Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Picture Books Authors Tell All! - Part 2

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Cover of Boo Hoo Bird by Jeremy Tankard

Today I’m pleased to share the second of my two-part chat with picture book writers JEREMY TANKARD, LAUREL CROZA, and JO ELLEN BOGART.

ME: First, here’s a question just for you, Jeremy. You are a children's book writer AND illustrator. Have you ever written a picture book that you haven't also illustrated?

JEREMY TANKARD: No. But I would love the experience. The closest I've come to this was my recent book, PIGGY BUNNY by Rachel Vail. Jean Feiwel, the editor and publisher of Feiwel and Friends (an imprint of Macmillan), had fallen in love with a drawing in my portfolio of a pig wearing a bunny suit. With her interest in mind I wrote a good half dozen books about this character but none of them really "hit the mark." Finally, out of sheer frustration with the writing process, I suggested to my agents that we give the character to Jean and see what she had in mind. Jean was thrilled and suggested that she share the drawing with Rachel Vail to see what she thought. Rachel fell in love with the drawing too and wrote me a wonderful book.

So no, I've never had the experience of handing a story to someone else to interpret but I HAVE given a character to someone else and let them interpret it for me. And she found a much deeper character in my little piggy bunny than I had seen. It was a wonderful collaboration. We all had fun working on it.

ME: And now, to all three of you, what do you find most challenging about writing a picture book? Laurel, let’s hear from you first, and then Jo-Ellen and Jeremy.

LAUREL CROZA: Voice. It doesn’t matter what I’m writing - short story, picture book, answers to a Q & A - for me it’s all about finding the voice first and then the story flows from there.

In fact, the idea for I KNOW HERE - the nucleus of it, it’s heart - came from a story I first wrote in a Creative Non-Fiction writing class. It was written in an adult’s voice - mine - looking back at childhood memories of living on a single road, in a tiny community of trailers, beside a dam my dad was helping build, in north-eastern Saskatchewan. About a year later I was enrolled in a Writing for Children class and I (figuratively) walked that road again, this time looking around with the eyes of an eight year old.

And something almost magical happened: I noticed more. More colour. More vibrancy. More immediacy. I rewrote the story using that child’s voice and that’s how I KNOW HERE came to be!

JO ELLEN BOGART: For me, the most challenging aspect of picture book writing is devising a plot in such a way as to have conflict and resolution. I find myself getting carried away with feelings, impressions, and sensations in such a way as to produce something atmospheric, gentle and subtle. There is usually something interesting and involving, but the work might not be enough to grab readers who want action with a capital A. If I am not careful, my "gentle" can slide into "slight."

JEREMY TANKARD: As with any book, STORY is the important part. It's no different in a picture book. I'm unusual in that I don't have a problem with writing short texts -- too many words is seldom my problem when writing books (unlike when writing or talking ABOUT my books, then I get very verbose!).

No, for me the biggest challenge is finding that moment of truth that a story hinges on. Strangely the stories come best when I can turn off my internal editors and not think about what I'm writing. That's often when those moments of real truth show themselves -- when the writing is the most honest. When I find those moments, often after days or weeks of reflecting on the story I've written, it becomes much easier to rewrite the story and really make it work.

My other big challenge, and this goes beyond just the creating of picture books, is a general fear about starting a project. For me, and, I suspect, for many writers and artists, the act of creation takes a huge amount of "mental energy". I tend to procrastinate about starting work because I know it will be difficult and exhausting once I get going. The funny thing is the opposite is often true: once I actually manage to start a nice momentum gets going and it's easy to keep going and difficult to stop. And it ISN'T exhausting, it's invigorating. Funny, no?

ME: And, finally, what top three tips would you offer to aspiring picture book writers? Jo Ellen, you start us off please.


1. Let your books say something about yourself as a person, so that you share yourself with your readers. Your voice will show through in the work.

2. Read and look at a lot of picture books. You will find some that you can put down easily and others that strike a real chord in you. If a book seems forgettable, what is it lacking? And what grabs your heart in the book you love? How do the illustrations work with the words, and what words have been left out? That process in itself will build layers of understanding and help you write your own books.

3. Write the book you want to write, but be willing to consider what others, such as writing group members, say about the work. They might uncover for you a blind spot of which you were unaware and help you make your book better.


1. I had tons of help writing I KNOW HERE. I got invaluable advice from teachers/mentors/editors. I listened carefully to what they said and most of it was bang on and I made revisions to the story. But I also listened to myself - to my gut - and I didn’t always revise. Because, after all, it’s not someone else’s story. It’s mine.

2. Read picture books. Read lots and lots of them, surround yourself with them, fill your bookshelves with them, balance your coffee on them. Read them out loud to your kids, your grandkids, your cat. Read them to know what you like, what you don’t like. Read them for a laugh or for a cry. Read them for inspiration. And then sit down and begin writing one yourself. And find your own voice.

3. Don’t wait - like I did - until you’re 47 years old to start writing. If you have a dream to be a writer then stop looking out the window and start writing. Now.


1. Tell the truth.

2. Don't ever speak down to your audience (don't write for your young audience, write for yourself).

3. Never become attached to your ideas. Be flexible and willing to change as the story or character dictates. If you've got an amazing idea that's just not working cut it out and save it somewhere for use in a future project.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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Susan Hughes

Susan Hughes is an award-winning author whose books include The Island Horse, Case Closed?, No Girls Allowed, Earth to Audrey and Virginia.

Go to Susan Hughes’s Author Page