Monday, January 31, 2011


Week of January 30—Creative Challenge #1

The inspiration for this challenge comes from Lin Oliver, SCWBI executive director, you led participants at the 2010 LA conference in a similar activity.

1.Think of a famous person (living or dead) and then create a title for that person’s memoir.
2.Think outside the box, find the humor, push the limits.
3. Don’t stop with just one! Keep stretching and making connections for more titles.

            I’m Head Over Heels for You by Anne Boleyn
            IHOP by Captain Kangaroo         
            Hair to Eternity by Snookie
            I Was Purplicious Before Purplicious Was Cool by Barney
Post your titles as comments. I’ll compile a final list for all to view!

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Coming This Week!

Week of January 30—Creative Challenge #1
Quote of the week: Nobody is bored when he is trying to make something that is beautiful or to discover something that is true. 
--William Ralph Inge

Several years ago, when I was editorial group manager for a non-profit publisher, I hosted a Creative Consortium. We met monthly and threw out creative challenges to one another. Then the following month we would bring back our creations to share and critique. It was a wonderful, mind-expanding activity.

Every few weeks on PICTURE THIS! I’m going to throw out a creative challenge. Each challenge is intended to stretch our minds, help us think in new ways, and lead us on a search for inspiration. Occasionally, the challenges will be writing related, but not always. Why? In the dark recesses of our brains there lie wonderful, untapped resources. It’s our job to tap into those wells of wonder to grow creatively and to grow as writers. During the challenge period (one week), I’ll post submissions from followers. Are you game? Come on, take a leap! Let’s create!

Saturday, January 29, 2011


It's snowing in NYC--a beautiful sight. The conference has been good. Best of all was hearing Lois Lowry and listening to a picture book panel with Jane Yolen, Mark Teague, and Patricia Lee Gauch. I'll be sharing what I learned in upcoming posts.

On a personal note, an agent asked me to revise a piece and send it to her and an editor asked me to submit to her. Fingers crossed!

I've had a wonderful time hanging with my critique friends Lynne Marie, Heather, and Leslie. I lost my voice yesterday and, of course, I'm blind as a bat, so my friends have been my eyes and voice and great comrades.

I hope you are planning to participate in this week's creative challenge!


Friday, January 28, 2011

Recommended Reads with Wonderful Words

Week of January 23—Word Up!
Friday, January 28—Recommended Reads with Wonderful Words

Ok, I can’t help myself. I’m sitting here with picture books literally stacked around the room. I keep pulling out one then another and I can’t stop. Welcome to PBA—Picture Books Anonymous where we’re all addicted to picture books. (Why else would you be here?) Let me share some of my favorite addicting books (each containing exceptional word choices) with you!

Avalanche Annie: A Not-So-Tall Tale by Lisa Wheeler and Kurt Cyrus—word innovations abound and are so well defined within the context and through the illustrations

Bats at a Ballgame by Brian Lies—SPECTACULAR! Great specific and specialized vocabulary . . . I love the coined words (Mothdogs for instance) and the writing is stellar (not to mention Brian’s fabulous illustrations)

CLICK, CLACK, MOO: Cows That Type by Doreen Cronin and Betsy Lewin—perfect use of the rule of three, wonderful alliteration with a twist, but notice the great vocabulary in the rest of the book, too

Comes A Wind by Linda Arms White and Tom Curry—outstanding nouns and vivid verbs, attributes galore, and a hilarious examples of hyperbole

Cowlick! by Christin Ditchfield and Rosalind Beardshaw—perfect verbs carry this rhyming story to its surprising and warm-hearted ending

In a Blue Room by Jim Averbeck and Tricia Tusa—specific nouns and carefully-chosen verbs create a pleasing story

Little Mouse’s Big Book of Fears by Emily Gravett’s—A book filled with Tier 3 words (see Thursday’s blog) and inventive approaches for defining new vocabulary

Robot by Jon Scieszka and David Shannon—wonderful rhythm, inventive language, and quirky to the extreme

Saturdays and Teacakes by Lester L. Laminack and Chris Soentpiet—a perfect example of specific nouns and vivid verbs with a warmhearted storyline

The Boy Who Loved Words by Roni Schotter and Giselle Potter—it’s a book about a boy who loves words—need I say more?

The Curious Garden by Peter Brownthis book is filled with perfect word choice . . . not pretentious, not overwrought, just good, strong words to carry the story

The Incredible Book Eating Boy by Oliver Jeffers—Exceptional word choice in a surprising and funny book

The Little Yellow Leaf by Carin Berger—beautiful word choice that sings from page to page

The Perfect Nest­ by Catherine Friend and John Manders—a great example of escalating tension, wonderful humor, hilarious descriptions, and a sprinkle of Spanish and French

There’s Nothing to Do On Mars by Chris Gall—specialized vocabulary and scientific facts combined with a familiar lament, “There’s nothing to do!”

We Planted a Tree by Diane Muldrow and Bob Staake—clear word choices woven into wonderful images

It’s Your Turn!
1. What are you doing sitting there? Go read a picture book! Better yet, go write one!

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Amp Up the Vocabulary

Week of January 23—Word Up!
Thursday, January 27—Amp Up the Vocabulary

Some people have the mistaken opinion that the vocabulary in picture books needs to be cranked way down. But who reads most of these books aloud? Adults. Who is learning words and their meanings? The kids who are listening. What is the best way to learn anything? One-on-one.

Educators look at the vocabulary development of children using three tiers. The concept of three-tiered vocabulary is the brainchild of Isabel Beck (author of Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction). The knowledge of these tiers could help with your word selection.

Tier 1 words are mostly basic words that are taught directly. Typically these words do not have multiple meanings.
Examples of Tier 1: book, girl, dog, orange

These words are high frequency (they are read, heard, and spoken frequently). Tier 2 words are often part of adult conversation and literature and because of that, these words influence a child’s speaking and reading. Often Tier 2 words have multiple meanings. These words allow students to describe or speak of things more specifically.
Examples of Tier 2: masterpiece, fortune, industry

Tier 3 words are low-frequency and are more specialized. Most of these words have a single meaning.
Examples of Tier 3: economics, asphalt, Revolutionary War, crepe

(NOTE: Classifying Tier 2 and 3 words is not an exact science. Additionally, remember that verbs and adjectives may also be Tier 1-3 words, but for our purposes I just listed nouns.)

Specialized Vocabulary
Everyone has a passion of some kind. Maybe it’s baseball, horseback riding, dance, NASCAR, gymnastics, painting, or one of a billion other things.

That passion of yours has a specialized vocabulary-words used in the context of the activity that often only the participants know or understnad. This specific vocabulary can be a great way to amp up the vocabulary in a story and make the story more realistic and plausible.

· So, if you’re writing about horseback riding, use: cantor, trot, bridle, saddle, and mane.
· If you’re story is about baseball, use: rosin bag, seventh-inning stretch, infielder, and triple play.
· When you’re writing about painting, use: gesso, palette, mixed media, and montage.

How to Define New Vocabulary Words in a Picture Book
Many picture books use vocabulary that is way above the reading level of our target age group. There are at least five ways to help make the meaning of these new words clear. (Note: For your convenience, I placed the new vocabulary words in the examples below in boldface.)

1.  Define the word in the “flow” of the text. (Notice in the example below the word being defined comes after the definition. Of course, it can also come before the definition.) Example:

“We’ve been crossing the same canal. I think we’re lost! And my blood sugar is low.”
 “We’ll get some ice cream,” promised her mother.
 “It’s called gelato,” replied Olivia.
From Olivia Goes to Venice by Ian Falconer, p. 8

2.  Set the word off in italics.

“For dessert, let’s have parfaits,” my mom says. “That’s French for ice-cream sundaes.”
From Fancy Nancy by Jane O’Connor and Robin Preiss Glasser, p. 24

3.  Share the definition parenthetically.

She bid them ado (that means goodbye).

4.  Imply the meaning through the context.

The pigs were content.
Their neighbors were not as happy.
They were not so content.
From Oink? By Margie Palatini and Henry Cole, p. 4

Each mammoth male was called a bull.
They liked to keep their tummies full.
Bulls ate and ate from morn till night,
They had a mammoth appetite.
From Mammoths’ on the Move by Lisa Wheeler and Kurt Cyrus, p. 23

5.  Define a word through an illustration

“The night is long and long,” says a chickadee.”
(Take my word for it, there’s a lovely illustration of a chickadee on the next page!)
From The Longest Night by Marion Dane Bauer and Ted Lewin, pp.20-21

Using Foreign Languages
You can see from some of the examples above how foreign language words areused in many picture books. Children love these new and unfamiliar words (that often sound really fun and/or funny). These words can help create setting (as in gelato above) or introduce an intriguing synonym (parfaits), or even show differences in characters, for example:

            Jack Lifted all three babies into the nest.
            “Buenas noches, Mama,” said the baby chick.
            “Bonne nuit, Maman,” said the baby duck.
            “Sweet dreams, Ma,” said the baby goose.
            From The Perfect Nest by Catherine Friend and John Manders, p. 34.

WARNING! Many picture book experts advice writers to avoid writing in a dialect or creating stereotypes of any kind.

A Final Word
I can’t speak for editors and agents, but I can speak for teachers and I can tell you that we don’t want writers to shy away from vocabulary. Picture books can introduce vocabulary that is new to children—as long as the context or illustrations gives clues to the meaning of the words. After all, that is how vocabulary is learned. You hear it, then you figure out the meaning, then you try using it yourself.

It’s Your Turn!

1. Ok, I double-dog dare you to amp up the vocabulary in your latest manuscript.
2. Grab some picture books and explore the vocabulary!

Wednesday, January 26, 2011


I'm off to SCBWI in NYC! I can't wait. As time permits, I'll post updates and pics. I'm taking a great manuscript and hope to generate some interest. Fingers crossed! If you're going to be at SCBWI, too, please say hello!


Dialogue Tags

Week of January 23—Word Up!
Wednesday, January 26—Dialogue Tags

“She said. Then I said. Then she said that I said that she said.” Have you ever read dialogue like that? If so, maybe you’ve taught fourth graders, too!

We’re all about word choice this week, so we’re not going to wander into dialogue. What we are going to look at are dialogue tags--those little things at the end of dialogue that identify the speaker and how he/she is speaking. In my classroom we call this: Words for Said. Here are some tips I’ve gathered about dialogue tags.

·   Stick with the basic dialogue tags most of the time—said, asked, answered, replied. Linda Arms White says these words are neutral and don’t distract from the story.
·   If you choose another verb instead of said, use it to show emotion or a character's state of mind.
·   Use "non-basic" dialogue tags sparingly so as not to ruin the impact they can have.
·   If you write: “LOOK OUT!” you probably don’t need to add she shouted. (It’s already obvious.)
·   If you write: “I’m scared,” he whispered. You probably don’t need to add nervously at the end of the sentence. (The dialogue and the dialogue tag are already communicating that.)
·   Just because it’s a verb doesn’t mean it’s a dialogue tag. Consider these non- examples:
o   “Stop that right now,” she frowned. (She might say it and frown, but she can’t frown the words.)
o   “That hurts!” he grimaced.  (Grimace is not a synonym for said.)
o   “Well . . . “ she hesitated, “I don’t know.” (Hesitated doesn’t work, besides the ellipses shows the hestitation.)

Because dialogue is so limited in picture books, I wanted to see how many (or how few) dialogue tags successful writers use. So I listed out all the dialogue tags used in some popular books. The results of my informal survey are below. (You can also see how limited dialogue is in some of these books.)

The Recess Queen by Alexis O’Neill and Laura Huliksa-Beith
growled (used twice)
howled (used twice)
called out

The Wolf Who Cried Boy by Bob Hartman and Tim Taglin
howled (used twice)
sighed (used three times)
said (used three times)
cried (used four times)

Brontorina by James Howe and Randy Cecil
pointed out
said (used three times)
cried (used three times)
called out

A Pet Peeve
One of my pet peeves is repetitive dialogue tags. I know that the basics (said, answered, replied, asked) will be used over and over, but personally I don’t want to do that with my “emotional/amped up” dialogue tags. I want to make my dialogue tags grow in emotional intensity as the story arc grows. For instance, from whined, to moaned, to groaned. The exception to this would be when the dialogue tag is being repeated purposefully and intentionally. For instance, an author may decide a character who is always overreacting will always SHRIEK his dialogue. (Like a Henny Penny!)

It’s Your Turn!
1.On a page in your writer’s notebook, begin to collect great dialogue tags you can use in the future.
2. Revise the dialogue tags in a piece of your writing.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Vivid Verbs

Word Up!
Tuesday, January 25—Vivid Verbs

Ask any 4th grader at Jackson Elementary School to tell you the difference between a verb and a vivid verb and you’ll get an answer something like this: “A verb is an action word. But a vivid verb is an action word that puts a picture in your reader’s mind.” (Or at least they’d better give you that answer! LOL!)

This is what Georgia Heard has to say about verbs: “The most important part of a car is the engine. If the engine doesn’t work, then the car doesn’t run. When you’re writing, verbs serve the same function inside of a sentence as an engine serves inside a car. If your verbs are weak, then your writing seems a bit like a worn out car that’s on its last few miles. If your verbs are strong, then your writing is usually more power just like my car when it zips onto Route 95 every day.”

Let’s try something with verbs today similar to what we did with nouns yesterday. Take a look at this sentence:

Jose walked into the house.

Now reread the sentence substituting each of the following verbs in place of the word walked:


As I try out each verb, I see a different image of  Jose’s mood and I can even speculate as to what caused the mood. For instance:

Nathan slammed into the room. Nathan is boiling over with anger. He may even be doing that old trick of stomping in, slamming down his books, huffing and puffing, and waiting for someone to notice!
Nathan darted into the house. Ok, I think Nathan may be excited about something or he may be running from someone. (When I was a child I would have been running from my older brother, Butch. My kids at school can tell many stories about Butch since I write about him all the time.)
Nathan charged into the house. Now it seems that Nathan is moving with intent and purpose.
Nathan sauntered into the house. This boy doesn’t have a care in the world!
Nathan danced into the house. Maybe Nathan just got an A+, a homerun, a first kiss, the lead in Swan Lake, or it’s the last day of school and there’s reason to celebrate!
Nathan tiptoed into the house. From my personal experience this could only mean one thing—Nathan has just done something that’s going to get him in trouble!

Can you see the difference a verb can make? Now imagine if the verbs are amped up throughout an entire manuscript. To use Georgia Heard’s analogy, the engine would be purring on that manuscript!

One way I see how my favorite authors use vivid verbs is by keeping a running list as a read. I suggest you try it, too. As you read and hunt for verbs, you’ll find that not every verb needs to be vivid (that would get tiring for the reader), but when the action is important, the level of the verbs often goes up.

Vivid Verb list created by some of my students.

Two Verb Tools
The tools I most frequently use to help me make my verbs more vivid are an online thesaurus (my favorite is and the Children’s Writer’s Word Book I mentioned in the last post.

Take a Look at These Verbs
I pulled three picture books from my shelf and went on a verb hunt. One book is a warm memoir/personal narrative, the other a rip-roaring rhyming book, and the third an award-winning literary piece. Guess what? All three authors used exceptional verbs throughout their books.

Saturdays and Teacakes by Lester L. Laminack and Chris Soentpiet
     Every Saturday she spread a cloth over the red countertop and scattered a fistful of flour across it, sending a cloud into the air. Then she set out a big bowl.
     Mammaw dipped a china teacup into the canister of flour, scooped out a cupful, and skimmed over the top with a finger. Then she dumped the flour into the bowl and added sugar from her black cookie jar. She let the mixture drift through her hands like I sifted sand at the beach. (p. 21)

Farmer Dale’s Red Pickup Truck by Lisa Wheeler and Ivan Bates
Farmer Dale’s red pickup truck
hauled a load of hay.
A bossy cow, with eyes of brown,
was standing in the way.

“How ‘bout a ride?” asked Bossy Cow.
“Hop in,” said Farmer Dale.
“Mooove over!” ordered Bossy Cow.
“There’s no room for my tail.”

The truck bounced up. The truck bounced down.
It spit and sputtered toward the town. (pp. 6-8)

The Longest Night by Marion Dane Bauer and Ted Lewin (Winner of the 2010 Gold Kite Award)
“Gone!” caws the crow, the night dark crow.
“So long the sun’s been gone.
I saw it slink,
I saw it sneak,
I saw it creep behind a cloud
and go to sleep.
But I’m the one.

I know how to bring back the sun.
I’ll fly with my strong wings
to reach the clouds.
I’ll poke with my sharp beak
and wake the sun.”
“Not you,” sighs the wind. “Not you.” (pp. 10-12)

It’s Your Turn!
1. Just like yesterday, go through one of your manuscripts and circle every verb. Make a running list of the verbs. Now, make those verbs vivid.
2. Go on a verb hunt of your own. Make a list of any five verbs. Now go to your thesaurus and find every synonym possible. Enjoy!

Monday, January 24, 2011

Strong and Specific Nouns

Word Up!
Monday, January 24—Strong and Specific Nouns

Word choice is at the heart of good story telling. A single word can spark imagination, create an image, or evoke a feeling. We’re spending this week immersed in words. (No doubt, we ‘ll come back to this subject on down the line.) Barry Lane says, “Strong writing is built on nouns and verbs, not adjectives and adverbs.” (Reviser’s Toolbox by Barry Lane, p.54.) Let’s start off the week with nouns.

You know that the specificity of the noun chosen can change a sentence. As an example, consider this sentence:

Sarah lived in a house.

Now reread the sentence substituting each of the following nouns in place of the word house:


By simply changing the noun you can create setting, give immediate insight into some qualities of the character, or set the tone for a story.

Picture nouns on a continuum: Nouns--Strong Nouns--Specific Nouns. Good stories spend a lot of time in the Strong Nouns and Specific Nouns categories. Every noun in a story can't be made strong or specific, but our goal should be to dial up the quality of every noun that could possibly make our writing more specific. Ok, ok, you’re saying, “What in the world is he talking about?” I can probably show you more easily than tell you with the following examples.

Some nouns don’t have a strong “version”, but skip directly to being specific.

BEWARE of Pronouns!
Student writers are notorious for writing sentences like this:

He went there to search for the stuff he needed for his work.

Immediately you wonder: Who is he? Where is there? What stuff? What kind of work? That’s the dreaded pronoun at work. Using strong and specific nouns would help the sentence read:

Twan went to Home Depot to buy lumber and acrylic paints for his Pinewood Derby race car.

Students aren’t the only writers who have an addiction to pronouns. If you see those pesky pronouns in your writing, make sure you aren’t leaving your reader with unanswered questions!

A Final Word
The next time you’re writing, think about the nouns you are using. Are they strong? Specific? As you make your nouns more powerful you will also being your your writing more specific.

1. Divide a sheet of paper into three columns. Label the columns: Nouns, Strong Nouns, Specific Nouns. Look over a piece of your writing, circle all the nouns, and then list each noun in the appropriate column on the chart. Do your nouns fall more in one category than another? Circle the nouns on your list that you want to make stronger or more specific. (Note: An excellent resource every writer needs is Children’s Writer’s Word Book by Alijandra Mogilner. Better than a thesaurus, this book helps you see synonyms appropriate for various ages of kids.)

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Coming This Week!

Week of January 23—Word Up!
Quote for the week:
Here’s my one word secret to success: Anticipation.
—Donald Regan

Monday—Strong and Specific Nouns
Tuesday—Vivid Verbs
Wednesday—Dialogue Tags
Thursday—Amp Up the Vocabulary
Friday—Recommended Reads with Wonderful Words

Friday, January 21, 2011


Building A Story: Plots, Characters, and Settings—Oh, My!
Friday, January 21—Settings

Students in our school district take a monthly writing assessment based on a prompt. Timed writing tests are not my favorite part of being a creative writing teacher, but I do what I have to do. This month’s prompt was: Everyone has imagined going to a special place in the world. Think of the special place where you would go. Now explain why you would go to that place. While some students tried to tackle imagining a place in the world, most wrote about a place they knew. (Thank goodness, since it’s much easier to write about something you know—especially if you only have 45 minutes to plan and write.) Their ideas included:

Joey—surfing at the beach
Jacquisha—cheerleading camp
Jessie—Jessie Land
James—Red Lobster
Azael—my bedroom
Jonathan—Washington D.C.
Austin—Auntie’s house
Brett—Disney World

The moral of the story? A great adventure can happen anywhere! And the minds of children love the familiar and the unknown and everything in between, so the options for settings are limitless.

I’ve realized lately that I’ve heard and read little about settings since trying to immerse myself in the picture book world. Perhaps it’s because of what illustrator/author Janeen Mason told us: “Remember that we illustrate verbs—not nouns.”

Most picture books rely primarily on illustrations to establish the setting. Sensory details in the text add depth and dimension to the story and work with the illustrations to strength the setting. I would love to see the illustration notes that went with my favorite picture books. I would like to see how detailed the authors were in their setting descriptions. I have a feeling that even if the setting was not described in the text or illustration notes, it was firmly in the mind of each author.

Let’s look at a few popular picture books to see just how much setting is included in the text.

How I Became a Pirate by Melinda Long and David Shannon
The first page of text reads: “Pirates have green teeth—when they have any teeth at all. I know about pirates, because one day, when I was at the beach building a sand castle and minding my own business, a pirate ship sailed into view. I knew what it was, because its flag had a skull and crossbones . . . “

This page establishes the setting and then the book becomes an action tale. There is no mention of the appearance of the ship, the weathered planks, ripped sails, and so on. Midway through the book, a storm hits the ship and there is quite a bit of description of the storm. But this, in fact, doesn’t seem to be a setting description, but rather a way of amping up the trouble in the story. The tale closes without any additional text references to setting. In this book, character and action are depicted in words and illustrations, not setting.

EARTHQUACK! by Margie Palatini and Barry Moser
Amazing! It’s not until page 18 that Palatini mentions one setting with the words “they ran to the door of the big red barn.” On page 21 is the second mention of a setting (which is needed since the setting is changing for the first time): “he climbed out from the sticky thicket.”

Moser is clever with his illustrations of setting. The title pages (pages 2-3) show a full view of the barn and farmland and then no setting is shown (except the ground under the feet of the animals). On page 16 Moser pulls out a bit to show a little more of the lay of the land (but mostly so more characters can be included in the scene). There is no image of the barn the animals are rushing to, but Moser does depict the thicket through close-ups three times. At the end of the story, when all is safe again, the barn is shown (page 31). In this book, character and action are the two things depicted most in words and illustrations.

Freedom Summer by Deborah Wiles and Jerome Lagarrigue
Deb uses small statements throughout the book to establish setting. In this book those descriptions are important because the action moves to about seven different locations. (This is unusual for a picture book, but essential for this story.) Here are some of the ways Deb establishes setting:
·   “ . . . Annie Mae steps off the county bus and walks up the long hill to my house.”
·   “We sweep the front porch. We let the cats in, then chase them out of the house . . . “
·   Her description of the action at Fiddlers Creek also establishes setting.
·   Other times, Deb just mentions the names of places and that evokes setting: Fiddlers Creek, Mr. Mason’s Country Store, empty pool, Dairy Dip.
·   Then there’s this setting description that is so complete an illustration is hardly needed: “It’s so quiet now, we can hear the breeze whisper through the grass. We sit on the diving board and stare at the tops of the silver ladders sticking up from the tar.”

Fancy Nancy by Jane O’Connor and Robin Preiss Glasser
Eight different settings are illustrated in Fancy Nancy: Nancy’s bedroom (before and after), the ice cream shop, soccer, the living room, the grocery store, the kitchen, Mom and Dad’s bedroom, outside the house, The King’s Crown, the table at the restaurant, the counter at the restaurant, and back to Nancy’s bedroom.

Here are the only words O’Connor uses to suggest or describe setting:
·        This is my room before I made it fancy. (p. 3)
·        Soon there was a knock on my door. (p. 13)
·        Mom twirls in front of the mirror. (p. 16)
·        “How about dinner at The King’s Crown?” (p. 17)
·        “ . . . the limousine is waiting.” (p. 18)

Owl Moon by Jane Yolen and John Schoenherr
What a classic! This is a quiet book—but a “good” quiet! In this story, the setting becomes one of the characters. Without the setting, there would be no story. So both in Yolen’s words and Schoenherr’s illustrations the setting is depicted thoroughly and with care. This is a rare book and there are probably few picture books where this much is written about the setting. But the descriptions are gorgeous. Here are just a few:
·   We crunched over the crisp snow and little gray footprints followed us. (p.6)
·   We reached the line of pine trees, black and pointy against the sky, and Pa held up his hand. I stopped right where I was and waited. He looked up, as if searching the stars, and if reading a map up there. The moon made his face into a silver mask. (p.8)
·   We went into the woods. The shadows were the blackest things I had ever seen. They stained the white snow. (p. 14)
·   Then we came to a clearing in the dark woods. The moon was high above us. It seemed to fit exactly over the center of the clearing and the snow below it was whiter than the milk in a cereal bowl. (p. 16)

I could go on and on about Owl Moon. What stands out to me in Yolen’s setting descriptions is her use of sensory details. These exquisite details painted the pictures long before the manuscript was sent to the illustrator.

I’ve discovered through this exercise that setting is important to a picture book, but that most of the setting descriptions occur through the illustrations. The descriptions of setting that I do write should include sensory details and should contribute to the action of the book. I need to plan to provide my illustrator with specific notes about the setting if that information is essential to the story and needs to be illustrated. (Of course, the final decisions about the illustrations will be made by the illustrator and the editor and/or art director.)

A personal note: I can’t leave today without saying that my school district hosted a literacy conference back in 2008 and Margie Palatini and Deborah Wiles were two of the speakers. Margie was hilarious in a memorable presentation where she spoke of the source for her writing inspiration. (She is funny and wacky, just like her books.) Deb Wiles touched our hearts with the connections she made between her life and her books. I followed Deb from one session to the next taking notes. She was the first person to tell me about SCBWI. From time to time we pass emails and she is always a great encourager.

It’s Your Turn!
1. Take a look at one of your manuscripts. Highlight ever reference to and description of setting. Are these references and descriptions necessary? Can you write them with more sensory details? Can you leave them up to the illustrator or place the ideas in illustrator notes?
2. As you read picture books, consciously take note of the way setting is presented and see what else you can discover.