What a jam-packed conversation around increasing tension in picture books with the brilliant Laura Obuobi! Laura talks us through an advanced picture book writing course in under 20 minutes— a true educator and artist in every sense of the world.
Here are some of my favorite nuggets of wisdom she shared:
🧨 Tension is uncomfortable but necessary, like how a diamond is made under pressure. It evokes empathy, character growth and desire and moved the story forward
🧨 Obstacles are key: internal obstacles (e.g. self-doubt, fear, insecurity, discomfort), external obstacles (e.g. friends, family, tech, a social norm that doesn’t sit well with your character) or a combination of the two
🧨 Tension and character desire are inextricably linked. It drives the page turn appeal and spurs the reader to invest fully: will the character get what they most desire?
🧨 Key strategies for increasing tension include escalating cause and effect, as well as the “Rule of 3s (or 7s)”
🧨 Torture your character: consider what can get worse, and then make it so. As Laura points out, it’s a bit like 2020…!
🧨 Let your character (rather than adult) solve their own problem and relieve that tension
Laura, I am incredibly grateful that you took the time to share these jam-packed insights with us. I will come back to your words and book recommendations time and time again. For those who aren’t already, hurry up and follow @lauraobuobi for her own exciting book updates and resources for stories written by BIPOC authors. Also, please reach out if you’d like to discuss @vcfawcya!
What a rush to talk visual storytelling with two world-class experts, Jarrett and Jerome Pumphrey. I am moved by their thoughtful, tender approach to picture book creation and feel inspired to approach my own craft with newfound intention.
Here are a few treasures from our conversation:
🛻 Always start with story: what is the thread of the story we we want to tell? What is the point and purpose of this book?
🛻 Don’t overwrite; leave space not just for pictures and text, but for the readers, too. Allow your reader to develop their own understanding of and resonance with the story
🛻 A single, stand-alone image tells a story on its own using your tools as an artist (e.g. negative space, color, balance, brightness, size), while the interaction between spreads creates opportunity for its own momentum (e.g. page turns, rhythm, story)
🛻 Be intentional with each image: everything on the page needs to serve a purpose
🛻 Watch to witness the layered beat around the girl’s physical distance to the truck in THE OLD TRUCK— this revelation gave me goosebumps!
Thank you, thank you for taking the time to connect and share your wisdom, Jarrett and Jerome! I did not want that conversation to end. I will be waiting in anticipation for THE OLD BOAT coming out in March. Pre-order now!
What a gift to dive into Caldecott Medal winner Michaela Goade‘s brain and consider how to approach stories from the eyes of an illustrator! Michaela’s inspiring artistry and passion for storytelling is palpable in how she approaches her craft.
Here are some of my favorite nuggets of wisdom from our conversation:
🌊 Trust the artist: the alchemy of picture books results from a true collaboration between author and illustrator
🌊 Keep digging for the heart of a story! Layers are critical, but they all need to fit together symbiotically… sometimes you need to put your blinders on to reduce distractions.
🌊 Set an illustrator up for success by keeping descriptions (and art notes!) sparse and leaving space for the illustrator in order to avoid redundancy. A noted exception is if there is a need to communicate
🌊 Don’t be too precious with your words. When in doubt: save a version, delete a whole section, then reiterate to find your “a-ha!”
🌊 Focus your writing on experiences like taste, smell, sound and movement that are harder to communicate visually. If it can be shown, it may not need to be told!
🌊 Inspiration can be found in nature, photography, notes to self, research and connecting with the unique cultural experiences of others (for Native stories and beyond)
Thank you for taking the time to share your beautiful perspective, Michaela! Your work inspires me to connect, breathe and keep digging for truth. Michaels’s I SANG YOU DOWN FROM THE STARS, alongside author Tasha Spillett-Sumner, releases next April and is available for pre-order now! And don’t miss the stunning prints, cards and more on michaelagoade.com ❤️
Well, consider me schooled. What a masterclass on the ins and outs of rhyming in picture books! Thank you Hena Khan for helping us think through reasons to (…and NOT to) rhyme in our stories. If you ever have wondered why agents and editors so often discourage submitting stories in rhyme, this talk has your name all over it.
Here are a few of the brilliant tidbits Hena covered:
🎶 Rhyme only when essential— if you can tell your stories without it, try that first
🎶 Hear the words sing: listen in your head, then out loud to yourself, then ask others read to you
🎶 Consider natural rhythms of language and styles of speaking, not just rigidly counting syllabics
🎶 Avoid forced phrasing, cliches, repetition in rhyme endings, and the dreaded “yoda rhyme”…!
🎶 Hena’s experiences adjusting and revising for rhyme in her own stories
Thank you for taking the time to share your expertise and heart, Hena! I’m so grateful to connect with you, especially at the close of this year. To celebrate and support Hena’s work, join me in pre-ordering her middle grade AMINA’S SONG coming out this March!
For quick reference, here are books discussed:
GOLDEN DOMES AND SILVER LANTERNS and CRESCENT MOONS AND POINTED MINARETS by @henakhanbooks, illustrated by Mehrkdokht Amini
LIKE THE MOON LOVES THE SKY by @henakhanbooks, illustrated by Saffa Khan
IT’S RAMADAN, CURIOUS GEORGE by @henakhanbooks
UNDER MY HIJAB by @henakhanbooks, illustrated by Aaliya Jaleel
A PLACE INSIDE ME by @zettaelliott, illustrated by @noadenmon
THE GRUFFALO by Julia Donaldson, illustrated by Axel Scheffler
Classic rhyming authors: Shel Silverstein, Bill Martin, Eric Carle, Sandra Boynton
What a burst of light from the remarkable Liz Garton Scanlon! Liz walked us through the magic of writing character-centered, story-rich picture books that carry layers of structure and theme.
She shares the importance of:
✨ Asking yourself, “What’s this story about? What else is it about?”… 12x in a row
✨ Adding and removing layers reiteratively
✨Avoiding making your writing “fussy”
✨ Specificity unlocking connection and reducing preachiness
I am so grateful for this time with you, Liz! Thank you for your voice, your stories and the love you generate in our world.
Originally posted on Instagram on December 8, 2020.
Y’all. I am giddy!!!
15-minute discussions centered on picture book writing with beloved authors and creators
Every day of Hanukkah— dates and times for each discussion included on the following slides
💙 To share joy at the end of this cluster of a year
✨ To help inspire writers and picture book lovers with a manageable burst of insights each day
📣 To lift up the brilliant voices and work of these remarkable creators
WHAT IS THE RELEVANCE OF HANUKKAH?
While Hanukkah isn’t a major Jewish holiday, it carries certain themes that feel more resonant than ever this year: resistance, resilience and community. These are the exact reasons why I am passionate about the power of picture books. I hope spending time in conversation with these artists will help spread more of their magic during a time when it is sorely needed.
HOW TO ENGAGE?
Swipe to learn more about these renowned creators and the craft topics for each discussion. Join us in real time on IG Live OR watch later— all talks will be recorded and posted. Educators can also download the videos and use them as mini-lessons with students!
I hope you will consider joining and sharing with others who may get something out of it, too! I’m still pinching myself that I get to engage in these conversations with people I so deeply admire. I’ll work hard to keep my jaw off the floor and my squeals to a minimum.
I have now read Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow’s poignant answers in our Q&A almost as many times as I’ve read her stunning book Your Name is a Song.
This starred reviewed story follows a young girl in the wake of her teacher and classmates repeatedly mispronouncing her name. Her mother empowers her to see that her name is a musical masterpiece, just like so many other African, Asian, Black-American, Latinx and Middle Eastern names that are readily dismissed by mainstream American culture. Luisa Uribe‘s illustrations animate the strength and explosive beauty of each name and the song it sings.
I simply cannot recommend Your Name is a Song more highly. In a time when I’m in desperate need of it, it gives me hope imagining what our country would look like if every home, school and library shelf had its own loved, worn copy. An important note: this is the most critical time of the year for independent bookstores. If you are planning to buy books for the holidays, including this gorgeous picture book, please consider making those purchases now through your favorite indie.
What is your favorite line from Your Name Is a Song?
“Make a way out of no way. Make names out of no names.” Sorry I cheated. That’s probably two lines. In them I feel like I’m making an argument about the act of resistance that is making up names.
You describe how Black people are shamed for making up names to fit their own culture. When did you first become interested in the meaning behind and power of names?
I’ve always cared about names as someone who cares about language in general and has always been interested in etymology. For a long time, though, I didn’t think too much about made-up Black American names. I didn’t believe they were worth much thought. I had internalized ideas that dismiss Black American culture as somehow a lesser culture. Unlearning that came when I started learning more about racism and how that kind of anti-Blackness can become internalized. Interestingly, my path toward becoming an anti-racist educator happened as a result of Trayvon Martin being killed, and his name is also used in the section that discusses Black American names.
In the book you write that “made up names come from dreamers.” Can you share more about this idea and how it came to you?
Well, as I said before, I unlearned a lot of negative ideas about made-up names. And I started to reframe. And as I reframed, I recognized the power and liberation in the idea of making up a name. To imagine a new you–that’s the work of a dreamer. To imagine a new existence and new possibilities and to be hopeful that you can make a way out of no way, you have to be a dreamer. There is a reason why MLK’s “I Have A Dream” speech has so much resonance. There is a reason why Black people say “I am the answer to my ancestors’ dreams.” Social justice is about changing existing realities, and we can’t change those realities unless we dream up new ones. I’d argue dreaming up new names is a form of social justice for the ancestors who were stripped of their names.
What do you hope children take away from this story?
I hope children take away that all the pieces of their identities deserve to be respected and uplifted. I hope they learn to appreciate the identities of others too.
You describe the pressure to justify your existence as a Black Muslim woman, and the importance of having conversations on your own terms. Does sharing your voice through picture books play a role here?
Yes, very much so. In some ways, I feel like I’m doing the work I needed as a girl. I’m writing the stories I needed in the ways I needed them. This comes out a lot in my first book, Mommy’s Khimar. I very purposefully wrote a book that would have appealed to 5-year-old me and ignored the expectations most mainstream readers might have about a book about an Islamic headscarf. Since I was kid, I have always felt the pressure to explain my existence, my faith, etc. So, it was important for me to write a book that didn’t do that at all. I wrote about hijabing in a way I hadn’t seen discussed in the mainstream but that was very real to me and to other Muslim kids I’ve known.
Can you share a meaningful moment in your journey of bringing this book to life?
Probably when my agent, Essie White, responded to it so emotionally. To know someone else cared so much about it meant a lot.
Do you have a writing habit or quirk that has served you well?
Actually, I feel like I need better habits. I’m pretty scattered as a writer. One thing I do is write everywhere. I type or write on paper and random notepads. The disorganization can be a problem but it also means I’m writing any way I can and making sure I get the words down.
Who are your writer heroes?
Maya Angelou is probably the first person who taught me the power of opening up and using my voice. I connected with her life story of having to fight her way out of silence and the trauma that produced that silence. Writing was her way out and I saw it as mine. Toni Morrison in the unabashed way she wrote for her people inspires me and she is someone I keep in the forefront of my thoughts when I make decisions about writing.
Do you have words of wisdom for aspiring writers?
Learn. Take the time to learn. You don’t know what you don’t know. Be humble enough to listen to those who do, but never lose sight of your vision.
Your Name is a Song is published by The Innovation Press and was released on July 7, 2020.
“And this I know, my child: whoever you will be, I will love you forever.”
Andrea Pippins is the Stockholm-based graphic designer, visual activist, author, illustrator and dreamer who brought to life the irresistible picture book Who Will You Be? I drank in this book from the very first read. It is a love letter to not just children, but to the communities that surround and shape them into the people they will become. It is impossible to read Pippins’ story and not imagine your own grandmother, uncle, cousin, or sister. We are left to dream of the unique ways they pass on their own goodness and legacies, whether through blown kisses, big hugs, or the boldness in their heart. This book celebrates the ways we are both a reflection of our families and an expression of our own selves: ”…for no one in the world has ever been like you.”
Consider ordering Pippins’ Who Will You Be? from your local indie and helping to spread more of Pippins’ rich, imaginative love into the world. We sure could use it. Thank you for such a delightful, engaging Q&A, Andrea!
Congratulations on your newborn daughter! What is it like reading your book to her and your son?
Thank you so much. You know, I have not yet read Who Will You Be? to my daughter, Maya, but have read it to my son Isa. It’s based on my wishes for Isa so the main character looks like him. When we read it he pages through the book with so much delight because he recognizes himself but also he enjoys explaining what he sees.
What is your favorite line from Who Will You Be?
My favorite is the ending: “And this I know, my child: whoever you will be, I will love you forever.” I love this because it is really how I feel about my children and what I hope we can feel about all the people we deeply love. My favorite spread is with “…Gigi, who gives big hugs,” where Gigi is covered in kids in a big group hug. During this time of the Covid-19 pandemic, where social distancing is now the norm, I miss hugging family and friends. This spread is a reminder of how it used to be and what I hope we can get back to.
One of my favorite spreads shows the child’s grandmother protesting. What a powerful visual for children to witness and aspire to, especially today. Can you share more about this scene?
Yes, personally I wanted to celebrate both of Isa’s grandmothers. His paternal grandmother is very active in her community, she worked within a political party for years and never hesitated to protest or march for something she believed in. His maternal grandmother always speaks her mind and advocates for herself. So I wanted to create an image that captures that energy. But also, I wanted to shift how a grandmother is typically represented visually. She’s not knitting, baking, or gardening—and of course there’s nothing wrong with those activities, but I wanted to show a grandmother doing something unexpected, brave and bold.
You describe how celebrating community and Black joy were core intentions for this project. What do you hope children take away from this story?
I hope children take from this story the importance of being beautiful from the inside out, to see that they are enough, and that they will always be more than what external things like a career or material wealth might represent. My hope is that they also think about the people in their lives and reflect upon who embodies these particular attributes. Then celebrate those people in their communities for who they are.
Can you share a meaningful moment in your journey of bringing your book to life?
Hmmm, I can’t think of one, but what always brings me joy is when parents share photos of their kids reading the book.
Your career has spanned from graphic design to teaching to visual activism and beyond. When did you know you wanted to write for children?
I don’t think I ever knew, it wasn’t something I set out to do. It just happened I was prepared and the stars aligned. Creating art and books for children is an unexpected part of my creative path, and I am so grateful to be on this journey. I really love doing this work. Writing and illustrating children’s books is a dream I didn’t even know I had.
Who are your writer heroes?
Wow I have so many! Zora Neale Hurston, Maya Angelou, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Jacqueline Woodson, Isabel Allende to name a few.
Do you have words of wisdom for aspiring writers and/or illustrators?
Yes, be true to you. See your work as a form of service to others. And give it your all.
Who Will You Be? is published by Schwartz & Wade and was released on April 7, 2020.
Lil Miss Hot Mess has me laughing, hollering and crying my way through this Q&A. Swipe to find out what gives her life, why LGBTQ+ themes in picture books are so critical, and how “swish, swish, swish” is both subversive and healing.
Little Miss Hot Mess is a force. Exhibit A: when she’s not hosting readings across the country and serving as one of the founding @dragquenestoryhour queens, she is finishing her PhD in media studies at NYU. Her starred reviewed THE HIPS ON THE DRAG QUEEN GO SWISH, SWISH, SWISH is a delightfully unrestrained take on the original nursery rhyme. Though, fair warning, there’s no shot you can curl up quietly in a rocking chair and read this gem before bedtime. It *requires* twirling, shimmying and blah-blah’ing into the night!
On the last day of Pride Month, I hope you pocket a dose of Little Miss Hot Mess’ wisdom and carry it with you throughout the rest of the year. I have already written her words on a post-it note over my writing desk: “Claim it and keep at it.” Thank you, thank you for your vulnerability and raw inspiration, Lil Miss Hot Mess.
And if it wasn’t already clear from Olga de Dios‘ brilliant illustrations: #allblacklivesmatter
What is your favorite line from The Hips on the Drag Queen Go Swish, Swish, Swish?
This is such a Sophie’s Choice moment, it’s hard to pick one! Though if forced, I think it’s the hips going “swish, swish, swish” because in many ways it feels the most subversive and healing. When I was a kid, I was teased for being too swishy, too feminine, and even though I didn’t have the words for it, too queer — so it’s a way of reclaiming something that was used against me. And I like inviting kids and adults of any gender to get in touch with their feminine sides, even if only for a moment. Maybe you like swishing your hips, maybe you don’t — but you certainly won’t know until you try.
You are the ultimate expert at engaging kids through story times. Why do you think kids connect so viscerally with drag?
On the one hand, I think kids connect with the spectacle of drag: super-shiny, garishly-glittery, and otherwise over-the-top looks! We stimulate the senses just by being present! And I think that’s why we often see parents with really young kids (sometimes just months old) at our readings. But below the surface, drag is fundamentally about play and living out your fantasy, which is something kids are especially interested in and good at. Drag queens just keep it going even when we grow up, and we show that there’s no reason you can’t live out your dreams.
You describe how song parodies are common in drag queen culture, which made way for this adaptation feeling as natural as it does. What was your process for writing the lyrics?
Honestly, most of them I came up with in my mind on the way to a story hour when I was trying to think of what songs to sing and thought it would be fun to give the classics a twist. Though when it came to turning it into a book, I made some edits. For example, when I first started singing it, the hands went “jaaaazzzzzz” but it felt hard to capture the feeling of that in a written form, so I changed that to finger snaps. I also added the twirl at the end to give it a big finale!
What do you hope children take away from this story?
Though there isn’t a direct message for the book, I really just want kids to feel the fun of drag by moving their bodies. To me that’s way more important than any sort of “drag 101” or introduction I could offer.
What role do you think picture books can play in honoring and amplifying the LGBTQ+ and drag community?
I think picture books are such an important way that kids learn: not only about the world around them, but about what the world can be. And since LGBTQ+ people are in every community — whether visible like drag queens or not — kids should learn about our history and experiences. Though there were some early beacons of queer kid lit, it’s really only been within the past 5-10 years that we’ve really seen any sort of wave of LGBTQ+ themed children’s books, though it seems to grow every year. And of course, we need even more books that showcase the diversity within LGBTQ+ communities, including more BIPOC, trans, non-binary, and disabled, characters.
What is a meaningful moment in your journey of bringing this book to life?
I think the moment where it first truly clicked into place was seeing the first round of character sketches from the illustrator Olga de Dios. I only learned of her work through this process, when a friend recommended her other books — and I knew instantly I wanted to work with her. And really, it’s pretty rare for an author to get their first choice of illustrator for a lot of reasons, so I was extra lucky. But seeing those first sketches (which were partially based on photos I sent of some of my drag queen friends), I just knew she got it and that these characters would not only come to life but give us life (as we queen say)! Honestly, I’m still in awe, and I still notice new amazing details each time I read the book.
Who are your writer heroes?
So many! I mean, I have an affinity for so many queer writers throughout history, many of whom I liked before I even knew they were queer (or likely queer), like Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Sarah Schulman, Paul Monette, Audre Lorde. And many of my favorite children’s authors from when I was a kid also were queer, like Maurice Sendak and Tomie DePaola. Also, I must give the biggest shoutout to Michelle Tea, who is not only a phenomenal writer and not only founded DQSH, but also has done so much to foster queer literature over the past couple decades. So many queer writers and artists owe her a huge debt, and I’m one of them.
Do you have words of wisdom for aspiring writers?
It’s funny, I still don’t necessarily consider myself a writer, despite having now published a children’s book, academic articles, and essays in mainstream news publications. So, I don’t know who needs to hear this more than me but: if you write, you’re a writer. Claim it and keep at it. And be open to feedback: that’s something I always struggle with, from writing to drag, because I like to be independent. But feedback is truly a generous gift and can only make your work stronger. (And of course, you don’t have to take any of it you don’t want to!)
What about words of wisdom for aspiring drag queens?
Just do it! I wanted to be a queen for years and felt like I didn’t know how. But here’s the secret: just put on something that feels a little beyond, a little risky, and voila!—you are a drag queen (or king, or whatever you want to be). Now, you may still have a lot of work to do to hone your craft (twelve years later and I’m still learning to paint my face), but with any creative pursuit, you’ve got to start somewhere and then stick with it. Oh, and learn your drag herstory, but don’t be beholden to it: the best drag looks both back and into the future.
The Hips on the Drag Queen Go Swish, Swish, Swish was published by Running Press Kids on May 5, 2020.
Emmy-award winning journalist, consultant and author Markette Sheppard recently released her second highly-acclaimed picture book MY RAINY DAY ROCKET SHIP, a beautifully crafted and timely story that buoys children’s hopeful spirit. I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity to connect with Sheppard and share her perspective here.
Whether from a rainstorm or pandemic, every child can connect with the feelings of both isolation and possibility when stuck inside. Sheppard gives her protagonist boundless agency to transform a rocking chair, cardboard box and dish rag into a rocketship that transforms an imagined world into a heart-stopping reality. And Charly Palmer’s illustrations?! Out of this world (… couldn’t help myself).
Consider purchasing MY RAINY DAY ROCKET SHIP from your favorite local indie— what a way to support small business and this incredible creator at the same time!
What is your favorite line from My Rainy Day Rocket Ship?
My favorite part of My Rainy Day Rocket Ship is when the parents get involved and start helping their son with his creative endeavor. His imagination is supported when mom and dad get involved, which ultimately launches him into… “a whole new world in a different place–a galaxy off in outer space!” Can you imagine what that world would look like, feel like, be like in that new place? I want to challenge my little and big readers alike to imagine the glorious possibilities!
You give your protagonist significant agency to transform the mundane into the unstoppable. Can you share more about this idea and how it came to you?
I believe children have an innate sense of creativity to transform the mundane into the spectacular! All I did was document this through creative storytelling. So, I kind of believe I was just capturing the spirit of childhood in my story. The idea for My Rainy Day Rocket Ship came to me in the middle of the night. I remember waking up with the idea of a little boy pretending to be an astronaut in his living room. I quickly grabbed a pen and paper and started writing right there in my PJs as I lay in bed. I believe in inspired thought, so whenever I feel as if I have a good idea, I usually take a moment to jot it down.
Your book feels especially resonant given the urgent discussion around centering Black joy and excellence in kids literature. Did this play a role in your storytelling?
I’m so thrilled to be able to add a spark of joy to the national narrative at a time of so much sadness. I wrote the stories a few years ago and it takes a while to go to print, but the timing of the release date couldn’t have been more relevant as kids have been stuck at home for months now and they are having figure out creative ways to thrive. I’m happy to have contributed this positive message featuring an African-American boy to media and literature at this moment in time. Overall, I just want to write good stories that celebrate the joy and beauty in all children’s lives, and humankind for that matter. The characters in my books, My Rainy Day Rocket Ship and What Is Light? just happen to be Black children, but the stories have universal themes.
What do you hope children take away from this story?
I hope children read My Rainy Day Rocket Ship and What Is Light?, and my future books and feel a boat of confidence by seeing themselves represented in my stories in an authentic way. I want all kids to know that they have a light in them and they should let their lights shine through creativity, kindness and however they best express themselves.
My Rainy Day Rocket Ship was released less than two years after your highly-acclaimed debut. Can you share a meaningful moment in your journey of bringing this book to life?
Yes! I received the book deal for My Rainy Day Rocket Ship on the release date of my first book, What Is Light?, which had reached No. 1 on Amazon’s bestsellers list prior to its debut in the children’s “Sense & Sensation” category.
My publisher sent me a very kind e-mail that read something along the lines of, “Happy book birthday! I’d like to offer you the opportunity to publish another book!” I could not have been more thrilled!
When did you know you wanted to write for children?
I remember being in labor with my son 6 years ago and being very nervous. The labor & delivery nurse started making small talk to calm me down. She asked me what I did for a living and I told her I was a broadcast journalist. She casually replied, “Well, maybe you can write children’s books now.” I didn’t think anymore of it for months. But, as I started reading more and more books to my newborn baby, the thought came back to me that maybe I could write stories just as good and maybe even better! “Wouldn’t that be cool?,” I thought. I started writing stories in my journal and it took off from there.
Do you have a writing habit or quirk that has served you well?
I like to write with a pen and paper! I know it sounds old school, but even though I’m tech savvy and very comfortable tablet and laptop writing– I think there’s something magical about the exercise of putting a pen to paper and hand writing your thoughts out. After I have handwritten a story, I type it up and do edits on my laptop, but the first draft is always handwritten.
My Rainy Day Rocket Ship was published by Denene Millner Books/Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers on May 5, 2020.