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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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Today we are chatting with former teacher and current picture-book writer Penny Parker Klostermann. Her second book, A COOKED UP FAIRY TALE, is due out next year. Here she looks back at creating her first picture book, THERE WAS AN OLD DRAGON WHO SWALLOWED A KNIGHT—Named Best in Rhyme 2015 in conjunction with the Rhyming Picture Book Revolution Conference.

Q. Was THERE WAS AN OLD DRAGON WHO SWALLOWED A KNIGHT the first picture book manuscript that you ever wrote? If not, what was the first picture book you wrote and what happened to it?
A. It was not the first. If I checked my files correctly, it was the twelfth. The first one I wrote was titled THE IMAGINATION SITUATION. It is still sitting. I've revisited it a few times to see if I could find my way to revisions, but so far it's a no-go.

A few things.

A. First, I knew I wanted to do a retelling of THERE WAS AN OLD LADY WHO SWALLOWED A FLY. In fact, I just counted my ideas for a retelling in my list of PIBOIDMO (Picture Book Idea Month) ideas over the years and I have twenty-one different main characters that I thought might work for this book and none of the ideas say "dragon." But I still kind of count this as a PIBOIDMO idea, as the spark was there.
Second, for about two years 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.
Finally, one day I was determined to find a main character for my retelling and I visited Tara Lazar's list of 500+ Things Kids Like. There was dragon again. I started writing and the the rest is history.

Q. How did you pick the title of your book?
A. Once I had the first thing the dragon would swallow, it made sense for that to be my title.

Q. What is your favorite part of the book? And was that part in the first draft?
A. Probably the annoying steed galloping around at a terrible speed. In my first draft I had a horse that galloped and trotted around, of course. A member of my critique group suggested the steed since it fits with knights and castles. I was embarrassed that I'd missed that wonderful detail. Yay for critique groups!

Q. Why did you decide to tell the story in third person?
A. That was an easy decision because I mirrored the original.

Q. How much of the story did you know when you began writing THERE WAS AN OLD DRAGON WHO SWALLOWED A KNIGHT?
A. Only about fifty percent. My first draft was 274 words. The final text is 481 words.

Q. Did THERE WAS AN OLD DRAGON WHO SWALLOWED A KNIGHT receive any rejection letters? Yes. If so, how many (ballpark)?
A. Ten, counting submissions to both agents and editors.

Q. Describe your reaction when you received an offer on THERE WAS AN OLD DRAGON WHO SWALLOWED A KNIGHT.
A. Total excitement. And disbelief! Really this reaction was when my agent, Tricia Lawrence, let me know there was strong interest. But, my editor, Maria Modugno, wanted revisions. I think that's pretty typical for a first-time author. I imagine she wanted to see if I had it in me. Plus, my story was in rhyme so revisions can be tricky. After I came through, we got an official offer.

Q. What kind of input did you have in choosing an illustrator for the book?
A. Maria did ask if we had suggestions and we gave a few. Really, I didn't expect to be asked so I didn't have a strong feel. Then when Maria said her first choice was Ben Mantle and Tricia and I saw his work we were delighted.

Q. What jumped out at you when you saw the first sketches and jacket cover?
A. I loved how he captured the dragon's personality. And the color palette is perfection. Ben Mantle nailed the whole thing and added so much to the story.

Q. How long did THERE WAS AN OLD DRAGON WHO SWALLOWED A KNIGHT take to be published—from the time you received an offer until it was printed?
A. Just under two years.

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 wouldn't change a thing. I felt very lucky to have an editor who attended to every detail and was determined to make the book the best it could be.

Q. Can you share any funny or memorable parts of letters from kids about THERE WAS AN OLD DRAGON WHO SWALLOWED A KNIGHT?
A. The most memorable thing so far is a drawing of my dragon that was given to me by a 3rd grade girl. She drew it during my presentation at her school. I loved that she loved my dragon enough to draw him. And she did a fabulous job.

Q. When you do readings of THERE WAS AN OLD DRAGON WHO SWALLOWED A KNIGHT, which part of the book gets the best reaction?
A. Kids love the spread where the dragon is completely bloated and roars, "Okay . . . enough! I've had enough— More than enough of this swallowing stuff." The dragon is so fat that it's hard not to laugh. And, of course, the BURRRRRP! spread is a favorite, too.

Q. What is your #1 tip on writing picture books?
A. Join SCBWI. There are a lot of resources out there, but SCBWI led me to most of them. Sorry, I can't just stop with one :-) Remember that even though revision is hard, that's usually where the magic happens.
Read! Read! Read!
To learn more about Penny Parker Klostermann and her books, visit her website
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