Wednesday, November 27, 2013


Dwight, Daryl, and Dub are celebrating their first birthday—or at least the first birthday of the release of Cowboy Christmas. And it’s been a busy birthday season. Below are some of the events I’ve been busy with.

Mintz Elementary, Barnes & Noble Book Fair
Brandon, Florida
(Mintz is the school where I teach creative writing.)
Skype visit with Norman Thomas Elementary School
Freer, Texas
(Here’s my office all set up for the visit.)
Children’s Author Panel at Discovery Night at
Barnes & Noble
Tampa, Florida
(From left to right are authors Nancy Cavanaugh, Augusta Scattergood, Shannon Hitchcock, and yours truly.)
Of course, the Cowboy Christmas Tree is making its annual appearance, too!
Upcoming Events:
Wednesday, December 4
St. John’s Episcopal Parish Day School, Author Visit and Book Fair
Tampa, Florida

Saturday, December 7
Barnes & Noble Educator Day Author Panel
Brandon, Florida

Friday-Sunday, January 17-19, 2014
SCBWI Florida Regional Conference
Miami, Florida

Friday-Sunday, May 29-June 1, 2014
Niagara Writing Retreat and Conference
Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada

Tuesday, November 26, 2013


12 Things Children’s Writers
Can Be Thankful For

T—Timing. In terms of writing journeys, each step seems to come along when and how it should. We just have to be patient enough to wait for it and work for it!

H—Hash and re-hash. We don’t have to be perfect the first time. We get do-overs (aka: chances to revise)!

A—Audience. Editors, agents, parents, teachers, book sellers, and kids make up the audiences we have the chance to impact and impress.

N—Nuts and bolts. Resources galore are available to help us learn the nuts and bolts of our craft.

K—Kids. They inspire us, and are our best critics!

S—SCBWI. Where would we be without it?

G—Groups. Critique groups to be specific!

I—Ideas. A new idea always seems to arrive just when we need it

V—Village. Yes, it does take a village to be a successful children's writer. Fortunately, we have a nice, big village (and it’s growing every day).

I—Imagination. We get to make stuff up every time we sit down at the computer!

N—Nerve. It takes guts to be a writer (and not the kind you get from eating too much pumpkin pie). That means you've got nerve, my friend!

G—Generosity. Everywhere I turn in my writing career, I meet people who are generous with their time, talents, ideas, and support.

Be thankful! Eat some turkey!
And keep on writing!

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Firefly NIght Drawing

And the Winner Is . . .

Thanks to everyone who entered to win an autographed copy of It’s a Firefly Night by Dianne Ochiltree and Betsy Snyder. And thanks to Dianne for providing the book for our drawing.

The winner is . . . The SwimmerWriter!

Please email me with your full name and mailing address. My email addy is

Here’s hoping everyone enjoys some wonderful summer nights and maybe even catches a firefly or two. Be sure to check out Dianne’s fantastic book. You’ll be glad you did!

Friday, June 21, 2013


Meet Dianne Ochitree and Betsy Snyder, creators of IT’S A FIREFLY NIGHT

Dianne Ochiltree ( is a picture book author, a mentor to countless writers, a yoga instructor, and a good friend. She also is the proud owner of a therapy dog named Sally, and the two of them can often be found making school visits. Dianne’s latest picture book, IT’S A FIREFLY NIGHT, was just released by Blue Apple Books (ISBN 978-1-60905-291-1, $12.99 hardcover, Ages 3-6). This book is sure to be a summertime hit!

Dianne recently sat down the illustrator of IT’S A FIREFLY NIGHT, Betsy Snyder ( Being the friend she is, Dianne was kind enough to share the interview with Picture This! The interview will help every picture book author see why leaving room for the illustrator to tell his/her half of the story and to leave room for the illustrator’s vision (instead of imposing our own ideas) is so important. Enjoy!

NOTE: Post a comment about the interview and be entered into a drawing for an autographed copy of IT’S A FIREFLY NIGHT!

DIANNE:  Betsy, I’ve loved your artwork for IT’S A FIREFLY NIGHT from the very beginning. This book’s illustrations are getting woo-hoo’s and high-fives from reviewers, parents, grandparents, teachers, librarians, and booksellers. What was it about the story that first sparked your imagination?

BETSY: I grew up spending time at my family's rustic cabin in the Appalachian mountains of Pennsylvania. I have fond memories of warm summer days and nights spent with my dad and grandparents—fishing, stargazing, camping out, and of course, chasing fireflies. That childhood experience gave me an early appreciation for nature that influences much of my work today. Dianne's manuscript was something I connected with instantly because it really spoke to the nature-lover in me.

DIANNE:  The book’s color palette of deep blues, vivid greens, glowing yellows, and purple-pinks really bring the magic of a summer night to life.  Did you see the colors first before you began to sketch, or did the palette evolve as you worked through the black-and-white dummy? 

BETSY: Hm, probably a little of both. I always begin a book with black-and-white thumbnail sketches to generate ideas and explore composition, scale and pacing, so I don't focus on color right from the start. But since I am more of a visual thinker and this is a bedtime book, I did naturally envision the colors of twinkly night skies and glowing fireflies right from the beginning.

There were certain places in my sketches where I knew I wanted to incorporate dark, graphic silhouettes against the sky, so I had to consider how nighttime values would read against each other. The palette really came to life when I started to paint all the textures—adding color is my favorite part, so I'm always excited to move on to that stage of the art!

DIANNE:  In IT’S A FIREFLY NIGHT, the summer night sky is almost as much of a character as the little girl, the daddy and the fireflies.  Could you tell us a little bit about how you develop your vision of how a story character looks, acts and feels? 

BETSY: The publishing team and I discussed the child character upfront. We quickly settled on a girl—it felt more personal to me. The girl was originally supposed to have darker hair, but I ended up making her hair a lighter brown so it would read better against the dark skies. I explored what she should wear—a nightgown seemed comfy and nostalgic. And of course she had to be barefoot!

While the presence of the dad is established in the beginning, I opted to not reveal all of him until the end—I wanted to mostly zoom in on the girl discovering fireflies so we get a sense of her independence. The end reveals the bigger picture (and Dad), showing us the girl's place in the world and leaving us with a feeling of togetherness.

For the fireflies, I experimented with how realistic I would make them, and how they would look close-up vs. from afar. The fireflies are the real stars of the book, so I gave them deep, rich backdrops so they could really shine on the page.

DIANNE:  The illustrations in IT’S A FIREFLY NIGHT are so expressive and textural.  What tools and techniques did you use to create these wonderful effects?

BETSY: My final art is digital, but I always try to give it a handmade feel. I start by getting messy and painting large sheets of textures and colors that feel like all the parts of my pictures—grass, trees, sky, fireflies. I use whatever works and fits the mood—watercolor, dyes, acrylics, pastels. Then I scan all my textures into the computer and build my collages in Photoshop, using my sketch as my guide. When I'm working on the computer, I use a drawing tablet, which gives me a lot of control and helps me make the final details feel like they were done by hand.

DIANNE:  How long does the creative process typically take when you’re illustrating a picture book, from first sketches to final art? How do you determine when it’s ‘final art’ that’s ready to go to the publisher?

BETSY: I usually have about 9 months to a year to complete sketches and art for a picture book. It sounds like a lot of time, but it really isn't when you mix in promoting other books and juggling other work. I work on multiple projects at one time, so there is some overlap and stop-and-go throughout the process, especially when the publisher needs time to review sketches and art.

I like to collaborate closely with my editors and art directors and really respect their expertise. I share progress often and always do a few finishes early on, so we can agree on a direction for the art and so there aren't any big, scary surprises for the publisher (or big, scary revisions for me) at the end. When I get really stuck on the art, or I start to waste too much time noodling, it's usually a good time to ask my publishing team to weigh in—sometimes a fresh perspective helps me finish things up.

DIANNE:  You’ve added so many lovely details in this book’s illustrations---like the cute family dog---that augment the text so well.  This makes it more fun for readers, having these extras to look for, as they read the story (hopefully) again and again.  How did you decide what to add?  And, was it fun for you? 

BETSY: I like when the pictures have smaller stories tucked within them, giving readers little surprises to discover along the way. The details keep it fun for me too—making books can be a tedious and lengthy process, so adding extras keeps me engaged and interested as well.

I created the dog as a secondary character to give the girl a curious little buddy to explore with. I liked the additional relationship that it brought to the book. To emphasize nature's interconnectivity, I also added other night friends to find—an owl keeping watch, a red fox, a bird, a skunk, and tiny critters like a caterpillar, and inchworm and a ladybug.

DIANNE: Thanks for answering my questions, Betsy!  Is there anything I’ve forgotten to ask you about your artwork and creative process that you’d like to add here?

BETSY: My favorite spread? All ten fireflies, of course!

Monday, June 17, 2013

What Kid Writers Say


Fourth graders in Florida take a state-wide writing assessment each year. It’s a stressful experience, and can take the joy and creativity out of writing if you’re not careful.

At the end of the school, I invited 4th graders at my school to come to my room for a cupcake celebration to acknowledge their hard work and accomplishments. I asked them to write bits of advice for next year’s 4th graders who will be preparing for the same assessment. Their responses were funny, helpful, and inspiring. I thought you might also benefit from the words of wisdom these young writers have to offer. Enjoy!

Choose a good topic because that will affect your writing.
—Sebastian M.

Practice writing at home on your own with all your writing crafts. Try your best and never give up. Learn from your mistakes.
—Mateo E.

Think positive.

Never stop trying.
—Joudel M.

Always believe that you can do it.
—David R.

Just write.
—Neko H.

You will do terrific if you stay focused with that topic.

For a finishing touch, have an awesome ending.

Concentrate. Don’t be afraid. Plan and write the best you can.

Use your best ideas and all your writing crafts.
—Anthony H.

Try to explain and elaborate your story.
—Tikkia L.

Try to show all your reading experiences in your writing.
—Ellah A.

Think positive—don’t let bad thoughts get in the way!
—Sarah R.

My advice to you is to take all the space you need to elaborate.
—Emma D.

Be the best writer you can be.

To be a successful writer you must always keep trying to make your stories better.
—Corbin H.

Write just like you talk. It makes it easy.

Try to relate the story to your life or real life situations.
—Ellah A.

Reread and make it better.

Never let anything back you down.

Be creative with the topic you choose.

Remember—you’re awesome!
—Mateo E.

Never give up!!!!!
—Moises D.

Stay focused, write all you can, and save time to edit and revise.
—Mackenzie R.

To be a good writer is to believe in yourself and practice writing.

Try your best. Never give up. Put effort into it.

Always have a plan.

Believe in yourself.

Give details. Be very specific. Make your reader want to read more.
—Victoria G.

Use an anecdote if you wish to tell a reader a memory about your topic.

When you are writing a story, make sure you plan and don’t get off task.

To be a successful writer is to believe in yourself. If you believe, then you will be great.
—Rodney. B.

Whatever is in your head, write about it.

Elaborate! Elaborate! Elaborate
—Amy U.

If you have a good idea—use it!

Take your time and go back and reread your writing.
—Elayne L.

Stretch it as far as you can.

Use attributes to add specific details.

Don’t stop working!
—Mateo E.

My advice is to use all of your tools and organize all of your writing.
—Mackenzie R.

Never rush.

Express yourself in your writing by using vivid verbs.

Use lots and lots of vivid verbs, but not so much that the reader goes nuts.

When writing a story, don’t forget the characters.
—Asia N.

Know the end!

Use every writing craft that comes to your mind.

Remember: You WILL do great.

Make your story beautiful.
—Alyssa J.

Use vivid verbs in your story to make it exciting.
—Elayne L.

Have a positive attitude and your writing will be positive.

Imagine your dreams coming true.

Don’t just say my dog ran around, say my dog skedaddled around. Use
stronger words to make your story stronger.
—Alyssa J.

Let your mind think. Then plan what you are going to do.
—Victoria G.

The thing that makes me successful is using all my crafts and hoping for the best.

C’mon, put some EFFORT into that story!

Get specific.

Always try, try, try.
—Gabriel R.

Remember: Grammar, punctuation, and spelling.
—Victoria G.

Imagine that story inside you.
—Elayne L.

If you have an idea, plan it, write it, dream it!
—Alyssa J.

Think of yourself as one of the characters. Then think what you would do or say!

Remember to indent and use appropriate vocabulary.

Focus on one thing and never give nonsense information.

Think that you are in the moment of the story.

Be confident. Believe in yourself.

Write as much as you can. More story = better story.
—Sarah R.

Trust me, you’ll do great!


Friday, June 14, 2013

A Writer's Journal

Keeping a Writing Journal

I was rushing off to a critique group meeting this afternoon and I reached into my closet to grab a tablet. I pulled out an old composition book and stuck it in my bag. When I got to the meeting site, I pulled out the composition book, opened it, and found journaling guidelines that I shared with student writers five or six years ago. The guidelines brought a flood of memories, and reminded me of the power of a writer keeping notes, journaling, and collecting his/her thoughts. I want to share those guidelines with you. Maybe they’ll help you begin the habit of keeping a writing journal, or give you some fresh ideas if you’re already a journal-er.


When to Start
Start journaling now! Write down some of the thoughts and feelings that you are experiencing at this moment. You could even write your feelings about beginning to journal

When to Write
Write whenever inspiration—thoughts and ideas—hits you. The more you write, the more you’ll get out of the experience. You can write early in the morning, during a prescribed block of writing time, when you finish other writing or work, after school [work], on the bus, in the car, before bed, and so on. In other words, you can journal anytime you please.

What to Write
What about you. Write about your thoughts and feelings. Write about what is going on in your life. Write about what you hear. Write about what you read. Write about what is on your mind. Write about what you imagine, hope, and dream. Just write.

Where to Write
A lot of writers find it helpful to write in a quiet place where they can think, be alone, and/or have their own space. Journaling takes concentration. See if you can find your own special place where you like to journal. But you can write at any time and in any place. Don’t let the lack of a perfect location keep you from journaling.

How to Write
When journaling, you can use a pencil, a pen, or whatever your favorite writing instrument might be. Date the page each time you write. Don’t worry about how much space you do or do not fill up. Just write. Skip a few lines between entries in case you want to revise, edit, or add notes to a previous entry.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Celebrate Sendak!

Happy Birthday, Maurice!

June 10 was the 85th anniversary of Maurice Sendak’s birth. Sendak, celebrated children’s author and illustrator, is best known for his Caldecott Award-winning book, Where the Wild Things Are. Sendak paced away in May 2012.

To mark the anniversary of his birth, Google has created a spectacular "Google Doodle" that is a work of art, as well as a fitting tribute. You owe it to yourself to spend one minute and forty-six seconds viewing the “doodle” and celebrating Sendak.

You can enjoy the experience on Google, or you can watch a video of it here:

Saturday, June 8, 2013

The Stories Behind the Pictures #6

Analyzing the Stories Behind this Year’s Caldecotts

Day 6—Sleep Like A Tiger

Sleep Like A Tiger
Written by Mary Logue
Illustrated by Pamela Zagarenski
Houghton Mifflin Books for Children an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

This book is spellbinding. Sleep Like A Tiger is a bedtime story, a concept book about ways animals sleep, and has the tone and visual appearance of a folktale. The prose is lyrical and each word is carefully chosen. Each time I read this book I discover a new, perfect description, a metaphor I’d missed, or something new in an illustration.

The story is about an unnamed little girl who does not want to go to sleep. Her parents say that’s okay, but encourage her to wash her face, brush her teeth, put on her PJs, crawl in bed, and so on. The little girl makes all of her bedtime preparations and begins asking questions about how animals sleep. Her parents answer the inquiries about sleeping snails, whales, bats, and so on. The little girl recalls that tigers sleep many hours a day in order to stay strong. But she still is not sleepy. The parents tell her she can stay awake all night, and leave her alone in bed. The little girl recalls the animals and how they sleep and practices each of their techniques until she finally falls asleep herself.

I often look at picture books for teaching points to use with students. This also helps me as a writer since the basics of writing instruction are the same as the basics of writing itself—craft. The most obvious craft take-aways from this book are the lovely descriptions, similes, and metaphors. Here are a few examples:

. . . “but during the day they [bats] fold their wings, tuck their heads, and sleep hanging upside down in the safest place in the barn.”

“They [whales] swim slowly around and around in a large circle in the ocean and sleep.”

“Bears are mighty sleepers. They make a cozy den under the snow and sleep through the winter.”

“They [snails] curl up like a cinnamon roll inside their shell.”

She folded her arms like the wings of a bat.

Then she snuggled deep as a bear, the deep-sleeping bear.

The little girl’s bed was warm and cozy, a cocoon of sheets, a nest of blankets.

Sleep Like A Tiger is well worth the read and it’s worth browsing through the book’s illustrations as well. Warning: You may end up in a spellbinding, ready-for-sleep state. Trust me, you won’t mind it one bit.

Friday, June 7, 2013

The Stories Behind the Pictures #5

Analyzing the Stories Behind this Year’s Caldecotts

Day 5—One Cool Friend

One Cool Friend
Written by Toni Buzzeo
Illustrated by David Small
Dial Books for Young Readers an imprint of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

I predict that you will delight in reading the words and the illustrations in One Cool Friend. In fact, the whole story could not be told without the integration of both. This is truly a picture book where the text tells half the story and the illustrations tell the other half. The illustrations have a retro kind of feel with black, white, and gray predominating. Then a bit of red and blue are thrown into the mix. This is kind of like the old three-color print jobs of years gone by, but now rendered in a more sophisticated (and nicer looking) format. Kudos to David Small.

Toni Buzzeo (who is one cool friend to kids, librarians, teachers, and children’s writers) is a part-time Floridian. So we claim her as an SCBWI Florida member. I heard her speak in January at our Annual Meeting in Miami. The inspiration for this book came when Toni read or heard about a boy nabbing a penguin from a local aquarium. She knew instantly that the penguin heist would make a great story, but when she went to the aquarium’s web site she found a huge banner reading: PENGUIN KIDNAPPING—URBAN LEGEND. Despite the fact that the story wasn’t true, Toni still knew this story was meant to be told in a picture book.

Elliot is the main character and he is a proper young man. You might say Elliot looks penguin-like. His father, the other human character in the book, is a supportive (though not totally tuned-in) parent, and you come to realize that Dad looks a lot like a turtle. Interesting. On a visit to the aquarium, Elliot asks if he can have a penguin. Thinking his son means a plush penguin from the gift shop, Elliot’s dad forks over twenty bucks. Elliot chooses a real penguin, names him Magellan, and takes him home in his backpack. The reader witnesses a comical series of events as Elliot creates the perfect habitat for Magellan without his father ever noticing. The final twists and turns of the book will have kids (and you) hooting with laughter.

The story is an event-driven story, based on a unique idea and with one-of-a-kind, memorable characters. I suppose you could argue that Elliot’s problem is keeping Magellan under wraps while providing a habitat for him. But I don’t see any failures in these attempts—just lots of well-written, well-timed comedy. Factual information is tucked into the text making it have even more value to a librarian or teacher.

If ever there were a text that left room for the illustrator, it’s this text. That may have been Toni’s intention from the beginning, she may have used art notes, or she and her editor may have edited down the text once they saw the illustrations. Whichever the case, the text is just enough to make us need to look at the illustrations for more information. (By the way the text includes 591 words and the book is written at an early third-grade reading level.)

Two additional lessons picture book authors can take away from this book are the minimalistic use of descriptions and the effective use of dialogue. Check out One Cool Friend, it’s cool!

Thursday, June 6, 2013

The Stories Behind the Pictures

Analyzing the Stories Behind this Year’s Caldecotts
Day 4—Green

Written and illustrated by Laura Vaccaro Seeger
A Neal Porter Book, Roaring Book Press

Green is a concept picture book. Usually concept books teach something—numbers, letters, colors, and so on. In Green, Seeger may have been trying to teach about the various shades of green, but I speculate she was trying to explore the color and encourage us to do the same.

The book has a total of thirty-two words. Each two page spread includes two words describing the kind of green shown in the illustration. The first half of the book deals with shades of green (forest green, pea green, khaki green, and so on). The center-spread shows a green-striped zebra with the words wacky green. Then come pages where the word green is preceded by a word that describes it and the corresponding illustration (slow, faded, all, never). The book ends with a lovely illustration and the words forever green.

I’m not sure that a non-illustrator would have been able to sell this text. I have a feeling the text and illustrations were shown and sold as a package (and they make a beautiful package). But the world of concept picture books still has plenty of room for writer folks like us. And if this book is any indication, some publishers still like publishing concept books.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

The Stories Behind the Pictures #3

Analyzing the Stories Behind this Year’s Caldecotts
Day 3—Extra Yarn

Extra Yarn
Written by Mac Barnett
Illustrated by Jon Klassen
Balzar + Bray and imprint of HarperCollins Publishers

I told you we’d see Jon Klassen’s name again among the Caldecott Honor Books, and here it is. You’ll be surprised at the completely different style of art he uses in Extra Yarn. The illustrations resemble block prints, and are mostly black and white—at least until the main character, Annabelle, puts her knitting needles to work. Then spots of variegated color begin to creep across the pages.

I think I’ll classify Extra Yarn as a fairy tale. No there’s no fairy godmother, but there is good versus evil and an ample supply of magic yarn.

Annabelle lives in a frozen village that is covered with white snow and black soot.
Thus, everything in her world is black and white. Then Annabelle finds a box filled with colorful yarn. She knits herself a sweater. Then she knits a sweater for her dog. There’s still more yarn. She knits a sweater for a friend and her classmates. Everyone is sure Annabelle will run out of yarn. But she doesn’t. She knits sweaters for her family, the townspeople, all the animals in town, and eventually for things that don’t even need sweaters. There’s still extra yarn in the box. 

An archduke (who happens to love fashionable clothes) hears about the magic yarn, travels to Annabelle’s village, and offers to buy the yarn. When she refuses to sell, the archduke has the box of yarn stolen and carried back to his home. When he finally opens the box, he finds it empty and places a curse on Annabelle. But the curse doesn’t work, and Annabelle’s knitting continues in a quiet, but surprising ending.

In a day when most picture books are geared to the youngest of the picture book market, this book is geared to a bit older crowd. The 566-word book has a reading level at the upper end of second grade/lower end of third grade. Sentences are more complex and the text includes more challenging vocabulary.

The structure of this book is interesting to me. We meet Annabelle and learn of her discovery of the magic box of yarn on the first page of the story. The next eighteen pages are all about her knitting. We are well over halfway through the book before we meet the archduke and the problem of the story is introduced. The problem—the attempt to buy, the theft, and the curse from the archduke—take ten pages. Annabelle does nothing to solve her own problem as in a traditional plot structure. Instead the box makes its way back to her and she continues to knit.

I’ve heard editors talk about quiet books. One of them told me that quiet really means nothing happens. Well, this is a quiet book and plenty happens. But it’s a gentle tale, told in a simple, straightforward manner, and illustrated with a touch of humor (and color). Like the other two books I’ve reviewed this week (This Is Not My Hat and Creepy Carrots), this is an event-driven story, not a character-driven story. Yes, Annabelle is a lovable, relateable, age-appropriate, active character. But this story is not about the character Annabelle solving a problem, this is a story about the event of Annabelle using the magic yarn. “So what?” you ask. So there’s room in the picture book market for lots of different kinds of stories. As long as they are well written, fresh, innovative stories.