Posted by: Kathy Temean | November 21, 2010

Picture Book Writing Craft Workshop

Last weekend the New Jersey chapter of the SCBWI had a Writing Craft Day.  I shared some of the information from the Novel workshop with you last week.  Since I couldn’t be in two places at one time, I asked some members to write up something that I could put on my blog.  I would like to share a few with you today.

The first to send me something was Judy Shappell.  She said, “During the workshop Leeza described in detail the components and the making of a good picture book.  The length, terminology, defining your manuscript and character, having a theme, the importance of a good opening line, problem solving and the marriage of text and illustration are some of the considerations for success. Writers should strive to establish a different approach to a universal theme.  The book should be character driven.

“Breaking down the content on each of the 32 pages of a picture book was extremely interesting and helpful.  Defining the half title page, full title page, the “front matter”, where the story begins, where tension and release occurs as well as the twist and happy ending, all contribute to the making of a picture book.  A slide presentation was also presented.”

Laurie Wallmark participated and said, “Leeza discussed the hallmarks of a good picture book, including characterization, theme, plot, setting, and more. She brought a selection of published books to use as examples. In addition to the craft of writing picture books, Leeza talked about the realities of the market. Then it was time for a short exercise to get our creative juices flowing. The workshop finished with arts and crafts, where we cut up our manuscripts to create a picture book dummy. We all came away with information to help make our picture books stronger.”

Then Ame Dyckman sent me this:

Greetings, everybody!  Kathy has kindly shared some of the fabulous tips from Anita Nolan’s Novel Workshop at the NJ SCBWI Writer’s Craft Day in Princeton last weekend.  Now I’ll give you the inside scoop on Leeza Hernandez’ amazing Picture Book Workshop!

As I walked into the Hyatt conference room, I beheld three of my favorite things:

  • Leeza—Author/illustrator extraordinaire, uber-talented and funny as heck.
  • Books—A heap of brilliant picture books from Leeza’s personal collection.
  • Sugar!—Brownies, donut holes, Rice Krispie treats, and other tasty creative brain fuel.

I was thrilled to see them all!

After introductions and a cool word association/relaxation exercise, Leeza led the assembled writers, illustrators, and writer/illustrators in a lively chat (peppered with classic and fresh read-aloud examples) on the popular universal themes found in picture books:

  • Firsts  (First day of school, first sleepover, first lost tooth, etc.)
  • Sibling Rivalry
  • Bravery
  • Loneliness
  • Persaveerence Pursaverance Never Giving Up

and the always heart-tugging:

  • Finding One’s Place in the World

Then, we talked about feelings.  (No, not our feelings.  The reader’s feelings.)  We

discussed the necessity of a picture book’s (typically) happy ending, the need to compel a young reader emotionally, and some resonating methods your Main Character can use to solve their problem:

  • Embark on a Quest
  • Overcome a Fear
  • Invent Something  (Ooh, you clever little MC, you!)

Next up was threes.  We examined The Rule of Three (your Main Character makes

three unsuccessful attempts at solving their problem before having their epiphany that leads them to the solution), and the Three Most Common Fluffy Animals in Picture Books:

  • Bunnies
  • Kitties
  • Puppies

(Poor skunkies.  I know you’ll make the list someday.)

Then, everybody’s favorite—the pictures!  From facial expressions to the use of color to create tone and time sequence to the importance of having multiple locations for visual variety, we eyeballed examples from masters Maurice Sendak, Oliver Jeffers, David Ezra Stein, and others.  (And, I added to my ever-growing Amazon Wish List!)

After that, there was tension.  I don’t mean there was a squabble over the last brownie.  I mean, we studied tension and how to create effective page turns, where the reader absolutely-can-NOT-wait-to-find-out-what-happens-next!  (Man, Emily Gravett is good at this!)

Once we’d settled down a bit, it was time for some nitty-gritty word work.  Leeza emphasized:

  • Minimalism  (Choosing the one word can do the work of three just as well, if not better.)
  • Avoiding the “Was/-ing” Combo Platter  (No-no: “was sitting.”  Yes-yes:  “sat.”)
  •  Discarding -ly Words  (Lolly-lolly-lolly, don’t get your adverbs here.)
  • The Overused Word List  (Including about, all, almost, as, began, but, could/would, felt like, had, in/out, just, nice, only, pretty, rather, seemed, so, some, sort of, suddenly, was, were, when, and the trouble twins, really and very.  Those two, in particular, are really very overused.)

Following, we did a quickie review of page spreads (see Kathy’s November 17 post), 

was treated to Leeza’s famous visual inspiration slide show (I’m still humming that tune!), and munched one last treat before…

            Dummy time!  After receiving their 8 folded-in-half pieces of paper to mimic the interior pages of a standard picture book, the writers in the room took scissors-to-manuscripts, pasted text to page, and (yours truly included) tried their best with rough sketches:

WRITER #2:  “Is that supposed to be a bug?”

WRITER #1:  “No, that’s supposed to be a dinosaur.”

making sure their stories:

  1. Fit  (Filled a 32-page dummy without spilling over.)
  2. Flowed (Did not have 2 single-page spreads that butted up against each other.)
  3. (Fudge!  I couldn’t think of another “F” word for “Used page turns effectively.”)

Meanwhile, the illustrators and writer/illustrators took turns receiving one-on-one

artwork critiques with Leeza.  (And, to their credit as nice people, they did not make fun of the writers’ sketches.  Love you guys!)

            All too soon, four hours had flown by and *POOF*, the Workshop was over.  I left with a notebook full of excellent tips, a brain full of new ideas for my current manuscript, a heart full of gratitude to Leeza for her wonderful presentation…

            …and a pocket full of donut holes for later.

            Hey, Kathy!  When’s the next Workshop?  Sign me up!

            Hugs to you all,


Ame Dyckman is represented by Super Agent Scott Treimel, Scott Treimel NY.  Her first picture book, BOY AND BOT (illustrated by Dan Yaccarino), will be released by Knopf in Spring, 2012.  Ame loves cryptozoology, peanut butter, and screaming at Japanese game shows on TV.  She lives in New Jersey (“Go, NJ SCBWI!”) with her husband, daughter, black cats, hermit crabs, fish, and one obnoxious-yet-endearing pet squirrel.

Talk tomorrow,



  1. Very nice and very true.

    Character driven is key nowadays (and I’d say the more iconic the character the better.)

    Also, that opening line or coupla lines are crucial and should set the stage with who/what/where/why.

    I’d also say that for some publishers playing with book structure, and/or character/world POV are of interest

    (Of course there are tons of successful pbs that are not character driven but that does not seem to be the discussion here.)

    Thanks Leeza.



    • Barbara,

      Thanks for leaving a good comment.

      Happy Thanksgiving,



  2. Thanks for sharing. It sounds like a very informative AND very fun day.

    Cheers to all writing picture books!

    George Shannon


    • George,

      I second that. Picture books are hard to do then most people think.



  3. Thanks so much for sharing this information, Kathy (and others who contributed). Sounds like an excellent and useful event.


  4. What a great workshop! I wish I was able to be there.


    • Tracey,

      It’s been too long, since I’ve seen you. Hope you will find the time to join us at something in the future.

      Happy Thanksgiving,



  5. Sounds amazing
    wish I could have been there!


    • Rose,

      I’m sure you would have enjoyed it. Where do you live? Probably too far to make coming to something worth the time and expense.

      Have a great holiday,



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