New Voices: Creative Rulebreakers Among the Notable 19s

By Traci Sorell

For those of us newer to the field of children’s literature, the numerous writing rules for various age groups and in different genres can feel overwhelming.

As one who appreciates the guidelines but also creatively breaks them when necessary, I am thrilled to welcome a group of rulebreakers to Cynsations.

Members of the Notable 19s, all débuting their first picture books this year, each offer a rule we’ve all heard and then share how they broke it during the creative process.

Sara F. Shacter

Common wisdom for writers: “Avoid illustration notes.”

Confession: I use them! Low word count is my thing. My notes focus on vital information not conveyed in the text, and I make sure to give the illustrator space.

Sara F. Shacter, Just So Willow, illustrated by Stephanie Laberis (Sterling, Oct. 1, 2019)

Sterling, Oct. 1, 2019

James Serafino

I write from a child’s perspective so I get to throw all grammar and punctuation rules out the window.

It’s great fun and very freeing to write however I want. Spellcheck can be a pain though, so I write by hand!

James Serafino, This Little Piggy (Philomel, Jan. 2019)

Philomel, Jan. 2019

Lisa Anchin

I’ve been advised, “write what you know.” I’m curious about so many things that I don’t know much about.

Rather than write what I know, I give my curiosity free rein, and I write (and draw) what interests me.

Lisa Anchin, The Little Green Girl (Dial/Penguin Random House, April 2019)

Dial/Penguin Random House, April 2019

Teresa Robeson

We’re often told not to paginate our manuscripts when querying and submitting, but I did that with my debut picture book (because that’s how Jane Yolen showed me to do it), and no agent or editor voiced objections.

Teresa Robeson, Queen of Physics, illustrated by Rebecca Huang (Sterling, Sept. 17, 2019)

Sterling, Sept. 17, 2019

Stephanie V.W. Lucianovic

Both my PBs under contract completely broke the “no more than 500 words rule.”

If you limit yourself, you limit your story. You must write what you feel regardless of word count; you can trim later.

Stephanie V.W. Lucianovic, The End of Something Wonderful, illustrated by George Ermos (Sterling, Sept. 10, 2019)

Sterling, Sept. 10, 2019

Cassandra Federman

Common wisdom for writers: “Avoid writing dialogue-heavy picture books.”

Confession: Almost all my manuscripts are dialogue-heavy or dialogue-only. Having been an actor, it’s just how my brain works. Plus, it’s a great way to insert humor.

Cassandra Federman, This Is a Sea Cow, (Albert Whitman, Sept. 2019)

Albert Whitman, Sept. 2019

Richard Ho

Common wisdom for writers: “Give your MC (main character) an arc.”

Confession: The MC of my first book doesn’t change! Not every story hinges on the protagonist learning a lesson; sometimes, it’s another character (or the reader) whose perspective changes.

Richard Ho, Red Rover, illustrated by Katherine Roy (Roaring Brook, Oct. 29, 2019)

Roaring Brook, Oct. 29, 2019

Marcie Flinchum Atkins

Common wisdom: “Write in one genre.”

Confession: I write in multiple genres for multiple ages. I don’t have work published in all of those areas, but I love working on multiple projects of varying length and styles.

Marcie Flinchum Atkins, Wait, Rest, Pause: Dormancy in Nature (Millbrook Press, Sept. 3, 2019)

Millbrook Press, Sept. 3, 2019

Cathy Ballou Mealey

Rule: Introduce your main character, their quest and conflict in the opening pages.

When A Tree Grows has two characters who ping-pong through unexpected circumstances until one deep desire is finally revealed, almost at the end!

Cathy Ballou Mealey, When A Tree Grows, illustrated by Kasia Nowowiejska (Sterling, April 2019)

Sterling, April 2019

Brooke Boynton-Hughes

You don’t always need words to tell a story!

Some of my favorite picture books are wordless. A story without words invites the reader to participate in the story telling and I love that.

Brooke Boynton-HughesBrave Molly (Chronicle, April 2019)

Chronicle, April 2019

Jessica Lanan

I break the rules about which way is up!

I’m not afraid to make readers rotate my book when I need a vertical composition. Even the youngest readers have no trouble understanding what to do.

Jessica Lanan, The Fisherman and the Whale (Simon & Schuster, May 2019)

Simon & Schuster, May 2019

Shauna LaVoy Reynolds

Questionable author advice: “Don’t try to write in rhyme. It’s too hard to get it right.”

Sure, not every picture book should be written in rhyme. But rhyming might be exactly what you need to make your story sing!

Shauna LaVoy Reynolds, Poetree, illustrated by Shahrzad Maydani (Dial, March 2019)

Dial, March 2019

Hannah Stark

Common wisdom for writers: “Writing is a solitary sport.”

Confession: Try a writing Boot Camp. I joined Pat Cumming’s Boot Camp and got opinions from three editors and fifteen writers. Trucker was ready for submission after three meetings.

Hannah Stark, Trucker and Train, illustrated by Bob Kolar (Clarion/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, August 6, 2019)

Clarion/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, August 6, 2019

Cynsational Notes

Traci Sorell covers children’s-YA writing, illustration, publishing and other book news from Indigenous authors and illustrators for Cynsations. She also covers fiction and nonfiction picture books.

Traci is the author of We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga, illustrated by Frané Lessac (Charlesbridge, 2018), a 2019 Sibert Medal Honor and 2019 Orbis Pictus Honor award-winning nonfiction picture book with four starred reviews.

Her forthcoming works include: At the Mountain’s Base illustrated by Weshoyot Alvitre (Kokila, Sept. 17, 2019); Indian No More, a historical fiction middle grade novel co-authored with the late Charlene Willing McManis (Tu Books, fall 2019); and Powwow Day illustrated by Marlena Miles (Charlesbridge, April 21, 2020).

Traci is an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation and lives in northeastern Oklahoma, where her tribe is located. She is represented by Emily Mitchell of Wernick & Pratt Literary Agency. Follow Traci on Twitter and Instagram.