Posted by: Kathy Temean | June 26, 2012

Re-Imaging Your Picture Book

Re-Imagining Your Picture Book

Workshop by Harold Underdown

written by Jennie Chan

         Look under, down and deep, even into your character’s underwear.

If you need better advice than that, then you should invest in Harold Underdown’s The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Publishing Children’s Books.  To my surprise, although he had every opportunity to hawk his own book, Mr. Underdown started the workshop by encouraging us to get what he described as “The Bible”: Ann Whitford Paul’s Writing Picture Books: A Hands-On Guide from Story Creation to Publication.  If you can’t decide whether you’re approaching children’s book writing more as an idiot or zealot, then you should check out for sample chapters and detailed reviews.  Or, you can read the rest of this article to get a sense of what Mr. Underdown personally offered at the June 2012 NJSCBWI conference.

As a former teacher, I was impressed by how Mr. Underdown ran the workshop.  Efficiently yet gently, with the highest form of technology being a hardcover picture book, Mr. Underdown guided us through a 5-step routine 5 times:  He read an excerpt.  Pointed out a perspective or strategy.  Asked questions to help us apply what we’d learned to our own picture books.  Gave us time to write.  And listened to us.

If you have a picture book manuscript that could use some re-imagining, here are the 5 writing exercises (in parentheses are the titles and writers of the books that Mr. Underdown read from—in addition to illustrating his points, they are recommendations for the best picture books):

1)      Character—Do you know your character?  Can you fill a page with your character’s likes and dislikes? What is character’s room like? What is character’s favorite ice cream and why? What is character’s favorite book and why? What interesting quirk does your character have?

(Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are)

2)      Underlying emotion—What is your character feeling? Does the feeling change? How does your reader know what your character is feeling? Can the feeling be intuited or is your text telling it? Are you telling a feeling because it’s easier or because of a better reason, such as a rhythmic refrain?

(Ezra Jack Keats’ The Snowy Day)

3)      Language and voice—How would your story change if you were to write it from a regional dialect? A jargon used by a particular group, such as parents or firefighters?  A style that has a different degree of formality than you’re used to?

Think of a voice you’d like to adopt and rewrite a couple of your manuscript’s sentences in this voice.  Even if the results don’t work for your story, developing this skill would be useful in broadening your appeal to a variety of markets.

(Cynthia Rylant’s The Relatives Came)

4)      Point of view—This is not just about a first, second or third person narrator; it can also be about revealing story and character through a different form, such as letters.

If you were to write a letter from your main character, which character inside or outside the story would it be addressed to? What would the letter focus on?

(Sarah Stewart’s The Gardener)

5)      Setting—How does the setting impact your story? What would happen if you changed the setting? What else would change?

(Vera B. Williams’ A Chair for My Mother)

If you want to try a “whole other workshop” on your own, here’s a suggestion that Mr. Underdown gave that I heard repeated by other writers, editors and presenters throughout the conference:

Get a hold of published picture books and type out the text to see what it looks like on the page.

This is an extension of the commonly heard advice “Read!” that is practicable for aspiring picture book writers.  Not only would you actually be reading and absorbing the rhythms of the language as you type, but you would also see what parts of the story need words, which are better shown through the illustrations, and how text and images play off each other to develop the story.  You would also have a collection of stories that you can refer to in order to see what’s being published and what can inspire your writing.  Best of all, you now have a reason to get off the computer and walk to the nearest bookstore or library to indulge in the beauty of physical books.

Thank you Jennie for writing this article and sharing what you learn in Harold’s Workshop.  Even if you didn’t attend the conference and didn’t get a signed copy of Harold’s Book on Children’s Publishing, you can still find it in bookstores and online.  I have it on my book shelf.

Thank you to Roberta Baird for providing the above cute tea cup mouse illustration for June. Roberta is a full time illustrator from Texas. She specializes in whimsical artwork for children’s picture books and related industries. Her first book I See the Animals Sleeping: a Bedtime Story, was published in June of 2011.

Talk tomorrow,



  1. Thanks for doing such a great job on imparting this info to us, Jen 🙂 It’s
    REALLY appreciated 🙂 I heard of Ann Whitford Paul’s book, too (I think here, on Kathy’s blog!), and had thought to buy it. This is another reason to check that out again, too 🙂


  2. Great post with lots of good tips. Thanks!


  3. terrific to have this…. I sent it to all my 33 artists and hope other pay attention. great!


  4. Jennie, thanks so much for writing this, and Kathy, thanks for posting it!


  5. Thanks for sharing this! I have A. Paul’s book but need to read Underdown’s book as well. Thanks for posting the 5 points.


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