Tag: picture books

The Story of “The Story Circle” by Wendy Martin

Wendy Martin.
Smile for the camera, Wendy!

I’m excited to share this post from Wendy Martin, someone who’s art I’ve admired for many years. I love process stories. Whenever I talk to kids about what goes into making a book, either through writing or illustrating, I show them the work-behind-the-work. Why? Because finished books are magical things that look like they leaped out of someone’s head fully formed. And that makes them a little bit intimidating, and a lot a bit inaccessible as “something you could do.” It takes a lot of work to make a book, and I love to show people that that work is made up of attainable steps along the way. Sure, I get it, you can’t draw a straight line and your grammar is broken. That’s why we sketch, draft, and revise!

Here’s how Wendy works wonders. It’s great stuff. Enjoy!

Wendy Martin: Process

Jim asked me to share my art process. I’ll be explaining what I did for one spread of the book.
Upon receiving the story text from the publisher, I start with thumbnail sketches. These are very, very rough ideas of what and where I’ll be placing the image. For “The Story Circle,” I received the text in page breaks already. In some cases, I also have to decide the best way to break the text for the flow of the story.

Story Circle thumbnails.
Story Circle thumbnails.

The next step is to move to a half-size layout sketch in pencil. As you can see, this image changed a lot from my thumbnail.


Part of this book’s art requirements included unique vignettes for each spread. The vignettes are a visual separation for the English and Spanish text. In this instance, I created a larger version of one of the fish in the full spread art.

After I nail down how I want the layout sketch to look, I add other details. The background and the turtle and the fish near him are some of the revisions I made in this stage.  There are others, too, small refinements and adjustments. I made sure to keep the area where the text and vignette fall clear. I finish all the pencil sketches and scan them in to send to the publisher for approval.

After I get editorial comments, I make the changes requested and move on to the next step. Inking. I rescan the changed images. Then, I clean up the scans and enhance the contrast in Photoshop. Now they’re ready to be imported into Illustrator. I do my “inking” in Illustrator. This part of the process takes a lot of the pressure off of me from worrying about ruining the color part and having to start all over again from scratch. In the past, before all this wonderful technology, I used to use a light table to trace the line work onto sheets of watercolor paper, paint it and then ink the lines. So if the watercolor part didn’t work out as I’d like, I’d have to transfer all over again. It’s backbreaking, hand and mind-numbing work. I don’t miss it at all. My last step in this phase is to change the color of the inked lines to a pale shade of one of the main paint colors I have planned for my color palette. In this case it’s a dusty green-gray.
The color-adjusted inked line art gets printed onto watercolor paper. I stretch and tape the paper to flannel covered canvas boards and paint all the book images in an assembly line fashion. I’ve found this is the best way for me to keep character consistency throughout a book. It was especially important in this case as there were EIGHT repeating characters in the story. 7 students and their teacher.

These images are again scanned into the computer. I do some final color adjustments and minor retouching in Photoshop, make sure the color profile matches the information I have from the publisher and make low-resolution version of each image to send back to the publisher for approval.
With this book, there were some revisions to the final art once the story was fully translated. Some of my art had type in it and I got my tenses wrong on one of these. I also had to create some matching backgrounds for the end pages. All images are finalized, put in a folder, compressed and sent off to the publisher. Now I wait. And wait. And wait.
I finished the art for “The Story Circle” in mid-May 2015. I received my author copies in April 2016. Nearly a year of waiting!
The right-hand side of this image also graced the cover of the publishers Spring releases catalog and is reused on the back cover of the book.

Where to get the book:

You can get “The Story Circle” direct from the publisher, or through Amazon.

The Blog Tour Continues!

Here’s the schedule for the continuing adventures of Wendy and “The Story Circle,” and while you’re at it, visit Wendy’s site as well.

The full blog tour schedule.
The full blog tour schedule.

Mister Bug, the Musical

Here’s the demo track of Mister Bug recorded today with Andy Rapo. It’s a bit rough, but not bad considering how quickly we did it. Andy is a whiz in the home studio and has a pretty nice set up. That’s me singing and playing ukulele (in case you were wondering).

Mister Bug started out as a poem (trivia – my first rhyming poem) based on a comment from my three-and-half-foot muse about a bug he saw on the ceiling. After some great comments from my crit group, I expanded it to fit a picture book format. Then, last year I started thinking about song writing and this version kind of came together.

I still think it’s got pretty good picture book potential *cough* agents, editors *cough*

I “debuted” it in January at my first VCFA residency by coercing a room full of children’s writers to sing along on the chorus. It didn’t take a whole lot of arm-twisting, they’re a game bunch. Now this version is going out to a local songwriting contest, and I’m living the not-quite-a-Wiggle-dream.

I wonder if Laurie Berkner would like it?

Patience is a Four Letter Word

PiBoIdMo is chugging along and I am loving it. It’s very cool to see so many people engaged in the act of creating picture books. It wasn’t that long ago that I was convinced I only had one or two story ideas in me. Certainly not enough to consider actually jumping into the kidlit world.  And because I thought I had so few, I would hold them close, sheltering them from the world. And other writers. And definitely from editors.

Joining writer challenges like PiBoIdMo, and working intently on my own the other eleven months of the year, has shown me that the ideas will come. Heck, not only that they’ll come, but that I can hardly stop them. Ideas are everywhere, in fact, once you develop the habit it’s kind of hard not to notice them. Yet another reason to always carry a notepad to capture those idea in the wild. Bring them home and worry about taming the wee beasties later.

So, yes, it’s awesome that we’re cranking out ideas, but here’s the thing. Not every idea needs to be submitted. Some of our ideas, while fun at the time, just might not be good enough to see print. I’m not just deflating your balloon; mine’s losing pressure too. Let’s take a shot at re-inflating them a bit.

One of the more exciting sessions I went to at LASCBWI 11 was a panel by Jon Sciezka and Stephen Malk. They covered a lot of ground while talking about a career plan, but the real takeaway was the point that I echoed above. Not everything needs to be submitted. Say it with me, it’ll take the sting off.

Not. Everything. Needs. To. Be. Submitted.

Band-aid off? Ready to go? Great. If the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature (emeritus) doesn’t submit every one of his ideas, maybe we should pay attention to that thought.

You see, at the end of PiBoIdMo you’re going to have a big pile of ideas to weed through. Some are going to sparkle like diamonds. Some are going to stink on ice. A handful will be worth a first draft, revision and development into well-honed manuscripts. You will (rightfully) feel awesome that you stuck with it, found the gems and pursued your craft, turning that brain-burp into a full blown story. This is what we do. We write, we revise. And then, if we’re truly brave, intelligent hardy souls, we think about submitting. And sometimes that answer’s going to be “no.”

Chin up, kid, the process has been worth the effort.

Why wouldn’t you submit your manuscript? I mean, you’ve just worked your proverbial butt off, you’ve got stamps, a well-worn copy of Writer’s Market
chock full of post-it notes and box of envelopes. Let’s go!

Hold on, little chum, let’s look at why we shouldn’t submit. This might hurt a bit, but that’s how we grow. Remember, chin up!

  1. There are too many books like yours out there in the marketplace.
  2. Your idea is preachy. We all want kids to benefit from our books, but being ham-fisted just isn’t the way to go. Take this tip from Seinfeld, “no hugging, no learning.” It worked for them, it’ll work for you. One of the top books of 2011 features a bear that eats the antagonist. Talk about no hugging, no learning!
  3. Your rhyming stinks. This is a tough one to swallow. Editors say they don’t want rhyming books, but we still see a ton of them published every year. And kids love them. “Let me rhyme”, you cry to the heavens! Well, unless you’re rhyming is flawless, unforced and serves the story, step away from the couplets, Joel.
  4. Your writing just isn’t there. Yet. This is probably the hardest one to deal with, and the most difficult to recognize. We have to be brutally honest with ourselves about our brilliant words. Are they really as good as the best picture books you’ve seen? Don’t give yourself an out by citing the books you don’t like that get published (because there are some bad ones out there). Aim high, find the writers that you like best and try to kick their butts. In a friendly, non-competitive way that involves a personal challenge of writing quality and not actual fisticuffs.
  5. If you’re submitting an idea you came up with this month you haven’t worked on it long enough. Write it up, tinker and revise. Then let it sit for a week or two. Even better, bring it to your critique group and let them have at it. Then revise again. Whittle that word count, polish those plot points, and let your manuscript mature like a fine wine.

I know the itch to send it out. I know what it’s like to bask in the glow of accomplishment from hitting “send.” But I also trust that taking a breather between the time you type the final period and the moment you get that teeny-tiny paper cut on your tongue from licking the envelope can mean the difference between “no response means no” and escaping the slush pile.

To paraphrase the immortal words of Johnny Cochran, “If it didn’t sit, you must not submit.”

UPDATE  – If you’re just starting out you might want to read this old post of mine (the same one I linked to in the comments, but I wanted to get it in the post too).


NaPiBoWriWee Bloggers

Lifting this list from Paula’s post with additions from the comments. If I missed you, post your blog in the comments and I will add you to the list.

*UPDATED* I’ve added Nancy Sanders to the list. She’s the author of “Yes! You Can Learn How To Write Children’s Books, Get Them Published, and Build a Successful Writing Career” the book I was lucky enough to win for participating.

Thanks, Nancy!

NaPiBoWriWee Participant Blog Links:

My Alternative PB Titles for #NaPiBoWriWee*

Inspired by my two-year old, these are the books I could have written this week.

  1. An Encyclopedia of Tantrums
  2. The Apple Cinnamon Song
  3. Yes, That Is a Trapezoid
  4. The Toddler That Woke Up at 5 am and Ruined Daddy’s Writing Time
  5. It’s Too Late For the Potty If You’ve Already Pooped
  6. Daddy Can Only Count To Three
  7. Time Out!

Back to writing. Must finish Day 5 and start Day 6.

*NaPiBoWriWee is National Picture Book Writing Week. More info here and here if you’re curious.

NaPiBoWriWee, Days 3 & 4.

Day three and four were a little rougher, mostly due to increased time constraints (day job). I also went off the rails a bit with my simple outline plan. Day three’s story started simple and took off on me. I think it would be a better chapter book or middle grade novel. At least this rough draft is done and I can always go back and edit it down (or up) for its next incarnation.

Day four’s idea came out of the April 19/20 #pblitchat about characterization. I added a comment about setting being an important component of characterization:

“On the moon” changes the characterization sharply from “in Mom’s kitchen”.

and the title “In My Mom’s Kitchen on the Moon” got stuck in my head. A little noodling later, and I had a concept to go with it. Ta-da!

The story is told through twelve spreads. The spreads are designed as one long illustration of Mom’s kitchen on the Moon. Mom flips a pancake. We follow Bobby and the flipping pancake across the spreads. Each one includes a simple chore for Bobby (Oil the robo-dog! Put on your space boots! Help your alien neighbor!) and a flap with moon and space trivia hidden underneath.

Very different from anything I’ve tried before, but I look forward to drawing the extra-long setting. I think I needed a little break from the heavy story I started on day 3. I recruited my math-whiz nephew, his mother and a friend to solve the question of how long a flipped pancake would take to travel across the a room on the moon (nephew said, “So we’re talking simple parabolic ballistics.” I said, “Um, sure.”). We’re still struggling with the initial velocity of a flipped pancake. Yup, kid’s books are easy!

Here, for your reading pleasure, are the first lines from each. Be nice, remember they’re rough drafts.

Day 3

Eubie the World’s Smallest Elephant

The sign had promised, among other things, the World’s Smallest Elephant and it was right. Tickets for Prof. Fantabulo’s Epic Cavalcade of Mysteries and Marvels cost a month’s allowance, but it was worth it. Still, as they crept out between the tent flaps with a backpack full of wriggling elephant they wondered if they had made a terrible mistake.

Day 4

My Mom’s Kitchen on the Moon

It’s breakfast on the Moon, and Bobby can’t wait for his Mom’s famous Mooncakes. He has a few chores to do before they reach his plate. Rocket shoes ready? Let’s go! 5-4-3-2-1, Blast off!

So here we are in Day 5, and I’m starting from another title. Ready for it? “When is a Polar Bear Not a Polar Bear?” If you want to know more you’ll just have to come back again. (How’s that for a tease?)

NaPiBoWriWee, Days 1 & 2.

Two days into NaPiBoWriWee and I’m clicking on all cylinders. Using my favorites from the ideas hatched during NaPiBoIdMo is an enormous help. For one, I have seven ideas that I like on tap. For two, these ideas have been kicking around my noodle for a long time so I can site down with some sense of direction and just write.

My approach has been very simple and that’s helped too. I make a quick outline; beginning, middle and end. I then write for the three acts. This isn’t necessarily artful prose, this is a rough first draft. Beauty, simplicity, character and themes can all be drawn out of it later. This week is about capturing that “shitty first draft” as Ann Lamont calls it.

Just for fun, and maybe a nice comment or two ( hey I can fish for feedback), here are the openings to the two stories written so far this week.

Day 1:

Spenser’s Pencil

“You have ONE hour to do you homework. No computer, no games, no phone calls. Do you understand me, mister?”

The door slammed and Spenser was left alone in his room, cut off from the outside world, just a boy and his homework. He looked at the worksheets on his desk and reached for his pencil. It rolled away.

Day 2:

The Adventures of Li’l Mister Monkey and Sailor Boy

It started as a joke, as so many things do.

“Let’s sail to the moon!” said Sailor Boy.

Li’l Mister Monkey thought it was a terrific idea, and soon they were plotting a course using sea charts and star maps.

Five days to go, five stories to write. It’s a fun ride, and I hope you’re finding success with your work too.

What I’m Working On (part 1)

Greetings Citizen.

Since this blog, in some ways, will track my efforts going from wanna-be to published, lauded and feted (not fetid) writer/illustrator I thought you might be interested in what I’m working on. Like many of you, I have several ideas cooking at any time. Although I have a virtual stack of “things I want to get at”, my attention is on two projects at the moment, the picture book and the middle grade novel. Both have been with me for a while and both are pretty far along. I’ll start with the picture book.

The Picture Book started life based on a true story. My older brother, Bobby, brought home a duck in a box. It got out. We chased it around the house. I was a toddler at the time and have no recollection of it, but it has been a family favorite at holidays for years. I used that idea as the starting point, and then twisted, pulled and distorted facts into the big chase, some family dynamics and the reveal that the animals Bobby has brought home over the years are still living in the house.

Sounds simple, right? Yet I’m on revision, oh I don’t know, twenty or so. Who said writing picture books was easy?

Along the way it’s been critiqued by my writing group, wife and the most amazing editor I’ve met (yeah, that’s a short list, but I think she’ll rank pretty high later too), Mary Lee Donovan from Candlewick Press (at the Cape Cod Writers Conference).

Mary Lee was incredibly generous with a newbie writer/illustrator and offered great notes and guidance. She looked at my simple dummy and then helped me work through the actual page count and layout of a 32-page self-ended picture book. She discussed the flaws in the story and offered ideas around them. Most of all, she made me feel like I wasn’t wasting my time and that I might have what it takes to get published. Hope!

No, she didn’t offer me a contract (fantasy #1) but she didn’t meet me with a shower of shredded manuscript and a kick in the redacted either (fantasy #2).

I’ve finally got the manuscript nailed down (he says for the millionth time), thumbnails sketched, and have worked up a dummy for the words (to get the page turns right). Next up are the drawing dummy pages, three of which will be part of my homework for the Illustrator Intensive at next month’s NESCBWI conference.

More on that, and the middle grade novel later.

So You Want To Be a Children’s Book Writer?

I’m often asked how to get started with children’s book writing and what resources are available. Here’s the list I send out. It covers the basics and will guide you to more resources.

I find my status as “expert” pretty laughable, but expertise is relative. I might not be Jon Sciekza, but I have picked up a few things. I’m also very clear that I’m just starting out, and I know what I don’t know. Best of all, I’m not afraid to ask.


  1. Join the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators and…
  2. Lean on your regional chapter for writing groups, local events and conferences. Here’s mine, New England SCBWI


I picked up several books to help me learn the ropes and understand the basics of the business and the craft.

  1. The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Publishing Children’s Books, 3rd Edition by Harold D. Underdown
  2. Writing with Pictures: How to Write and Illustrate Children’s Books by Uri Shulevitz
  3. The Encyclopedia of Writing and Illustrating Children’s Books by Desdemona McCannon, Sue Thornton, Yadzia Williams
  4. 2009 Children’s Writer’s & Illustrator’s Market by Alice Pope

There’s Always More

This is by no means a comprehensive list, but these are a good start. I’ll be back with more, especially online resources, soon.