Tag: kidlit

Bullet Journaling for Writers: Part 4 Writing a Novel

 

Bullet Journaling for writers: Part 4. Writing a novel

I’ve been wanting to write this blog post for a long time to share how I use bullet journaling to help me write my middle grade novels. I’m in the middle of writing a new novel right now, so it’s the perfect time for me share.

It’s also nearly NaNoWriMo time! If you’re not familiar with National Novel Writing month, you should go check it out. People all over the globe are busily preparing to write a novel in the month of November.

This post is for anyone who is writing a novel. Whether you are:

  • doing NaNoWriMo and writing a novel in a month
  • taking your time the rest of the year (or years)
  • plotting it all out beforehand
  • or pantsing your way through to THE END,

every novelist will benefit from having a bullet journal.

What is a novel bullet journal?

Wait, what’s a bullet journal?

Bullet Journaling for Writers: Part 1 The Basics

In the first part of my bullet journaling for writers series, I talk about the basics of bullet journaling. In case you forgot the details, here’s the short verison:

  • Bullet journaling is a system for tracking information that can be done in any notebook.
  • Set aside pages for an index and add entries as you make them (so you can find things later)
  • Use a future log (to track things that are off in the future)
  • Make daily, weekly, or monthly logs to track information as it comes up – like a day planner crossed with a to-do list on steroids.
  • Collections to keep track of ideas, items, lists, etc.

The earlier series shared how I have modified this system specifically for writers. Instead of a regular daily or weekly log, I use my magical-monthly log. Another post shares a list of helpful collections just for writers.

 

A novel bullet journal is different from a regular bullet journal

Bullet Journaling for Writers: Planning bujo vs. novel bujo
My silver planning bullet journal on the left vs. the teal bullet journal for my most recent work in progress on the right.

Everything I shared before was from my planning bullet journal. My 2019 planning bujo is a silver Rhodia goalbook. I use it for bringing together all the aspects of my writing career: planning for multiple manuscripts, critique groups, blogging, marketing, lists of books to read and review, etc.

I’ve found that I drop fewer balls when all the planning information is in one place, so all the planning and prioritizing go into my regular bullet journal.

A novel Bullet journal has a different purpose: to hold all the details about your novel. It has an index and a lot of collections. It doesn’t have any planning (so no logs). It’s focused so that you can focus on your novel. The bujo for my current work in progress is a teal Scribbles That Matter notebook.

 

Yes, I use a separate notebook.

Bullet Journaling for writers: the stack of my novel bullet journals
The bullet journals for my novels.

Ok, yes, it is possible to put all the novel information into your regular bullet journal in between your ideas for blog posts and daily planning. But that can make it hard to find information – especially when it spills over into a new notebook.

I start a new planning bullet journal every year. If I put my novel information into my regular journal, all that information would be spread across two or three (or more) years of bullet journals.

Instead, for each novel, I buy a separate journal. All the information for that novel goes into that journal. If I want to look up a fact from my first novel, it will definitely be in the sky-blue notebook. If I need to check a detail for the current novel, it’s in the grape purple notebook.

So for me, I keep a planning bullet journal each year plus a separate bullet journal for each novel.

If I haven’t convinced you yet, consider this: we writers love to buy notebooks and I just gave you an excuse!

 

Hopefully, I have now sold you on having a bullet journal to help you write a novel.  So let’s take a look at some of the things that can go into your novel bullet journal

 

Collections for inspiration and planning

A new novel usually starts here: with inspiration and early planning.

Inspiration or mood board

Bullet Journal for writers: my inspiration page
The inspiration page for my most-recent novel.

 

A lot of writers find it helpful to create a mood board or inspiration board for their writing. If you put those things in your bullet journal, you have a mood board that can travel to the coffee shop with you.

Consider including:

  • pictures that inspire you
  • stickers
  • phrases
  • poems
  • quotes
Quote by Anne Lamott: "Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something - anything - down on paper. What Ive learned to do when I sit down to work on a shitty first draft is to quiet the voices in my head."
This quote by Anne Lamott is a good reminder to myself as I’m writing my first draft. In the spirit of it, I decided to let the spacing and scratched out bits go. **twitches**

Protip: adding large things in your journal is easy with a piece of washi tape. Plus, now you have a reason to buy pretty washi tape. The video below shows how I added some pictures and diagrams to my bullet journal for easy reference.


Brainstorming:

Brainstorming is a great way to get the creative juices rolling. I end up doing quick brainstorms throughout my writing process. I usually set aside a collection just for brainstorming. Whenever I need to think up, say, a funny name for a character’s pet chicken, I’ll flip to the brainstorming collection and make a list. When the pages fill up with these lists, I start another.

Consider:

  • character names
  • character motivations
  • setting
  • plot twists
  • backstory
  • endings
  • clues (for mysteries)
  • magical items (for fantasy)
  • literally whatever you need

Mindmapping:

Another form of brainstorming – One exercise I did with my current novel was to create a mindmap. I wrote out all the character names and settings in circles, then drew lines to show the relationships between them. It was really helpful so I could see which characters and subplots clustered together neatly and which… did not. That made it easy to target subplots to cut from an already over-stuffed plot.

Writing Exercises: 

Many books have you work through a set of exercises to help you discover plot, character motivation, or voice. I do these in my Bullet Journal so I can look back at them later. You can check out my 16 favorite writing books here.

16+ Best Books for Writers: Books for Every Writer

Collections to hold onto important information

This is where you get to the core of your novel: character, plot, setting, etc. If you’re a plotter, you’ll probably be developing all of this before your first draft. For us pantsers, you’ll be tracking this information as you write or after the first draft.

 

Character sheets

A Character sheet page from one of my novel bullet journals
A Character sheet page from one of my novel bullet journals. Many books have exercises to help you get to know your character, Story Genius is one of my favorites

There are a million names for this idea – character sheet, character bible, character interview, … Whatever you call it, it’s a place to write down all the pertinent information about your character. Creating your character sheet is a great way to get to know your character.

There are some very long lists of information to track about your character and even some templates you can print and tape into your bullet journal. Personally, I find that more information is not necessarily better – it just tempts me into including too many details that bog down the story, especially at first. For myself, I like to keep it minimal when I start:

  • Name
  • Age (especially important for kidlit writers)
  • Appearance (keep it brief: are they an elephant or a child or a pterodactyl with eczema?)
  • Internal problem/arc* (what is driving them?)
  • External problem/arc* (what is the outwardly visible problem in their lives?)

Sometimes these details change and I always learn a lot about my characters while writing. So I end up rewriting my character sheets with the new information:

  • Speech or body language tics
  • Likes and dislikes
  • Backstory
  • Personality
  • People in their lives – friends, family, pets, …
  • All the idiosyncratic details that help them feel real.
  • ….

*If you’re not sure what I mean by internal and external problems and arcs, I recommend reading a book on story structure like Wired for Story by Lisa Cron. You can get a taste from her TedTalk here.

 

Plot

Diagrams of 3-act structure in a bullet journal.

Diagram of 3-act structure in a bullet journal from Page Flutter. I lean toward the pantsing side of the plotter-pantser spectrum. So I often go into a novel with just a rough overview of the plot. When I’m first thinking about the plot of a novel, I will usually freewrite long-hand to work out my ideas.

At some point in revision, I will use diagrams and charts full of plot points and all the things that plotters love.

I like to do my plotting on a whiteboard with sticky notes so I can move plot points around until I’m satisfied with them – or identify holes that need to be filled…

Close up of my plotting whiteboard showing a post-it note with the text "{hilarity ensues}"

But when I’m done, I copy it down in my bullet journal for easy reference while writing. (Also: I have too many cats and kids for sticky notes to last through the entire drafting or revision process.)

 

Family tree/character mindmap

Bullet journaling for writers: a family tree and a mindmap of character relationships
A family tree and mind map I made for just a few characters from Harry Potter.

If you’ve got a big cast of characters, it can be helpful to have a visual to see how they all connect. A family tree is helpful for big families.

A mindmap that shows characters and how they’re related can also help you keep track of tangled social webs. For instance, look at the web I made for just a few of the Harry Potter characters.

 

Setting

Bullet Journal spread: novel setting
One of the settings for one of my novels. Check out the video above to show how I attach the pictures.

This is a place to park all the information about a setting in your novel. You can snag photos from the internet. I often draw diagrams (they don’t have to be museum-worthy – just so I keep my layout of buildings and towns consistent) or I look up building diagrams online and tape in printouts. Maps may also be helpful – either hand-drawn or printed off of google maps

 

Timeline

If your story starts in spring but 5 months go by before the end, you can’t have them picking daffodils in a spring shower in the last scene. (Unless you are on an alternate planet or reality where time and natural cycles work differently. You can make a collection for that, too.)

A timeline helps you to track the progression of time both so it’s believable and so you can nail those details that bring a novel to life: are the characters meeting while shivering under cover of night or sweating in the blazing sun of mid-afternoon summer? You can write it out by hand, but I like to type it into a spreadsheet which I print out and tape it into my bullet journal for reference.

 

Genre-specific information

  • Fantasy – world building details like cultures, languages, governance structures.
  • Sci-fi – technological details and world building
  • Mystery or thriller – Clues, villains, and red herrings.
  • Magical realism/fantasy – how does the magic “work”
  • Historical – all that research about your time/setting/characters
  • Humor – list of running jokes/callbacks
  • …………

 

Tools to help you write

 

Trackers

Bullet journal word count tracker for a novel
The title of my tracking page was inspired by the Anne Lamott quote above.

“Tracker” is the shorthand in the bullet journaling community for any type of collection that lets you track information over time. Consider:

  • word count (as you write)
  • chapters revised (as you revise)
  • number of chocolate bars eaten trying to sort out a plot hole (I don’t judge)

I like to use a simple word count tracker. Filling a page up with sparkly stickers is very satisfying.

If you’re trying to write a novel for NaNoWriMo, it can be helpful to track daily word count.  Here is the official NaNoWriMo wordcount tracker for 2019.

 

Lists and Notes:

Simple but necessary. There’s a lot to keep track of so make a collection and give it a place to live where it can be easily found later (unlike that used napkin…)

Some collections I have used to hold notes and lists:

  • list of changes to make in the next draft (“Side character names are all boring – fix this.”)
  • questions that need answering (“Why does my character hate the villain so much? Need to work out backstory.”)
  • ideas for revision (“If I change the location of the earlier scene, readers will already know the location before getting to the pivotal scene later.”)
  • people to thank in acknowledgment – I keep this running list. It gets long very quickly.

 

References and writing helpers

Wheel of emotion words
Wheel of emotion words. Larger version here.

If you find yourself looking up, say, an emotional thesaurus frequently, print it out and taping it in your bullet journal. That way it’s always handy – even when the internet goes down. (The horror…)

Consider:

  • emotion wheel/thesaurus
  • 3 act structure diagram
  • hero’s journey diagram
  • list of words to cut from your writing
  • anything you find useful

 

Literally anything else that will fit in a notebook

What do you need to keep track of?

 

How to Win Nanowrimo with a bullet journal

 

Book Reviews are Moving!

While I hope my book reviews move you emotionally, in this case I’m talking about a change in location.

I love reviewing books for so many reasons:

I have been reviewing books on my blog for a couple of years now. But over time I’ve noticed a shift in how people engage with book reviews.

I’ve been sharing book reviews informally on social media for a while. I noticed that social media review get more reach than do blog posts. Reading will happen no matter where I share, but if I want to reach readers and shine a light on good books, I need to go where the people are.

 

After a lot of thought (and some handwringing) I have decided to shift to reviewing books on my social media accounts – primarily Instagram. My account is open, so you can view it without creating an Instagram account, though I do reshare to Twitter and Facebook as well.

 

View this post on Instagram

 

This book… *Sharp exhale* 📚 I read a lot, y’all. This is my 69th novel or novel-length book in 2018. So when I say this book is a rare gem, I know what I’m talking about. I’ve read a lot of middle grade books that deal with tough topics, but this left me gutted. 📚 I mean that in the best way possible. 📚 This is one of those books that gets you so deep in the feels that you end up screaming at the characters on the page. That will have you sobbing or throwing the book across the room. 📚 This book GETS IT in a way that’s hard to describe if you’ve never had your back against a wall. If you’ve never had to claw your way to a better life with nothing but determination and your fingernails. 📚 I will be thinking about THE BENEFITS OF BEING AN OCTOPUS for years to come. . #booksofinstagram #books #bookrecommendations #bookreview #kidlit #kidlitpicks #middlegrade #thebenefitsofbeinganoctopus @annbradenbooks

A post shared by Angela Isaacs (@aisaacswrites) on

 

I will still do some larger book review posts – like my yearly holiday season list of books for all ages and lists that cover topics that aren’t addressed other places.

2018 List of Books to give to kids: Kids books for every age and stage: Baby to Teen and everything in between

Here’s to more reading!

Women in STEM Picture Books

Picture Books about Women in STEM

Each month I spread a little love for some lovely books with monthly book reviews.

March is women’s history month, so this month I’m sharing women’s history books that focus on something I love: STEM. Check out these real stories of amazing women all of whom pursued their passions and became experts in science, technology, engineering, or math despite all the odds.

 

Science: The Girl Who Thought In Pictures: The Story of Dr. Temple Grandin by Julia Finley Mosca and Daniel Rieley

Book Cover Art: The Girl Who Thought In Pictures: The Story of Dr. Temple Grandin

When young Temple was diagnosed with autism, doctors told her mother she would never speak or be able to fit in. They told her to send Temple away. But her mother did not give up. Neither did Temple. As she grew older, Temple found that her visual thinking and attention to detail were strengths. She revolutionized farming and found her voice as a speaker who travels the world.

The Girl Who Thought In Pictures on Indiebound

 

Math: Counting on Katherine: How Katherine Johnson saved Apollo 13 by Helaine Becker and Tiemdow Phumiruk

Book Cover Art: Counting on Katherine

Katherine Johnson loved to learn and loved math. But growing up in the segregated South – she had to fight to continue pursuing her passion. Her perseverance not only let her reach her dreams, but also made spaceflight possible.

This is the same Katherine Johnson who was featured in the book-turned-movie Hidden Figures, which I have recommended before. While there is a middle grade edition of Hidden Figures, I was delighted to this important story told in a picture book format for younger kids.

Counting on Katherine on IndieBound

 

Technology and Engineering: Ada Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine by Laurie Wallmark and April Chu

Book Cover Art: Ada Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine

Long before there were computers, Ada Byron Lovelace had too much imagination and love of learning to listen when people told her a woman could not be a scientist. She meets a man named Babbage with a similarly impossible dream: a thinking machine. But how to give it commands? Ada goes to work developing a code to talk to this mechanical computer. She ends up inventing computer programming before computers even existed.

Ada Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine on IndieBound

 

Science: Joan Proctor Dragon Doctor: The Woman Who Loved Reptiles by Patricia Valdez and Felicita Sala

Book Cover Art: Joan Procter, Dragon Doctor: The Woman Who Loved Reptiles

Joan always loved reptiles – while other girls carried around dolls, she had a pet crocodile. When all the men were called away to war, she got her chance: she got a job working with the reptiles she loved. Eventually, she became a leading expert in reptiles sharing her knowledge so the world would understand just how loveable reptiles could be.

Joan Procter, Dragon Doctor on Indiebound

 


You can find more book reviews on my book review page.

200+ Children's Book Reviews

 

How a Children’s Book is Made: Part 2. The Illustrator’s Speak

How A Children's Book is Made: Part 2: How Books are Illustrated

Welcome to my blog series on how children’s books are actually made. Last time, I explained illustration from the author’s perspective. This time, we’ll look at how the illustrator does their job.

I’m not an illustrator, so I’m going to let them speak for themselves. I’ve gathered together videos and blog posts of different illustrators explaining their process.

First, let’s talk about how illustrations are made and what the process of working with an editor is like. Second, we’ll cover how to get started in illustration.


How Illustrations are Made

Lynne Chapman

First up is the illustrator Lynne Chapman who has illustrated over 30 picture books.

In my last post, I explained how the editor at the publishing company works as a matchmaker to pair the right illustrator with each manuscript. Lynne picks up there to explain what the process looks like from her side of the bookmaking process.

An editor will contact an illustrator to see if they want to work on the project. If the illustrator agrees, they’ll start making the art.

Often the illustrator will discuss the artwork ahead of time with the editor or art director. Together they will develop an overall vision or discussing what to put on each page. Sometimes not.

Often the illustrators will spend time developing character sketches before making the rest of the artwork. They may make thumbnails or other rough sketches of their work. Sometimes not.

But once the illustrator develops the line art, they will usually send it off to the editor to get their feedback.

Illustrators don’t finalize the artwork (adding color etc.) until after everyone at the publishing house is satisfied with the line drawings.

If you want to learn more about Lynne’s process, she has even more videos on her blog. 

 

Will Hillenbrand

Next up: Author/Illustrator Will Hillenbrand has done an amazing 70 picture books.

Each artist has their own process. The way I create my manuscripts is not the same as another writer, though some parts of the process are similar: we all revise. (And revise. And revise. And…)

The same is true for illustrators.

While Lynne drew her illustrators by hand with physical materials (paper, pencils, paint), in this video Will is using computer software that allows him to draw on a tablet with a stylus.

 

Isn’t this video soothing?

Notice that although the medium is different (paper vs. computer), both Lynne and Will go through a similar process: they create a rough sketch, refine it until they’re satisfied with the line art, then begin to color it in. Whatever you call it, revision really is universal.

Will has a video blog series full of more nuggets you can check out.

 

Debbie Ridpath Ohi

Debbie Ridpath Ohi is the author/illustrator of five picture books. She also creates cartoons about writing and reading that are on point.


(I have asked people weirder questions while writing.)

 

In this video, she shares how she created one of her cartoon images. Like Will, Debbie is creating this piece using computer software. And you can see how she refines her initial idea – trying variations, tinkering, and making adjustments until she lands on a final version she is happy with.

There are more videos on her YouTube channel.

Debbie’s blog is chock-full of information and goodies.

Book Cover: Where are my books

Check out Debbie’s series on the creation of her picture book, Where Are My Books. Since she was the author of this book, the first parts of the series cover writing the book. The last part of the series talks about how she created the illustrations for it.

While you’re at it, read her whole FAQ and you will learn a ton about illustrating, writing, and kidlit.

How to Get Started in Illustration

For anyone wanting to be a children’s book illustrator, this is a burning question: how do I get editors to offer me those kinds of illustrating jobs.

The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrator’s (SCBWI) is the professional organization for kidlit writers and illustrators. On their page, they share a short version of the process of becoming an illustrator. 

But we can also revisit one of our illustrators to see what she has to say.

Here Lynne Chapman shares her story of how she became a children’s book illustrator:

 

These days, illustrators typically send portfolios to art directors, art agents, or show them at conferences like those hosted by the SCBWI. If you entice them with the quality of your work, they will contact you to discuss illustrating a book.

However you get your big break, the starting point is the same: work really hard by practicing your art, perfecting your craft, and learning about the business. Joining the SCBWI is a great first step as it gives you a wealth of resources.


If you missed my first post in the series, check it out below. Next time, I’ll discuss the different paths authors can take to publication in more detail. Stay tuned!

How Children's books are Made: Part 1. The Truth About Illustrations

Horse books for Kids: True stories and Favorite Fiction

Horse Stories for Kids: True Stories and Favorite Fiction

Deb Aronson HeadshotFor this month’s Kidlit book roundup, I’m happy to welcome my friend, Deb Aronson. Deb was one of my first writer friends; she welcomed me into our local writer community way back when I was just beginning to learn the ropes. Somehow she stayed my friend despite seeing those early draft.  *Shudder*

We’re still friends all these years later and maybe one day I’ll even let her convince me to get on her sailboat. (Maybe…)

Today Deb shares some of her favorite books about horses. Deb knows a thing or two about horses – she wrote the book Alexandra the Great: The Story of the Record-Breaking Filly who Ruled the Racetrack. Take it away, Deb!

Book Cover Art: Alexandra the Great: the Story of the Record-Breaking Filly who Ruled the Racetrack by Deb Aronson


 

Many classic horse stories celebrate the magical connection between humans and horses, of course. Some of my favorites include My Friend Flicka, Misty of Chincoteague, and War Horse. But with racehorse stories, there is an added layer of human and horse joined in an effort to realize their full potential. To me, these stories have a special energy.

Book Cover art: MY FRIEND FLICKA   Book cover art: Misty of Chincoteague    Book Cover Art: War Horse

Do You Love Sports Stories? Then give these books a try.

Racehorse stories are, at their heart, sports stories. Those that excel are just as Olympian in their achievements as swimmer Michael Phelps or gymnast Simone Biles. There is the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. There is the love and care the horse’s human handlers feel for their special horses. They communicate deeply, even if they do it without words. Granted there are also tragic tales at the racetrack, such as when a horse breaks down from a bad step, or when a jockey falls and is permanently injured. There is risk. But for every story of risk there is also the possibility of redemption.

Rachel Alexandra At the Kentucky Oaks
The filly, Rachel Alexandra, at the Kentucky Oaks

If you hesitate to read about racehorses because of the stories you hear about them being mistreated, I would say to you that those stories are aberrations. True horsemen and horsewomen do not do that to their charges. They care deeply about their horses, even more deeply in some cases than for their human connections. Not surprisingly, you will not read children’s books about those kinds of people.

 

The Big Red Horse: The Story of Secretariat and the Loyal Groom Who Loved Him by Lawrence Scanlan

Tween Nonfiction

Book Cover Art for: The Big Red Horse: The Story of Secretariat and the Loyal Groom Who Loved Him

So, let me tell you about some of my favorite racehorse stories. One is The Big Red Horse: The Story of Secretariat and the Loyal Groom Who Loved Him, by Lawrence Scanlan (Harper Collins). Secretariat won the Triple Crown in 1973. He won the last race in the series, the Belmont, by a shattering 31 lengths and his time remains the American record for 1.5 miles on dirt more than four decades later. Scanlan does a great job showing Secretariat’s laid-back personality and his love of racing. It comes as no surprise that any true story about a horse will also tell the story of that horse’s handlers. In Scanlan’s book, we enjoy learning about Secretariat’s devoted groom, Eddie Sweat, and the special bond the two of them had.

 

Come on Seabiscuit! by Ralph Moody

Tween Nonfiction

Book Cover Art: Come on, Seabiscuit!

Another inspiring story is Come on Seabiscuit! by Ralph Moody (University of Nebraska Press). There have been many books written about Seabiscuit, including the highly acclaimed adult book, Seabiscuit: An American Legend, by Laura Hillenbrand, not to mention a movie. Moody’s book is targeted for upper middle grade readers and has several pencil sketches, though no photographs.  One reason Seabiscuit’s story is so grand is because it is truly one of redemption. Set in the 1930s, it is a story of how the love, expertise and careful attention of trainer Tom Smith and jockey Red Pollard created a bond so wonderful that Seabiscuit changed from an ornery, nervous, injured and slow racehorse to a gentle, calm, strong champion who beat War Admiral, winner of the Triple Crown and the acknowledged champion horse of the country.

 

Seabiscuit the Wonder Horse by Meghan McCarthy

Picture Book Nonfiction

Book Cover Art: Seabiscuit the Wonder Horse

Although Come on Seabiscuit is for older readers, a more recent picture book by Meghan McCarthy, Seabiscuit the Wonder Horse (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers) would be a great read-aloud for younger readers. McCarthy’s illustrations are delightful and she does a great job of telling the story of Seabiscuit’s match race with War Admiral.

American Pharoah: Triple Crown Champion by Shelley Fraser Mickle

Tween, Nonfiction

Book Cover Art: American Pharaoh: Triple Crown Champion

In American Pharoah: Triple Crown Champion (Aladdin), by Shelley Fraser Mickle, we learn the backstory of the 2015 Triple Crown winner, American Pharoah. Mickle tells American Pharoah’s story in such detail you can imagine being there in the stall with the even-tempered stallion. I also came away from the story with a better understanding of many of the humans connected with American Pharoah, from famous trainer, Bob Baffert, and jockey Victor Espinoza, to owner Ahmed Zayat, who I especially came to appreciate.

 

Northern Dancer: King of the Racetrack by Gare Joyce

Tween, Nonfiction

Book Cover Art: Northern Dancer: King of the Racetrack

And finally, I recently enjoyed a book about a less well-known racehorse, Northern Dancer.  In 1964 he was, as the book says, “the biggest newsmaker in the country’s sporting scene.” Northern Dancer is another story of an unlikely hero. He was not a regal-looking racehorse, but more in the model of Seabiscuit: chunky, short and plain looking. Having been bred in Canada, U.S. racing fans tended to underestimate him. Gare Joyce, the author of Northern Dancer: King of the Racetrack, describes him as “a horse with a competitive spirit and a lot of heart, so he was able to outrun a great number of better bred and more imposing horses.” Who doesn’t love an underdog story?!

 

Alexandra the Great: The True Story of the Record-Breaking Filly Who Ruled the Racetrack by Deb Aronson

Tween, Nonfiction

Book Cover Art: Alexandra the Great: the Story of the Record-Breaking Filly who Ruled the Racetrack by Deb Aronson

 

Although all these books are about male horses, I wouldn’t want you to think there are not accomplished fillies in the racing world too. However, the surprising thing is how few children’s books there are about them. One of the few is Alexandra the Great: The True Story of the Record-Breaking Filly Who Ruled the Racetrack (Chicago Review Press), written by yours truly. Because she raced against, and beat, male horses in three major races, hers is truly a girl power story. This book is the only one of those reviewed that has full-color photographs throughout the text.

 

See Racehorses in action!

If you enjoy these stories I would also recommend you watch some videos of their most famous races; these thoroughbreds are running machines!

Here is Rachel Alexandra winning the Preakness.


Horse books for kids

 

How a Children’s Book is Made: Part 1. The Truth About Illustrations

How Children's books are Made: Part 1. The Truth About Illustrations

Being an author is a funny thing: everyone has heard of your job. (Unlike my husband – a systems architect.)

But people don’t know what it is I actually do. (My husband and I have that one in common.)

Whether you’re a writer hoping to publish a book or a kidlit lover who is curious about the process, this series is the place to find out what really goes into making books for kids.

 


 

I’m a writer, not an illustrator. So it may seem odd that I would start off a series on making picture books by talking about illustrations.

Yet, when I tell people about being a children’s book author, the number one thing people ask about is the illustration of my books.

It comes up in a variety of ways:

  • How did you meet your illustrator?
  • I want to publish a book – how do I find an illustrator?
  • I’m an artist – can I illustrate your next book?
  • How did you know what to put on each page?

But however the conversation starts, it inevitably leads to me dropping this truth bomb on them:

Children’s book authors do not pick our illustrators.

And then comes the flurry of questions:

  • Wait, then how do you get an illustrator?
  • How does the illustrator know what images to make?
  • But…. what if the illustrator gets it wrong?
  • And why does it work this way?

So let’s tackle these one at a time.

 

How Do You Get an Illustrator?

Editors and Art Directors are matchmakers. Once they acquire a manuscript (i.e. decide to publish it) they find the right illustrator to match with the text.

Sometimes they will ask the author’s opinion. Usually not.

Yes, this can really stress authors out – especially the first time around.

For I Pray Today my editor paired my manuscript up with Amandine Wannert who had already illustrated books for them in the past. I’ve never met Amandine – she lives all the way in France! But personally, I think it was a perfect match for this book.

Book "I Pray Today" on a white background with flowers

 

How Does the Illustrator Know What Images to Make

Ready for another shock?

The illustrator decides what art to put on the page – along with the editor and art director. 

Note that the author is not in that list of people.

Authors can give general guidelines. For instance, when I sent my editor the query for I Pray Today, I told her that the manuscript

“follows a child through his day, from waking with a “Good morning, God,” to getting tucked in at bedtime – always with a prayer on his lips:

Good morning, God. The day is new. I say my first small prayer to You.         

Lord Have Mercy”

The last part is the opening of the manuscript. I never told them what to put on the page with it, yet it turned out perfectly.

I PRAY TODAY interior illustration

Author’s can (very very occasionally) include an art note to explain what illustration needs to go with a piece of text. This is reserved for cases where the text doesn’t make sense without the art. Giving a note helps the editor to understand the text in the same way that a reader would – with both text and art together.

For example, one part of I Pray Today includes the text:

Dad says dinner’s piping hot. I stuff in food, but – oops, forgot. 

Why does she say “oops?”

What did she forget?

Once you see the artwork, it makes perfect sense:

 

I PRAY TODAY interior spread 2

She forgot to pray first! In my manuscript, I included an art note to explain this: [ART: Kid starts eating before prayer.]

That’s the only art note in the whole manuscript because that’s the only one that was needed. Even then, I kept it to just what was needed to understand the text. I still left most of the decisions up to the illustrator: Who is at dinner? Are they at home, a restaurant, somewhere else? How will you show that she forgot to pray?

This came up recently. An adult reader contacted me on behalf of his child wanting to know: what are they eating? 

Good question! I really had no idea, since I hadn’t made that decision. So I sent it off an email to my editor who said:

Good question! And she emailed the illustrator to find out.

I had fun polling my friends on social media while I waited for the answer. Most people guessed chicken nuggets with either fries or green beans.

Well, we were a little bit right:

The Illustrator answers our burning question: what are they eating
the illustrator answers our burning question: Dear Jane, I like this question, it is really cute! Without colours, it is hard to guess… The little girl is eating “haricots verts et pommes noisettes”: french beans (green beans) and hazelnut potatoes (round french fries). Best, Amandine”

 

All in all, it was a lot of fun finding out the answer. (Also, I really want to try those pommes noisettes.)

 

What If the Illustrations Are Wrong?

This is the whispered question that everyone is dying to know but nervous to ask.

Aspiring authors especially seem to struggle with this. It’s scary to give up control of something you have worked so hard on.

Ready for another shocker?

It’s not just your book. It certainly feels that way – as an author, you come up with a concept, agonize over every word, and revise until your fingers fall off. But with a picture book or board book, text and illustration work together. They’re a package deal.

And also: It almost always works out wonderfully. I have worked with three different illustrators over seven books and, each time, I was blown away by their work. Every. single. time.

Goodnight Jesus interior pages

This spread from Goodnight Jesus is a great example. I gave the editor general guidelines for the form of this book, just like I did for I Pray Today. I told them it was a bedtime story focused on giving kisses – a child works their way toward bedtime but giving, and eventually receiving, kisses. But I didn’t specify how that should be shown. In my head, I imagined the child in their family icon corner kissing icons then moving toward bed giving out kisses as they go.

Instead, the illustrator put the child into the icons. I had imagined a static version, but he made it interactive. That makes for a more engaging illustration and book. Plus you can see both the love the child is giving AND the love the child is receiving. That’s a deep theological statement – but boiled down to a child’s level.

The two images together in ways I didn’t consider. Notice how the position of the two babies are mirror images of one another. Even Jesus’ body language mirrors Mary’s – each is cuddling a baby they love. That makes the images work together both on an aesthetic level,and a theological level.

The illustrator didn’t just show my story, he added to it in ways that deepened it. He brought a fresh perspective that allowed him to expand the story in meaningful ways. Which bring us to our next question:

 

Why Does it Work This Way?

Separating the text decisions from the illustration decisions isn’t a cruel thing done by evil editors. They are giving both artists – author and illustrator – the freedom to do their best work. I am not a visual artist. I don’t have the training or experience to make decisions about artwork.

No, the child in your book probably won’t look exactly like your granddaughter. The illustrations may not match what you envisioned. That doesn’t make it wrong.

If you can go in with an open mind, you’ll be able to appreciate the exceptional artwork that has been carefully crafted to enhance your story.

Secretly, I think that the editor’s and illustrator’s jobs are to make the author look good. The editor wants this book to succeed. The illustrator wants to produce excellent illustrations. All of which makes my book stronger and better than I could make it on my own.

So, no, authors don’t have illustration decisions about their books. But that’s just fine.

 

Next time I’ll share what the illustration process looks like for illustrators. We’ll pick up after the editor has paired them with a book text and see what it’s like from that side of the equation.

 

Winter STEM Picture Books

 

Winter STEM Picture Books

This year I’m continuing my monthly kidlit book reviews. Each month I will spread a little love for some lovely books. Usually, they will come out on the first Thursday of the month, but between holiday craziness and being on deadline, I’m already a little behind. Such is the writing life.

It’s sleeting out here on the prairies today. And as much as I want to pout and stomp my feet because I do. not. like. cold, I think I have to admit defeat. So this month for my Kidlit Karma books reviews, I’m sharing winter picture books with STEM content. Because books make everything better.

Science: Over and Under the Snow by Kate Messner and Christopher Silas Neal

Book cover art: OVER AND UNDER THE SNOW

I have recommended Over and Under the Snow before, but it’s worth reviewing again. Children love being let in on a secret and here the secret is hiding right under the snow beneath their boots. I love the way this book weaves together a sweet story of a child with STEM facts about animals in winter.

Make sure to check out the other books in the series like Up in the Garden, Down in the Dirt and Over and Under the Pond.

Over and Under the Snow on Indiebound

 

Science: Best in Snow by April Pulley Sayre

Book cover for BEST IN SNOW

The simple, lyrical text makes this story a good choice for even the youngest preschool scientists, but the beefy backmatter make this a good choice for older child scientists, too. The beautiful photograph illustrations invite reads to observe nature in great detail (without leaving the warmth).

Be sure to check out other books in the series like Full of Fall and Raindrops Roll.

Best In Snow on Indiebound

 

Science: The Story of Snow by Mark Cassino with Jon Nelson, PhD

Book Cover: THE STORY OF SNOW

This book is a delightfully detailed look at snow. How snow forms, the shapes it takes, and how you can observe them. Photographs show real snowflakes in sparkling detail.

The Story of Snow on Indiebound

 

Math: 100 Snowmen by Jen Arena and Stephen Gilpin

Book Cover Art for 100 SNOWMEN

This playful romp features 100 snowmen playing as only snowmen can. Count the snowman and add them up until you get to 100.

100 Snowmen on Indiebound

 


You can find more book reviews on my book review page.

200+ Children's Book Reviews

Happy New year! Goodbye 2018, Hello 2019

New Year 2019

It’s nearly the end of 2018, folks. It’s been a great year for me writing-wise.

 

Looking Back at 2018

 

2018 in Writing

I published my second board book, I Pray Today, and I had my first-ever blog tour.

Book "I Pray Today" on a white background with flowers  Blog tour for "I PRAY TODAY"

I revised my novel and got two new work for hire picture book contracts – six books total. I’m finishing up the fourth now and the other two will ring in the new year.

I officially won the 12×12 challenge for the second year running by writing 13 new picture book drafts.

 

2018 in Reading

2018 Goodreads reading challenge - 267 books of 500

I didn’t quite hit my goal to read 500 books again this year, but I’m still really happy with my total. In the past, I hit those high numbers because I read a lot of picture books, but this year I shifted my focus to more middle grade. I hit my goal of reading 75 middle grade or longer works.

 

2018 Author visits and more 

I got to teach classes at Purdue University on my favorite subject: writing for kids!

My Kidlit Karma project to blog reviews of books each month went really well! I reviewed or hosted reviews nearly every month.

 

Looking Ahead to 2019

2019 is already starting to fill up! My 2019 is likely to be just as busy as 2018 was. I have two more work for hire picture books to finish by the end of February, I was invited to join a small writers’ group for the first few months, and I’ll be finishing up my novel and begin querying it.

It’s likely to be another roller coaster!

 

Right now I’m working on setting my goals for 2019. If you’re doing the same, you might want to check out these posts on setting resolutions and goals.

Why Some Resolutions are Doomed to Fail and how to Set Goals that Work  DOs and DON'Ts for New Year's Resolutions You'll Actually Keep

 

And if you’re a writer or a planner, make sure to sign up for my mailing list so you can get my free bullet journal printable.

Free Printable Bullet Journal for Writers

Not sure what a bullet journal is or how it will help you meet your goals? I have a whole blog series that covers the basics of bullet journaling, my magical monthly spread, and collections just for writers.

 

Happy New Year, everyone!

FREE: 12×12 Bullet Journal Printable.

I’m wrapping up my third year as a member of the 12×12 picture book writing challenge – the yearly challenge to write 12 picture book manuscripts in a year. 2018 is my second year winning 12×12 (i.e. writing 12 picture book manuscripts in a year).

I gotta say, 12x12ers are some of the best people on the planet. Their support has been invaluable.

So while I’m busy prepping for bullet journal for next year, I thought I’d give a little something back.

Last year I shared this spread from my bullet journal:

 

This year I’ve gone one step further by making a printable version you can download. You can print it out to use on its own, or cut and paste into a bullet journal.

12x12 Bullet Journal Spread

Each month, jot down the names of the manuscripts you write and revise. Add in the webinars you watch and (if you’re going for gold) the submissions you make.

There’s not much more satisfying than seeing this all filled in at the end of the year.

 

Get the 12×12 Bullet Journal Spread

 

You might also like:

Free Printable Bullet Journal for Writers  Bullet Journaling for Writers: Part 1 The Basics

 

Prairie Writers and Illustrator’s Day 2018

There are a lot of reasons to go to writers conferences. The obvious one is that you learn a ton and it always reinvigorates me. After the day is over I’m itching to get back to writing.

 

It’s also great for networking. When I went to my first Society of Childrens Book Writers and Illustrator’s (SCBWI) conference in 2015, I knew almost no one. This year, it felt like I couldn’t go anywhere without running into someone I have a connection with: people from my local SCBWI region, new friends I’ve made at other conferences, writers I know from online forums, and fellow volunteers for KidlitNation.

And this brings me to another major benefit. Yes, it’s useful to know people in the industry. These are people who can help spread word of mouth about my books or help connect me with work contacts. But even more importantly, these are my friends and community.

Writing can seem like a really lonely endeavor – sitting alone at a computer typing away. That’s definitely some of it, but in the digital age, we also connect over the internet. We find support, camaraderie, and friendships with like-minded writers around the country and around the world. I’m so thankful that the internet is able to bring us together, but there’s an extra joy in getting to see people face to face.

This introverts cup was full to overflowing this weekend. Now I’m ready to hide back in my office and get some writing done.