I know I’m almost always excited to discuss picture books with you, but today that level of excitement is amped up. Today I get to share with you a book by one of my writing superheroes.
Once upon a time, I was a newbie picture book writer attending my very first SCBWI conference here in Alaska. An agent talked about a book I’d never heard of before for those who were interested in learning about writing picture books: “The Nuts and Bolts Guide to Writing Picture Books” by Linda Ashman. I tracked down a copy via Amazon and treated it like a college course I set for myself with a friend. I would pull all of the chapter’s picture books for reading from the library, then my friend and I would get together to read the actual chapter with the sample picture books (when I had the stack) so the learning made sense, and the following week we’d get together to do the writing exercises at the end of the chapter. This was my introduction to writing picture books and studying them.
To say I fell in love with Linda’s work doesn’t quite describe that relationship accurately. In some ways, she mentored me. I STILL refer back to the things she said in that book to others and I still refer people to her book frequently. The picture book examples are older now (and dare I hope a revision or updated edition is in the works? hint, hint) but the merits of her instruction still stand. In fact, if you follow the Picture Book Builders blog, you can continue to learn from her AND other picture book writers and illustrators (though Linda is retiring from that blog, you can still see her past posts). This among so many other reasons is why I’m THRILLED beyond measure to share her work with you today and why she is still one of my writing superheroes.
Linda Ashman is the author of more than forty picture books (WOW!) and the creator of The Nuts and Bolts Guide to Writing Picture Books. Her books have been included on the “best of the year” lists of The New York Times, Parenting and Child magazines, the New York Public Library, Bank Street College of Education, and the International Reading Association, and have been translated into many languages. She leads writing workshops and gives presentations about writing and children’s books at conferences and schools. Linda grew up in New Jersey, worked in New York, and spent many years in Los Angeles and Denver. She now lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina with her husband, Jack Hicks, their son Jackson, and their two dogs, Sammy and Stella. You can learn more about her and follower her blog at her website.
Her latest picture book, “Phoebe Dupree is Coming to Tea!” was released at the beginning of this month. When I saw that Linda was writing a picture book about a tea party? I was instantly interested! This book is about a little girl, Abby, who is anxious about setting up the perfect tea party for another girl (Phoebe Dupree) who is a friend she idolizes. You can already see the setup for the problem, can’t you? Needless to say “perfect” doesn’t happen. OH how I related to this story. I was Abby who wanted things to be perfect and they very rarely are. This book is a treat, not only because of the characters, their relationship, and the theme of tea, but also because of the wonderful illustrations and the amazing rhyme pattern. This is a book I will read again and again to study how it managed to pull all of that off at the same time.
Me: You have written over 40 picture books so far, as well as the amazing “The Nuts and Bolts Guide to Writing Picture Books” (which I learned SO much from when I was first starting out to write picture books). What is it that draws you to writing picture books over any other genre?
Linda: Picture books are a uniquely compact and visual form of storytelling. I love the constraints in that. Tackling a novel feels overwhelming to me. (Where do you begin? How do you know you’re done?) But a picture book provides some structural guidelines: they’re typically 32 pages, fewer than 800 words (often far fewer), and the text and illustrations work together to tell the story. I mostly write in rhyme, which adds another layer of restrictions once I’ve settled on the meter and rhyme pattern. And yet, for all those constraints, picture book creators have so much freedom in terms of subject matter. The story has to be age-appropriate, of course, but picture books tackle serious stuff as well as silly, and often do it in inventive ways—through voice, point of view, design and format variations (e.g., letters, journal entries, dialogue-only, etc.). Besides all that, I love the end-product: when done well, picture books are a shareable work of art.
Me: With over 40 picture books in your own name, what is the secret of your success? How do you keep producing stories that get published?
Linda: Well, first let me say that not everything I write gets published! It’s a tough business, and rejection is something all writers (well, except for maybe an exceptional few) have to deal with. As for how I continue to get published, it’s not something I take for granted so I’m wary of offering any insights. (I always worry I’ve sold my last manuscript.) That said, I strive to write engaging stories with lots of visual action that kids will like and adults will enjoy reading aloud. And I keep at it, despite hundreds of rejections over the years. Also, I’m lucky to have a very supportive first reader—my husband, Jack—who gives me a thumbs up or down on my stories before I’ve shared them with anyone else. And, finally, I have an excellent agent, Jennifer Mattson of Andrea Brown Literary, who’s been a true partner, insightful advisor and advocate in this challenging business.
Me: I love a good picture book with a tea party, especially one that doesn’t involve the rules of proper etiquette. What gave you the idea for this story?
Linda: Unlike most of the stories I write, this one began with the title. I have a few Phoebes in my life, including a young neighbor, and one day this line popped into my head: Phoebe Dupree is coming to tea! It sounded so musical! I immediately imagined a young girl (eventually named Abby) making elaborate preparations in anticipation of a visit from Phoebe, a classmate she greatly admires. Abby wants the tea party to be perfect—just like Phoebe—so when things fall apart, she’s certain Phoebe won’t want to be friends.
Me: It is musical! The tea party is quite disastrous and yet the children in this story are so gracious. Despite not having rules for etiquette, you show how to be a good friend, as well as how to have fun when things don’t go as planned. Why are these important messages for you to share with young readers?
Linda: We often put so much pressure on ourselves to present some ideal version of our lives to others. Social media has intensified this tendency. Kids are susceptible as well, and can feel real anxiety when things aren’t as “perfect” as they’d imagined. But, of course, real friends don’t care if your house and menu aren’t Instagram-worthy—they just want to be with you. I also think being able to laugh together is one of the best ways to build a friendship.
Me: I love that! The illustrations by Alea Marley are wonderful. Did you have any illustration notes for her? Or did she create the visuals for the story all on her own? Were there any illustration surprises for you?
Linda: In general, I try to limit my illustration notes to spots where the text may be ambiguous so artists have plenty of freedom to imagine the story on their own. The only exception would be a couple of nearly-wordless books, like RAIN and NO DOGS ALLOWED, where I had to describe what was happening because the text was so minimal. (I have the original manuscripts available to look at for these and other books on my website for those interested.)
My notes for Alea were very minimal. One of my favorite parts of the publication process is getting the first round of sketches. And, yes, it’s often surprising—and thrilling—to see how artists interpret the text. I loved Alea’s depiction of the two girls. Based on Abby’s description, Phoebe could have been sort of prim and proper and dressed in fancy tea party duds. Instead, she looks adorably casual in her layered tops and cargo pants. And, as a dog lover, I was really curious to see how Alea would depict Louie. I’d pictured a big, shaggy dog, but Louie is adorable in a more elegant way.
Me: When you’ve written over 40 picture books, I have to wonder if there are any more writing surprises. Was there at least one thing that surprised you in writing this story?
Linda: Even after 45 books, the writing process always feels surprising. In this case, I started with a single refrain but wasn’t exactly sure how to turn it into a story. I went through many drecky drafts before the manuscript was developed enough to share with my agent. Both Jennifer and the manuscript’s eventual editor, Allison Cole at Candlewick, had some excellent suggestions that led to many rewrites—and to several very different versions of the story. So, I guess that surprised me: there seems to be an infinite number of ways you can tell a story that’s fewer than 600 words!
Me: That’s so true! Any advice for new picture book writers?
Linda: The best writing advice I ever received was to type recent picture book texts into a Word document and do a word count. That was a revelation for me early on, and something I continue to do with picture books I love. I’d recommend noting page breaks as well. Reading the story this way underlines how spare picture book texts are. And the page breaks are really helpful in understanding pacing and drama—each page turn is a cliff-hanger opportunity. We want kids to be eager to turn the page, and to keep asking: And then what happened?
I have more tips and links on the Resources for Writers page of my website. And, of course, I wrote The Nuts and Bolts Guide to Writing Picture Books to share everything I wish I’d known—and avoid the many mistakes I made—when I was just starting out.
Thanks so much for the great questions, Jena!!
Thank you again for stopping by my blog Linda!
Dear readers, if you haven’t yet had a chance to read this book, I highly recommend it. It’s deceptively simple, but this is a story to study. The rhyme is delicious and the story heart-warming. You won’t want to miss it.