Guest Post: Lori Mortensen on Writing Story Endings & If Wendell Had a Walrus

By Lori Mortensen
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Story beginnings are so important, it’s no wonder they get a lot of attention.

Writers not only have to come up with a fresh idea, they have to nail an opening hook that sets up the main character, grounds the reader in a specific setting, and gets a compelling story problem rolling. It’s a big bite of the story-writing apple.

However, story endings are just as important as story beginnings. After readers devour each page, they’re expecting a satisfying ending that’s often described as “unexpected, yet inevitable.”  A conclusion that fulfills the story’s promise in a surprising, yet emotionally fulfilling way.

Readers want to read that last page and say, Ahhhh…

When stories miss the mark, it’s like running a race, only to find that there’s no finish line. Whaat? Or, coming to the end of a scrumptious meal, only to find a stale graham cracker for dessert. You can taste the disappointment.

So what makes a satisfying ending?

At first, simply solving the story problem might seem like the obvious answer. For example, if Sally wants a pet, she gets a pet. If Sam wants to be a superhero, he becomes a superhero.

In my rhyming picture book, Cowpoke Clyde and Dirty Dawg, illustrated by Michael Allen Austin (Clarion, 2013) Clyde wants to catch his dog for a bath.

The obvious ending would be Clyde catching his ol’ dirty dawg and giving him a bath, right? But that ending doesn’t feel satisfying. There has to be more than Clyde just getting his way.

Instead, I showed Clyde trying to catch his dog, each attempt more comical and disastrous than the last. Clyde would get so frustrated he would ….

What would he do? I wondered.

I was delighted when I instantly realized things would get so bad, Cowpoke Clyde would scrap the whole idea.

Oh, no! I thought gleefully.


How was Clyde going to scrub his dog now? I was just as eager to find out what would happen as I hoped future readers would be. Moments later, I knew what my satisfying ending would be.

Clyde would not only scrap the idea of catching Dirty Dawg, he would decide to take the bath himself.

Whoa! I didn’t see that coming, but it felt absolutely perfect. As Cowpoke Clyde scrubbed and crooned in the tub, Dirty Dawg joined him with a tremendous splash!  At this point, I realized the story wasn’t about Clyde checking off a laundry list of chores.

It was about them. Cowpoke Clyde and Dirty Dawg.

Once Clyde stopped trying to finagle his dog into the tub, the duo discovered that taking a bath was something they both enjoyed. I avoided a didactic ending where Cowpoke Clyde showed Dawg who was boss and turned it into a satisfying friendship story that drew Cowpoke Clyde and Dirty Dawg together. 

In my original counting picture book story Mousequerade Ball, illustrated by Betsy Lewin (Bloomsbury, 2016) mice arrive at a ball in ascending numbers from one to 10.

At the climax, a cat shows up and scares them away in descending order back to one.

A fun idea, but after several rejections, I knew it needed a more satisfying ending. But what?

I decided the solution rested with the cat.

Instead of arriving as a threat, the cat shows up only wanting to dance. This unexpected twist gave the story a new meaning and level of satisfaction.

It wasn’t simply a book that counted mice up and down. It became a story about friendship and inclusion.

On April 17, my picture book If Wendell Had a Walrus, illustrated by Matt Phelan (Henry Holt) will hit the bookshelves. In this story, a boy named Wendell wants a walrus.

The obvious ending? Wendell getting a walrus.

However, as I wrote along, a different ending came to mind. As soon as I wrote it, I knew it was perfect.

  • Unexpected. 
  • Inevitable.
  • Satisfying.

Would Wendell get a walrus?

What do you think?

Illustration by Matt Phelan, used with permission.

So once you’ve got that all-important story beginning under your belt, remember that endings are just as important as beginnings.

Don’t be satisfied with the first idea that comes to mind. Play around a little and come up with something unexpected.

You’ll not only have more fun writing it, readers will have more fun reading it. And when they finally come to the last tantalizing page, they’ll sit back and say …

Ahhhhh.


Cynsational Notes


Lori Mortensen is an award-winning children’s author of more than 70 books and over 350 stories and articles.

Other recent releases include Chicken Lily, illustrated by Nina Victor Crittenden (Henry Holt), and Cowpoke Clyde Rides the Range, illustrated by Michael Allen Austin (Clarion) a sequel to Cowpoke Clyde & Dirty Dawg, one of Amazon’s best picture books of 2013.

When she’s not letting her cat in, or out, or in, she’s tapping away at her computer, conjuring, coaxing, and prodding her latest stories to life.

For more information about her books, teacher activities, critique service, events, and upcoming releases, visit her website.

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 Voice: Interview & Giveaway: Dana Wulfekotte on Rabbit & Possum

By Traci Sorell
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Today I’m pleased to shine the Cynsations’ spotlight on Dana Wulfekotte, a fellow Epic Eighteen member. Her debut picture book, Rabbit & Possum (Greenwillow, 2018), features the antics of these two friends hoping to share a snack but having to overcome an obstacle first.

I love Dana’s use of illustrated thought bubbles and her experience as an animator comes through in the book’s artwork.

Kirkus Reviews stated, “Friendship, loyalty, and determination come through in this well-paced exploit.” I couldn’t agree more.

From the promotional copy:

Rabbit likes to leap before she looks.Possum is a little more cautious.So when Possum accidentally gets stuck in a tree, he fears he’ll be trapped forever. Everything is ruined!Luckily, Rabbit won’t give up till she rescues him.With a little creativity—and a big surprise—she just might be able to save the day.After all, that’s what friends are for.

Dana, as an author-illustrator, how did your writing journey inform your artistic journey and vice versa?

It’s still funny to think of myself as a writer, because my whole life I’ve been focused on my art. When I first started writing Rabbit & Possum, and even going through the revision process with my editor, I sometimes felt like I had no idea what I was doing. But I think having all of that experience as an artist is helping me find my footing as a writer.

My learning process is also about how to make the art and writing work best together, and what to say in the text versus what to show in the art.

Please describe your illustration apprenticeship. How did you take your art from a beginner level to publishable? How has your style evolved over time?

Early sketch of Rabbit & Possum by Dana Wulfekotte,
used with permission.

I’ve been drawing my whole life, but as an adult I’ve been working in animation since I graduated from college in 2005. I think that gave me an advantage when I took the leap into publishing, since I already had a background in visual storytelling.

The biggest hurdle was developing my own artistic voice. When you work in animation, you’re working on teams and you’re often asked to mimic all different kinds of artistic styles. When I decided to move into children’s illustration, I knew I would need my own unique style.

I also had a webcomic that I worked on with my best friend for many years, but it had a look that wouldn’t really work for a picture book.

I started drawing almost every day again, filling up sketchbooks and doing drawing challenges like Inktober while also working full-time at an animation studio. It took about a year or two from there to develop my work to the point where it was publishable. Even now that my style is more consistent, I’m very indecisive and I still experiment a lot with my process. 


What were the best and worst moments of your publishing journey?

The best moment was definitely getting the message from my agent that I had gotten an offer on my book. It was a real turning point in my life and making children’s books has been the most creatively fulfilling work I’ve done so far. 

When I was little, I saw “Beauty and the Beast” and decided that I wanted to be a Disney animator when I grew up. As I got older, I realized I didn’t want to move out to California. I’m too much of a cranky East Coaster. So now I get to tell stories and make art for children while living in New York City, which is pretty much the best outcome I could have hoped for.

I haven’t had any truly bad moments in publishing, aside from the usual rejections and bad reviews that everyone experiences. It’s not that I enjoy those things, but they’re a normal part of working in most creative fields.

A spread from the Rabbit & Possum dummy that Dana sent out on submission.
Used with permission.

What advice do you have for beginning children’s illustrators?

I’ve seen so much good advice from other artists and I don’t really have anything new to add, but I’ll reiterate some things that I feel are important: The most successful artists I know are also the most determined and the hardest working. Some people may have advantages that you don’t have, but focus on what you need to do to reach your goals and don’t worry about anyone else. 

Similarly, don’t compare where you’re at in your career to other artists (I know this is much easier said than done, but nothing good ever comes of it!).

Cynsational Notes

Dana Wulfekotte is a children’s book author-illustrator and freelance animator. 

She
was born in Korea, raised in New Jersey, and now lives in Queens with her
boyfriend and two pet rabbits. 

Dana has also illustrated another picture book, The Remember Balloons by debut author Jessie Oliveros, that will be published in August by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers.

As an animator/designer, she has worked on various animation projects for HBO, PBS, Google, and many others. 

Traci Sorell covers picture books as well as children’s-YA writing, illustration, publishing and other book news from Indigenous authors and illustrators for Cynsations. She is an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation.

Her first nonfiction picture book, We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga illustrated by Frané Lessac, will be published by Charlesbridge on Sept. 4, 2018. The story features a panorama of modern-day Cherokee cultural practices and experiences, presented through the four seasons. It conveys a universal spirit of gratitude common in many cultures.

In fall 2019, her first fiction picture book, At the Mountain’s Base, illustrated by Weshoyot Alvitre will be published by Penguin Random House’s new imprint, Kokila.

Traci is represented by Emily Mitchell of Wernick & Pratt Literary Agency.

Enter to win your own copy of Rabbit & Possum.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

No purchase necessary. Enter between 12:00 AM Eastern Time on April 5, 2018 and 12:00 AM on April 19, 2018. Open to residents of the fifty United States and the District of Columbia who are 13 and older. Winners will be selected at random on or about April 19, 2018. Odds of winning depend on number of eligible entries received. Void where prohibited or restricted by law.

New Voice: Interview & Giveaway: Jeanette Bradley on Love, Mama

By Traci Sorell
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

I am pleased to shine the spotlight on a fellow Epic Eighteen debut picture book, Love, Mama by author-illustrator Jeanette Bradley (Roaring Brook, 2018). From the promotional copy:

When Mama leaves her young penguin Kipling, he knows she’ll return home soon—yet he still can’t help but miss her. 


After all, Pillow Mama won’t read, Picture Mama won’t laugh, and Snow Mama is too cold to cuddle.


But then Kipling receives a special delivery from Mama, including a note that reads:

My love for you stretches across the wide ocean,
through day and night,
from earth to sky
and back again.

And Kipling knows that no matter where Mama is, he is loved. Soon, Mama comes home, and Kipling ends the day where he belongs—right in her arms.

Jeanette’s story about young Kipling, a penguin in the Antarctic, missing his mama away at work features a beautiful color palette of red, blue, and gray that immediately drew my eye to the illustrations.

One of the other aspects I appreciated and she talks about in our interview below is that Kipling stays home with a caregiver which could be anyone – the other parent, a grandparent, older sibling, cousin, aunt, uncle, or babysitter.

Many children have this experience when a parent is away working, so I appreciated that portrayal in addition to the deep longing Kipling has to be in Mama’s arms again.

Jeanette, as an author-illustrator, how did your writing journey inform your artistic journey and vice versa?


I started out studying painting, and then illustration. I was sending out postcards, trying to get noticed in this highly competitive industry, when a wonderful thing happened.

My father told me that he had run into my eighth grade English teacher and told her that I was doing illustration and that she had asked him to convey to me a message. The message, delivered with her intonation, was: “Don’t forget that You. Are. A. Writer. Too.”

Teachers really do change lives. I am grateful that Mert Smits changed mine more than once. She was absolutely right, and I got serious about learning the craft of writing picture books. Three years later, here I am.

Interior illustration from Love, Mama

What were the challenges (artistic, research, psychological, logistical) in bringing the images to life?


Love, Mama is fiction with anthropomorphic animal characters, but I rooted the story in science.

I researched the location and spoke with Antarctic scientists about the animals that migrate in the Southern Ocean, the types of boats that are used in the sea ice, and what souvenirs are available in Antarctic gift shops. I used a lot of reference photos to create the fictional island that Kipling lives on.  I wanted to create the sense that Kipling lives in a real, but alternate Antarctic.

If you type “do penguins have” into Google, you will discover that many other people struggle with the existential question of “do penguins have knees?”

When designing an anthropomorphic character, there is always a tension between the animal elements and the human elements. It’s a challenge to combine those in a way that is cute and appealing, instead of falling into the “uncanny valley” of psychologically disturbing not-humanness.

The most difficult part of drawing the cuddly penguins in Love, Mama was figuring out how they sat on a sofa. (Penguins do have knees, but you can’t see them, because they are hidden by their belly flaps. Real penguins would not be able to sit on a sofa. This is my public service announcement for science.)

Jeanette at Book Launch party

What were the best and worst moments of your publishing journey?

My book has been released out in the world for two days, and the best part has been seeing photos of kids all over the country enjoying Love, Mama. So much love!

The runner-up best moment was when my agent Emily Mitchell sent me an email telling me that not only had she sold my book, she had sold it to Connie Hsu. I wouldn’t say that Connie was my dream editor, because it hadn’t occurred to me to dream that big. I felt like Cinderella, except visited by the fairy godmother for introverts.

What was the funniest moment of your publishing journey?


I queried my agent because her bio made me laugh. Seriously, its funny, go look at it.

(Traci – Jeanette and I actually have the same agent and I couldn’t agree more.)

What advice do you have for beginning children’s illustrators or author-illustrators?


In art school I was taught to draw from the masters, which is the best way to really get inside someone else’s visual thinking. So, I read a lot of recently published picture books. I choose a few to analyze more deeply, and type them out and/or sketch from them.

Interior illustration from Love, Mama

As a member of a community under-represented in youth literature, what did your diverse perspective bring to your story?

There are so few picture books in which my children can see their two-mom family mirrored that aren’t books explicitly about family structure. I wanted to write a book about family which the family structure was not the point of the book, but was also not locked into a mother, father, and child. I wanted to leave space for children who live with a grandparent or a single parent or who have same-sex parents to read their own family into the book.

Love, Mama is focused on the relationship between mother and child, and the ability of love to transcend distance. But the toddler-like main character felt too young to leave home alone, so I needed to create another adult without shifting the focus of the story or closing the space I had created.

I solved this by creating another adult penguin with no identifying characteristics, who is never mentioned in the text.

Some children will assume Blank Slate is a babysitter, others will map a parent or grandparent onto that penguin. (I have already witnessed a debate between kindergartners about Blank Slate’s true identity!)

Whatever the reader brings to the story, the focus remains on the deep emotions of missing a parent when she is gone, even if someone else is home with you.

Cynsational Notes

Kirkus Reviews wrote of Love, Mama, “The artwork works with the spare text to keep the focus on how Kipling is feeling; readers are sure to empathize. This will provide both reassurance to children missing their own loved ones and ideas for staying connected.”

Jeanette Bradley has been an urban planner, an apprentice pastry chef, and the artist-in-residence for a traveling art museum on a train. Her debut picture book contains no cities, pastries, or trains, but was made with lots of love.

She currently lives in Rhode Island with her wife and kids. To see more of her art, follow her on Instagram @jea_bradley.

Traci Sorell covers picture books as well as children’s-YA writing, illustration, publishing and other book news from Indigenous authors and illustrators for Cynsations. She is an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation.

Her first nonfiction picture book, We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga illustrated by Frané Lessac, will be published by Charlesbridge on September 4, 2018. The story features a panorama of modern-day Cherokee cultural practices and experiences, presented through the four seasons. It conveys a universal spirit of gratitude common in many cultures. In fall 2019, her first fiction picture book, At the Mountain’s Base, illustrated by Weshoyot Alvitre will be published by Penguin Random House’s new imprint, Kokila.

Traci is represented by Emily Mitchell of Wernick & Pratt Literary Agency.


Enter to win your own copy of Love, Mama!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

No purchase necessary. Enter between 12:00 AM Eastern Time on March 14, 2018 and 12:00 AM on Mar. 28, 2018. Open to residents of the fifty United States and the District of Columbia who are 13 and older. Winners will be selected at random on or about Mar. 28, 2018. Odds of winning depend on number of eligible entries received. Void where prohibited or restricted by law.

Guest Interview: Author Cheryl Lawton Malone on Elephants Walk Together

By Helen Kampion
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Cheryl Lawton Malone is the author of the picture book, Elephants Walk Together, illustrated by Bistra Masseva (Albert Whitman, 2017). From the promotional copy:

As calves, Asian elephants Precious and Baba roam the wild together, curious and proud. 


But when they get captured and are split up, their time together seems like a distant memory. 


Still, separated by many miles and over many years, their friendship remains, and there’s hope they will once again roam wide open spaces together.

Congratulations on your second picture book! What inspired you to write about captive elephants?

I’ve always been keen on elephants and interested in elephant conservation programs, but it wasn’t until I watched an HBO documentary narrated by Lily Tomlin and titled “An Apology to Elephants” that I was inspired to learn more about the hardships facing captive elephants.

My hope is that Elephants Walk Together will inspire others to help these amazing animals.

Interior spread from Elephants Walk Together, illustrated by Bistra Masseva. Used with permission.



You came to children’s writing later in life than some. Can you describe what you did before you started writing picture books and how you made the transition?

Before I started writing for children, I worked as a biotech attorney in the Boston area for 22 years—first as an associate in a law firm, then a staff attorney with a medical services company, general counsel to a medical device company and a science-based biotech, and finally as owner of a consulting company that launched biotech startups. The work was hard but interesting; my coworkers were fantastic.

Sometime in 2008, I decided I needed a change so I signed up for a creative writing seminar at Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. That week-long program engaged my imagination in a way I’d never experienced before. I was hooked!

I entered the Lesley University low-residency MFA program in Writing for Young People. Two years later, I gave up law altogether and began teaching classes in writing for children at Lesley and Grub Street (Boston Writing Center). The transition from law to writing has been difficult on many levels, but the intellectual and creative satisfaction are indescribable.

Interior spread from Elephants Walk Together, illustrated by Bistra Masseva. Used with permission.



Has your past career helped or hindered your goal of becoming a professional writer?


Both! As an efficient, productive lawyer, I was passionate about helping clients achieve their goals. My organizational skills have been a huge help in the transition to full-time professional writing.

On the other hand, the corporate world operates at light speed. As a writer, I’ve had to adjust my expectations and accept that the creative process functions in a time vacuum.

Stories are like babies. They come when they come.

I imagine the requirements for writing contracts and legal memos might not allow for much creativity. How different is writing for children?

Writing for children is as different as providing legal advice as you might expect, and yet there are overlaps.


When writing for children, I first decide on my audience. What age group am I writing for? Will my story entertain them or connect with them or even inspire them?

As a lawyer, I always focused on my clients first. What did they really want to know?

As a children’s writer, I strive for simplicity and elegance. The same was true for law.

Notwithstanding all the jokes, a lawyer who can’t communicate is not going to help anyone. Of course, the big difference is that I now get to write about whales, elephants, and wolves as opposed to product regulations and public offerings. I couldn’t be happier.

Which profession is harder? Writing for children or being an attorney?

Writing for children, hands down. The difficulty of telling a heartfelt story with a beginning, middle and end, and populating that story with lovable, unforgettable characters who entertain a four to eight-year-old plus their parents in less than 500 words tops any contract I’ve ever had to write.

What’s the easiest and hardest part of creating a book?

Nothing about writing a book is easy, but for me, the hardest part is finding the story’s emotional core—the answer to the question: What is the story about?

Before I write a single word of prose, I spend time on the structure: the characters, setting, point of view, story problem, plot and scenes.

Then I give myself permission to write horrible first, second, and third drafts.

By the fourth draft, the story typically starts to gel. That’s when the process becomes rewarding. Writing and revision becomes easier. I’m thinking: I need to place this piece here, put that piece there, I’m missing something—what is it?

I keep working until the pieces fit together like a jigsaw puzzle.


Are you working on any other projects?

Currently, I’m obsessed with another fascinating, endangered species—wolves!

Lastly, tell us something quirky about your writing habits.


I get up between 5 a.m. and 6 a.m., make a cup of coffee, make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and get back in bed with my two dogs.

I drink the coffee, eat the sandwich, and write, with no internet, no email, until the dogs have to pee around 9 a.m. That’s the honest truth!

Cynsational Notes

Kirkus Reviews described Elephants Walk Together as “heartwarming…A sweet and sensitive encouragement of wildlife conservation.”
Cheryl Lawton Malone is a retired attorney, and professional writer and manuscript consultant. 
She taught creative writing for children at Lesley University after she received her MFA there. She now offers manuscript consults through Grub Street in Boston. 
Cheryl’s short stories and award-winning poetry have been published in numerous magazines and journals, including the Lutheran Journal, YARN, and Bumples.

Her debut picture book, Dario and the Whale, illustrated by Bistra Masseva (Albert Whitman, 2016) was recognized as a CCBC (Cooperative Children’s Book Center) Choices 2017 selection, and a Book Best Debut Picture Books of 2016. 

She is also a professional dog trainer. Cheryl and her husband and two wheaten terriers migrate on weekends to Martha’s Vineyard where they enjoy spending time with their favorite animal neighbors.

Helen Kampion is a graduate of the MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College, and also holds an MBA from Boston University.

After a successful career in business, she became a writer of both fiction and nonfiction for young readers, including middle-grade novels and picture book biographies. Her picture book manuscripts have been recognized by The Katherine Paterson Prize for Young Adult & Children’s Writing sponsored by Hunger Mountain (“Paddy Cats,” Special Mention, 2015) and by the National Association of Elementary School Principals (“Francesca’s Funky Footwear,” Finalist, 2013).

When she’s not at her desk busy writing, you can find her helping fellow authors with marketing events targeted to get their books into the hands of new readers, volunteering at the New England SCBWI conference, or supporting The National Children’s Book and Literacy Alliance as Treasurer.

New Voice Interview & Giveaway: Kerri Kokias on Snow Sisters!

By Traci Sorell
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

In addition to covering publishing news pertaining to Native creators for Cynsations, I am excited to shine a spotlight on fellow Epic Eighteen authors and illustrators, all of whom have a debut picture book coming out in 2018.

One of the first releases from our group is Snow Sisters! by Kerri Kokias, illustrated by Teagan White (Knopf, 2018).

From the promotional copy:

Just like snowflakes, no two sisters are alike, but that doesn’t mean they can’t work together to make the perfect snow day! 


When snowflakes fall, two sisters react very differently. One is excited and the other is wary. The first sister spends the morning outdoors, playing until she’s all tuckered out. Meanwhile, the second sister stays indoors, becoming ever more curious about the drifts outside. 


Soon, they switch places, and spend the second half of the day retracing each other’s footsteps. But each sister puts her own unique spin on activities like sledding, baking and building.
     
Since winter has descended upon most of the nation, I thought it would be the perfect story to start off this series.

Upon reading Kerri’s book, I noticed how the marriage of her text and Teagan’s art come together seamlessly. 

And although my sister and I both loved to play in the snow as kids, I appreciated how the book shows the differences between the way they interact with snow, the winter scene and, more generally, navigate the world. I related to that so much, yet it’s not an experience I’ve seen so well featured in a picture book.

Kerri, what was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

Kerri at Snow Sisters! book launch
Snow Sisters! was initially inspired by its structure. 
I wanted to write a story as a reverso poem, meaning featuring mirrored language.

I played around with several different story ideas over a long period of time before landing on this particular story. 

The text for Snow Sisters! builds up to the middle of the story and then repeats itself backwards for the second half of the piece.

The two sisters’ stories are told parallel to each other with the first sister’s story unfolding on the left panel of each spread and the second sister’s story unfolding on the right. 

The sisters’ stories themselves are also in reverse language of each other. Using this structure where the same words are used in opposing ways seemed to suit the story of two sisters who are different and yet connected.



What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, logistical) in writing this story?

Because of its unique structure, described above, writing Snow Sisters! was very much a logic puzzle. Any minor change I made affected other parts of the book. 

Kerri’s Post-it Note work board

Because of this I pretty much wrote this story on Post-it Notes. I laid them out on a tri-fold board so I could see the whole story at once and easily reposition or change text. Each spread started with a column of Post-it Notes for the text on the left panel and a column of post-it notes for the text on the right panel. 

Aside from wrestling with word order, I had to figure out how to develop character and plot within this mirrored structure. 
I spent a lot of time playing around with specific word choice and ways that the words could have different meanings for each sister. 
My favorite picture books are ones where the text and illustrations work together to tell the complete story; where they each bring something to the book that the other does not. 
So, it was natural for me to envision how the illustrations could work with this structure. 
As an author, I needed to figure out the story, but I didn’t need to be limited by the text spelling it all out. So yes, my manuscript has a lot of illustration notes. Not art direction, more like stage notes. 
I added columns of post-it notes indicating parts of the plot and character development that could be portrayed in the illustrations.

Once I had editorial interest, my editor, Katherine Harrison, also helped me draw out ways each sister’s action could build off the other’s to help them connect during the parts of the story where they are apart. More columns of Post-it Notes!

Seriously, I probably should have dedicated this book to 3M.

An important takeaway for me was that in some ways, this very limiting structure also had a way of freeing up my creativity by narrowing my focus.

What did Teagan White’s art bring to your text?

Teagan White’s art brought my text to life! Without the illustrations, there would be no story. 

The text for Snow Sisters! is very sparse, 58 words total, all repeated at least once. I gave my editor the manuscript and Teagan worked her magic and returned a book. 
I suspect there were more people involved, and perhaps in addition to magic, Teagan also used her talent and training and put in a good deal of time. But for someone like me who thinks visually, but has no ability to represent her ideas physically, it’s all magic! Just look! 
Here is a spread of the manuscript I turned in….
 and the finished spread. Magic! 
 
Cynsations Notes

I agree with Kerri’s assessment and loved Teagan’s magic in creating the art for this book. Check it out where you buy books or request it from your local library.

Kerri Kokias [Ko-KAI-us] credits most of her story ideas to her “fly on the wall” personality. 
This means she’s both a keen observer of social interactions and a nosey eavesdropper. She lives in Seattle with her family.

Learn more about Kerri on her website. Or connect with her on Facebook or Twitter.

Learn more about Teagan White and her children’s illustrations on her website. Or connect with her on Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook.

Enter below for a chance to win a copy of Snow Sisters! in a giveaway.

Traci Sorell covers picture books as well as children’s-YA writing, illustration, publishing and other book news from Indigenous authors and illustrators for Cynsations. She is an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation.

Her first nonfiction picture book, We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga will be published by Charlesbridge on Sept. 4, 2018. The story features a panorama of modern-day Cherokee cultural practices and experiences, presented through the four seasons. It conveys a universal spirit of gratitude common in many cultures.

Traci is represented by Emily Mitchell of Wernick & Pratt Literary Agency.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

No purchase necessary. Enter between 12:00 AM Eastern Time on Feb. 15, 2018 and 12:00 AM on Mar. 1, 2018.  Open to residents of the fifty United States and the District of Columbia who are 13 and older. Winners will be selected at random on or about Mar. 1, 2018. Odds of winning depend on number of eligible entries received. Void where prohibited or restricted by law.