Writing a Picture Book Story
Updated: Feb 8
Writing stories for children is more challenging than it seems. In here I write about my experience in creating a story and the process of illustrating it, too.
When my mom was pregnant with our youngest, I used to spend time with her in their bedroom while I entertained her and my baby brother with my impromptu made-up stories about the adventures of Felix the Cat, based from the famous cartoon character. I would also play a melodramatic role of an orphan child selling jasmine flower necklaces in the streets. I was six years old. In high school, I would write plays, act in them and direct them myself. If I was not drawing, I was writing. Words and pictures were my allies. I even pursued film because I wanted my stories realized. Of course in life, nothing went as planned—if I planned at all. Slowly I went farther and farther away from my dream of making my own movies.
But life has twists and turns, too. Little did I know that decades later I would be writing stories again and illustrating them as well. Through our Make Art That Sells My Kid Book Pitch class taught by super agent Lilla Rogers together with guest teachers picture book art director and author Zoë Tucker and toy creator and creative director Riley Wilkinson, I learned not only how to illustrate childrens' books but also to write my own stories and create what could be a winning pitch.
To be able to write and illustrate stories for children is a wonderful skill and increases your chances of getting published. Taking this class also helped me rekindle that passion in writing. Remember that one of my creative goals is to write again. I was not aware that I could realize my own stories through my drawings.
Pens and pencils down!
As with all MATS classes, our teachers broke down the process easily. Prior to the first lesson, we were asked to create preparatory artworks based on pictures of a star, a doll made of buttons and a dragonfly. I came up with a story about a clumsy boy who sold lanterns to buy a Christmas tree, a Mr. Buttons character who wanted to be a boxer and map maze about a dragonfly character with an identity crisis. Then in class we played around with more of Lilla's magic card game. We picked five out of 26 and came up with stories using the images in the cards. You cannot believe how much loglines one could write out of five completely incoherent and insane magic cards. It was a brilliant yet madcap idea and it surely helped the engines running. I produced about 30 story ideas out of these. But one or two really stuck to me and got me excited. Finally for this class, I chose the stress-eating ballerina polar bear cub because the character was crystal clear in my head and with such a limited schedule, I needed to get cracking and work fast.
Connecting the Dots
I began my research about polar bears and ballerinas as well as stress amongst children until it lead me to time management. Eureka! That was my theme. Time management seemed like an appropropriate topic. At the same time I searched if there are published picture books about this subject matter but to no avail. There were cartoons teaching children about telling the time and how to value one's and other people's time but that was as far as I could go for now in my research. I needed to keep moving because unlike in real life where creating a picture book takes at least a year to finish, this class was only four weeks.
During this research however, I discovered that there is a connection amongst polar bears, time, stress and ballerinas. Unlike other bear species, polar bears do not hybernate and must continuously search for food but they do wait for the so-called "big freeze" in the Arctic when the sea water turns into ice allowing them to extend their hunting grounds for seals. But with the warming polar climate and receding ice caps, hunting has become a tremendous difficulty for them. In addition, because of their thick thermal fur polar bears easily increase their body temperature from too much exertion from running or even walking in great distances. This is the reason why they prefer swimming and hunting in freezing water.
Meanwhile, ballerinas start their training as young as possible to become a prima bellerina. For example in Russia, those who are serious about becoming a professional ballerina fight for a place in prestigious ballet boarding schools and once accepted undergo daily rigorous training until they become pros. It is a tough competition and an extreme fight for survival kind of world.
Similarly, school children nowadays are jam-packed with homework, extracurricular activities and social life. I conducted a survey amongst peers who have children and everyone expressed their concerns about time management especially while in quarantine. Some even reported that the school load doubled during the lockdown and even parents found themselves struggling to juggle their children's homework as well as theirs.
Did you know? Unlike other bear species, polar bears do not hybernate and must continuously search for food but they do wait for the so-called "big freeze" in the Arctic when the sea water turns into ice allowing them to extend their hunting grounds for seals.
As I connected the dots, a full story unfolded. Bela, a Russian version of the name, is a polar bear cub who had so much activities in a day that at her much anticipated ballet recital, where she was the star of the show, she was not able to perform. She had a stomach ache due to her stress-eating the night before the big event. She was stressed because she had a busy day running around practicing and accomplishing her chores. Devastated and humiliated, she decided once and for all to change her ways and schedule her day properly. As with all children's book characters, the solution has to come from the main character. This empowers children even more.
While I listened to Sir David Attenborough narrate the plight of polar bears in the background, I was sketching white bear ballerinas and planning my illustrated pages as well as the storyboard. Ha! My advertising and film background became useful here.
The Arctic setting and a white polar bear was tricky to create on paper especially with my maximalist tendencies and my all-in-one desktop scanner. I knew that I would need textures and capturing this digitally with my scanner's limitations would be a challenge. Tip: Use grainy darker grey or blue pigments like Payne's grey on rough watercolor paper and/or finish with colored pencils. Bela on paper was Naples Yellow mixed with Potter's Pink. Adjust levels, hue and saturation in Photoshop accordingly. I often referred to Lizbeth Zwerger's Swan Lake for the color palette and composition as well as a handful of Japanese artists for their minimalist treatment of a page.
Even though I loved writing and thinking of stories I never really practiced. Writing in general is both an art form and a skill. Writing for children is a different ball game. 500 simplified words need to tell an engaging story without directly and overtly preaching a moral. I have been collecting picture books both for entertainment and education and there is a whole plethora of subject matter as well as writing styles out there. As a newcomer, I have no style nor voice yet. In order to understand the process, I participated in other online workshops outside MATS. I also joined the Society of Children's Books Writers and Illustrators and submitted my story for review by writers from our local division in South Africa. I had first hand critique about grammar, story construction and was given a fresh perspective particularly in areas where I was stuck. I looked for help in any way possible.
Bela Ballerina is a practice piece, I must admit. It is something that will teach me how to structure a story and build a strong character. Though I loved my Bela, the story I wrote somehow inhibited my voice as an artist. Strange, yes? I felt that it needed that magical realism element in the story that I would want to create and later be identified with as a picture book illustrator. I wrote a second story after this and I have a couple more in store. There has just been a major disruption in my creative practice in the last few months due to our relocation but I took that as a break from my routine. In time and with more practice I will be able to go back to my drawing table and perhaps produce a picture book under my name as both author and illustrator—a dream come true!