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What inspired these Halloween-friendly picture books?

Click to read entire Q&As by these #firstpicturebook authors:

Joy Keller: When my kids were little, they had very specific taste in books. My daughter only wanted to read Halloween books, and my son only wanted to read truck books. I thought to myself, “Why hasn’t someone written a book about monsters and trucks? It could be called MONSTER TRUCKS.” Bingo! There was my idea.

Ed Masessa: Like many of my generation, The Wizard of Oz was my favorite movie as a child. It was shown once a year on TV and it wasn’t until we got our first color TV that I realized that part of it was filmed in color. The flying monkey scene might have been terrifying if I hadn’t been so inquisitive. As they threw Scarecrow’s straw all around, I always wondered what happened to his bones. I thought it would be a cool tribute to my childhood imagination to create a scarecrow with a skeleton.

Miriam Glassman:My eldest daughter inspired this story when she was very young and said, “What if there was a queen who so mean, all she ever ate was burnt cupcakes?” At the same time, I was somewhat obsessed with the score from the Sondheim musical, Into the Woods, particularly the storyline of the witch and her attachment issues with her daughter, Rapunzel. Somehow, thoughts of Rapunzel came together with those of the burnt-cupcake eating queen. I turned her into a witch, and imagined her as the sister of the witch from Rapunzel. I wondered what would happen if that baby was left in the sister’s hands to raise. Though I didn’t consciously set out to write an adoption story, that’s what it turned out to be. Perhaps subconsciously, I was thinking about my two adopted nieces.

Abraham Schroeder : Around 2005 or 2006 I was working at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston on a massive project to organize and catalog the collection of roughly 50,000 Japanese woodblock prints. Among them I found a charming image of bats and an umbrella from the 1880's by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi. Soon after that, the first little couplet started bouncing around in my head: "The gentleman bat, with his gentleman's cane, went out for a walk one night in the rain." The rhythms and ideas kept coming back to me, especially when I was out walking, gradually becoming more complex and interesting, and eventually I started writing all the bits and snippets down so I could start shaping them into a cohesive story.
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Rebecca Grabill is about to have her sixth child! But like all multi-tasking mamas, she made time for one more thing. Thank you Rebecca for fitting us into your busy schedule! Below is her #firstpicturebook Q&A on HALLOWEEN GOOD NIGHT—a “delightful bedtime riff on the OVER IN THE MEADOW nursery rhyme (Publishers Weekly, Starred Review) and “fun storytime read-aloud that’s just right for the youngest Halloween revelers.” (School Library Journal)

Q. Was HALLOWEEN GOOD NIGHT the first picture book manuscript you ever wrote? If not, what was the first picture book you wrote and what happened to it?
A. Goodness no! I’ve been writing since forever—my first picture book manuscript was written in college back in the 90s, and even made it to acquisitions at Greenwillow! It was too quiet for them, a mood piece. It’s even quieter now where it sits on my hard drive. I have no expectation that it will ever be published, though with some revision… HALLOWEEN GOOD NIGHT is probably my, uh, hmmm, maybe thirtieth picture book manuscript?

A. That’s a complicated question. Ok, not really that complicated, but I will say I never set out to write a Halloween book. During my MFA (Hamline University, 2011) I spent a month reading every Halloween book I could find, examining it, critiquing it. I found that there were a heap of books. And only a handful I absolutely loved. So I decided to try to write something I *did* love, hence the birth of HALLOWEEN GOOD NIGHT.

The second part of the answer involves being a mother and reading a certain picture book Every Single Day for months on end to my oldest child. Which book? A version of OVER IN THE MEADOW. Very cute, very repetitive, very stuck-in-my-brain-forever. It may have been my deep fatigue with OVER IN THE MEADOW that made it the natural inspiration for HALLOWEEN GOOD NIGHT. Because as I read to my son, I’d at times change (in my mind) the little animals to something more interesting than fishies and spiders.

Q. How did you pick the title of your book?
A. The title started off as something like OVER IN THE GRAVEYARD or YONDER IN THE GRAVEYARD. It was briefly GHOULS A LURKING (which I hated but had been worn down into saying, “Whatever, just title it what you want.”). I don’t quite remember how it became HALLOWEEN GOOD NIGHT. It may have been a suggestion from my agent or editor, or maybe I came up with it? But once the title arrived, it stayed.

Q. Do you write by hand or on the computer?
A. A combination. I will sometimes write the roughest rough draft of a picture book on blank paper with huge handwriting. To (supposedly) trick my brain into not focussing on being a perfectionist. Because I am a terrible perfectionist. I’m not sure how well this works, however. Most times I’ll take notes on paper (or a napkin or envelope or… you get the idea) and type up a draft on computer.

Q. What is your favorite part of the book? And was that part in the first draft?
A. I’ll be honest, I loved the rhyme of Six with Transfix, which was indeed in an early draft, but that line was edited out. I understand why, but I miss the word transfix all the same. Isn’t it such a delicious word?

Q. Why did you decide to tell the story in second person? 
A. Because I was using the form of OVER IN THE MEADOW, and because I have no single protagonist, first person didn’t really work. I actually tried it in first because some readers didn’t like the use of second person. Ultimately I returned to the immediacy of second person direct address, with the narration in third.

Q. Why did you decide to write the story in rhyme? Did you write a version in prose?
A. I never tried it in prose mostly because a poem (in rhyme) was my model and inspiration. I much prefer prose—rhyme is beastly hard. Rhythm is brutal. Really it’s agonizingly difficult to write good rhyme, weeping and gnashing of teeth sort of agony. I would much rather write in prose, or rub salt on a paper cut or…

Q. How much of the story did you know when you began writing HALLOWEEN GOOD NIGHT? 
A. I’d say a good portion of it. I knew, for one, that it needed to have an actual story. Most OVER IN THE MEADOW adaptations don’t have any semblance of story, they’re just counting books. But I very much wanted a beginning, middle, and end. I knew it would involved a Halloween party of some sort, and I knew I wanted a surprise ending. Those were my starting points and the rest grew over various drafts (of which there were many).

Q. Did HALLOWEEN GOOD NIGHT receive any rejection letters? If so, how many (ballpark)?
A. Hmmm. My first agent shopped it to a few publishers, but I don’t remember how many. Five, six maybe? Victoria of Wells Arms Literary (the awesomest agent ever) sent it out to a few editors, we received some feedback, I revised, and then she found an editor actively searching for a Halloween book and got it to her right away, and, well, the rest of the story is obvious!

Q. Describe your reaction when you received an offer on HALLOWEEN GOOD NIGHT.
A. I’m not sure how it works for other authors or books, but with an agent an offer can come in strange ways. For HALLOWEEN GOOD NIGHT I got an email saying something like, “Letting you know I’ll have an offer by tomorrow!” And the next day, which just happened to be Halloween, I snuck out of my kids’ homeschool co-op to take her call in the car. I basically floated around the rest of the day, but it was surreal because the rest of the world didn’t know (or much care) that I’d sold my first book, my kids included. I went quickly from “Hey kids, guess what” to “Stop it, don’t poke her, no I won’t buy you a milkshake.” I wanted to announce it everywhere, but I was terrified I’d jinx it and somehow make Simon & Schuster go out of business or something—because I have that kind of power. Ahem.

Q. What kind of input did you have in choosing an illustrator for the book? 
A. Zip. Zilch. Nada. Actually, my amazingly brilliant editor did run a few suggested illustrators by me. Not so much for my approval, more to let me know what she had in mind. The illustrator chosen was not among them, however, so it was all a surprise!

Q. What jumped out at you when you saw the first sketches and jacket cover?
A. Well, the first cover illustration was an awesome silhouette, very artistic and cool. That wasn’t the final cover. I love the cover (actually I loved the first one too!), especially how sweet and cute it is. Not scary at all. Which is vital for a not-scary bedtime Halloween book!

Q. How long did HALLOWEEN GOOD NIGHT take to be published—from the time you received an offer until it was printed?
A. Written in fall 2010, offer in fall 2014, published in summer 2017. As I tell the children, “You do the math.”

Q. Was there a part that you really loved but had to edit out? Or did you think of something later that you wanted to add?
A. I went through So Many Versions of this manuscript between 2010 and 2014, I’m not sure I even remember what’s in it/not in it, you know? I do miss transfix, but I already mentioned that. ;-)

Q. When you do readings of HALLOWEEN GOOD NIGHT, which part of the book gets the best reaction?
A. I LOVE reading this book to the right age group of kiddos. I’ve discovered that very tiny kids, toddlers, aren’t that interested beyond the pictures and rhythm. But 3yr olds, 4, 5, 6, they eat it up. As I read I’ll draw attention to the “unfolding” mystery—“Where are the werewolves headed?” or “They’re at YOUR house!” and truly, they are enraptured, leaning forward, watching, just the tiniest bit anxious that “they” will soon be eaten by monsters. I love the giggles I get with the surprise ending. AND the bacon joke (yes, there’s a dumpster diving/bacon joke—I’m so mature). I’m always surprised by how many kids bust out laughing over the bacon! I mean, I thought it was funny, but didn’t really expect anyone else to find it funny!

Q. What is your #1 tip to those who want to write picture books?
A. Yowzers, how to limit it to one tip… Heed advice. If an agent or editor has an issue, LISTEN. If two out of three test readers don’t like something/are confused by something, LISTEN. Don’t be afraid to start over. Don’t be afraid to experiment. Don’t be afraid to scrap a manuscript entirely. And if an editor/agent offers a detailed critique, DO NOT JUST switch a few words around and call it “revised.” Revision means re-envisioning, not fixing a few spelling or syntax errors.

I guess that’s easy for me to say since I enjoy revision about a million times more than writing the first draft, but unless your book is a flash of genius (and most aren’t), revision (real revision) is going to make even the best start so much better. 

But save everything—it will give you freedom to cut that “perfect line” which may well be perfect, but you may not know until it’s gone. (I use Scrivener and take snapshots before each revise.)

In short: writing is joy, but writing is also WORK. Hard work. And if it’s not, you’re doing it wrong. ;-) 

Q. Do you have a favorite writing exercise or marketing tip that you can share?
A. Ugh. I know nothing about marketing and have NO idea if my efforts have made even a smidge of difference with HALLOWEEN GOOD NIGHT. But I can say, as for writing exercises, if one has a heap of kids and a lot going on, just sitting in the chair is enough exercise! I don’t believe in “warm ups”—if I tried to warm up for twenty minutes every time I wrote, I’d be exercising, not writing! I also don’t believe in inspiration. Who has time to wait for the muse? Sit, write, live life, repeat.

Q. What are you working on now?
A. I just sent a draft of a middle grade novel to my agent, which she’s sending on to editors. Come November, I’ll do NaNoWriMo, but for picture books! Someone online had a National Picture Book Idea Month, but moved it to January or something. I’m sticking with November, and am shooting for full drafts of picture books. Not thirty, but as many as I can manage. I did this last year and ended up with only one or two to send to my agent (the rest were blech—not things I’d share!). Maybe this year I’ll get three or four?

Q. Where can people find you? (Website, Twitter, Facebook, etc.)
website: https://www.rebeccagrabill.com
email: rebeccawritesbooks@gmail.com
twitter: @rebeccagrabill
facebook page: authorrebeccagrabill
instagram: @rebeccawritesbooks
pinterest: rebeccagrabill
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David Cundy owns a graphic design firm, creating identities and websites for organizations such as the Brooklyn Museum, Columbia University, and the Parsons School of Design. He has also taught at Yale and Fairfield University. But today he opens his classroom to us and talks about his #firstpicturebook ANIMALS SPELL LOVE—"an impressive demonstration of text as art" (Publishers Weekly) and “very highly recommended for family, elementary school, and community library picture book collections for young readers" (Children's Bookwatch, The Midwest Book Review)

Q. Was ANIMALS SPELL LOVE the first picture book manuscript you ever wrote? If not, what was the first picture book you wrote and what happened to it?
A. ANIMALS SPELL LOVE is my debut children’s picture book. Its inspiration and genesis were a combination of serendipity and mindfulness, in that I had committed myself to a decade’s effort to launch my career as an author. Eight years, four adult fiction books and one non-fiction adult book proposal in, I succeeded with this lovely children’s book.

Q. What inspired ANIMALS SPELL LOVE?
A. ANIMALS SPELL LOVE was inspired by one of its illustrations – the Lovebirds, which I created to illustrate a poem. That was followed by six years’ work creating the other illustrations and text, and designing the book. And another two months connecting with my agent, and another six months securing a publisher.

Q. How did you pick the title of your book?
A. My agent – whose professionalism has been impeccable – was responsible for the title of the book, which I had positioned slightly differently (and less broadly). I expect to use the outtake for merchandising.

Q. Do you write by hand or on the computer?
A. Because ANIMALS SPELL LOVE is a non-narrative picture book whose text is dictated by its content (to show how to say “Love” and “I love you” in sixteen languages), writing requirements were technical. The computer was necessary since I employed non-Latin alphabets with which I was unfamiliar and couldn’t have easily written in any event.

As a poet, I write “ambidextrously” on both paper and the screen! As an adult-content author and culture journalist, I of course use a computer. Simple children’s books don’t require word processing until the layout stage.

Q. What is your favorite part of the book? And was that part in the first draft? (Please send an image from the book or link to book trailer.)
A. I’m told that everyone has a favorite vignette in ANIMALS SPELL LOVE, as do I. My favorite part of Animals Spell Love is the reception it gets among kids and their family members, who are validated in their native languages, and excited to learn how others say “I love you.” And younger kids love to find the heart in every vignette, a feature of the book.

Q. Did you write the text first, then illustrate it? Or did the images appear before the words?
A. As mentioned above, ANIMALS SPELL LOVE arose from one of its illustrations – an animal word-picture of the word “Love.” Once I determined that the text would describe how to say “I love you,” completion of the book revolved around selecting the remaining animals and languages. The languages used are those most spoken around the world.

Q. What kind of resources did you use in your research for ANIMALS SPELL LOVE?
A. Many! Because I love poetry, I wanted ANIMALS SPELL LOVE to have poetic elements. So it includes, for example, an allusion to Isaac Watts’s “How doth the little busy bee” in the English vignette, and “Late afternoon,” a beautiful poem by Du Fu, which forms the actual “shaped poetry” illustration in the Chinese vignette. And because I am an artist, I included my own versions of Albrecht Durer’s “Little Owl” and a Chinese ceramic duck from the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collection. I also pay homage to children’s books, most obviously Dr. Seuss’s One Fish Two Fish in the Japanese vignette.

Language research was another matter. Although my language background includes French, Greek, Latin, Sanskrit and Spanish, dealing with Amharic (Ethiopian) and Arabic, for example, required both research and precision; Arabic, notably, has four forms for each letter. And it turns out that in some languages, one says “I love you” differently to children, parents, elders, friends and lovers.

Q. Did ANIMALS SPELL LOVE receive any rejection letters? If so, how many (ballpark)?
A. “Rejection” is part of the process. A wise author listens to and learns from editors for whom his/her book isn’t a “fit.” Shopping a book to multiple editors enables one to gain insights into first impressions, strengths and weaknesses – things to which authors (and even agents) are too close to objectively assess. Unsurprisingly, Animals Spell Love was accepted by the publisher I had surmised would accept it. My publisher is a dream to work with.

Q. Describe your reaction when you received an offer on ANIMALS SPELL LOVE.
A. As a debut author, I was of course elated – and relieved. Although I must say that the world of children’s book publishing these days can be understandably risk-averse – a challenge to the debut author.

Q. How long did ANIMALS SPELL LOVE take to be published – from the time you received an offer until it was printed?

A. From receipt of offer to books in hand, ANIMALS SPELL LOVE took just over a year – from September to November. We officially launched on Valentine’s Day 2017 – 17 months.

Q. Was there a part that you really loved but had to edit out? Or did you think of something later that you wanted to add?
A. My agent specified that I add a “climax” vignette – a symphonic crescendo that brought everything together. I am so grateful.

At my publisher’s behest, I removed my translation of the Du Fu poem, which represented an inconsistent element not found anywhere else in the text. It’s good to have a little mystery, especially when it comes to language, and I’ve learned in life to pick my battles. In exchange, I got to keep the American Sign Language (butterfly) vignette, well worth the trade-off!

Q. When you do readings of ANIMALS SPELL LOVE, which part of the book gets the best reaction?
A. It’s different for every audience, because in America, every audience is different. At one public library event, for example, a family of Ethiopian origin came to see the Amharic (leopard) vignette. I’m delighted to report that at every event, all kids love saying “I love you” with the American Sign Language handsign.

Q. What is your #1 tip to those who want to write picture books?
A. Have an intriguing story to tell! And remember that you can make our world a better place by educating and inspiring children.

Q. Do you have a favorite writing exercise or marketing tip that you can share?
A. Marketing is hard work, and you will be required to do far more of it than you might prefer. If you expect to succeed, you will need to have your own website, create a trailer, and actively promote events and library collection acquisition of your book – on an ongoing basis. Having a publicist is a valuable luxury.

Q. What are you working on now?
A. I’m completing ANIMALS SPELL PEACE, the companion/sequel to ANIMALS SPELL LOVE. I expect that this pair will have a catalytic effect on each other, since their audiences both overlap and complement each other. Additional books are in the hopper!

Q. Where can people find you? (Website, Twitter, Facebook, etc.)
Website: I set up my authorial website about six months before launch. It’s quite comprehensive, and includes event information and media resources.
Trailer: The ANIMALS SPELL LOVE trailer was Shelf-awareness.com’s “Trailer of the Day” on December 2, 2016.
Contact: My email is david@davidcundyauthor.com.
Publicity: My publicist is Diane Kebede (djkebede@gmail.com; 515-943-3883).

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Jen Campbell is busy. She’s a bestselling author, award winning poet, and short story writer who has worked as a bookseller for 10 years. And she runs a YouTube channel! But today she takes some time to talk about creating her #firstpicturebook FRANKLIN'S FLYING BOOKSHOP—a Noteworthy Fall 2017 Picture Book selection from Imagination Soup. 

Q. Was FRANKLIN'S FLYING BOOKSHOP the first picture book manuscript you ever wrote? If not, what was the first picture book you wrote and what happened to it?
A. It was, yes.

A. I worked as a bookseller for ten years and children were the best part of my job. The enthusiasm and love they have for stories is fierce. I wanted to write something for them that reflected that.

Q. Do you write by hand or on the computer?
A. I have ectrodactyly, so I type.

Q. What is your favorite part of the book? And was that part in the first draft?
A. I think the half-rhyming lists in Franklin’s Flying Bookshop were the most fun to write. “Every day Franklin reads about King Arthur and rollerskating… about electricity and baking… He reads about spiders and ballet and how to do kung fu.”

As for the illustration, I love all of them but my particular favourite is the double page spread where Luna and Franklin meet each other for the first time. I love the expression on their faces.

Q. How did you select the names for your characters? 
A. Luna relates to the moon, which is important to the series - though I can’t say why (spoiler!).

Q. Why did you decide to tell the story in third person? 
A. I wanted it to have a fairy tale feel, and fairy tales are always told in third person.

Q. How much of the story did you know when you began writing FRANKLIN'S FLYING BOOKSHOP? 
A. I knew it was going to be a book that celebrated difference and highlighted how reading can help us empathise with others. I knew the overall storyline, but of course things changed slightly as I went.

Q. Did FRANKLIN'S FLYING BOOKSHOP receive any rejection letters? If so, how many (ballpark)?
A. One.

Q. Describe your reaction when you received an offer on FRANKLIN'S FLYING BOOKSHOP.
A. Immense joy.

Q. What kind of input did you have in choosing an illustrator for the book? 
A. I actually found Katie myself. I’d had a meeting with Thames & Hudson, who said they were keen to take Franklin on. They suggested I go away and look up illustrators and they would do the same. I discovered Katie’s work in a catalogue for the Bologna Children’s Book Fair and fell in love with her illustrations. We met up, got on, and that was that.

Q. What jumped out at you when you saw the first sketches?
A. The first sketch Katie did was of Luna sitting on Franklin’s stomach, both of them reading, surrounded by books and fireflies. It had such a warmth to it; it was beautiful.

Q. How long did FRANKLIN'S FLYING BOOKSHOP take to be published—from the time you received an offer until it was printed?
A. Eighteen months - as the illustrations hadn’t been done when we signed.

Q. Was there a part that you really loved but had to edit out? Or did you think of something later that you wanted to add?
A. Nope.

Q. What is your #1 tip for picture book writers?
A. Read everything aloud as you go.

Q. What are you working on now?
A. I have my debut short story collection (for adults) out this November. It’s called The Beginning of the World in the Middle of the Night and is published by Two Roads. It’s a collection of twelve haunting tales, many of which are inspired by fairy tale.

The sequel to Franklin’s Flying Bookshop will be published in 2018.

Q. Where can people find you? (Website, Twitter, Facebook, etc.)
Youtube: www.youtube.com/jenvcampbell
Website: www.jen-campbell.com
Twitter: @jenvcampbell
Instagram: @jenvcampbell
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How do you decide where to start and end a picture-book biography?

As I sit down to write another picture-book biography, I’m faced with the familiar question—where do I start? And then, where does it end? Lives are big and complicated. How will I fit this person’s story into a 32-page book? After a deep breath, a bowl of ice cream, and staring out the window for a bit, I remember that I have answers to this question! Here are some #firstpicturebook writers discussing how they selected the timeframes for their nonfiction picture books:

Audrey Vernick: “A boy and his dog story—it was clear to us that it started with his desire for a dog—one we wholly related to. And it had to end not with the death of the dog, but in the way Bark is still thought of and loved and admired because of Tim’s life as an artist.”

Laban Carrick Hill:“This was certainly one of the biggest challenges for me. But this is the case for every book I write. I always start with big ideas and huge ambitions. The thought of trying to represent slavery and create a discussion about slavery—and the long history of terror, rape, slavery, and murder that America is built on—made for some very long drafts of the poem. It wasn’t until I decided to just let Dave’s actions as a potter be a kind of massive metonymy/synecdoche for the larger themes that the poem really began to come together. What he does and who he is—his on-the-ground life, his massive pots, his poems—told that larger message without me mediating it with my words. In fact, I think it would have diminished the book—as well as been patronizing—if I had tried to do something like that. I can’t speak for Dave. I—and anyone else for that matter—can barely interpret his life with the few, random clues that have been left behind.”

Emma Bland Smith: “It made sense to start the story with the wolf leaving his family and heading out on his own. As far as the ending, that was a little trickier. In my first version (which I just looked back at), the ending was very vague and open, sort of flowery and poetic--not what editors are really looking for! There wasn’t a very satisfying conclusion because we didn’t really know what was going to happen with Journey. Luckily for me, sometime after that first draft, it came out in the news that he had met a mate and they’d had pups. That made for a much more exciting ending!”

Nancy Churnin: “It took me a long time to realize that the heart of the story was how his difference — his Deafness in a hearing world — was his gift to baseball. Because he was Deaf, he signed. He taught those signs to the umpires so he could play the game he loved. Those signs, which we still use today, make baseball a better game for everyone. Once that came to me, I realized I need to begin with the signs (his mother giving him Deaf applause when he practiced his throws as a boy) and finally show how he was loved by the fans when they greeted him with Deaf applause as his mother had done. The connecting thread was the applause. I used it to connect from the time he was a boy to a young rookie ballplayer to a successful and popular ballplayer.”

Heather Lang: “It’s always a challenge with picture book biographies deciding whether to focus on one event or a short part of a person’s life or even an entire life. Lots of things factor into that decision, like what research is available and what I really want my book to be about. I decided I wanted the book to be about Alice’s incredible determination and tenacity in the face of so many obstacles—poverty, segregation, and gender discrimination. In order to pull that off, I needed to start with her childhood. I always knew I wanted to end the book with her winning the gold medal—such a high point.”

Shana Keller:“The more I researched him, the more it felt right to focus his story on the achievement that everyone supported during a divisive time in our history, and one he did of his own volition. It’s noted that people came from near and far to see his clock.”

Kristen Fulton:“I knew that this was going to be about one small part of history, not a biography, but about an event. So it was easy. I decided to start it and end it with the event.”

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