Guest Post: Agent-Author Tracy Marchini on Page Turns in Picture Books

By Tracy Marchini
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

I’ve been thinking a lot about page turns in picture books recently, and all of the amazing things they can do, including:

  • Show the passage of time 
  • Create humor 
  • Dictate pacing 

Show the passage of time 

Using page turns to show the passage of time is probably the usage that everybody is familiar with. The story progresses as you turn the page, and with each page turn some time has elapsed.

In a book like Chicken Wants a Nap, illustrated by Monique Felix (The Creative Company, 2017), only a few minutes may have elapsed between each page turn.

But a page turn can also represent the passage of whole seasons, as we’ve seen in a number of picture books that quickly take us through Fall, Spring, Summer and Winter, or through years – as we’ve seen in a number of nonfiction biographies.

In every picture book, a page turn brings us forward in time – be it by a second or by a decade.


Create humor

In my own picture book, Chicken Wants a Nap, the page turns are vital for creating humor in the story. On the first spread, we’re introduced to Chicken and her primary goal – getting a nap.

The text reads:

“It’s a good day to be a chicken. The sun is up. The grass is warm. And Chicken wants a nap.” 

Illustration by Monique Felix, used with permission

With a page turn though, everything shifts, and suddenly Chicken’s nap isn’t looking so likely. The next page reads:

“BACAWK!
It’s a bad day to be a chicken. The rain is falling. Her feathers are wet. Chicken cannot nap.” 

Illustration by Monique Felix, used with permission

With each page turn, the tone of the story shifts – it’s a good day and Chicken’s problem is solved! It’s a bad day and Chicken’s solution is ruined. The humor needs a ‘pause’ in between each shift in order to work – and that would be completely lost if, for example, it was a good day on the left page and a bad day on the right. (More on the pause later!)

Page turns can also bring the humor in escalation – particularly when you’re working in the traditional picture book structure of three tries and fails until a success.

With each attempt, there should always be an escalation. So if a character wants to build a sandcastle, they’d start with a shovel, move on to a bucket and then maybe end with a bulldozer. And each escalation would come with a page turn – a pause to sit with the character’s current idea before the surprise on the next page.

Dictate pacing

One of my favorite spreads in Chicken Wants a Nap is the one where Chicken is interrupted by the cow. In the art, Monique Felix has Chicken on the left side of the page looking oh-so-annoyed, and the cow has its head turned towards her.

Illustration by Monique Felix, used with permission

In this spread, the art is subtly telling the reader to linger by having the cow turned away from the bottom right corner and instead back towards the page that’s already been read. It subtly asks the reader to take just one more good look at that chicken (and her hilarious expression!)

In this way, the artwork puts a “pause” on turning the page, and those two work in tandem with the text to help dictate the pace of the story.

When I’m writing my own work or editing a client’s picture book, I like to think of page turns as a “beat” of their own.

When I submit picture book manuscripts, I don’t include spread numbers, because I know that the publisher and/or illustrator will work those out on their own.

But when formatting a manuscript, I think it’s safe to give a little “nudge” by how you break down the text itself. (Usually this means separating intended spreads with an extra space between lines – so you create a pause yourself while an editor or agent reads.)

 As an agent, I’m always on the hunt for more humorous picture books!

I love humor that plays with juxtaposition of text and art, or a clever/witty reversal of expectations. And – of course – manuscripts that can make excellent use of a page turn!

Cynsational Notes

Tracy Marchini is a Literary Agent at BookEnds Literary, where she represents both debut and award-winning authors and illustrators of fiction and non-fiction for children and teens.

To get a sense of what she’s looking for, you can follow her Twitter #MSWL, see her announced client books, and read her submission guidelines.

As an author, her debut picture book, Chicken Wants a Nap, was called “A surprising gem” in a starred review from Kirkus Reviews.

She’s been accepted for publication in Highlights Magazine and has won grants from the Highlights Foundation, the Puffin Foundation and La Muse Writer’s Retreat in Southern France.

She holds an M.F.A in Writing for Children from Simmons College and a B.A. in English, concentration in Rhetoric.

New Voices: Jonah Lisa Dyer and Stephen Dyer on The Season

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Jonah Lisa Dyer and Stephen Dyer are the first-time authors of The Season (Viking, 2016). From the promotional copy:


She can score a goal, do sixty box jumps in a row, bench press a hundred and fifty pounds…but can she learn to curtsy?



Megan McKnight is a soccer star with Olympic dreams, a history major, an expert at the three Rs of Texas (readin’, ridin’, and ropin’), but she’s not a girly girl. 

So when her Southern belle mother secretly enters her as a debutante for the 2016 deb season in their hometown of Dallas, she’s furious—and has no idea what she’s in for. 

When Megan’s attitude gets her on probation with the mother hen of the debs, she’s got a month to prove she can ballroom dance, display impeccable manners, and curtsey like a proper Texas lady or she’ll get the boot and disgrace her family. 

The perk of being a debutante, of course, is going to parties, and it’s at one of these lavish affairs where Megan gets swept off her feet by the debonair and down-to-earth Hank Waterhouse. 

If only she didn’t have to contend with a backstabbing blonde and her handsome but surly billionaire boyfriend, Megan thinks, being a deb might not be so bad after all. But that’s before she humiliates herself in front of a room full of ten-year-olds, becomes embroiled in a media-frenzy scandal, and gets punched in the face by another girl.


The season has officially begun…but the drama is just getting started.

How did you discover and get to know your protagonist? How about your secondary characters? Your antagonist?

The Season is a modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen set in Texas in 2016 so our main character, Megan McKnight, is based on Elizabeth Bennet.

 We really examined that classic, well-loved character and asked ourselves: What traits make her who she is? What makes her the woman Mr. Darcy falls in love with? The woman we all fall in love with?

We literally made a list of important traits: Brash, forms strong opinions, speaks her mind, loves to read, more physically active than other women, witty, fiercely loyal, loves the outdoors, isn’t as interested in men as other young women her age, her singularity. Things like that. Then we tried to imagine what a modern young woman, who embodied all those traits, would be like.

We decided she’d be a history major and an athlete and we chose soccer as her sport. She’d be the kind of girl dedicated to practicing and playing even if it meant she was a little intimidating to guys and didn’t have much time for dating. She’d be more interested in fueling her body for athletics than in fitting into a size two. She’d throw her hair in a ponytail, put on some Chapstick and pull on track shorts rather than care about makeup and fashion. She’d be funny and snarky, but so much so that it would get her into trouble sometimes. She’d be more loyal to her sister and her teammates than to any guy.

And also, like Elizabeth Bennet, she’d have no idea how to be coy. While other girls (like her sister) might hide their feelings, she just wouldn’t be capable of keeping her opinions to herself.

As you can see, we had a really strong blueprint to build our main character from, which is a wonderful. But the kinds of questions we were focused on are no different when you’re creating a character from scratch.

I think the most helpful thing with any character is to know where you want them to end up. What lesson must they learn by the end? If the lesson, as in the case of Elizabeth Bennet and our Megan McKnight, is to not form knee-jerk opinions about things, then you better start that character as far away from that point as realistically possible. You have to allow every character, not just your protagonist, room to grow, and change.

A book is not a journey for the reader if it’s not a journey for the characters.

And so, the same method applies to all our secondary characters as well. We found modern ways for them to embody the traditional Austen characters’ traits. Our Mrs. Bennet is a social climber trying to set he daughters up for success, our Jane Bennet is the embodiment of the perfect young woman, albeit a contemporary one, and our Mr. Darcy is proud and aloof.

Real people always play a role in characterizations, too. Sometimes we think of certain real people that we know or even famous people to help us envision a certain character. I’ve always found it easier to describe a setting if I’ve seen it, and the same holds true for people.

 Of course, you always add and take away from reality when you’re creating fiction, but you often end up with characters who are an amalgamation of people who really exist.

As a comedic writer, how do you decide what’s funny? What advice do you have for those interested in either writing comedies or books with a substantial amount of humor in them?

Writing comedy is so hard. Humor is in the eye of the beholder and because of this, and perhaps more all other types of writing, it cannot be done in a vacuum.

Like most things having to do with writing, it starts with observation. You know what you think is funny to you and your friends. Start there. Make notes. Have little booklets full of funny conversations you’d had and witty things you’ve said. Research isn’t just dry reading about some place you’ve never been or some historical period. Research is about watching human behavior, listening to speech patterns, and being tuned in to what makes people laugh.

Stephen and I have the benefit of having each other. But we had already been together for seven years when we accidentally discovered that we were good writing partners.

I was an actress and was starting to do stand-up comedy in New York City. I was writing my stand-up material and would try things out on him at home in the evenings. He was my sounding board and was almost always able to build on what I had, and make it better.

We started working on all my material together, cracking each other up in the process. It’s a really good example of how having a someone to be your sounding board is so important with comedy.

Maybe that’s why sitcoms and “Saturday Night Live” fill hire six-to-fifteen writers who work together or why so many of the old screwball comedies were penned by a two-person writing team.

But even if you don’t use a partner to write comedy, you got to find that person or people to give you a gut-check.

To answer the most important question: Is this funny to anyone besides me?

So whether it’s your best friend, or an online writing group, or just one other writer who understands your genre, find those Beta Readers.

And if they are good, be good to them. If you can’t offer a quid pro quo of also reading their work, then small gifts are a really nice way of saying thank you and keeping them in your corner.

The other important factor in writing comedy is just to do it, and do it often. Your funny bone isn’t a bone at all, its a muscle!

Okay, it’s really a nerve but that doesn’t fit into my metaphor so just go with me. The point is, if you want it to be strong, you have to exercise it! The funnier you are, the funnier you will be. I have never been funnier than when I was doing stand-up because I was doing it every day. My mind was just set to that channel!

If you are writing a comedic piece, you need to immerse yourself in comedy. Hang out with your funny friends! Watch funny shows and movies. Go to a comedy club.

Basically, put yourself in a funny world so you have something to play/write off of.

New Voice: David Zeltser on Lug, Dawn Of The Ice Age

Curriculum Resources

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

David Zeltser is the first-time author of Lug, Dawn Of The Ice Age: How One Small Boy Saved Our Big, Dumb Species (Egmont, 2014). From the promotional copy:

In Lug’s Stone Age clan, a caveboy becomes a caveman by catching a jungle llama and riding it against the rival Boar Rider clan in the Big Game. 

The thing is, Lug has a forbidden, secret art cave and would rather paint than smash skulls. Because Lug is different, his clan’s Big Man is out to get him, he’s got a pair of bullies on his case—oh, and the Ice Age is coming.


When Lug is banished from the clan for failing to catch a jungle llama, he’s forced to team up with Stony, a silent Neanderthal with a very expressive unibrow, and Echo (a Boar Rider girl!). 

In a world experiencing some serious global cooling, these misfits must protect their feuding clans from the impending freeze and a particularly unpleasant pride of migrating saber-toothed tigers. 

It’s no help that the elders are cavemen who can’t seem to get the concept of climate change through their thick skulls.


Could you tell us the story of “the call” or “the email” when you found out that your book had sold? How did you react? How did you celebrate?

On Friday, December 7, 2012, I got an international call. It was my agent, Catherine Drayton, in Sydney, Australia. She told me that Lug: Dawn of the Ice Age and a sequel was going to be published. I started sobbing–which felt strange, embarrassing, joyful and cathartic all at once.

My daughter was two at the time, so I remember feeling especially happy that she might read the books one day. After the call–thinking I was all cried out–I called my wife. I immediately started bawling. Then I called my parents . . . you get the idea.

We celebrated by going out for dinner. I have no idea where or what we ate, but I’m sure there was dessert involved and that it tasted especially sweet that night.

One of the best memories I do have–my mother-in-law emailed me to say: “Congratulations! Don’t let it go to your head.”

She’s from Scotland.

As a comedic writer, how do you decide what’s funny?

I have a giant stuffed iguana named Pedro next to my computer. I’ve noticed that whenever I write something funny, Pedro winks at me and whispers “Bueno.”

What advice do you have for those interested in either writing comedies or books with a substantial amount of humor in them?

I wouldn’t advise setting out to write in any particular genre or style. I think the key thing is to find a story and characters you love, and then to try various approaches and see what reads best.

Deborah Halverson

Lug started out in third person but–on the advice of the wonderful Deborah Halverson–ended up in first person. It was just more fun to read that way.

More importantly, I would make sure you love the process of creating stories more than anything else. If it’s not your true calling, do the thing you love more.

Be completely honest with yourself–are you doing this more for the love of storytelling, or to ‘become an author’ one day? Are you genuinely enjoying what you’re writing? If the answer is ‘kinda,’ chances are that’s how other people will feel too.

Finally, find writer/reader friends and show them your stories. Listen, learn, and rewrite. Put your story away for a while and look at it again fresh. Then, rinse and repeat. Since you usually only have one shot with a manuscript, only go out to agents after you’ve gone through this process a few times.

Having said all that, I think the funniest books aren’t too focused on the funny. They’re compelling stories with interesting characters who happen to be in comic situations. We’re not going to laugh much if we don’t care about the characters or the story.

Personally, my favorite kind of humor is situational. I like building scenes so that the humor comes from what’s happening to the characters, rather than from the author commenting on what’s happening.

If that’s not enough unwanted advice, I recommend The Complete Guide to the Care and Training of the Writer in Your Life.

Cynsational Notes

David Zeltser emigrated from the Soviet Union as a child, graduated from Harvard, and has worked with all kinds of wild animals, including rhinos, owls, sharks, and ad executives. He has a forthcoming picture book, Ninja Baby, with Caldecott Honor illustrator Diane Goode (Chronicle Books). David lives with his wife and daughter in Santa Cruz, California. He performs improv comedy and loves meeting readers of all ages. His second book about Lug is scheduled to publish in Fall 2015. Follow David on Twitter: @davidzeltser