Author Feature: Dianne Ochiltree

Dianne Ochiltree is the author of several picture books that feature her winnng read-aloud rhymes, including Sixteen Runaway Pumpkins (McElderry Books/Simon & Schuster, 2004)(excerpt) and Ten Monkey Jamboree (McElderry Books/Simon & Schuster, 2001), both illustrated by Anne-Sophie Lanquetin as well as Pillow Pup, illustrated by Mireille d’Allance (McElderry Books/Simon & Schuster, 2002)(excerpt). Her latest title is Lull-A-Bye, Little One, illustrated by Hideko Takahashi (Putnam, 2006). She lives in Dingmans Ferry, Pennsylvania.

Could you tell us a little about your childhood, as it relates to writing? What were your favorite books, and at what point did you realize you wanted to be a writer?

I don’t believe I ever made a conscious decision to be a writer. I was born to be one! I come from a long line of storytellers, a clan of grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles who loved to share stories and jokes whenever they got together. I used to write my own little books, complete with pictures in crayon, and my relatives unfailingly encouraged me to develop my creativity.

Reading was encouraged by my family, too. From the time we were very small, my mother read to us nightly. Some of my favorite books were Good Night, Moon by Margaret Wise Brown, illustrated by Clemet Hurd (HarperCollins, 1947), classic Mother Goose nursery rhymes, and any of those wonderful Little Golden Books like The Pokey Little Puppy. Much later, when reading bedtime stories to my own children, many of these old favorites became their favorites, too.

How did you transition from writing to getting your work published?

When I decided to switch from my former writing life—as an advertising copywriter—to writing for children about ten years ago, I realized that the most important thing to understand was what I did not know about the field, and to fill in the blanks as quickly as possible.

Therefore, I gave myself a crash course in children’s publishing. I read every book on the craft of writing for children I could lay my hands on, and wrote something every day, knowing that it would be many months before any of these manuscripts would be even close to ready for actual publication.

Taking some college courses in this area helped me develop my craft, too, along with joining a critique group of fellow beginning writers. I joined the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) and attended every conference I could in those early years, where I learned a great deal from the workshops and had the chance to meet real, live editors.

Reading professional journals, such as Publishers Weekly, helped me learn about the publishing process and the business side of writing for children. Because publishing is such a fast-paced industry, I’m still in the process of educating myself!

Please describe your writing process–do you write at a certain time of day? Do you have a specific location in which you like to write?

I start each day with a cup of coffee and my “free writing” journal, in which I pen three pages of prose without any preparation or any thought of self-editing. This is a lot like an athlete or dancer warming up with stretching exercises—it gets creative juices flowing and helps push away a fear of the blank page.

Happily, I’m able to write in my home office most of the time, with my “co-workers:” namely, our family dog, Stella, and our pet cat, Simon. They provide lots of companionship, amusement…and inspiration!

How do you prepare when writing for children? What are the unique challenges, and is there anything special that you do?

In writing for children, I try to look at things from their point of view. This helps me create a story that kids will understand and respond to…and makes the writing process much more fun for me, too. No matter the topic, the great challenge is to come to everyday experiences in a fresh way, using vivid, specific language to describe it. In writing Lull-A-Bye, Little One [illustrated by Hideko Takahashi (Putnam, 2006)], the typical bedtime routines are conveyed in very toddler-centric ways: for example, bath time isn’t for getting clean, it’s for water-splashing, rubber duck-squeaking, bubbly-beard fun!

A picture book writer’s work needs to be easily read aloud, again and again. It also must give an illustrator lively situations and characters, to provide a springboard for his or her creativity. Since there is rarely the opportunity for communication or collaboration between artist and writer, the words must do the work on their own.

Let’s talk a moment about your backlist books. Could you briefly list your last few titles and tell us just a bit about each one?

My picture book, Sixteen Runaway Pumpkins (McElderry Books/Simon & Schuster, 2004)(excerpt) is the only time I’ve ever been assigned the same illustrator for my work. And was I ever thrilled with the results! My main character, Sam, became a spunky girl raccoon, with the help of Anne-Sophie Lanquetin’s talented paintbrush. Anne-Sophie put in lots of extra details for kids to look for in her eye-popping illustrations of Sam’s antics on Gram’s and Gramp’s farm. Her talents were similarly successful in expanding on the monkey antics in my text, on our first project together, Ten Monkey Jamboree (McElderry Books/Simon & Schuster, 2001).

It’s hard for me to say what my favorite book of my own is—it’s sort of like saying which child you like best—but I have to say I have a special spot in my heart for Pillow Pup (McElderry Books/Simon & Schuster)(excerpt), which was illustrated by Mireille D’Allance. Her brightly-colored, chalk-and-ink drawings perfectly capture the funny, frenetic energy of a puppy.

But my devotion to this title is probably because it was written about our own family dog, Stella, who regularly played this game with our living room couch pillows. Of course, she’d want to play her game when I was trying to work in my home office, racing in front of my computer desk with the pilfered pillow in order to get me to chase her. I thought I’d never get to finish this story I was trying to write at the time, because of all the puppy interuptions.

Then, one day the light bulb snapped on in my head and I thought: why aren’t I writing down this silly, stubborn puppy of mine’s story? So I did and eventually, it became a picture book. I often tell beginning writers to start with their own daily lives when looking for story ideas, and this is the perfect example of how I was “gifted” with one in my own writing life.

Your latest release is Lull-A-Bye, Little One, illustrated by Hideko Takahashi (Putnam, 2006). What motivated you to write this now, and what did you learn in the process?

Now that our two sons are grown, I realized that my most cherished memories as a mom revolved around that bedtime routine when the boys were very small. I wanted to write a story that would capture both the warm, loving moments and the silly, funny things we shared together night after night.

In writing Lull-A-Bye, Little One, I hoped to create a special book for grownups to share with the little ones in their own lives. I think the big surprise were all the “read-to-me” memories from my own childhood that sprang to mind throughout my writing process. I was reminded that there’s perhaps no better way to say “I love you” to a young child than sharing a quiet moment, and a book, together.

Were you pleased with Hideko Takahashi’s illustrations in Lull-a-bye, Little One (Putnam, 2006)? What did they bring to your text?

I was elated when I saw the illustrations created by Hideko Takahashi for my bedtime book’s text!

She created a cozy, cheerful environment in which the story could unfold, shown most definitely from a toddler’s point of view. Hideko makes great use of unusual points of view on several pages to enliven the scenes.

Her palette strikes a nice balance between the soft, soothing tones of the settings and the bright, cheery hues used to depict this very young child and her parents.

I especially loved the use of the home’s windows to show the gradual setting of the sun and rising of the moon over a peaceful lake scene outside, as the family goes through their nightly bedtime routines.

Hideko’s rendering of facial expressions and body language perfectly captured all the funny, and warm, moments between mom, dad, and their active little one.

Hideko decided early in the illustrative process to depict the family as a multicultural one—the child is Asian, the parents are not—and I think this was a lovely amplification of the words I’d written.

Because the emotional focus of the story rests squarely on the love that all families share with the little ones in their lives, Hideko’s illustrative choice underlines the story’s theme in a subtle, meaningful way.

You’re a rhyming writer, and rhyme is so hard. What advice do you have for writers trying to their hand at it?

I’d advise writers to do their first few drafts of the story in prose, because a common problem with rhyming manuscripts is that they don’t “go anywhere”.

In other words, without that storytelling framework, the finished work will lack the plotline and characterization necessary to make any manuscript successful, whether it’s written in rhyme or not.

As you start to develop your rhymes, pay attention to your rhythm. The more natural you make your sentence structure, the more you will increase the read-aloud ease that a rhyming picture book must have. Establish a pleasing rhythm in your beginning stanza, then work to make all the others match your model. Consistency, along with a lively pace, is the real key to helping a rhyming manuscript sing!

Develop patience and keep the faith as you keep working on the re-writes. Sooner or later, you’ll hit just the right notes. And if it’s any consolation, just remember that most rhyming manuscripts take me between one-to-two years before I even dare send them out to editors.

What advice do you have for beginning writers?

This is a question I’m often asked, and my answer is always the same: join the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators right away! There isn’t a better source of information, or encouragement, for anyone interested in writing for children or young adults—and it’s all available for members right on the website. Discussion boards, writing contests and a “critique seekers” service are just the beginning. Your national SCBWI membership also includes your regional chapter dues, which is something we cash-strapped writer types appreciate! The organization’s many national and regional conferences offer beginners the opportunity to learn from guest editors and published authors alike. (But go prepared to get the most out of your day—check out my website,, under the “writing tips” section for my article on how to do this.)

Also, it’s vital to read what’s currently being published for kids and teens before putting pen to paper. The one constant in children’s publishing is change: what was published for, and read by, young readers ten years ago differs dramatically than what you’ll find on bookshelves today. Ask your favorite librarian or bookseller which titles are flying out the door.

By reading what’s current, and popular, you will learn ways to expand your own creative toolbox, to make your writing more meaningful to today’s toddler-to-teen. Then, start drafting a story or two. Have fun! But keep a weekly field trip to the library or bookstore to check out “what’s new” on your calendar.

The truth is, all of us writing for children (no matter how many publishing credits on our resumes) must keep up with current trends in children’s books to keep our own work fresh and marketable. It’s a good habit to develop early in your writing career.

How about those building a career?

There’s only so much writers can do on their own to hone their craft, so I recommend either seeking a critique group or finding a writing course to keep the creative momentum going.

A critique group is made up of fellow children’s writers, that meets on a regular schedule to give editorial feedback on each other’s writing projects, and encouraging everyone reach their creative potential. Just as important, critique groups can be a source of networking, marketing and “otherwise” support—who better to understand the ouch factor of a rejection letter than another writer?

Local SCBWI chapters, community libraries, and nearby colleges are often good places to start inquiring about where you might find a critique group that’s just forming or accepting new members. Another way to keep growing as a writer is to take a class—either online, or in an actual classroom.

As for increasing your knowledge of the business aspect of children’s publishing, I’d recommend subscribing to electronic newsletters, such as Shelf Awareness, Publisher’s Lunch, or PW’s Children’s Bookshelf. It’s important to stay on top of trends, mergers, personnel changes, etc., all of which might affect the ultimate marketability of your work.

How has your own writing grown and changed over the years?

At first, I wrote stories without thought as to just what type of book they might be. The stories were nice, but they didn’t say “picture book” or “early chapter book” upon reading. Then, I began writing children’s book reviews for [Children’s Literature] and my understanding of this subject changed almost overnight!

Because as I read and evaluated a large range of both nonfiction and fiction books, I quickly learned the expected formats. Let’s take picture books for an example: because of the printing process and other practical considerations, this format will always be 28 to 32 pages. I quickly realized that if I wanted to write a picture book manuscript, the story I came up with had to be the right narrative size to fit (along with the illustrations) in that number range of pages. If I wrote something too “big”, it wouldn’t succeed.

(By the way, a writer friend shared a good way to do this with me: make your own homemade book dummy by folding 16 pages of any size in half, and stapling them together. Don’t forget that five of those pages will be what is called “front matter”. Now, do a rough draft of the scenes that make up your story. If you run out of pages, you need to do some editing!)

After years of reviewing books, it’s become second nature to think of my own work, even in the very first-draft stages, as both a story and a finished project. This has helped me tremendously in shaping my various stories, not only in page counts, but in narrative structure.

What new challenges are on the horizon?

My biggest challenge right now is working on longer works of fiction, such as novels. It’s a completely different process from creating picture books—for me, at least.

With picture books, much of the process is sifting through your bulky, early drafts to find the most visual, action-oriented details, and then re-writing numerous times to find just the right word to describe it all.

It’s a process of elimination rather than addition after the first draft to make the pace fit the action, to make the rhythm and rhyme just right for a read-aloud. Writing a novel is a bit daunting because it’s a process of expansion.

Not just words, but the complexity of the plot and characterization. I’d written a short story a few years back for an anthology for teens, titled Don’t Cramp My Style: Stories about “That” Time of the Month (Simon & Schuster, 2004)(excerpt), “The Women’s House,” about a young Lenni-Lenape woman experiencing menstruation for the first time, and this wonderful writing experience made me want to give writing longer fiction for older readers a try.

I continue to balance this new work with my established writing for the young crowd, because I will always love the challenge of creating picture books that will be fun for artists to illustrate and for grownups to read aloud to little ones!

What do you enjoy doing when you’re not writing?

When I’m home, I enjoy walking our dog on the trails in a nearby park, cooking meals with new and different (or as my family might say, “weird”) ingredients, and taking yoga classes. When I’m traveling, I enjoy meeting new people and learning everything about their “corner of the world.” The variety of environments, plant life and animal life on our planet never ceases to amaze me! Wherever I am, of course, I’ve got a book that I’m in the middle of reading.

What can you fans look forward to next?

I usually have about three writing projects going at one time: one in revision, one in the midst of the actual writing process, and one in the research/plotting stages. Right now, I’m doing final revisions to a rhyming picture book about a father and child (and counting), titled “Firefly Night;” writing a young adult suspense novel titled “Drowning Together;” and researching a picture book on dolphins.

Cynsational Notes

“Book/Author Profile: Sixteen Runaway Pumpkins by Dianne Ochiltree” from Lyn Sirota (published in Sprouts magazine, Fall 2004, on New Jersey/SCBWI website). Interview with Sarah Nielsen, Associate Editor of Margaret K. McElderry Books, about the editing process and Dianne about the writing process behind this book.

Interracial Family Themes in Children’s and YA Literature from my website.

Writing Picture Books by Marisa Montes. Includes a sample diagram.