Hen&inkblots: A Literary Blog

Picture Book Advice From the 17th Texas Book Festival, Part 1 — How Children See the World

November 13, 2012 by Carmen Oliver

Austin State Capitol where the Texas Book Festival is held every year

Cool dry air descended on the Austin capitol for the 17th Texas Book Festival but the authors and illustrators shone under blue skies. Many attendees had difficulty choosing which sessions to attend because of the smorgasbord of topics but be that I was moderating for award-winning authors Candace Fleming and Liz Garton Scanlon on Sunday, I focused on picture book panels and events.

One of my favorite comments from the weekend came during the We Wrote a Picture Book Together and We’re Still Talking panel with authors/illustrators Philip C. Stead and Erin Stead and Eric Rohmann and Candace Fleming. All the panelists agreed that understanding how children see the world is the key to successfully creating picture books that resonate with kids.

Candace and Eric visit art museums a lot, and she pays particular attention to how children interpret art. They may not have the verbal sophistication to describe the art but they know how to convey the right feeling.  Eric said an example of conveying the right feeling is the Steads picture book Bear Has a Story to Tell and how they captured an autumnal sense and childlike longing.

It’s difficult to create this unless you’re really connected to your childhood or still living it. Philip Stead thought Bone Dog by Eric Rohmann tapped into this as well and was the best unknown book of 2011, a tip I capitalized on after the session ended.

Philip C. Stead & Erin Stead at the 17th Texas Book Festival

So if you’re a picture book writer or illustrator how do you go about understanding how children see the world?

  • Be an observer like them, exploring and noticing the tiny details. The cat that scampers into the road gutter, the tiny hole in the fence to peer through, and the rocks they overturn to find pill bugs. Listen to them talking in classrooms, doctor offices, playgrounds and art museums.
  • Read, read, read. Philip attributes writing his first draft of Bear Has a Story to Tell in forty-five minutes to reading over 20,000 hours of children’s books. Of course, he’s quick to point out that the language wasn’t perfect but all the scenes were there and he along with Candace both write freehand on lined paper in order to slow down and think about what it is they want to say.
  • Focus on what intrigued you as a child. Was it stepping on an ant hill and watching the soldiers defend their fortress, releasing a balloon into the sky and seeing it slowly disappear in the atmosphere, or throwing a ball onto a roof and guessing which side it would roll off?

Then take your pen or pencil and push your chair back from the computer screen and draft a story or two, the old fashioned way. It seems to be bearing fruit for Candace Fleming and Philip C. Stead.  So shake your apple tree and see what falls out.

Check back on Friday, November 16, 2012, for Part II on picture book advice from the 17th Texas Book Festival!

Happy writing!

About Carmen Oliver

Carmen Oliver is the author of the award-winning picture book BEARS MAKE THE BEST READING BUDDIES in which Kirkus said, “Children will surely want their own large brown reading buddies after listening to this book about the joys and challenges of reading.” It is nominated for the Rainforest of Reading Award and is on the shortlist for the 2017 CLEL Bell Picture Book Awards for Early Literacy. She's also the author of the forthcoming nonfiction picture books A VOICE FOR THE SPIRIT BEARS: THE SIMON JACKSON STORY and THE FAVIO CHAVEZ STORY. In 2014, she founded the Booking Biz, a boutique style agency that brings award-winning children’s authors and illustrators to schools, libraries, and special events. She also teaches picture book writing at the Writing Barn and the Highlights Foundation and loves speaking at schools, workshops, conferences and festivals. In 2010 to 2013, she was the Assistant Regional Advisor for the Austin SCBWI chapter. Growing up in Canada, she saw many bear species along the hiking trails but always kept a respectful distance. She and her family now call the wide-open spaces of Texas home.

4 thoughts on “Picture Book Advice From the 17th Texas Book Festival, Part 1 — How Children See the World”

  1. Love the detail advice. I have a friend who just took her grandson to the NC zoo. They saw amazing animals, including a baby gorilla in his mama’s arms. When they asked Jimmy what he liked best about the zoo, he said the stray cat hanging around the snack bar.

  2. Thanks for sharing, Carmen. I don’t write picture books (at the moment) but I think the ideas in this post are inspiring for anyone writing for kids (adults, too, really).

  3. Thanks, Mima and Barbara! Part II has advice from Liz Garton Scanlon and Candace Fleming on Friday.

    I love how children always notice the most interesting details. Thanks for sharing, Barbara!

  4. Wonderful advice! I loved your examples of things to observe, and you (and they) are so right — those tiny details are often what make picture books stand out from the rest. Oh, and I can REALLY get behind the advice to read, read, read! 😀

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