Princess Power: Painting a New Vision for Girls in Picture Books!

Princesses are all the rage when it comes to books for girls. And while I don’t have anything against princesses, I don’t think every girl dreams of being one. (Being treated like royalty, yes, but not actually being a princess!) Truth be told, I don’t remember having princess dreams. I do remember wanting to be a veterinarian, a lawyer, an actress, and Speaker of the Ohio House of Representatives all by the time I was in fourth grade. That’s why I absolutely love two recently published picture books that open up awesome possibilities for girls to dream of being whatever they want to be.

The first was recommended to me by an editor I met at the Rutgers University One-on-One Plus Conference. In My Rules for Being a Pretty Princess a young girl dreams of being a pretty princess more than anything else in the world until she discovers that being a princess isn’t quite what she had in mind. From wearing dresses that are never supposed to get dirty, to the agony of having perfect hair, to being told that her dancing isn’t graceful enough — it’s all rather boring! As if all that’s not enough, she’s expected to wait, and wait, and wait for her handsome prince to show up. Where’s the fun and adventure in that? In the end, this wannabe-princess decides to make up her own princess rules — rules that allow her to fully be herself, wild dancing and all!

The book’s jacket flap describes how author Heath McKenzie wrote the book for his daughter Ava before she was even born. As soon as he knew that he was having a daughter, he wanted to make sure that she knew that she could be anything that she wanted to be when she grew up. Kudos to this dad for painting that vision for his daughter and girls everywhere!


The second book, Interstellar Cinderella by Deborah Underwood, features a Cinderella unlike any you’ve met before. She repairs robot dishwashers and zoombrooms while dreaming of fixing fancy rockets. She’s nimble with tools and sprockets and stays up late studying ship repair in her books. In order to get to the Prince’s Royal Space Parade, Interstellar Cinderella must find a way to fix a broken ship after being ditched by her stepmother and stepsisters who have jetted off with her toolbox. With the help of Murgatroyd, her robotic mouse, and her fairy godrobot, who gives her new tools and an awesome space suit, she has just what she needs to fix her rocket and make it to the Space Parade — and also to lend a hand when the prince’s starship is in distress.

I can’t give away the ending because it’s too perfect; however, I will say that Interstellar Cinderella gets a very happy ending that is out of this world. This story is told entirely in rhyming verse and is a wonderful take on the time-honored classic tale we all grew up with.

If you have other suggestions for picture books with strong female characters that challenge the status quo, please share them in the comments section below!

Show Don’t Tell: How to Write Emotions

Awhile back I had the opportunity to do an Author Visit at a school. As I was preparing, I happened to see a timely blog post from author Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen. The theme of the post was “Show Don’t Tell.” As the mantra of the writing industry, I thought that would be the perfect topic for the group of students I’d be working with — especially since it would allow me to draw upon my theatre background. I ended up putting together an interactive workshop that had the students using theater techniques like tableaux and pantomime to experience the emotions in their stories. Below is a look at how I approached the topic  with some tips for writers.

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So we all know we are supposed to show not tell, but how do we actually do it? Especially when it comes to emotions. The actress in me says that we’ll never be able to do it accurately unless we have actually felt the emotion we want to describe. Unless the physical feeling has been in our bodies, from the tops of our heads to the tips of our feet.

How can we transform, “she was mad,” into something more powerful for the page or stage? For starters, we can put that feeling into our body and allow ourselves to experience it. What happens when you’re mad? Allow yourself to feel it.

Do your cheeks burn?

Do your hands curl into fists?

Does your jaw clench?

Do you feel like you could bore holes into walls with the intensity of  your gaze or drive your fist through a brick wall?


Now give your anger a voice.

Do your words spew out like lava?

Do they grind out from behind your teeth?

Do you spit them out in disgust?


Go one step further. Don’t be general in your approach. Think of something that truly makes you mad (or that would make you mad!) If the situation your character is in would cause the same emotion in you, try that. If not, substitute something that would lead you to the same type of emotion you are trying to describe. (Substitution is a time-honored technique used by many actors.) Try it with as many emotions as you can come up with (excitement, shock, fear, sadness, despair, etc.)

Go through your manuscript or the story you are telling. Look for any weak areas of telling emotion. Stop and allow yourself to truly experience the emotion. Then use that to show the emotion in a more powerful way. I think you’ll find that not only will it improve your writing – it will also give you a fun and creative release when you’re stuck with writer’s block and need to get out of your head.

For a look at exploring emotions using picture books, see my previous post here.

Picture Book Idea Month: Let the Ideas Flow!

Don’t miss your chance to be part of Picture Book Idea Month (PiBoIdMo) 2015. The brain child of author Tara Lazar, this awesome month of ideas and inspiration is especially for picture book writers! I’ve participated for the last two years and am now jumping into my third.

The idea behind Picture Book Idea Month is to keep track of all of your picture book ideas for the month of November — with the goal of having at least one idea per day or 30+ ideas by the end of the month. You don’t have to share your ideas with anyone. They are for your eyes only. The ideas don’t need to be fully formed either. You could have the idea for a cool character, a fun book title, a silly phrase, a plot element. Anything goes — just write it down!

If you sign up to be an official participant, you will get daily emails with inspiration from other authors and folks in the writing world. Many of these emails also contain free giveaways that include everything from autographed books to critiques by other authors or literary agents. All you have to do is leave a comment on the blog post to be entered. Other prizes come for completing the 30 day challenge and taking the PiBoIdMo Pledge, stating that you indeed came up with 30 ideas. (I actually won an autographed book last year off of one of the blog post comments — so I know firsthand that the prizes are for real!)

Today is the last day to sign up to be a PiBoIdMo Official Participant. So hop on over to Tara’s Website and get yourself signed up. Some of my best ideas have come from this challenge!

The cool part is — you don’t necessarily have to begin working on any of your new ideas right away. Last year I wrote down a fledgling idea that I wasn’t sure what to do with. But two months ago inspiration struck and I knew just how to proceed! I now have a completed manuscript for that one. I even shared it with my friend’s son, and from something he said, I got the idea for another picture book which I now have a rough draft for. Pretty cool how creativity builds on creativity, huh?

It’s also pretty cool what can happen when you consciously keep track of your ideas — and even let them simmer for awhile. Sometimes those ideas just get better with time — and that crazy idea you didn’t know what to do with finds its own legs when you least expect it! I hope you’ll take the challenge!

Exploring Emotion with “No Fits, Nilson!”

No Fits, Nilson! by Zachariah Ohora is the story of Amelia and her larger-than-life gorilla, Nilson, who is prone to some larger-than-life temper tantrums when things don’t go his way. Inspired by Ohora’s experiences with his own young children, it’s a wonderful exploration of emotion that reminds us that sometimes we can all use some help controlling our tempers.

This book is perfect for helping children explore their emotions and allowing them to have some creative release of emotion. It can also be used to give some techniques for helping to control outbursts.

Below are some questions and activity ideas to bring this story to life for young listeners.

Before reading, begin with a few questions.

  • Have you ever been angry before?
  • Can you remember a time you were angry? Why were you angry?    OR    What are some things that make you angry?

Be prepared for any answer. Kids are unpredictable! It might feel like you’re opening a can of worms with this question, but I think it’s important that children feel free to talk openly about their feelings rather than leaving them pent up.

  • When you get angry, what do you do? Show me. What happens to your body?

Help the children to see that anger usually leads to tense bodies.

Fists and teeth clench. Lips purse. Brows furrow.

You may ask the children to tense up different parts of their body until their whole body is tense. Then ask them to release the tension from each part. Ask them which way feels more comfortable — body tense or body relaxed. Help them to see that our feelings and our bodies are connected.

Next, tell the children that today you are going to read them a book about a gorilla with a big temper. Ask them if they can walk around the room as if they are gorillas (first with no sounds, then feeling free to add sounds). Before you begin, be sure to teach the children some cues so they know when to start and stop. (ie; When I say, “Gorilla Go!” you may begin. When I say “Gorilla Stop!” and raise my hands, you must freeze like a gorilla and be silent.) If you don’t establish these cues ahead of time, it may be hard to get back the attention of your wild gorillas!

Once they’ve had the chance to move around like gorillas, tell them to imagine that they are a very angry gorilla. Perhaps someone took the last banana that they were hoping for! Ask them to act like angry gorillas — but don’t forget to reinforce the cues before you start! Angry gorillas are even harder to control!

  • How did it feel acting like an angry gorilla? When you get angry, do you think it’s good idea to have a fit and act like an angry gorilla? Why or why not?

You may want to let children know that we can’t always control how we feel, but we can control how we respond to our feelings.

Read “No Fits, Nilson!”

After the reading, ask the children if they have any ideas of things they can do when they feel angry rather than having an angry outburst. Encourage them to use their imaginations. Silly answers are perfectly acceptable! Have a few ideas on hand in case they have trouble coming up with their own.

Can they count to three and take three big deep breaths?

Can they sing a favorite song?

Can they release all the tension from their body then wiggle like a blob of jello?

Can they freeze like their favorite animal?

You might follow this up with having them act like gorillas again. Use some of the scenarios in the book that lead Nilson to get frustrated. Say, “Nilson is angry because. . . . ! He’s about to have a fit, but then he stops himself by _________. ” Fill in the blank with some of the ideas that the children have come up with. Allowing the children to practice their anger-control strategies in a role play situation may be the first step to helping them respond positively when a real-life anger inducing situation arises.

Why Do I Do This? . . . Writing for Kids

Over the past month, I’ve had the opportunity to attend two different conferences. The SCBWI Ohio North Conference in Cleveland and the Rutgers University Council on Children’s Literature One-on-One Plus Conference in New Jersey. At both conferences, the question was raised: “Why Do We Do This?” The “this” being write for children.

Contrary to what many believe, being a children’s author is not the most lucrative profession. Chances are the author of that new picture book you bought for your child or grandchild is not making millions, but instead waiting on a royalty check that *might* cover some of his/her bills that month.

The business of writing can be extremely discouraging. There’s far more rejection than acceptance in the publishing world. Yet, still we writers press on — eager to share our ideas with the world.

So yes, why do we do this? And why do we do this specifically for children? Here are a few of my reasons.

Why I Write For Kids

1) Children live intensely

When you’re a child, everything from what teacher you got for homeroom to what you’re going to be for Halloween is infused with life or death significance. Nothing is mundane, commonplace, or ordinary. Every moment is lived with a certain technicolor vibrance that pales as you get older. If you think about some of your most vivid memories, I bet they come from your childhood. When I write, I love putting on those special childhood lenses that help me to see the world with such amazing intensity and richness.

2) Childhood is a time when we are most truly ourselves

When you’re a kid, you just ARE. You’re still a human being, not a human doing. Concepts like responsibility and productivity likely haven’t crossed your mind yet. Therefore, you are free to devote yourself to what you truly love — free of guilt, free of that nagging thought that you are wasting your time. As a child you enjoy what you enjoy just because you enjoy it — not because there’s a paycheck attached to it or for any other exterior motivation. What a special and glorious time in life! How many of us adults wouldn’t like to shake off the guilt and nagging and return to that place, even if for only an afternoon or two?

3) Children are discovering who they are every day

When you’re a child, each day brings a new discovery — not just about the world around you, but about who you are in that world. With each experience, each choice, you are discovering, becoming and building upon who you are, who you will be and how you will interact with others and the world around you. It might sound cliche to say it, but the childhood years are formative. What better time to cast a vision of all that a person can be than when they are daily asking those very questions and trying to find the answers?

 4) Children are fun, and creative, and zany, and. . .

Writing for kids is just plain fun. You can be silly, goofy, imaginative. You can color outside of the lines. Not everything has to fit into the box. Writing for kids is kind of like running around the playground and screaming at the top of your lungs while pretending to be a plane or a secret agent or a flying ice cream cone. It’s pure creative release, and in one word it’s AWESOME!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!


If you write for children, I’d love to hear your reasons. Please share them in the comments section below. You may find that answering the question helps to bring clarity and focus to your work. I know it did for me. I look forward to reading your AH-MAZING answers!