book imagines that penguin to be.
My hope is that LOVE, MAMA can help reassure children of their mother’s love in her absence, and perhaps inspire some comforting family rituals. My editor, Connie Hsu, tells me that the book is being printed at this moment, and soon it will be loaded onto a huge container ship, which will make its way across the ocean. I imagine it sailing through a night full of stars, bringing this story from my heart to yours.
May it arrive at your bookstore, or your home, in a dry box.
LOVE, MAMA written and illustrated by Jeanette Bradley
Coming January 2, 2018 from Roaring Brook Press.
Available for preorder on IndieBound and wherever books are sold
*Luckily I did not decide it was missing a tiger, since it turned out someone else was writing that book.
As a writer, I am always looking for stories. Stories that get lost in the margins, or that are being forgotten, or mis-remembered. Stories that deserve to be told, over and over. Attention must be paid.
In 2012, I first heard the story of the historic event that my debut picture book, LET THE CHILDREN MARCH, describes through the eyes of a young girl. I was sitting in church, in my Unitarian Universalist congregation in Little Rock. It was the “story for all ages” time, when the children come down front and an adult church leader shares something the kids could relate to. The story of the Children’s Crusade March in Birmingham, Alabama, which took place in May of 1963, is taught to the elementary kids as part of our religious education curriculum. It’s a story of social justice and working for racial equality—topics close to my heart.
I was stunned by what I heard. Children marched? Children were jailed? Dogs and high-pressured water hoses were used against them? Why do I not know this story? I polled the members of the congregation around me. None of us had ever heard the story before, nor were we aware of the seismic difference it had made in the civil rights movement.
The little writer in my brain, which always has one eye open (even when sleeping), sat up straight and immediately Googled the topic. The story was stunning and heart-breaking and inspiring. Check! Another Google search found no children’s picture books about the topic. Check! (Incidentally, a wonderful one has since been published—Cynthia Levinson’s THE YOUNGEST MARCHER.) The story also had relevance to what was happening in the world around me—the Black Lives Matter movement was beginning, and my heart was breaking every day for the stories I read about the injustice people of color face just by existing. Maybe, I thought, this story from our shared history can help with the challenges of today.
I had the old familiar feeling of being on fire with the need to share a story. It happens mostly with stories from our history, but it can also be a fictional character that speaks to me. We writers never really know when it will hit. On the bus, in our dreams, at a day job, or, like me, at church. Years later, and many, many drafts later, I sold the book to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. It's five and a half years later now, and it will be available “everywhere books are sold” in just a few months. It’s been an amazing journey.
I took a research trip to Birmingham while working on revisions with my editor. I talked with the children who marched that week in May. They are grandparents now. I talked with a teacher who turned her face to the chalkboard as the children and teens left class in droves. I pored over the newspapers and sermons and pictures for hours. I am hopeful that with the publication of my book, and others like it, this story will be remembered again and always. Attention must be paid.
Thanks for reading! Remember: our stories are the threads that connect us!
LET THE CHILDREN MARCH, by Monica Clark-Robinson, illustrated by Frank Morrison
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH for Kids), January 2, 2018
Available for Pre-order now online!
It seems like every time an author is interviewed, he or she is invariably asked the same question: where do you get your inspiration? I get my ideas from every facet of my life. One story idea started growing as I waited for chicks to hatch at the state fair. Another emerged as I listened to my two youngest boys argue. Another came to me because I spent a lot of time pondering my younger daughter’s allergy diagnosis. Even reading a sign at the zoo gave me an idea. Sadly for my friends, sometimes one of them will be talking, and a word or phrase she utters will trigger something, causing me to go glassy-eyed and start following the thread of an idea. Fortunately, writer friends will understand and forgive you for this annoying tendency.
My debut book, THE LITTLE RED FORT (Scholastic Press, illustrated by Sonia Sanchez), was a lucky convergence of ordinary happenings that became much more than the sum of its parts. A few years ago, my youngest son was in a Little Red Hen phase. If it was story time, that’s what we read, and so that story was just kind of living in my head. Well, one day while we were reading it for naptime, my other children were outside repurposing odd boards and lattice they’d requisitioned for a little ‘fort.’ Those two things—the classic tale and the kids’ ingenuity—just sort of swirled together in my mind, and I began thinking, “What if the kids were making a fort instead of making bread?” And the idea just went from there.
Sometimes the ideas don’t come as easily, and that’s okay. If I push an idea too hard, it usually doesn’t work, often because it’s lacking that necessary emotional spark that would inspire me to write about it in the first place. That’s when I take a break and let my mind go someplace else. The number one thing that helps refill my creative well is reading more picture books. If that doesn’t work, I might try doing something routine that requires minimal brainpower, like driving a familiar route, standing in a shower’s steady stream, of listening to a song until my kids insist I find earbuds. If that doesn’t work, I may get desperate and call one of those really forgiving writer friends.
A picture book requires a very long chain of inspiration. What inspires you to write in the first place? What inspires you to write that particular story? What inspires you to persevere through the revisions and rejections?
I’ve always enjoyed writing, but had never pursued it professionally. It was my English as a Second Language students who inspired me to finally take on my “someday” of writing for children—to research the industry, to join writing critique groups, to take classes, to keep at it until I found my niche.
And it was my students who led me to that niche—historical fiction and nonfiction. The kind of books that evoked a “Wow!” or “Is that really true?” and urged them to think, question, and do further investigation, opening their minds to new ideas, to history, or science.
So, when I saw a newsfeed blurb stating that Ben Franklin invented a new alphabet… “Wow! Who knew?” For someone who loves language, that’s intriguing!
Then I learned that Franklin wanted us to spell phonetically… For someone who taught English, that would have been a dream come true!
And then I read the quote from Franklin you see in the picture (clearly written by one of those people who spell best!)… For someone who nurtured kids from letters and sounds to “invented spelling” and on to accepted-yet-crazy English spelling, that went straight to my heart! I dug in. The more research I did, the more fascinating it became.
In Ben Franklin’s day, people spelled words however they wanted. He was frustrated with trying to decipher everyone’s writing and felt people should write the sounds they heard. Ah…but the English alphabet was a mess with multiple sounds for letters and multiple letter combinations for sounds. So, the great inventor created a new alphabet. But despite all his successes, this idea didn’t fly. Too inconvenient. Done. Failure. The end. Well, that doesn’t make a great story, does it? But this tidbit was just too interesting to let go…so I kept digging, spurred on by Ben’s inspiring words.
Along came Noah Webster. “Wow! They knew each other!” Suffice it to say that further digging inspired more digging. I persevered, inspired by the notion that when kids use “invented spelling” they are doing egzaklee wut Ben and Noah wontid. Wow! I was hooked. Full speed ahead!
So, the chain of inspiration kept growing, from people and books, with encouragement and experimentation, through revision after revision, until finally it was a story. A story that I hope will inspire kids’ interest in history and the courage to let their ideas “take their chance in the world,” just like Ben and Noah.
Wishing “wow” moments for one and all!
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, Fall 2018
Kate Narita interviews Jessie Oliveros about the inspiration for THE REMEMBER BALLOONS.
Q: How did you get the inspiration for The Remember Balloons?
My grandpa was the inspiration behind my picture book. A couple summers ago I went home to see my family in Kansas. My grandpa had recently been diagnosed with Alzheimer's, and I had a chance to visit with him and my grandma. My kids accompanied me during most of these visits, and I would explain to them how Grandpa might repeat questions he'd forgotten he'd already asked. I can still see my grandpa—sitting in his chair with his always-toothpick in his mouth—the moment the question came to me: What does Alzheimer's look like to a child?
Q: What role do balloons play in your book? Where did that inspiration come from?
In THE REMEMBER BALLOONS' world, memories are kept in balloons. The story didn't begin this way. I began by writing a straight-forward story about a boy's experience with a grandfather suffering from Alzheimer's. I wish I could remember the exact moment I transitioned to a metaphorical story. (And I wish I could say I saw a bunch of balloons floating away in the park and everything clicked, but I don't have a story nearly as amazing as that!)
I remember sitting in my living room with my kids writing my story, and at some point I realized that a story about balloons would be more accessible to children verses a straight-forward story about memory loss. And that was the answer to my question, the one I had while my grandpa sat chewing on his toothpick: to kids, Alzheimer's looks like balloons.
After that, everything fell together. I remember reading it to my then five-year-old daughter. The first feedback I received on my manuscript was, "Mom! That's sad! The grandpa lost all his balloons." (Spoiler: The ending is hopeful, not sad.)
Q: How do your own memories and loved ones' memories influence the book?
That same summer, I started taking voice recordings of my grandparents' personal histories. I was especially driven to record those of my grandfather's, not sure how much longer he'd be able to share them. Some of my grandpa's memories inspired some of the memories THE REMEMBER BALLOONS' grandpa shares with his grandson. In addition, I have special memories of fishing with my grandpa just as the boy in my book does!
(Plus, literally carrying these memories in my purse (in the form of the voice recorder) may have helped my brain turn the concept of memories into something more solid and tangible.)
Q: How is your grandpa doing?!
He's thriving! His Alzheimer's has been slowed by medicine and the good care of those around him, especially my grandma. And one thing Alzheimer's hasn't beat is his sense of humor!
Q: What do your grandparents think about the book?
My grandma is filled with grandmotherly pride and is very excited about my book. I've told my grandpa about my book on more than one occasion, but unfortunately, he doesn't retain the news longer than a few minutes. But still--I make sure to tell him that he and the memories he's shared helped inspire my book!
Thanks so much for reading and listening.
THE REMEMBER BALLOONS by Jessie Oliveros Illustrated by Dana Wulfekotte
Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers, fall 2018
What inspired me to write MOMMY'S KHIMAR is the same as what inspired me to become a children’s literature author to begin with. Up until two years ago, I had never seriously thought about writing children’s books although I had vague dreams of becoming a novelist. I would like to say there was some deep or ethereal inspiration that began my work in kidlit. However, my children’s book writing really started with a Facebook post.
I’m a member of a closed Facebook group for Muslim mothers. Members are mainly from the U.S. and many of the members are African American. We discuss a wide range of topics related to parenting and one repeated topic is lack of representation. One day back in 2015 another Black Muslim woman posted to the group about the types of books she wished her kids had--books that told our history and books that represented our kids. Many other mothers chimed in to agree. What was especially true for these moms and for me was that even in stories about Muslim children, Black Muslim children were almost never represented.
Although in the U.S., Black Americans make up the largest population of Muslims, a post-9/11 focus on representing American Muslims as foreign has meant that almost all portrayals of Muslims are of immigrants from Middle Eastern or South Asian descent. Additionally, in stories about Black people that feature spirituality, Christianity is almost always the faith that’s depicted. Black American Muslims are simply erased in most literature and popular culture.
I have always been a dreamer and that Facebook post made me daydream for hours. Many characters flooded my mind. The girl in MOMMY'S KHIMAR was one of them. It sounds strange but it was almost like these characters had always been somewhere locked up in my brain and I just needed an impetus to let them out. I had always had these stories to tell and just needed to tell them.
I jotted down many ideas and then started to plot and organize them. I soon became obsessed with learning how to write children’s books, reading everything I could online, purchasing writing guides for my Kindle app because going to the bookstore took too long, and taking out children’s books from the library so that I could carefully dissect and imitate them. I’m a perfectionist and wanted to get this very interesting artform correct. I spent hours writing and rewriting stories and even reading them to my son who was entering kindergarten around this time. He was my first critic! I found that I loved the challenges of picture book writing.
One of the stories I began writing was about a little Black girl playing with a hijab, the head covering worn by some Muslim women. Literature about hijab, whether in story, nonfiction, or poetic form, is almost always serious and even political. However, in thinking about how I saw hijab as a little girl, I remember seeing it as a dress up item--a soft piece of cloth that could be manipulated and used in pretend play. I didn’t want to write another serious story to defend hijab or show its importance. I wanted to take this scarf that has become so controversial and show it as the simple cloth I saw it as while I was a girl.
In my stories, I wanted to show my underrepresented people to the fullest extent and that affected my decision to include a non-Muslim family member in MOMMY'S KHIMAR as well as using the word “khimar” in the title. Like many Black American Muslims, I grew up with Christian relatives. And like many Black American Muslims, I grew up calling the headscarf a “khimar” not a “hijab.” Both words are used in Islamic scripture; however, for whatever reason, early Black American Muslim communities used the word “khimar” while others don’t commonly do so. I wanted the book to feel unmistakably Black and Muslim for the children of those moms who first inspired me. And I wanted to take that identity and put it in the mainstream. It seems I may get what I want.
In publishing with a mainstream publisher, one thing that worries me is whether others will be interested in MOMMY'S KHIMAR and other stories I write. Do others care about the lives of Black American Muslims? I think about my own interest in stories about people whose backgrounds are very different from mine. I think about the time when I went on a reading binge of Victorian novels and my recent discovery of Lisa See’s novels about ancient China and 20th century Asian Americans. I think about how in middle school I identified with so many of the white characters Judy Blume created. And I think about how as a kid I used to write stories for fun and that my characters were always white and never Muslim because the books I read showed me that’s how it was supposed to be. I know intuitively that it’s not impossible to care about characters that are very different from the reader. I know it and yet it’s still a worry.
Thanks for caring enough to read.
MOMMY'S KHIMAR by Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow, illustrated by Ebony Glenn
Simon & Schuster (Salaam Reads); April 3, 2018
Currently Available for Pre-order from Amazon and Major Bookstores