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True Story Blog

#firstpicturebook Flashback — Heather Lang and Queen of the Track

In 2016, I interviewed Heather Lang about creating her #firstpicturebook QUEEN OF THE TRACK: ALICE COACHMAN, OLYMPIC HIGH-JUMP CHAMPION which was published in 2012. Since her debut, Heather has published four more books, presented at conferences and schools around the country, and, just this month, won the SCBWI Crystal Kite Award for her picture book FEARLESS FLYER illustrated by Raul Colon. Congrats Heather and Raul!!

Here are a few links to Heather’s work:

To keep up with Heather, follow her on Twitter at @hblang
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Cate Berry is a faculty member with the Writing Barn in Texas and also speaks at schools, libraries and conferences on such topics as "Gender Stereotyping and Poetic Devices" and "From Stand Up to Sit Down: Funneling Surprise and Stand-Up Comedy into Humorous Picture Books." Inspired by a class assignment, Cate wrote her #firstpicturebook which will be published on May 8th. Today she talks to us about crafting PENGUIN AND TINY SHRIMP DON’T DO BEDTIME!—a Junior Library Guild selection and “a definite do for bedtime” (Kirkus Reviews).

Q. Was PENGUIN AND TINY SHRIMP DON’T DO BEDTIME! 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 close to my first book. I took two picture book classes at the Writing Barn in Austin, Texas (And I am lucky enough to teach there now). During my second class we were given the assignment of writing a bedtime book. I got a jump on the assignment and wrote this very quickly. It’s one of the few times something has come out “whole” and not needing a lot of revision (because that NEVER happens, as we know).

My very first picture book manuscript was called Puffin and Slip. It follows two creatures in a faraway galaxy. They are separated but stay connected through the moon and their special friendship. That manuscript is in a drawer right now but I think you’ve awoken my curiosity again! Thank you and I’ll keep you posted.

A. As I stated above it was a class assignment. But also, as I examine it closely years later, it was a love letter to my children. They are only thirteen months apart and when they were little acted as one unit. Plus, they hate bedtime. Can you tell?

Q. How did you pick the title of your book?
A. Oh, that’s a fun topic. The book was originally titled This is Not a Bedtime Book. In the end, we wanted something a little more original and full of the voice of the characters. I brainstormed a list and Penguin & Tiny Shrimp Don’t Do Bedtime! was a favorite with the Harper Collins/Balzer+Bray team. I’m so glad we changed it. I really love the final title.

Q. Do you write by hand or on the computer?
A. I write by hand but I also write a lot on my iPhone notes app. I heard an interview with Annie Leibovitz talking about how the best camera to use was the one on you all the time. She champions iPhone photography and that got me thinking about using my Notes App for writing while I’m out in the world. There are so many opportunities to write: waiting for the dentist, right before your household wakes up, when insomnia hits in the dead of night. It’s freeing to just swipe over to an app and jot down inspiration when it hits.

Q. What is your favorite part of the book? And was that part in the first draft?
A. My favorite part of the book is probably the double spread of the “turn” or climax of the book. Penguin & Tiny Shrimp’s anti-bedtime shenanigans have reached a fever pitch and Charles Santoso’s illustrations are just so joyous and fun. He really captures my heart in that spread because it epitomizes being a kid.

Q. How did you select the names for your characters? 
A. I’ve been asked this a lot and I wish there were a snappier answer. But the truth is they just came to me very suddenly while I was drafting. You have to pay attention to your story when things are flowing. Things were definitely in “flow” that day.

Q. How did you decide between telling the story in first, second, or third person? 
A. A teacher of mine from grad school once said, “Every writer gets something for free.” My “freebie” is dialogue. It comes very organically for me. This entire book is told through dialogue and that is very much my voice as a writer.

Q. How much of the story did you know when you began writing PENGUIN AND TINY SHRIMP DON’T DO BEDTIME! ? 
A. Well, my subconscious knew quite a bit since sleuth bedtime tactics had been my life for so long with small children. I think when I started the story I knew they would end up passing out at the end. I can’t believe in a story fully until I know the ending.

Q. Did PENGUIN AND TINY SHRIMP DON’T DO BEDTIME!  receive any rejection letters? If so, how many (ballpark)?
A. Oh yes. It was on submission for several months and we received around 8-10 rejections. But then, presto we got several offers all at once. The book ended up at auction with four publishing houses. It sounds cliché, but I guess the take-away is that you should never give up on something you believe in.

Q. Describe your reaction when you received an offer on PENGUIN AND TINY SHRIMP DON’T DO BEDTIME! 
A. My agent called me and I had to pull over because I was driving. I screamed, of course, and then cried. I was very, very happy. Getting a book published relies on a lot of things lining up perfectly. I feel grateful every day for this opportunity.

Q. What kind of input did you have in choosing an illustrator for the book? 
A. My editor was open to suggestions from me. I requested that she consider Charles Santoso among others. She was charmed by the idea of Charles illustrating the book and we were both thrilled when he agreed.

Q. What jumped out at you when you saw the first sketches and jacket cover?
A. Oh. They exceeded my expectations. Not only were they adorable but also they were also full of personality and verve. I don’t know how Charles did it. I have so much respect and admiration for illustrators in general. It was such a gift when the first sketches came in.

Q. How long did PENGUIN AND TINY SHRIMP DON’T DO BEDTIME!  take to be published—from the time you received an offer until it was printed?
A. I believe we sold the book in the fall of 2016. It debuts May 8, 2018.

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. That’s a great question. There was not much editing on my end. However my editor did nudge me to perfect some of Tiny Shrimp’s lines, adding more specificity. I’m so glad she did as it goosed the humor, in my opinion, and made his character that much more fun.

Q. Have you read PENGUIN AND TINY SHRIMP DON’T DO BEDTIME!  to kids? If so, which part of the book gets the best reaction?
A. I have read the book to lots of kids! I think the biggest laugh always happens when the Uni-Hippo makes a surprise entrance. I think my biggest thrill is seeing kids delight in two aquatic creatures bounding into zany adventures avoiding sleep. It’s every kid’s fantasy, or at least the kids I know.

Q. Did you create any book swag for PENGUIN AND TINY SHRIMP DON’T DO BEDTIME!? If so, what kind?
A. Yes! My sister is a wonderful designer and she and I have just ordered postcards for librarians, bookplates, stickers and buttons. I also made an invitation for the book launch on May 20th at the indie bookstore BookPeople in Austin, Texas. You’re all invited!

Q. What is your #1 tip for picture-book writers?
A. Read, read, read and then read more picture books. Don’t underestimate how much you’re learning about the form while you read picture books, especially aloud.

Q. Do you have a favorite writing exercise or marketing tip that you can share?
A. I try to write something every day even when I have just a few minutes. One of my advisors in grad school taught me this. It can be as small as a picture book title idea or a stanza in a poem. But it does wonders for keeping your creative wheels greased.

Q. What are you working on now?
A. I’m in the middle of revising four picture books and I’m on my third major revision of a middle grade novel. I’m also dabbling in non-fiction picture books. It scares me because the research is so interesting I’m afraid I’ll fall down the rabbit hole and never come out!

I’m also reminding myself every week to pay it forward and be generous about helping other writers as much as time will allow. That’s important to me: connection and community.

Q. Where can people find you? (Website, Twitter, Instagram, etc.)
A. I love to hear from kids, readers, and writers! You can find me here:
Twitter: @cberrywriter
Insta: @cateberryatx
Cate Berry Reads PENGUIN & TINY SHRIMP DON'T DO BEDTIME!: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=7_kfuwBfvPc
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The little extras

While you are waiting for your #firstpicturebook to be published, think about the little extras to add to your website for kids or teachers. I’m not a huge fan of printable bookmarks because I’ve never seen anyone use a bookmark with a picture book. But I do like the idea of coloring sheets or printable posters. (How great would a kid’s room be if the walls were covered in book posters?) Other extras include discussion guides, games, puzzles, and how-to-draw activities. What items would work well with your book? To get some ideas, take a look at the little extras these authors created for their #firstpicturebooks:

DOLL-E 1.0
How to draw book characters

Discussion Guide

Teacher’s guide

How to draw book character

Crafts and activities

Activity sheets

Activity kit

Story Hour Kit

Educator’s guide

Event kit


Teacher’s Guide

Video and Activities


Teacher’s Guide

Discussion and Activity Guide

Character cards and book songs

Teacher’s Guide

Hidden details

Activities guide

Click here to see the little extras for my #firstpicturebook NADIA.

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DOLL-E 1.0

Shanda (rhymes with panda) McCloskey’s #firstpicturebook was inspired by watching her inventive daughters play with their toys and was later named by her husband. Now this family-made creation comes out May 1 and today she shares the nuts and bolts of DOLL-E 1.0—“an engaging story, arguing for the marriage of technology with creativity and play” (Kirkus Reviews ) and “an enjoyable romp for readers, whether they’re plugged in or not” (Booklist).

Q. Was DOLL-E 1.0  the first picture book manuscript you ever wrote? If not, what was the first picture book you wrote and what happened to it?
A. Hmm. I think this was probably the 3rd or 4th picture book I spent real time on. For a few of those, I was stuck on writing about how making art was similar to cooking with ingredients. The idea sounded fun, but it wasn’t when I actually wrote it. I still remember the looks on my writer friends’ faces when I finished reading my drafts aloud… poor guys, they had to tell me how bad it was without breaking my spirit. I guess, they succeeded, because I’m still here. :)
Q. What inspired DOLL-E 1.0?
A. One day, I was playing dolls and stuffed animals with my two-year-old daughter who naturally liked books and movies with robots in them. While we played, she said her doll was a robot. And that idea just flew all over me! I ran to write it down, and the next few weeks I researched robot picture books to see if this idea had been played out before. To my surprise, it hadn’t. And not only that, but ALL the robot-themed books I found in that time were made with boy readers in mind. A robot book with girl-appeal was missing!
Q. How did you pick the title of your book?
A. My husband, Ben, came up with this title. I loved it from the moment he said it, and I was lucky that my editor at Little Brown, Andrea Spooner, liked it too!
Q. Do you write by hand or on the computer?
A. A little of both, actually.
Q. What is your favorite part of the book? And was that part in the first draft?
A. This is the original image from which the story of DOLL-E 1.0 was born. Waaaaay before I had a agent or an offer, I wanted to draw tools, intense creating, plans, and mechanical parts, so I did. And aside from a few detail additions, this original image appears in the book!

Q. How did you select the names for your characters?
A. As I drew her, I thought the girl looked like a “Charlotte” and after I had called her that for so long, it stuck! I think it’s a strong, classic, yet cool and revived, female name.
“Blutooth” was a fun discovery! But legally we couldn’t use the trademarked spelling: Bluetooth. So, we took out the E. We also toyed with the idea of calling him “Megabyte”, but Blutooth rolled off my tongue much easier when I read my story aloud - which I will probably be doing a lot. :)
“Doll-E” was the first character to be named. An electronic play-on name for a dolly!
Q. Why did you decide to tell the story in third person?
A. I tried both ways, but third person with some dialogue seemed the best fit.
Q. How much of the story did you know when you began writing DOLL-E 1.0 ?
A. I thought I knew most of it, but as I mention in another answer below, just about ALL of it changed once I got better acquainted with my kid/kid-like characters.
Q. Did you write the story first, then illustrate it? Or did the images appear before the words?
A. Characters seem to come first, then I try to find their story, then I toggle between art and story in the dummy process. I take away, add, or rework until it feels close to right. I think I made 7 different dummies for DOLL-E 1.0 before I settled where I did.
Q. Did DOLL-E 1.0  receive any rejection letters? If so, how many (ballpark)?
A. Earlier versions of DOLL-E 1.0 got rejected 6 times, but some of these rejections had valuable feedback attached that resulted in good changes!
Q. Describe your reaction when you received an offer on DOLL-E 1.0 .
A. It was so flipping exciting! DOLL-E 1.0 went to auction with 4 offers! It was like the movies where I was always near my phone waiting on an update from my agent. I may never experience excitement like this over one of my books again, but I’ll surely NEVER forget it!
On the other hand, I didn’t feel like I’d won the lottery either. I felt like I had worked hard for this moment, and I still had a lot of work ahead of me once I accepted one of the offers.
Q. How long did DOLL-E 1.0  take to be published—from the time you received an offer until it was printed?
A. About a year and a half. I received offers in January 2017 and DOLL-E 1.0 is set to be on shelves May 1st, 2018. It was put on a “rushed” schedule because of the popular girl/tech subject. We didn’t want to be late to the party, so to speak.
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. When I started writing DOLL-E 1.0 I had some beautiful themes/messages about what technology can’t replace that I was trying to write a story around. But, as I got to know my characters better as kids, I found that my “themes” were actually very grown-up thoughts. It was tough to let go of my lovely (but didactic) ideas and remember how my mind worked when I was a kid.
Q. What is your #1 tip for picture books writers?
A. Just keep plugging along ... working, reading, learning new things, trying new things, meeting people … and you WILL eventually see fruits from your labor. :)
Q. Do you have a favorite writing exercise or marketing tip that you can share?
A. Every year my critique group retreats to a cabin in Alabama for a writing weekend! We follow a schedule of working, eating, walking and critiquing each day. It has proven to be really productive AND fun!
Q. What are you working on now?
A. Currently, I’m working on a companion story to DOLL-E 1.0 where you’ll meet Charlotte’s neighborhood friends including Lucas and his drone named T-Bone!
Q. Where can people find you? (Website, Twitter, etc.)
Web: shandamc.com
Instagram: @shandamccloskeydraws
Twitter: @shandamccloskey
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An Extraordinary Ordinary Moth

Almost two years after my #firstpicturebook was published, my second picture book is here! Check out my blog tour where I share my inspiration for the book, writing tips, a list of publishers that accept unsolicited manuscripts, and the best thing I did while waiting for my book to be published:

Author spotlight and writing tips.

Maria Marshall’s Blog
My inspiration for the book and list of publishers that accept unsolicited manuscripts.

Celebrate Picture Books
“Through her vivacious rhymes, Karlin Gray elevates the “ordinary” back-porch moth to star status with fascinating facts that will lure kids to discover more.”

Pragmatic Mom
“This rhyming picture book covers a range of moth species and spreads a message of looking deeper to find what is unique and special in all creatures.”

Literary Hoots
The Best Thing I Did While Waiting for My book to be Published.

KidLit Coffee Talk
From my favorite coffee to my favorite books.

Picture Book Depot
“This is a sweet little book about moths that can double as a pick-me-up for any child who isn’t feeling special at the moment.”

Rebecca Grabill’s Blog
“A delight for the eyes and a fascinating look at the most ordinary of extraordinary creatures, the moth.

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Spring back for inspiration

Today is April 2nd and it’s snowing here in Connecticut! So I’m going to look back at some #firstpicturebooks that promise warmer weather and inspire me to keep writing . . . instead of hiding under the covers like my dog Ellie. Click on each book title to read the complete #firstpicturebook Q&A:

“I've always loved spending time outside. When I was young I think I took this connection to the natural world for granted. I didn't realize that you really have to hang onto that, or the busyness of life will take over. With my own kids I've tried to encourage outdoor play and a sense of wonder for nature, in both big and little ways. I think all of this was in the back of my mind as I wrote FINDING WILD. I wanted to celebrate nature and the special connection kids--and, really, all of us--can experience when we take the time to notice the beauty and wild all around us.”

“One of my favorite parts of the book is the surfing spread where it shows a girl surfing. Not only is it wonderful to showcase girls in sports, but this young girl is clearly experienced enough to be able to surf “toes-on-the-nose” style. I remember this phrase coming to mind after I had been working on the manuscript for quite a while.”

“It was inspired by a nature walk I took with my daughters, who were then 6 and 8. They were not especially keen on walks at that time, so we decided that, to liven things up, we would take a stroll through our local nature preserve while being on the lookout for spots where fairies might be hiding. From there the story took on a life of its own - and the result is as you see it!”

“One day, while walking my dogs, I found the milkweed along the side of our quiet road had been mowed. Milkweed is vital to monarch survival. Monarch caterpillars were clinging to the drying plants. Seeing this was upsetting. The monarchs are in trouble, and I wanted to share their story.”

“My daughter and I were at the park and she was playing pretend and said, “Salad Pie,” which I thought was so clever and creative that I repeated it in my head over and over all the way home. Then, during her rest time, I scribbled out the first draft of the story.”

“I was remembering when my daughter began reading middle-grade novels. She sank so deep into those books that she was in another world.... So that’s what the first version of the story was about—a boy whose best friend (his cat) gets lost in books. Gradually the story changed so that the boy teaches the cat to read. And then two cats were being taught, but reading didn’t come equally easily to both...”

“I've always loved to swim and remember clearly learning to jump off the diving board. I try to write stories about moments that are relatable to kids and that one stuck out for me.”

“My husband and co-author Baldev Lamba is a landscape architect.  Years ago, we were walking in a harsh urban area, and he pointed to some weeds and wild flowers springing up through cracks in the cement. And he said something along the lines of, "See that? Nature is always there just waiting to come back." That stuck with me for a long time, and became the inspiration for our book.”

“The idea for the story came while playing outside in the rain with my children. They were so happy running in rain, splashing in pools of water and rolling in the dirt.”

“I spent three months researching daily everything I could about pollen, forest animals, black bears. I dug up every creature that eats pollen, wrote to vetters to double check the science. I hiked through a few national parks and pine forests, visited live bears in New Hampshire, observed a large honeybee hive at the Boston Museum of Science, and constantly researched bees pollinating flowers everywhere I could. I also contacted beekeepers, and went to multiple butterfly conservatories.”
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