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Nancy Stewart: Writing Picture Books is Hard Work!

Hello everyone! I have a guest post by author Nancy Stewart today. She's celebrating the release of her first picture book One Pelican at a Time: A Story of the Gulf Spill, which has spent sixteen weeks on the Amazon bestseller list for children's books. It addresses the oil spill that happened in the U.S. last April. There will be two more books in the series, Sea Turtle Summer and Bella Saves the Beach and then she has another forthcoming title, Katrina and Winter: Partners in Courage, which is "the biography of a young girl with a profound birth defect affecting one leg. When she meets a tailless dolphin that's been fitted with a prosthetic tail, Katrina's life changes radically. But how?"

They all sound great, don't they? Now, here's Nancy's guest post!

Somebody Had to Say it: Writing Picture Books is Hard Work!
By Nancy Stewart

Yep, I’ll admit it. Hard work. That’s what it is. You have to think as a child, put yourself in a child’s place and always be aware of the child within yourself. That’s the tricky bit.

And then, of course, once you’ve decided on a wonderful, fun and thought provoking plot, one thousands of kids will want to buy and keep forever, it’s time to put together that puzzle called a children’s book. It needs to be fewer than one thousand words and less really with the new generation of books for the younger kid. Keep it short, and keep it simple while making it a fine fully developed story from which children will learn and grow.

Not only that. Oh, no. Words count and not just in numbers. They must be lyrical, fluid, fun words for children to say. They need to be words kids love to repeat over and over and over. They need to be words children will want to remember, so they can be read to caregivers. It makes no difference, of course, whether the children can really read or not.

That brings you to the revision process. Oh, yes. Just when you’re beginning to feel fine about the manuscript, you happily and hopefully flaunt it at your critique group. “Picked apart” is the phrase that comes to mind. “Just a tiny change here” and a “this might be better there.” Who knew?

Next morning, armed with coffee, lots of it, you rip into the now imperfect manuscript. You try to make sense of all the tough direct critiques and the gentle ones that apologetically murmur, “just a modest suggestion.” Bit by bit, the story reshapes, funnily enough, stronger than before. Huh. Maybe they were right. Always knew you liked that group.

And then, finally, you have a manuscript that can stand up to being called a book. The time has come for it to fly on its own. And it does, right to an agent or publisher.

When you get the word that this agent or that publisher wants it, everything else but absolute joy is forgotten, at least until the next manuscript. But you’re stronger this time. This time you know what to expect, and you’re ready. Yeah, piece of cake.

About Nancy:

After having been both an elementary school teacher, a university professor of education and a consultant for New Options, Inc. in New York City, Nancy Stewart now writes children’s books full time. She, her husband and three sons, lived in London for eight years, where she was a consultant to several universities, including Cambridge.

Her travels take her extensively throughout the world, most particularly Africa. Nancy is US chair of a charity in Lamu, Kenya, that places girls in intermediate schools to allow them to further their education.

Nancy is the author of the Bella and Britt picture book series, One Pelican at a Time, Sea Turtle Summer and Bella Saves the Beach. A biography, Katrina and Winter: Partners in Courage, will be released in August, 2011. All are published by Guardian Angel Publishing.

She and her family live in St. Louis and Clearwater Beach, Florida.


Steve MC said...

Thanks for this. People think picture books are easy - so few words! But it's more like wrestling with a 700 word haiku.

Natalie Aguirre said...

Thanks for the post. I've always admired picture book writers. Every word must be so precisely right. And you have to come up with more story ideas. Good luck with your book, Nancy.

Diane said...

I am an aspiring children's writer also. Congrats on your books and any future ones you are working on. :O)

Barbara Watson said...

As a parent of two kids who constantly crawled in my lap with books, I appreciate well-crafted picture books. As a beginning MG writer, I see the importance of clearly creating the world that exists in my head so that kids will love and understand it.

Ishta Mercurio said...


A complete story, with conflict, failures and successes, well-rounded characters, an arc, told in a way that children will "get." In about 600 words, give or take a couple hundred. Without saying too much, because then you step on the illustrator's toes. You have to convey it without saying it.

Yup. Hard.

The Pen and Ink Blogspot said...

Hi Nancy, Good to see you here. I loved One Pelican at a Time.
You forgot the part about cleaning every bit of description out of your manuscript and trusting that an editor will see and an illustrator will complement your words. Allyn Johnston and Marla Frazee's talk on picture books forever changed my view of the role of the author.

Elana Johnson said...

THIS. This is why I've never tried a picture book. They're much harder than novels.

And congrats to Nancy for her success!

Theresa Milstein said...

I've tried picture books. They're hard! I have such respect for talented picture book writers.

Wish you the best, Nancy.

Carolina M. Valdez Schneider said...

I've always thought picture books must be really hard to write, their own kind of poetry. I really admire picture book writers.

Best wishes, Nancy!

Unknown said...

I want to thank you so very much for allowing me to be a part of your wonderful blog today. I read it all the time so was delighted to be a small part of it. And thanks for the lovely comments from readers. So appreciated.

All best wishes to you both!

Sharon K. Mayhew said...

Wonderful spotlight, Casey! As I was reading I thought, Nancy must have been an elementary teacher. I got to the bottom and found out I was right. WTG, Nancy! It sounds like you've written some books that will benefit kids, the environment and the future.

Rosi said...

Nice post. Picture books are so hard to get right. I have one that I've re-written over twenty times and I still don't quite have it. (sigh) Thanks for the post.