Thursday, August 11, 2022

In Defense of Fanfiction - A Guest Post by Moth Detlaf

        I am a firm believer that cringe culture is dead--there's way too much to worry about right now without being concerned about whether your hobbies will be viewed as cool or cringey. In particular, I would like to call attention to the death of cringe surrounding the writing of fanfiction.

    Many authors I've met recently during events have started suggesting, ever so tentatively, that fanfiction can be a good way to flex writing muscles.

    I, for one, would like to climb to the roof of my apartment building and shout that to every young writer in Brooklyn (and to all of you, dear friends, who have decided to absorb the words I send into the ether). I know that even as recently as when I was in high school and college, fanfiction was a secret word saved for your carefully curated Tumblr--people never discussed it, and teachers rarely acknowledged it. But, if you give it a chance, I think there's a lot of value to using fanfiction as a writing exercise.

    Just as many visual artists talk about the first steps into developing your own style (tracing and imitation of artists you admire is something I've seen endorsed quite a bit for learning purposes), I think fanfiction serves that function for authors. In my experience, too, it's a great way to quiet the imposter syndrome and turn off editor brain for a bit. It can also help spark inspiration if you've got writer's block. When you're playing in already-established IPs, there's less pressure and more wiggle-room for off the wall ideas.
    If you want to work on worldbuilding, take characters you know well and bring them into an unfamiliar environment.

    To work on dialogue, you can put two characters into a situation and see how you interpret their reactions.
    To write a specific genre (or a common trope in a genre), you can just as easily put other characters into that situation and allow the scene to play out.

    I could certainly go on and on about why I think fanfiction is so easily dismissed by many, but that is a soapbox for another day. For now, I would like to leave you with a small challenge:

    Find an aspect of your writing you would like to improve upon, pick a show/movie/etc you know intimately, and just write. If you've got a case of writer's block, exploring new relationships with characters you're already familiar with is a great way to keep the creativity going while giving your brain a rest. Be cringey, write that coffeeshop AU, make the crossover you've always wondered about. Let the story take charge and see how that affects your other writing.

Moth Detlaf (they/them) is a bookseller and the social media manager for Books of Wonder in NYC. They can often be found huddled in a corner somewhere surrounded by a palace of queer books for all ages--bonus points if there are dragons involved. Finding the books that make kids of all ages and demographics (including the grown up ones) feel the way they have always felt as a reader is one of their favorite things.

Tuesday, August 9, 2022

10 Gems of Wisdom and Inspiration from the #scbwiSummer22 Conference

The banner for the 2022 SCBWI Summer Conference

The coolest thing about the virtual conference with so many breakout sessions (all of which will be available on video through September 11, 2022) is that you can choose your own path through the offerings, and go back and look at different ones! 

The takeaways and inspiration each of us gets from an SCBWI conference is unique, and so any list of those highlights is going to be subjective and personal. With that caveat, here are some moments from this past weekend's conference that have stayed with me:

Dhonielle Clayton had 345 rejected queries before getting her first YES. In her keynote, she said, "Remember there is a child reader on the other side of all this, waiting" for what we're creating.

In the Editors and Agents panel the discussion of some of the silver lining from the pandemic, including the decentralizing of publishing from New York city. And Elena Giovinazzo urging us to "Continue to be fearless in your creativity." And James Mustelier speaking about not being willing to wait for things to clear up to experience joy -- because things may never clear up. 

Jessixa Bagley saying "You'll always be able to find someone to discourage you." And, "If you love it, pursue it regardless of the outcome."

Dela Wilson quoting Deepak Chopra, "What you pay attention to, grows." And tying that into growing more diversity in publishing.

Martha Brockenbrough saying, "If your book is in your heart, I think that's the best path to get into others' hearts."

Lexie Bean commenting on their debut middle grade novel, The Ship We Built, "This book is a gift to my 10-year-old self."

Kelly Starling Lyons asking us to think of a picture book page turn like a "mini-cliffhanger."

Colleen Paeff's advice to "find your community."

Karol Silverstein sharing in her "Disability Reset" breakout how she learned the euphemistic words crazy and insane are disrespectful (and maybe lazy writing) after her book Cursed was published, and how she was able to replace those in the paperback edition. 

Donna Barba Higuera's advice, "Never forget who you are. Keep nurturing yourself, and your dreams, and the child inside you that needs your stories.

What are the conference moments that resonated most for you? Feel free to share in the comments!

Illustrate and Translate and Write On,

Thursday, August 4, 2022

The Elevator Pitch (Or: The Mortifying Ordeal of Being Known)

If there's anything I've noticed, it's the extreme love/hate relationship authors have with the elevator pitch. In the words of my favorite tag on AO3, #themortifyingordealofbeingknown. There's something... absolutely terrifying about talking about something you made to strangers, something that hits different than writing up the summaries. A lot of the folks I've talked to don't even think about the elevator pitch until they're asked for one (virtual event greenrooms are the ultimate procrastinators' playground).

So I figured "hey, I do elevator pitches for other people for a living, maybe I can help" and thus, this madness was born. I spied on my coworkers' interactions with customers and thought deeply about how I approach it and came up with a few ideas I think might help if you're also struggling with formatting an elevator pitch (or if you've stumbled upon this article 10 minutes before a virtual panel).

ID: a swirling purple background. The phrase "going up!" is written in big block letters, and there's a cartoon outline of an elevator

Part 1: How do I even explain the plot?

  • Cheat a little and take favorite sections from the flap copy and string them together into something vaguely coherent; the more you practice it, the more your brain will choose what phrases it likes in what order.
  • Zero in on the big themes and concepts.
    • I find it way too easy to get bogged down by my favorite details (and then I just start rambling because they need context darn it!)

Part 2: I think I've got words, how do I put them into people's ears?

  • Focus on the ✨vibes✨
  • Tell us the tropes! All of them. Yes, even that one. 
  • If for social media: Do a silly trend or if you're feeling extra, make a skit 
    • Be ridiculous. Look at some of the people whose entire pages are skits. Relish in the bad wigs and silly acting. Embrace it.
  • Get on the radar of the fandoms of some of your comps--especially effective if the fandom is in a hiatus period and a drought of content.
    • Nothing has made my day more than when I saw someone wearing a shirt related to Our Flag Means Death, called them out, and sent them home with four books to read until season 2.
  • Don't worry about getting it right every time or getting everything you want into a pitch every time.
    • Sometimes the words don't want to word, and that's okay.
On a slightly more serious note, if I've learned anything, it's that people are so much more forgiving than we think they will be. They want to want your books. I think the number of times I've been called a danger to parents' wallets can show that, even if you don't yet believe it yourself. Go forth and be silly and weird on the internet! 

Moth Detlaf (they/them) is a bookseller and the social media manager for Books of Wonder in NYC. They can often be found huddled in a corner somewhere surrounded by a palace of queer books for all ages--bonus points if there are dragons involved. Finding the books that make kids of all ages and demographics (including the grown up ones) feel the way they have always felt as a reader is one of their favorite things.

Tuesday, August 2, 2022

Will the Proposed Merger of Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster Happen? The Department of Justice Trial Has Begun...

As reported in Publishers Weekly and elsewhere, the trial to block or not block the merger of Penguin Random House with Simon and Schuster has begun. It's expected to last three weeks.

Screen Shot of the Publishers Weekly Article, "DOJ Trial to Block PRH/SandS Merger Begins" - Aug 2022

From the PW piece by Andrew Albanese,

“On November 25, 2020 Bertelsmann, the parent company of Penguin Random House, emerged as the winning bidder for Simon & Schuster from ViacomCBS for $2.175 billion. On November 2, 2021, the U.S. Department of Justice sued to block the acquisition.”

The Department of Justice's view is that “Penguin Random House’s proposed acquisition of Simon & Schuster would further entrench the largest publishing giant in the United States (and the world) and give the merged company control of nearly half of the market to acquire anticipated top-selling books from authors.”

Penguin Random House lawyers argue that “this acquisition will benefit readers, booksellers, and authors alike.”

The Authors Guild, in a position statement from November 2021, is against the merger, writing, “The proposed merger would enable the merged firm and the few competitors left to pay less and extract more from authors who often work for years at their craft before producing a book. By reducing author pay, the merger would make it harder for authors to earn a living by writing books, which would, in turn, lead to a reduction in the quantity and diversity of books—which subsequently harms consumers.”

Porter Anderson at Publishing Perspectives offers this analysis:

“In the States, antitrust challenges often are based on questions of monopolies—companies that become the sole or main providers of certain products or services. But this one is positioned by the Department of Justice as a question of what the government says is a risk of monopsony—in which a company might become the sole or main buyer of certain products or services. The question at its most simplistic level, then, becomes whether a PRH-S&S merger would create a company so large that it would control the vast majority of “top-selling” authors’ payments.”

It's important news to be aware of - will our US Publishing industry go down from a "Big Five" corporate publishers to a "Big Four"? Stay tuned...

Illustrate and Translate and Write On,

Thursday, July 28, 2022

Stand your ground or give some? Determining the non-negotiables of your work.

I am a pleaser.

A "yes" person.

I'm certainly getting better about this as I get older, but I've accepted that it's in my nature to make others happy. Sometimes to my own detriment.

"Ellie, can you help us design a new school mascot?" Sure. "Would you read my manuscript... again.?" You bet. "How about being the SCBWI guest blogger for the month of July, even though you're finding out about this in June?" Why not? (Actually, this last one has been a lot of fun and I'm going to miss posting!)

Now, I don't agree to anything that I know will make me miserable, and to be honest, I've gained a lot of opportunities and connections by being so darn agreeable. However, when it comes to my artistic vision versus an editors' desires for the work, it can be hard to know when and where to stand my ground. 

These conflicts occur throughout the process of creating a book, from conception to publication, but I personally struggle with this most when resolving line art edits. Line art is a stage of book illustration that is more refined than loose sketches, but not all the way to full color, final art. Not all illustrators create line art, many go from sketches to finals, but I personally like this in-between stage as I think it results in fewer edits and changes of final art.

Most editorial suggestions are easily resolvable or ones where I can clearly see I've erred and need to fix my work. And I remind myself frequently, that at this point in my career, my editor and AD likely have many years of experience and many, many books under their belt. Their suggestions are the result of careful observation of what does and does not work in publishing. Not only that, but I have found that all the editors and ADs I've worked with are very considerate of the illustrator's vision, time, and energy and aren't capricious with their suggestions.

Sometimes however, I've made a particular choice as an artist because I think it elevates the work in some way and this is where I have the hardest time letting go. I want to be agreeable, but well, I also want my way. Case in point, the project I'm currently working on involves a highly anthropomorphized sea star. (He's complete with a mustache, windbreaker, and microphone. You're going to love him.) In one panel, the sea star is viewed from the back and you can see his grooves lined with many tiny tube feet. The editor feels this is coming across in an awkward way, but I think it's really funny to have something so realistic on such an anthropomorphized character.

In another project about monarch butterfly migration, I named a fictional school in the background after a murdered butterfly activist, Homero Gómez González. For me, this is an homage to a conservationist who selflessly worked to point out the dangers of tourism and logging to monarch populations. For the editor, there are potential legal issues with using the name and permissions may need to be considered. For the time being, they've asked me to leave the school without a name.

So how does one decide where to stand one's ground or to give way? How do we balance our vision, while remaining "easy to work with?" Here are some questions I try to ask myself when making these decisions:
  • Does my vision offer something unique to the work? What does it offer? (Humor, education, an opportunity for personal reflection, etc.)
  • Do I have expertise or experience that lends my opinion more weight on this particular matter? (This is especially important with nonfiction work.)
  • Is my decision based on personal or universal values? What values and why is that important to me?
  • How much time and energy will be involved in making the change?
  • If I make the requested change, how will I feel when I look at it (repeatedly) in the final product? Will I feel regret every time I turn to that page? 
Regarding the sea star, I've decided to explain my reasoning for keeping it the way it is, while agreeing to try a couple different perspectives. I think it offers something unique, but not essential, and it won't bother me terribly if it doesn't make it in the final book. On the school naming, I'm still awaiting the editor's final say on the matter. It offers something educational for readers and I feel its inclusion manifests values of gratitude and integrity, enough so that it would be worth seeking permission, if it's needed.

What factors do you consider or questions do you ask when deciding the non-negotiables of your work? Please share in the comments below!

Ellie Peterson is an author and illustrator of many picture books including HOW TO HUG A PUFFERFISH and SCHOOL IS WHEREVER I AM and a rather poor player of the ukulele. Find out more about Ellie and her work at

Tuesday, July 26, 2022

We're less than two weeks away from the 2022 Summer SCBWI Conference! Now's the time to register for the all-online #scbwiSummer22


SCBWI Summer 2022 Online Conference graphic, showing a young boy and a book flying over a field of flowers with two butterflies

August 5-7 is almost here!

We hope you'll join your SCBWI community for: 

Keynote presentations from Dhonielle Clayton, Jessixa Bagley, and Donna Barba Higuera!

Panels of agents, editors, and art directors discussing the current state of children’s publishing!

A half-day of programming just for illustrators offered at no additional cost! 

Over 35 breakout sessions with tracks for illustrators, self-publishing authors, traditionally published authors, and nonfiction authors!

An opportunity to pitch to acquiring agents and editors!

The career-launching Portfolio Showcase!

Online socials and peer critiques and more!

There's even an orientation for first-time attendees, to help you get the most out of the experience.

Illustrate, Translate, and Write On,

Thursday, July 21, 2022

Promo Groups 101

Promo group posts seem to be growing on Instagram and Twitter these days. PB Sunrays Book Launchers, Picture Book Scribblers, Picture Book Launch 2022, 22 Debuts, 2023 Debuts, and Class of 2k22 Books are just some of the ones I've seen lately.

But what even is a promo group? Do you need one? And how do you join or start one?

As a proud member of PB Crew 22 (shout out to all my crew-mates!) I have just enough experience to answer some of your burning questions.


Sadly, a promo group is not a collection of top notch publicists summoned by your publisher to tirelessly promote your new book. No, in actuality most publishers would like you to pull quite a bit of weight in advancing your work. (You thought you were done selling it when you queried your agent, didn't you?) A promo group is a collection of debut authors and illustrators, usually all releasing traditionally published books in the same year. They are self organized, often 15-20 members large, and they work cooperatively to promote each other's books. Promo groups have a social media presence and some even have websites.


Let's first look at what a promo group might accomplish. PB Crew 22 came up with a pretty expansive task list before I even joined them, which included a short introductory video, regular promotional posts on Twitter and Instagram, Pinterest boards for each book, reviews on Goodreads and Amazon, panel presentation opportunities, blog interviews, and book giveaways. (Phew!)

Clearly, a promo group can go a long way in helping you get your debut out in the world. I would say that a quarter of the Twitter followers I currently have are thanks to the countless tweets and retweets of my crew-mates. Our group had the opportunity to collectively create a post for Tara Lazar's Storystorm on how our books were born. I also have significantly more reviews for my 2022 releases than I would have without them.

I'm not the only one that feels this way. Crew member Laura Lavoie, author of Vampire Vacation said, "I think the reviews are the biggest way this group has helped me. I don't think I'd have nearly as many reviews if we weren't all doing them together for each of our books, and definitely not pre-release. That, and it's nice to have a built-in group to help boost each others' posts in a reciprocal way." Valerie Bolling, author of Together We Ride told me, "what I really like about our group is reading everyone's books that are all so good and knowing that members will read my 2022 books and post reviews and request them at their local libraries. I've appreciated the graphics that some members have created, amplifying my books on social media. It's also been good to present on panels with members from this group."

Beyond that, many promo group members feel they've gained a supportive network that goes beyond promotion. Lisa Tolin, author of How to be a Rock Star shared, "It's also been wonderful to learn from people who have been through this before. They've helped us understand things like how to approach bookstores or libraries. And within our group we have former teachers and booksellers, plus authors who have put together panels and teacher guides. That perspective has been so helpful to those of us who are new!"
My crew is more than an all-star team, it's become a network for support and advice.

So you definitely need a promo group, right?! Not necessarily. Being part of a promo group means you're not just promoting your own work, but the work of up to 20 other children's book creators as well. (In my case, 21 others!) And that can be, well... a lot of work! Ask yourself if you have the time and energy to write and post 20 reviews to multiple outlets, if you're willing to do frequent retweets for your group members, and if organizing panels and guest blog entries sounds like fun. If the answer is no, a promo group is probably not right for you. Keep in mind as well, that all this time spent on promotion can sometimes take away from time spent on your next project.


PB Crew 22 started when Cynthia Harmony, author of Mi Ciudad Sings reached out to Laurie Lavoie and asked if she was interested in starting a promotion group. They then reached out to Lisa Tolin and the three kept an eye on Twitter and Publisher's Weekly for picture book authors, illustrators, and author/illustrators with 2022 releases from Big 5 publishers. Through emails and DMs, the group slowly grew until it became its current size. I was lucky enough to meet Cynthia through an email thread for SCBWI EI Coordinators and she invited me to be the 22nd and final member of the crew.

They quickly established social media accounts for the group, but decided against a website and commissioned member Blythe Russo, author and illustrator of Sloth Sleeps Over to create the adorable banner below, among other graphics. Through email communication and group discussion over Zoom, PB Crew 22 created the initial task list mentioned above.

Our group logo, created by Blythe Russo

A promo group is just one tool in an author's publicity tool belt, but it can be a hefty one. If you are interested in starting a promo group of your own, start by following some of the ones mentioned above and note the types of content they produce and engagement they create. Then start asking around. Your local SCBWI chapter, Publisher's Weekly announcements, and social media are great places to find other debut authors and illustrators that may be interested in helping you get your work into the hands of readers... assuming you're willing to help them too.

Ellie Peterson is an author and illustrator of many picture books including HOW TO HUG A PUFFERFISH and SCHOOL IS WHEREVER I AM. Find out more about Ellie and her work at

Tuesday, July 19, 2022

Jen Ferguson Offers Wisdom on the Different Hats We Wear As Writers and Authors - and Who Reviews Are Really For

Over at one of my favorite KidLit blogs, Cynsations, debut Métis and white author Jen Ferguson, whose YA novel, The Summer of Bitter and Sweet just published in May 2022, is featured in Native Voices: Jen Ferguson on What She Has Learned As A Writer.

screen shot of the Jen Ferguson interview on the Cynsations blog

In the interview, in response to AJ Eversole's question, Do you have any tips for debut authors about balancing the roles of author and writer?, Jen shares these wise words:

“Keeping those roles as separate as possible seems to be the best thing for both my writing and my career as an author. As an author there are lots of distractions—promoting your books, supporting your community of writer friends, engaging with the public, doing interviews, and the dreaded task of updating your website!

“All of those things can add unneeded stress and often unkind voices—you know, envy, imposter syndrome, or a really scathing review—that will get in the way of the writing.

“One example: I don’t read reviews on sites like Goodreads or Amazon anymore. Because reviews aren’t for me as writer or for me as author—they’re for readers. And when I did read reviews, they got in the way of the writing and in the way of being an author.

“I know it’s not possible to stop things in your author life from leaking into your writer life all of the time because we’re human. But finding ways to keep those two things from getting in each other’s way is really good practice. You’re allowed to take your author hat off and wear your writerly tiara, and your writerly tiara doesn’t go with all your professional outfits.”

That bit about “reviews aren’t for me as writer or for me as author—they’re for readers.” seems like amazing advice.

Read the full interview here.

Illustrate, Translate, and Write On,

Thursday, July 14, 2022

Refreshing Your Illustrations with Social Media Drawing Challenges

Some of my favorite portfolios pieces are random, one-off illustrations that I seem to conjure from thin air. Typically, I have no trouble dreaming up a scene, characters, and color palette to illustrate. Just put the Apple Pencil in my hand, my iPad in my lap, and let me get to work! However, every once in a while I find that big white space daunting. I just can't think of a thing to draw! And if I do, I find myself slipping into my comfort zone and drawing things I've already drawn a thousand times.

How to get motivated to take on that blank page? To create something new and different? Social media to the rescue! Well, to be more specific, illustration and drawing challenges you can find on social media. (Instagram in particular has a robust children's illustration community.) These challenges are sure to boost your creative thinking.

If I stare into space long enough...

Below are some of my personal favorite drawing challenges.

1. #dtiyschallenges

DTIY stands for "draw this in your style." Illustrators create an image, label it as a #dtiy, and post it on Instagram. This label is an invitation for you to draw the same image in your own style. It's so fun to see how different illustrators render the same image. Some have been dtiy-ed thousands of times! Most of these images are of individual human characters, but a good search using the #dtiyschallenges will yield landscapes, anthropomorphized animals, and still lifes. If you choose to do this challenge, use good etiquette and be sure to post the original image along with your own, use the creator's hashtag, and tag them in the post as well.

My very first #dtiy! So far ONE person has recreated their own version of it!

2. Virtual Studio

Head over to Twitter and check out @StudioTeaBreak. Virtual Studio provides a different illustration challenge Monday through Thursday. Monday is #mythicalmashup, in which you draw the combination of a mythical creature and some other object. Tuesday and Wednesday is for the #shapechallenge. An empty shape with a dot inside is provided and your challenge is to find out what it can become. Thursday, is my personal favorite, the #portraitchallenge. Portraits by famous painters are provided (out of copyright and by mostly dead painters) for you to recreate in your own style.

3. #transmundanetuesdays

On the first Tuesday of the month illustrator Carson Ellis posts an incredibly unique drawing challenge on Instagram, which was born out of the pandemic. On these "transmundane Tuesdays" she reveals prompts that fit in the following categories: Mundane - ordinary descriptors, Transmundane - out of the ordinary descriptors, and Garb - what they're wearing. This one is so much fun that my local SCBWI chapter (Western Washington) hosted a virtual get-together to do our transmundane illustrations together.

The #transmundanetuesday prompt from July 5th

4. Animal Alphabets

Another one on Twitter, this challenge provides the name of an animal every Tuesday in alphabetical order. They have done the alphabet MANY times over and as a result, the animals they choose are quite specific and unique. At the time of this post, they are currently on Lionhead Rabbit. 

5. Various monthly challenges

Mostly on Instagram, there are a number of monthly challenges you can undertake. Some of them even provide a daily prompt word. Here are just a few:

September - #sketchtember

October - #inktober #scbwiartober

November - #folktaleweek

May - #mermay

June - #junicorn

2021 prompts

My creation for #13 - Spooky pushed me to use a dark palette and to learn how to use gaussian blur!

6. #bscolorchallenge

And, I'll take a moment to promote an illustration challenge presented by my very own critique group @thebroadstrokesart. Every month, we post an eight color palette created by the very talented Leanne Hatch. It's a flexible challenge in which you can attempt to use as many or as few of the colors as you like to create your illustration. It's incredible to see the variety in the illustrations produced with the same handful of colors! We're taking a break for the summer, but will be back with a new palette in September.

The #bscolorpalette from August of 2021
My creation based on the palette.

I hope you'll check out at least one or two of these challenges the next time your creative practice needs a refresh. (Um, maybe even try out my #dtiy?...) Do you have a favorite illustration challenge on social media? Please feel free to share it in the comments below! 

Ellie Peterson is an author and illustrator of many picture books including HOW TO HUG A PUFFERFISH and SCHOOL IS WHEREVER I AM. Find out more about Ellie and her work at 

Tuesday, July 12, 2022

On the 50th Anniversary of Margaret K. McElderry Books, Shelf Awareness Interviews Children's Author Susan Cooper

It's a big deal when a children's imprint hits 50 years - and so this interview by Siân Gaetano, children's and YA editor at Shelf Awareness with author Susan Cooper, who was edited and published by Margaret K. McElderry, is well-worth reading.

screen shot of the Shelf Awareness article, THE WRITER'S LIFE: Susan Cooper: 'Much Love, Margaret'

Among the highlights shared are moments from Susan and Margaret's correspondence, including Susan writing:

As a person she was a wonderful discovery, warm and encouraging; we were instantly friends, and when I tentatively mentioned my glimmer of an idea for a new book she wrote later, "I'm terribly keen to know how the next idea--the fantasy set in England--is coming along, so please do go on 'brooding gently' and I'll await the results with all the patience I can muster."

Susan's classic five-book fantasy sequence The Dark Is Rising ended up selling millions of copies worldwide. Read the full interview here.

Illustrate, Translate, and Write On,

Thursday, July 7, 2022

A Picture is Worth a Thousand (Foreign) Words

Seasoned picture book writers know the maxim is less is more.  

For the past couple years, my critique group has set aside the first half hour of every meeting to chat and share our favorite new picture book finds. We fawn over stunning illustrations and beautiful prose, we marvel at hilarious new concepts, and try to dissect each illustrator’s process and media. As we pore over these books a couple themes we always come back to are: 

1) The author’s economy with words

2) The illustrator’s ability to illustrate more than the words on the page.

Rarely does a picture book writer complain of not having enough words. More often than not, most of us are working on ways to cut down to the seemingly arbitrary 350 word limit and to let the illustrations speak for themselves. (Show, don’t tell, right?) 

How do other successful illustrators and author/illustrators pull this off? Many of us turn to well-reviewed and successful picture books as a source of study. However, I find it difficult to focus solely on what the illustrations in these books convey when the words are in right front of me. 

We all recognize words in our peripheral vision. Literate adults process words so quickly that it doesn’t really require our conscious attention. So what to do? You can always ask someone else to cover the words with post it note for you, but this often removes part of the image as well. 

An interesting solution presented itself at one of my critique meetings. I was delighted when a critique group member brought in a couple books by a Russian author and illustrator. (Russian happens to be her native language.) She shared these books because the quality and tone of the illustrations was something she was trying to achieve in her own work. However, I found myself fascinated by the fact that I could understand the entire story from the illustrations alone. I realized what a great tool these books could be because the words weren’t in the way.

Since then, I’ve been checking out foreign language picture books at our local library. Large metropolitan library systems often carry many of these books, though smaller library systems may not. The advanced search function of your library’s catalog will have options for language and collection (picture books).

If you’d like to try it yourself, here’s how I recommend you “read” a picture book in a foreign language: 

The first time, page through the book slowly and tell the story you see aloud to yourself, the way a pre-literate child might. “Once upon a time, there was a mommy and a daddy and a little girl. The mommy was going to have a baby very soon. They all loved each other very much.”

On your second time through the book, examine the illustrations and ask yourself the following questions:

What is my eye immediately drawn to on each page? 

How would I describe the mood on each page and how does the emotion conveyed change from beginning to end?

Is there a correlation between the amount of text on the page and the amount of action in the image?

If there seems to be a big jump in the action between pages, what words would have been necessary to smooth this transition? Should this have been two illustrations?

Practicing this has helped me focus on the minimum number of words needed to effectively impart the story and to ensure each chosen word packs in as much meaning as possible. Not only that, but it sheds a light on the experience of our preliterate and early readers, too. 

Ellie Peterson is an author and illustrator of many picture books including HOW TO HUG A PUFFERFISH and SCHOOL IS WHEREVER I AM. Find out more about Ellie and her work at 


Tuesday, July 5, 2022

SCBWI Partners with The National Coalition Against Censorship's "Free Expression Network" to Fight Book Banning

As announced here on the SCBWI website, "SCBWI has joined the NCAC’s working group, the Free Expression Network (FEN)."

screen shot from the Free Expression Network website

FEN is an “alliance of organizations dedicated to protecting the First Amendment right of free expression and the values it represents and opposing governmental efforts to suppress constitutionally protected speech. FEN members provide a wide range of expertise, resources, and services to policymakers, the media, scholars, and the public at large.”

Check out the anti-book banning resources available at the NCAC website, and stay tuned for more information about how SCBWI—and you—can help!

Illustrate, Translate, and Write On,