Ten Tips for Beginning Picture Book Writers

In 2014, all I had was an idea for a picture book and a desire to create something I could use with my preschool class. Tired of reading Curious George Makes Pancakes, I set out to write a picture book that could capture children’s interest, a pancake book where they could actively engage in the story and ask to hear it again. Ten years later, (likely 2024) my first traditionally published picture book is set for release (after two self-published books) and only now do I feel I have tips I can share that might help someone starting out.

Picture book stack 2022
  1. Read a lot of picture books: That was easy for me, being a mom and a teacher BUT I had to ask myself, which picture books am I reading? WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE and IF YOU GIVE A MOUSE A COOKIE are surefire hits with the preschool set, but what about current picture books? It’s important to read the latest books being published to get a sense of what editors want, especially since this changes over generations. Today’s teachers and parents are looking for something fresh and different, usually with fewer words.
  2. Write regularly and give yourself permission to write things that will never see the light of day. Just write without your critical editor judging every word. You can revise it later. Get the words down.
  3. A picture book is like a poem. It is a moment in time, captured in words and images that complement each other without being redundant. The illustrations need to add something new or give the reader something to discover that isn’t mentioned in the text. That’s because young readers first learn to read by using pictures as cues. So you need to learn to write poetry! Poetry challenges helped move my writing forward. A poem-a-week challenge and a poem every day in April are both challenges I’ve undertaken that have helped me grow my writing. Jane Yolen, who has written over 300 picture books writes a poem a day. That information alone tells you how important it is to be able to write poetry if you are to write picture books.
  4. Find a critique group. These people can give you feedback and be your biggest supporters when you eventually do write something publishable. Most groups exchange work monthly. Don’t miss an opportunity to send something even if it is a poem or a query letter. Keep getting feedback on your writing.
  5. Learn more about poetry. Read the Ode Less Traveled, by Stephen Fry. Read poems for adults and children. Think about what makes them great.
  6. Learn all you can about the publishing world. How does the querying process work? Which editors or agents might be a good fit for your work? There’s a lot of research involved and you need to know who you’ll need a yes from.
  7. Take your time. Write something, get feedback, but don’t revise right away. Sit with the feedback, consider which feedback resonates, which doesn’t. Consider the direction you want your story to go. What is the central emotion behind it? How does the character change? Stay true to your story as you revise. Give yourself time to learn the craft. Publishing is slow. If you don’t have the patience, then writing and submitting your work is not for you.
  8. Learn how to add emotion to your writing. If your writing is flat and lacks emotion, it won’t resonate with the reader. Check out the Emotions Thesaurus for tips and consider how to incorporate emotion based on other picture books you’ve read. Ask yourself, what is the central emotion in this book and how did the author get it across?
  9. Make sure the plot progresses. Things have to get worse for your main character. Yes, they need an obstacle but if they overcome it too easily, it won’t satisfy the reader.
  10. Characters need flaws and agency. Make sure your main character is not perfect. The reader won’t identify with a perfect main character. Your main character also needs to take some action to solve the problem.
Typewriters at the Ruby

Thanks for stopping by the blog today! Come back any time! I wish you the best on your writing journey.

Cynthia Mackey

If you’re curious about books by Cynthia Mackey and Paula Nasmith, please subscribe to my newsletter.

Nature Preschool: Eight Keys to Success

Hello to my lovely readers! I know some of you may be curious about nature preschool. How do we have preschool outdoors? Here are eight keys to success.

Nature provides its own loose parts for creative play
  1. Make sure you have food and water, especially if you want to spend more than an hour outdoors. The best snacks are finger food, since eating with utensils can be tricky when seated on a rock or patch of uneven ground. Apples, nuts, dried fruit, crackers and cheese are easy to pack and easy to eat.
  2. Dress for success. Each climate and environment is different but you need protection from the elements no matter where you are. Choose closed toed footwear. Long socks, long sleeves and long pants protect from prickly bushes or insect bites. Hats protect from sun/tick bites and keep you warm in winter. Gloves or mittens can be layered if needed. Consider bringing extras in case children get wet. Extra socks and mittens are a really good idea because hands and feet get wet easily as children explore. We love our hand/toe warmers when it’s cold. Slip one into your gloves or boots and they will keep you nice and toasty on the coldest of days. In our climate, layers work well for varying temperatures. We wear rain pants almost daily from September to June.
  3. Use what you find. There’s so much out there that can become play things for children. A puddle. A stick. Rocks, shells, leaves, pinecones, fallen trees. Search for bugs, keep your eyes open for tracks in the mud or snow. Wonder about the holes in trees and how they got there.
  4. Bring simple things to help you explore. A magnifying glass, a rope, a map, a camera, a compass, a piece of charcoal or chalk, a small empty container, a small battery operated candle or flashlight. You don’t need all these things every day. Try one thing at a time, offer it to the children and see what they do with it. They may surprise you.
  5. Revisit the same spots during different seasons. Notice the changes and how you can explore differently during different weather.
  6. Remember that you can do indoor things outdoors too. Reading, drawing, painting, singing and dancing to music can be done anywhere and can be more fun outdoors. Sitting in a tree with your favourite book can be blissful. Invite children to enjoy quieter pursuits too. Bring a hammock and books or crayons and a sketchbook.
  7. You don’t need to have all the answers. If you think of it as an opportunity to learn together and get curious, there are apps and books that you can use to identify plants, birds, and fungi.
  8. Consider safety. In the event of high winds or stormy weather, it’s best to safe the exploring for another day. Know what to do if you encounter a wild animal. Know your exit routes and the shortest way out of the woods from where you are. Scan the area for anything harmful to children and teach them the hazards they may encounter and how to manage. For example, we teach our children to look at mushrooms but not to touch. Consider proximity to water, roadways, cliffs or other dangers. Bring plenty of adults to help with supervision. We have a 1:8 ratio indoors but outdoors, its usually a 1:4 ratio.
Walking preschool

Readers, thank you for stopping by! I hope you’ll venture out and try a walk outdoors. Even if you don’t work in an outdoor program, you can still bring children outside.

Did you know, I’m a children’s book writer too? Here are my current books!

Cynthia Mackey

I have a new book in the works that connects perfectly to outdoor learning and nature preschool. If you’re curious about books by me, please subscribe to my newsletter. You’re welcome back to the blog any time.

Kid Lit Village: Santiago’s Dinosaurios

Hello lovely readers! Thanks for stopping by Kid Lit Village this week. It’s a special post for me because I get to feature one of my talented critique partners, Mariana Rios Ramirez. Yay!!! And it’s even more special since I had the privilege of giving feedback on Mariana’s early drafts. SANTIAGO’S DINOSAURIOS is Mariana’s debut picture book, illustrated by Udayana Lugo and published by Albert Whitman.

SANTIAGO’S DINOSAURIOS

Mariana Ríos Ramírez is a Mexican picture book author living in South Carolina with her husband, two children and a rescue Chihuahua mix dog named Rogers. Mariana was a high school teacher and co-owned an online business before discovering her passion for writing. She’s a member of SCBWI, Las Musas, Storyteller Academy and Rate your Story. Santiago’s Dinosaurios is her debut picture book. Besides writing, Mariana enjoys photography, traveling, Chai Lattes and k-dramas.

Mariana Rios Ramirez Kid Lit author

Mariana, welcome to the Kid Lit Village blog! I’m so glad you’re here. What appeals to you about writing for children?

I love writing for children because I believe they are the future of the world. I’m convinced that as kidlit writers we can contribute to plant seeds of positive messages in their minds and souls, since we get to share our values through our books.  We can make a difference in little readers so they can create a better world in which they’ll embrace others and themselves with more love, inclusion and respect.

Besides this, for me it’s also very important that all children see themselves in the books they read and love, and that they can relate to the problems, adventures, and situations the characters go through.  As a latin writer, I love being able to share my cultural background and the Spanish language through the stories I write.

It’s such a privilege being able to write for children isn’t it? And we need diverse books so sharing your latin background and Spanish words is so important. I love the way you weave them into your stories.

What challenges you as a writer?

As a writer I’m learning and growing every day. I have a background in business, so being a writer is the result of venturing down a path that I hadn’t originally considered for myself and that I didn’t know much about (although I always loved writing). The fact that there’s always a lot to still discover, learn, and improve, makes this new career very interesting to me.

I’ve found that every book I write challenges me in a unique way. However, one of the most common struggles I’ve faced is related to the language. Being Mexican, English is not my first language, so there are times in which I feel frustrated by not being able to find the right words or verbs that show exactly what I mean and want to communicate. Using a thesaurus has helped and I can tell that I’ve been expanding my vocabulary as I write, but sometimes I still struggle.

Another challenge I’ve had is the picture book word count, which is quite limited. I have a tendency to use many words when I write, so it takes time and effort to reduce the number of words without affecting the story. Sometimes I find that I’m telling, not showing, or that I start being very descriptive (getting into the illustrator’s domain). Thankfully, with time and practice I’ve been getting better at identifying which words to eliminate; but it hasn’t come easy to me.

Finally, I have to add that being patient has also been a challenge for me. The publishing industry moves slowly and there are a lot of waiting moments during the journey to publication. So, I’ve had to come up with ways to fill those blank spaces and I’ve found that moving on to the next story is really the best and most productive thing to do. 

Mariana, I have shared some of the same challenges. Being patient, choosing words carefully to leave room for illustration, and learning to write a story in a limited number of words have been challenging for me too! I agree with your advice to move on to the next story when waiting. It helps!

Interior art

Mariana’s Path to Publication with Santiago’s Dinosaurios

I wrote the first draft of Santiago’s Dinosaurios in 2019. It was inspired by my son’s experience when we moved from Mexico to United States in 2016 due to my husband’s job in an international company. My son Patrizio (Pato) was five years old when he was faced with the challenge of starting the school year in a new country and without being able to communicate in the same language as his teachers and classmates. My son’s struggles back then made me realize there are many kids around the world who have a hard time finding their place in new environments, especially when different cultures and languages are involved.

My first versions of the manuscript were quite different to the one that’s getting published. For example, the title at first was The New Boy and it was written in first person point of view. As months passed, I worked on it and the story began to transform. I started querying it in March 2020 with no success. After some rejections, I understood I needed to add something unique to the story, since the theme of first day of school was common. During the summer of 2020, I rewrote the story and that’s when the dinosaurs got included. My son was a huge dino-fan during his childhood and I knew a lot of kids love them, so I thought it would be a fun hook to include to make the story more appealing and to promote more connection with the readers. That’s when the book’s title changed to Santiago’s Dinosaur-sized Problem. During this process I was lucky to have the support of my amazing critique partners. Critique giveaways I won and a session with my author friend Lynne Marie, were very helpful too.

On September 15th 2020, I participated in the Twitter event LatinxPitch, during which I received a “like” from editor Andrea Hall from Albert Whitman & Co. I was very excited to get a positive response, so I sent her my manuscript shortly after, even though I didn’t have an agent yet. In November, I received an email from Andrea asking if I’d be willing to revise and resubmit (R&R). Se was interested in including an ESOL (English to Speakers of Other Languages) teacher.  I’m glad I had the freedom to decide how I would add the new character to the manuscript in a way that seemed realistic, but without solving the “problem” for my main character.  The new version was definitely stronger and I ended up signing my debut book deal for Santiago’s Dinosaurios in March, 2021. A real dream come true!

During summer 2021, I worked on the edition of the manuscript with Andrea, and later with Nivair Gabriel. I feel so lucky to have had two amazing editors supporting me on making this story the best it could be. I learned a lot from the process and it was a positive and pleasant experience in many ways. Regarding the illustrations, I think they are amazing and I’m thankful that talented artist Udayana Lugo was part of our team. Her beautiful art contributed to make the Santiago’s story stronger by adding more heart to the pages and introducing layers of diversity that made the book even more special.

From the editors and illustrator, to the art and marketing teams in Albert Whitman & Co. I am forever grateful. I feel blessed to have such an amazing group of people behind Santiago’s Dinosaurios. I can’t wait for the moment this book gets to the hands of children!

It’s so interesting to hear how the story evolved. I do think writing a story in different ways, adding layers, and getting feedback from editors and critique partners can help it become the best work it can possibly be!

A few of Mariana’s resources for developing talents as a writer

Since I began walking this path in 2018, I’ve taken advantage of several resources available for writers, some of them are free while others aren’t. Please consider the answer to this question is based on my personal experience, as I’m sure I’m not including all the wonderful resources there are.

My first introduction to the world of kidlit, was joining a class on Creating Picture Book Dummies in Storyteller Academy. That’s when I learned the basics plus I met one of my critique partner groups.  Another great resource for me, right in the beginning, was the book Writing Picture Books by Ann Whitford Paul. I love it and every now and then I go back to it. 

Other valuable resources have been my critique groups/partners in which I have found not only picture book lovers, but very creative and talented friends who have helped me polish my stories and have shared this journey with me. I’m very grateful to have these amazing and supportive people in my life.

Finally, I’d say that reading many picture books is basic too.  You get a lot of craft knowledge by studying the way other writers tell stories, how illustrations work with the texts, and how different authors come up with creative ideas. Besides, you also get a good idea of the market. I like attending Rate your Story’s Mentor texts whenever I can, and I also like reading aloud with my daughter.

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Thank you Cynthia for the wonderful opportunity of sharing more about me and Santiago’s Dinosaurios in your blog. I appreciate your constant support and encouragement.

Mariana! What fun it has been to interview you and see your debut picture book introduced to the world. I’m so happy to have been part of your journey and I know my readers will love this book. As a preschool teacher myself, I cannot wait to get the book to my classroom and share it with the children. In my class this year, we have three children who need extra support with speech communication and I know they will see themselves in your story. Every child in my class ‘speaks dinosaur’ fluently! They will love your book. Click here to read my review of Santiago’s Dinosaurios.

Readers, thank you for stopping by Kid Lit Village this week!

Did you know, I’ve written a couple of books too?

Cynthia Mackey

If you’re curious about books by Cynthia Mackey and Paula Nasmith, please subscribe to my newsletter.

Making Those All Important Book Reviews A Little Easier

This is something I think a lot about. Book reviews are hard to get. If you like to read, they’re super helpful. If you’re an author, especially a debut author, it might be all you think about. Susannah wraps it all up in her post.

Susanna Leonard Hill

I know.

It’s Sunday!

What the heck am I doing in your inbox?

We’re all supposed to be eating pancakes in the shape of alphabet letters, still in our pajamas, doing nothing even remotely work-related to interfere with our family morning!

I agree completely. I’m right there with you! I’m even wearing my zebra slippers.

But I’ve been thinking about something (because I have book due out in two days – 2!!!) that I thought might have crossed your minds too (because a lot of you have books out, or will at some point, or you’ve been asked to write reviews), and this was an open day for a blog post 😊

I think it’s fair to say we are all readers. As readers, we have probably all looked to online reviews to help us make decisions on which books should get our hard-earned money. (Also which vacuum is…

View original post 1,446 more words

Fall Writing Frenzy: Mr. Bones’ Thinking Spot

It’s time for Fall Writing Frenzy! I don’t do every contest but this one looked super fun and the 200 word limit is right in my sweet spot. Plus, what a great way to celebrate the fall season! I’m looking forward to reading all the entries. Scroll down for my story: MR. BONES’ THINKING SPOT. Feel free to leave me a comment below.

Here are the main rules copied from Lydia Lukdis’ website. I also have a link to her site below in case you want the full details.

Please note: this contest is for un-agenting writers.

RULES:

1.Select one of the images below and write about it.

It can be a poem, a story, a mood piece, or whatever comes to mind. Happy, scary, beautiful, grotesque, whatever suits your fancy for any kidlit age, board book through young adult. You can write about the picture in a literal or metaphorical way, or focus on a memory or emotion it elicits. Just let the photo inspire you and have fun!

Maximum length: 200 words (not including the title).

2. Submit your entry between October 1 and October 3, 2022 11:59 PM EST.

Come back to this website and there will be a special blog post specifically for entries. You will enter your information to the form on the blog post, including the link to your blog post where you’ve posted your writing. If you don’t have a blog, no worries, you can post in the comments of the blog post. This is meant to create connections with others in the writing community so you visit (and maybe even subscribe to each other’s blogs).

One entry per person.

3. Share, share, share! Please spread the word about the contest with your writing groups, on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook etc.

When you do, we’d love it if you tag us so we can interact too! Kaitlyn is @kaitlynleann17 and Lydia is @LydiaLukidis. And once the event starts, comment on other entries with supportive, encouraging messages. Don’t forget to use out official hashtag: #FallWritingFrenzy.

My Entry:

Brian Wangenheim for Unsplash

Halloween- Photo Credit: Brian Wangenheim for Unsplash

MR. BONES’ THINKING SPOT by Cynthia Mackey 

Mr. Bones had all his best ideas while lounging by the front porch. If he ever needed an idea, it was now, because Mrs. Bones just made a gigantic batch of caramel apples. 

This might have been a good thing if

  1. The kids were not away at Camp Haunted Hollow.
  2. Mr. Bones had chompers that worked.
  3. Mrs. Bones liked eating caramel apples, but… she only liked making them.  

Mr. Bones did NOT relish the smell of rotting fruit. Not to mention the wasps the apples would attract. It rattled his bones just thinking about it. 

Leaves fell like confetti from the trees. Mr. Bones thought and thought.

”WHOOOOO!”, called the neighbourhood owl. Mr. Bones thought some more. Confetti? Whooo?

“That’s it!” said Mr. Bones to no one in particular. “A party! But who can I invite?”

Along with all the skeleton-kids, the ghost-children had spirited away to Camp Haunted Hollow.

The werewolves were off prowling the western moors.

The vampires vanished on an extended vacation to Venezuela.

The Zombies had… wait! Zillions of zombies lived down the road on Zinnia Lane! 

Mr. Bones shivered with excitement as he wrote the invitations…

ZOMBIE PARTY TONIGHT – Eat, drink, and be scary!

Thanks for reading! Please leave me a comment and I hope you’ll go and read some other entries! I plan to do that too. It’s great inspiration for your writing plus it will get you in the fall mood. Thanks to Kaitlin Sanchez, Lydia Ludkis and Alyssa Reynoso-Morris for hosting the contest!