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True Story Blog

Why did you decide to write your picture book in first or third person?

"That's just the way the story came out" was the most popular answer to this question. But these writers had specific reasons for their point-of-view choices. Clink on the answer to read more from each author's #firstpicturebook Q&A:

Hannah Barnaby, author of BAD GUY and GARCIA & COLETTE: “For me, the point-of-view for any story comes organically from the mood and tone of the story itself. BAD GUY is a character piece with a surprise at the end, so first-person/present-tense supports that effect. GARCIA & COLETTE is a more traditional friendship story with a very clear structure, so third-person/past-tense felt just right for it.”

Miriam Glassman, author of HALLOWEENA: “Because it is based on a fairy tale, I felt it should have a fairy tale feel to it. So from the very first draft, it was in third person. Also, by not telling it all from Hepzibah’s point of view, it was much easier to show the mother-daughter struggle.”

Tara Lazar, author of THE MONSTORE: “Aha! I had originally written the story in first person, in Zack’s voice, but my editor asked me to change it. That was so we could get some fun repetition with Zack speaking, as in “Zack wanted a refund. ‘I want a refund!’”

Shennen Bersani, author of ACHOO!: WHY POLLEN COUNTS: “I felt the third person drives home the science facts and importance of the subject, while allowing children to put themselves in the story more easily.”

Hrefna Bragadottir, author of BAXTER’S BOOK: “I played around with telling it in third person, but it just didn’t feel as strong. I wanted Baxter to talk directly to the reader in the present moment to get a better sense of the journey he goes on. It keeps it short and sweet.”

Cheryl Lawton Malone, author of DARIO AND THE WHALE: “I use third person to tell the story from two points of view—Dario’s and the whale’s. First person might confuse readers because of the two points of view/perspective.”

Susan Farrington, author of WHAT I LOVE ABOUT YOU: “It seemed natural to tell the story in the first person. I wanted the child to feel the parent/caregiver was speaking directly to them.”

Gaia Cornwall, author of JABARI JUMPS: “I did versions of it in first person and in the end I liked the rhythm of how it sounded out loud in third person. But also it let the dad be a character in his own right as opposed to seeing him through Jabari's eyes-- as you would in first person. I think this way, adults will find him relatable, just like the kids will see themselves in Jabari.”

David Litchfield, author of THE BEAR AND THE PIANO: “I didn't really think about it at the time. But now that I am thinking, maybe it's because if I had written it from the Bear’s perspective and have the bear narrate it would have broken the Magic a bit. After all, if the bear can talk and tell us the story, it's not to far to stretch our belief that the bear can play the piano. So maybe, sub consciously, that's why I wrote it in the third person.”

Hazel Mitchell, author of TOBY: “Originally I wanted it to be almost wordless. But as I worked on the story with my editor and art director, we felt more words were needed. So it's mostly conversational in graphic panels, with some short lines in first person to lead the reader from one scene to another. It's good for the parent to have something to read aloud and not just to look at the pictures and also gives the child something to linger over.”

Robin Newman, author of HILDIE BITTERPICKLES NEEDS HER SLEEP: “I like that you can confide facts to the reader with a third person narrator.”

Brittany R. Jacobs, author of THE KRAKEN’S RULES FOR MAKING FRIENDS: “In the beginning I toyed around with telling the story from the Kraken's point of view, but I wanted to show why the fish don't like him. He's big and scary and has a terrible temper. Bringing the narration out to third person allowed for the reader to experience more of the characters.”

Jodi McKay, author of WHERE ARE THE WORDS?: “Well, for a couple of reasons. One, I figured that if I wrote it in first person, then these unconventional characters may feel more relatable and two, I wanted this to be a simple story with a twist. I imagined children reading it and discovering that the characters speak as their roles dictate. That, to me, would be an incredible learning opportunity.”

Curtis Manley, author of THE SUMMER NICK TAUGHT HIS CATS TO READ: “The first four years of my working on it, the story was in first person. I felt that made it more immediate. But first person isn’t always the best choice for a read-aloud. My editor asked me to try it in third person; that allowed the humor to come out more, so we kept it that way.”

Jason Gallaher, author of WHOBERT WHOVER: OWL DETECTIVE: “I thought third person served Whobert's story better because a narrator sort of gives Whobert a little credibility in his detective work. Whobert is a dunce detective, but he doesn't know it, and he really does want to do good in his community. I thought by having an omniscient narrator detailing his exploits, it would give this sort of subconscious recognition that at least somebody thinks Whobert's life is noteworthy even if he's not fully aware of his surroundings.”

Megan Wagner Lloyd, author of FINDING WILD: “It’s actually in second person, which wasn't a conscious decision for me--once I got the voice of the piece rolling, I just went with it.”
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Originally from England, where she attended art-college and served in the Royal Navy, Hazel Mitchell now lives and works in Maine. She has illustrated many books for children including Imani’s Moon, One Word Pearl, Animally, and Where Do Fairies Go When It Snows? But today, she is talking about her author-illustrator debut, TOBY. "This familiar story with a family cast not often seen in picture books will warm dog-loving hearts.—School Library Journal

Q. You illustrated several books before TOBY. How did you make the transition to writer/illustrator and how does it compare with being an illustrator of someone else's work?
A. That's a good question. I have always written, but I've always been an artist first, even at school. It's what I was best at. But throughout my life I've always tinkered with story ideas. Finishing them was the big problem! It's easy to start, right? I think we all have a mountain of unfinished projects in drawers or under the mattress. So, I went to art college, art became my career (I worked as a graphic designer until I came to America in 2000). When I began to finally think seriously about trying to get work in the children's trade book industry, it was natural that I'd showcase my artwork first and that's how I got my first books to illustrate. But I was still working on stories. It was a great learning curve illustrating first and I enjoy collaborating very much with authors. But I still wanted to write my own books! And I wanted an agent and I wanted one who would represent my writing too. So I figured I'd better start finishing my story ideas. I'd been rejected by agents in the past (part of the course), but when I started to write about Toby finishing the first draft/dummy happened in 4 weeks. And strangely enough, my agent, Ginger Knowlton of Curtis Brown Ltd., signed me 4 weeks after that! This is my first book as author and illustrator. It's different in several ways from being illustrator only. When you receive a manuscript to illustrate, the idea is all ready conceived, you are working with someone else's idea. When it's your story, you are working on both sides of the fence at once. When I'm illustrating someone else's book I am always conscious of their words, hoping they will like the finished product and that I will do them justice. When I was illustrating my own book I felt like I had a split personality in some ways. I am looking forward to working on more of my own stories, but I also want to work on other manuscripts too ... because it's a wonderment drawing things you would never have conceived yourself.

Q. What inspired TOBY?
A. Toby, my poodle! I adopted him from Houlton Humane Animal Shelter, Aroostook, Maine in fall 2013. I posted a lot about him on social media and his development as a very fearful dog. People really loved him. It was actually Harold Underdown who suggested I write a book about him. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Q. How did you pick the title of your book?
A. It was always 'TOBY'. My editor (Liz Bicknell) and art director (Ann Stott) at Candlewick threw some other ideas on the table, but 'TOBY' was the final choice.

Q. What is your favorite part of the book? And was that part in the first draft?
A. I have a lot of favorite parts, because although Toby is adopted in the book by a fictionalized character, much of what happens is from real stuff that happened with Toby. I think my fav scene is the part where the boy, who is Toby's new owner, comes downstairs when Toby's howling, gives him a toy rabbit and sleeps next to Toby to sooth him, (my husband did that the first few nights Toby was with us). And yes it was in the first draft (and we had about 5 drafts!).

Q. How did you select the names for your characters?
A. This is easy - I only have one named character! The boy and the Dad in the story are unnamed. Although Dad calls the boy 'Bud' affectionately. I don't know if that is his real name. My husband calls his son 'Bud' occasionally.

Q. How did you decide between telling the story in first person or third person?
A. Originally I wanted it to be almost wordless. But as I worked on the story with my editor and art director, we felt more words were needed. So it's mostly conversational in graphic panels, with some short lines in first person to lead the reader from one scene to another. It's good for the parent to have something to read aloud and not just to look at the pictures and also gives the child something to linger over.

Q. How much of the story did you know when you began writing TOBY?
A. Hmm. A fair bit. I knew that it was about my dog in a fictionalized setting. (Writing about me would have been boring ... and the child is someone the reader can identify with). But I didn't know the ending. Well I did, but I didn't know how I would get to it. And a LOT changed in revisions!

Q. Did you write the story first, then illustrate it? Or did the images appear before the words?
A. I started this process doing lots of scenes about Toby that I sketched and then linked together. There where very few words. As the story grew in revision more words were added, and taken away, and added. It was an interesting process and very different from how I imagined it worked in the beginning of my career... write a manuscript - draw the pictures. It's a BOOK!

Q. Did TOBY receive any rejection letters? If so, how many (ballpark)?
A. Easy again ... NONE. My agent signed me on the strength of Toby and Elizabeth Bicknell at Candlewick bought it. (But if you want to see my big pile of rejection letters from all my other projects, I can count them).

Q. Describe your reaction when you received an offer on TOBY.
But I also need to add to this that while the manuscript was being considered at Candlewick, the real Toby went missing! He was gone for eight days (and he had never even really been out of our garden!). There was huge search for him locally, people were holding their breath on social media and checking in to see if he had been found. At that time no one even knew the book was on submission! Luckily Toby found his way back ... if he hadn't I didn't know if I could have done the book. Talk about high drama ...

Q. How long did TOBY take to be published—from the time you received an offer until it was printed?
A. The offer was made Labor Day 2014 and publication day is Sept 13th 2016. So almost exactly 2 years!

Q. Is there anything you would change in the book today? (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 hard. There are always things you want to change. Images you wish you could do over ... I don't think there is anything I want to add. We did edit out one scene though, where Toby licks the boy's hand when he is sleeping. Toby did that to me the first week he was with us. He wouldn't touch us when we were awake. But it wasn't moving the story forward in the book. Kill your darlings!

Q. What is your #1 tip for writing picture books?
A. Write what's in your heart.

Watch TOBY's book trailer.
To learn more about Hazel and all her books, visit her at her website.

A winner has been selected and the contest is now closed. Thanks for participating! To celebrate TOBY's publication, Hazel is giving away a copy of TOBY. Simply comment below to enter. One comment per person, US addresses only, please.
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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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Former book and magazine editor Susan Hood has written hundreds of children’s books. Her new picture book ADA'S VIOLIN is "a virtuoso piece of nonfiction, gloriously told and illustrated" (*School Library Journal). Today she looks back and discusses how she created her first picture book, THE TOOTH MOUSERead More 
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Environmental lawyer turned children’s author and illustrator, Sylvia Liu was lucky to do what she loved, protecting the oceans and the environment at the U.S. Department of Justice and the nonprofit group Oceana. Her good fortune continued when she won Lee & Low's 2013 New Voices Award. Today she shares the story behind all the work that went into the winning manuscript and her debut picture book, A MORNING WITH GRANDPA, illustrated by Christina Forshay. Read More 
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Abraham Schroeder is a stay-at-home dad, artist, designer, and author of TWO MANY TABLES. But today he talks about crafting his first picture book, THE GENTLEMAN BAT.
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Deborah Sosin is a writer, GrubStreet instructor, and clinical social worker specializing in mindfulness. Today, she shares how she crafted her debut picture book, CHARLOTTE AND THE QUIET PLACE—a National Parenting Publication's 2015 Bronze Winner. Read More 
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Today we are chatting with writing instructor Cheryl Lawton Malone about her debut picture book,
DARIO AND THE WHALE—a "delightful story . . . based on the author’s actual experience on Cape Cod" (Kirkus Reviews). Read More 
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Award-winning illustrator Shennen Bersani talks about her debut as an author. ACHOO! WHY POLLEN COUNTS teaches children about bees, pollen, and the pollination process through the story of a baby bear and his allergy.
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Tara Lazar is a busy woman—a mom, wife, children's book writer, workshop presenter, and creator of PiBoIdMo. But thankfully, she carved out some time to reflect on her first picture book, THE MONSTORE—a Finalist for the 2014 SCBWI Crystal Kite Award.
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