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True Story Blog

5 Favorites from . . . Me!

This week was the launch of my third picture book SERENA: THE LITTLEST SISTER. So today, I‘m sharing my 5 Favorites:


My favorite place to write:

I love writing in my indoor deck, especially when it's raining. But that's a little dangerous since it's also the perfect place for a catnap.


My favorite mentor text: 

On my desk, I have a copy of Shel Silverstein's WHERE THE SIDEWALK ENDS. It reminds me of my childhood . . . that you can be both silly and serious on the very same page . . . and that "all the magic I have known I've had to make myself."


My favorite writing tip:

There's no place for perfection in a first draft. Just get it out of your head and onto the page. (No one sees it but you!) After that, revise, revise, revise.


My favorite marketing tip:

Be positive on social media or people will stop following you. I follow and share posts from people who are positive and provide useful information. A good example of this is Debbi Ohi. While I've never met her, I'm pretty sure she is part kidlit professor, part rainbow. I love her broken crayon illustrations as much as I love all the helpful resources on her website.


My favorite book event of the year:

I really enjoyed going to the Hudson Children’s Book Festival this year. The event is so well organized, the volunteers are exceptional, and EVERY attendee receives a free book. Can't wait to return next year!

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A list for NADIA readers

Often, when I read my #firstpicturebook NADIA to kids, I am rewarded with the question, “You mean this book is about a real person?”

I love this question because I think it means that illustrator Christine Davenier and I did our jobs—we translated a true event into an entertaining children’s story. “What’s the real Nadia look like?” is usually the next question.

Fortunately, the publisher included two pictures of Comaneci on the back flap. But kids always want more. So over the holiday break I put together a list of online media that kids can review after reading the book (with supervision from an adult, of course). It’s my gift to the NADIA reader who wants to learn more and to parents and teachers who want to enhance the reading experience (or just need a few minutes to dart to the restroom or get a cup of coffee).

Happy New Year—here’s hoping 2018 is a perfect 10 . . . or at least not a 1.0!

Top 10 Links to Click after Reading NADIA: THE GIRL WHO COULDN’T SIT STILL

The Olympics Where Are They Now? If you have 9 1/2 minutes, this is a nice up-to-date video on Nadia Comaneci.


Nadia talks about gymnasts she admires, past and present. (3 1/2 minutes)

Nadia reviews her performances at the 1976 Olympics (2 1/2 minutes)

Highlights of Nadia’s routines at 1976 Olympics. (2 1/2 minutes)

More highlights set to music. (3 minutes)

Cute video of Nadia and her husband Olympic Gold Medalist Bart Conner (1 1/2 minutes)

BBC The Conversation: Audio between Nadia Comaneci and Simone Biles (2 minutes)

The Olympics On the Record: Nadia Comaneci (5 minutes)

Photos from The Guardian’s 50 Stunning Olympic Moments. See any familiar images?

And if your reader wants to be Nadia in a game, here is Nadia’s free app
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10 Writers Talk Titles

How did you pick the title for your #firstpicturebook? Ten writers answer this question below. Click on the quote to flash back to the original Q&A.

Maryann Cocca-Leffler: There was an old ad for Prince Pasta on TV …Wednesday is Prince Spaghetti Day…which was catchy. I wrote to the Prince Pasta Company to make sure there was no problem using my title. It was Okayed and the title stuck.

Susan Montanari: In the dream the woman said, “That’s not a dog it’s a chicken.”

Maria Gianferrari: The original title of the book was PENELOPE, UNTALENTED. However, because I received a two-book deal, we needed a title that could carry to the second book, so Penny & Jelly was born!

Emma Bland Smith: JOURNEY is the name that a child (actually two children in different states) submitted in a naming contest sponsored by a conservation organization, Oregon Wild. (The full name of the book is JOURNEY: Based on the True Story of OR7, the Most Famous Wolf in the West.) I love the name because it evokes the wolf’s adventurous spirit.

Karlin Gray: In reading Nadia Comaneci's autobiography, I learned that she was a rambunctious toddler who had tons of energy.... While I was writing my book, I also had a three-year old who loved to fling himself from couch to couch. Constant movement was a theme on the page and in my own living room. The two collided and created NADIA: THE GIRL WHO COULDN'T SIT STILL.

Heather Lang: “Queen of the Track,” was one of Alice’s nicknames. Although she wasn’t treated like a queen by society, she behaved like one and really did dominate the track for a number of years in sprinting events and the high jump. The title also worked nicely with the ending—the King presents Alice (“the Queen”) with her gold medal.

Ammi-Joan Paquette: Originally the book was called simply TRACKING FAIRIES. However, my editor felt this could invoke a harsher feel: ‘tracking’ in the sense of ‘hunting’ (poor fairies!). My writer friend Natalie Lorenzi suggested the “Tiptoe Guide” portion, which I think did a brilliant job of softening and tying the whole title together. I love the result!

Jodi McKay: I honestly didn’t think that this would remain the title. It’s just what I kept asking myself for so long and still do for that matter. Even now, as I write the answers to these questions, I’m going back and forth looking for the right words. It’s crazy, but it’s part of my process.

Wendy BooydeGraaff: This is one of those times when the title came first, and then the 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.

Cheryl Keely: The original title was Here to There and Me to You. I liked the thought of bridges making connections and bringing people together. I really liked the line in the book containing those words. It seemed to me to sum up the best connection of all – me to you and you to me. A Book of Bridges was added later to make it clear that the book was about bridges. It helps to let readers to know what a book is about!
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10 More Tips for Writing Picture Books

Here is a list of tips pulled from previous posts. Click on the quote to read the writer's entire Q&A.

Laban Carrick Hill: "A picture book is not a word book. The words in a picture book need to serve the illustrations, not the other way around, even though the illustrations would not exist if not the words had been written first. What I tried to do was provide artfully descriptive language that would be a springboard for the illustrator to do their thing."

Abraham Schroeder: "If you can't stop thinking about even the faintest notion of an idea, a character, a little phrase, write it down and see what it turns into. Many times I've jotted down an idea that I think is totally silly, but after considering it objectively, sometimes months or years later, I realize there might be a whole a lot more to it."

Maria Gianferrari: "Don’t give up! Even though picture books are short, they’re not easy to write. They often undergo multiple revisions and entirely change shape. It takes time to improve your craft. Keep reading; keep writing and join a critique group for feedback."

Megan Wagner Lloyd: "Find your unique voice and trust the illustrator (aka keep your art notes to a minimum!)"

Sylvia Liu: "I had known about the award for over a decade. After I started writing picture books, I kept the award in the back of my mind each year, but it wasn’t until I wrote A MORNING WITH GRANDPA that I felt I had a story that was suitable for the contest."

Susan Hood: "An interesting exercise is to type out the text of a favorite picture book and then compare it to the finished book. It will help you see how the text works hand in hand with the art to create something new."

Emma Bland Smith: "My process is always something like this: I write something. I think it’s great. I send it to my critique partners. They tell me everything that’s wrong with it and how to fix it. I lick my wounds for a few hours or days. Then I take their advice and revise it. Repeat several times."

Penny Parker Klostermann: "I took pictures of clouds that took on familiar shapes. One evening I photographed one that looked just like a dragon and I thought what a great main character a dragon would make if I could just find a story for him."

Karlin Gray: "I thought back to my six-year-old self and wondered, who would I have wanted to see in a picture book?"

Donna Mae: "I took on self-publishing as a personal challenge. I had an overwhelming feeling of Do This Book By Yourself."
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Thank you to all the writers who have participated in this blog. I love learning about how someone travels from a moment of inspiration to a finished piece of work! I hope this blog is useful to other picture-book writers and encourages them to write on!

To mark my June 7th book launch, I'm answering this week's Q&A about my first picture book,

Q. Was NADIA the first picture-book manuscript that you wrote? If not, what was the first picture book that you wrote and what happened to it?
A. My first picture-book manuscript was about a boy who couldn't find anyone to play with on the playground. It's just kind of sad and a little abstract. I don't think it's a story that kids would want to read over and over again so it hides in a drawer somewhere.

Q. What inspired NADIA?
A. My writing instructor was reviewing some nonfiction picture books and I couldn't remember reading a nonfiction picture book when I was a kid. I thought back to my six-year-old self and wondered, who would I have wanted to see in a picture book? The first name that popped into my head was Nadia Comaneci. I loved gymnastics and would have clutched a book like that close to my heart.

Q. What kind of resources did you use while researching NADIA?
A. Everything I could find: Olympic coverage, interviews with Ms. Comaneci, newspaper and magazine articles, and books—Nadia Comaneci's two autobiographies along with Bela Karolyi's autobiography were essential! The official websites of Nadia Comaneci and Bart Conner, the International Gymnastics Hall of Fame, and the Olympic Studies Center were also key resources.
Some of these can be found on my Pinterest page along with some videos of Comaneci and my messy first page draft.

Q. How did you pick the title of your book?
A. At first, I wanted the word "hope" to be in the title because Nadia's name means "hope" and she was an Olympic-hopeful-turned-champion. But I didn't come up with anything that I liked. In reading Nadia Comaneci's autobiography Letters to a Young Gymnast (Basic Books), I learned that she was a rambunctious toddler who had tons of energy. She wrote, “If I wasn’t playing soccer or climbing trees, then I was doing cartwheels. The freedom of movement was intoxicating, and I could never stand still.” While I was writing my book, I also had a three-year old who loved to fling himself from couch to couch. (And honestly, he still does.) Constant movement was a theme on the page and in my own living room. The two collided and created NADIA: THE GIRL WHO COULDN'T SIT STILL.

Q. What is your favorite part of the book? And was that part in the first draft?
A. My favorite part of the text: "Soon, Nadia was flying from bar to bar, from floor to vault, and high above the beam." This wasn't in my first draft. My first draft: "Nadia practiced and practiced and practiced even more until she performed her routines perfectly." Bleh, boring! Around the second or third draft, I focused on "show don't tell" and brought in the image of flying. It was also a good way to cover the four areas of women's gymnastics in one sentence. At a school reading, the librarian asked what the kids liked about the book and one boy recited that very line. I almost cried.

For several reasons, my favorite illustration is Nadia flipping on the beam. First, I have a distinct childhood memory of staring up at the TV and watching in awe as Comaneci danced, flew, and flipped on a four-inch beam. Second, this illustration is based on a famous Olympic photo where the photographer shows several frames within one combination of moves. Finally, the illustration is such a great foil to the previous beam illustration where she falls off in her first competition. Thank you Christine Davenier!

Q. How did you select the time frame for NADIA?
A. For me, the heart of the story is how a "flaw" fueled the way to excellence. So I started the story when Nadia was a four-year-old bouncing off the walls and getting into trouble and ended it when she was 14 and made Olympic history. I love how illustrator Christine Davenier used the same idea for the first and last page but also showed Nadia's transformation.

Q. Did NADIA receive any rejection letters? If so, how many (ballpark)?
A. Oh yes, it was rejected by several publishers and agents. I remember one agent said that although she was passing on the book, she could see that I wrote nonfiction very well. That was such an encouraging rejection! I continued to receive rejection letters after my offer. Happily, I tossed those in the trash.

Q. Describe your reaction when you received an offer on NADIA.
A. One day I received an email with NADIA in the subject line. I assumed it was another rejection letter. Instead, it was an HMH editor saying she would do triple back flips if I'd accept her offer. I jumped up and down and called my husband and parents. Neither answered. I couldn't tell anyone until I told them so I kept texting my husband, "Good news, good news," until he responded. He came home, grilled steaks, and opened a bottle of champagne.

Q. What kind of input did you have in choosing an illustrator for the book?
A. My editor Kate O'Sullivan was kind enough to ask me for suggestions although I knew I didn't have a say in the matter. She was so excited when Christine Davenier accepted and I trusted her completely. I can't imagine anyone else illustrating NADIA.

Q. What jumped out at you when you saw the first sketches and jacket cover?
A. Christine Davenier's artwork reminded me of "swimming through an ocean of air"—words used by sportscaster Jim McKay when he described Comaneci at the '76 Olympics.

Q. How long did NADIA take to be published—from the time you received an offer until it was printed?
A. Three years. My editor told me in the offer letter that she wanted to publish it in time for the 2016 Summer Olympics.

Q. Is there anything you would change in the book today if you could reprint it? (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 love to cut text that doesn't move the story forward so I don't miss anything that was edited out. (For example, my first draft had a sentence or two describing Nadia's mother as a homemaker and her father as a mechanic. Those descriptions were not essential to the overall story so I took them out.) I do regret that I wasn't able to get an interview with Ms. Comaneci. I think having a Q&A in the back matter would have added another layer of meaning. I should have tried harder but I wanted to respect her privacy.

Q. Can you share any funny or memorable parts of letters from kids about NADIA?
A. After my first school visit, I received a package of letters from the kids. They were all so sweet and encouraging. One wrote, "This book was amazing. We think you should keep up the good work because we want to read more, thanks." I might wallpaper my office with it.

Q. When you do readings of NADIA, which part of the book gets the best reaction?
A. When Nadia receives the score of a 1.00, the kids get fired up: "What?! That's not fair!" It's the same reaction the crowd had that day in Montreal. The kids settle down once they learn it was really a 10.

Q. What is your #1 tip to those of us who want to write picture books?
A. I think all the doors in my head burst open when one of my writing instructors said: "Write your first draft fast and don't stop to correct anything. Just get it all out. It might terrible and that's ok because no one else will see it but you." Then go back, again and again, and revise. Characters, dialogue, plot points, and themes will emerge. And guess what—if you end up hating it, you toss it in a drawer. No big deal.

Q. What else are you working on?
A. I'm always working on nonfiction and fiction picture books. On my desk, there is a box of working manuscripts with stories about presidents, magicians, explorers, athletes, mermaids, monsters, scarecrows, cats, mice, and one sad moth. I hope they behave when I turn off the lights.

Come visit me this summer at these book events.
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