Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Readers: The Third Leg of the Picture Book Stool by Julie Phend


It might seem obvious: books are made for readers. Yet, as creators of picture books, we are trained to think of the interplay of writer and illustrator. But the stool cannot stand on two legs. It’s not complete without the reader.

The First Two Legs: Writer and Illustrator

Let’s begin by talking about the first two legs of the stool: writer and illustrator. In a joint session at the 2020 SCBWI Annual Summer Conference, writer Mac Barnett and illustrator Jon Klassen spoke about what makes a successful picture book. Using their book Sam and Dave Dig a Hole as an example, they discussed how pictures and text lean on each other to tell a story.

When you’re writing a picture book, they remind us, you are writing an incomplete story. The illustrator is an equal contributor. Illustrations add energy and often humor. They add detail that’s not in the text. The pictures can amplify the text—or they can say something different.

No treasure?

Sam and Dave Dig a Hole falls into the latter category. The story is about two boys digging for treasure. They dig straight down and don’t find any. They split up and go different directions. They still don’t find any. But, as the illustrations show, the treasure is there—they’ve been digging around it all along. There’s no hint in the words of what the pictures clearly reveal.

It takes a reader to see the joke.


The Third Leg: The Reader

As Barnett and Klassen point out, Sam and Dave are left out of the joke, but the reader is not. The reader seems to know more than the characters—more than the writer, even. And that’s funny.

Sam and Dave Dig a Hole leaves many things unsaid, including the ending, and invites the reader to figure them out. A good picture book encourages kids to participate. In this way, they become active readers.

I saw this principle in action many times in the past year. When the pandemic shut down school for my grandchildren, then aged 5 and 8, my husband and I started a daily story time with them on FaceTime. Over the course of the year, we read more than 100 books to them, and they read about half that many to us. We quickly learned that they preferred books with illustrations, whether picture books or chapter books, fiction or nonfiction. They loved stories with built-in humor and surprises—and books that gave them an opportunity to predict outcomes.

I noticed how often their predictions were based on the pictures. “I think he’s the bad guy. See how he’s smiling when she falls down?” Or “Look! The shark is coming closer. That diver better turn around.”

Among their favorite read-alouds were the Amelia Bedelia stories by Peggy Parish and Fritz Seibel. Amelia Bedelia takes figures of speech literally, which gets her in all kinds of hilarious trouble, as the illustrations demonstrate. They also loved the Good Crooks series by Mary Amato and Ward Jenkins and the Olivia books by Ian Falconer for their humor and fun illustrations.


Another huge hit was Jim Benton’s Franny K. Stein series. Franny, a third-grade mad scientist, gets herself into scrapes and uses scientific principles of observation and experimentation to get out of them. The illustrations say so much about the characters—my grandson was in tears when Franny was mean to her dog Igor because “His face is so sad!”

Poor Sad Igor

These books have humor and surprise at their core, yet each one carries a deeper message: about friendship, resiliency, determination, or creativity. But nowhere does the author say that. It’s left to the reader to figure it out.

Picture Books Promote Literacy

Author Eileen Meyer reads to children

That’s how picture books teach best—by allowing the child reader equal participation in the story. In this way, picture books help children become good readers.

A large body of research into reading shows that good readers engage with text in an active way.

  • visualize what they are reading (and pictures help them learn to do it).  
  •  use patterns to make predictions (children’s stories are filled with pattern.)
  •  adapt their predictions in relation to new information. (Surprise!)
  •  use context clues (both text and illustration) to create meaning.
  •  connect emotionally with characters.
  • compare content to their own experience or prior knowledge. 
  • use connections to make inferences. 
  • and enjoy reading! 

Early Literacy Favorites

I talked with children’s librarian Michelle Pursel, who says, “Storytime is the perfect introduction to the early literacy skills children need to become lifelong readers. I look for books that have an engaging story with vivid illustrations, elements that play a crucial role in audience participation."

Michelle's storytime favorites include Duck, Rabbit! by Amy Krouse Rosenthal, Mama Cat Has Three Kittens by Denise Fleming, Muncha! Muncha! Muncha! by Candace Fleming, and Grumpy Bird by Jeremy Tankard.

Children’s writer Katherine Patterson famously said, “Once a book is published, it no longer belongs to me. My creative task is done. The work now belongs to the creative mind of my readers.”

 So, as you write or illustrate books for children, keep in mind the third leg of your story: your readers. Give them opportunities to figure things out, connect, laugh, and be surprised—and grow into excellent readers. 

They'll enjoy the journey!


Wednesday, June 9, 2021

When Water Makes Mud: A Story of Refugee Children: Book Review and Craft Chat with Janie Reinart by Kathy Halsey

Book Review
It's a pleasure to review author Janie Reinart's debut picture book, When Water Makes Mud: a Story of Refugee Children, illustrated by Morgan Taylor and published by Blue Whale Press. (Please note that the publisher's profits are being donated to UNICEF.)

A lyrical, heartfelt picture book, this story of Big Sister and Little Sister highlights the refugee situation in South Sudan via the resourcefulness of children and the strength siblings can give each other through kindness and imagination.

Author Reinart creates a reassuring, child-centric problem for the two sisters that kids around the world can identify with - what to do when you're sad, when you have to move, or worse, when you may even have nothing but the clothes on your back and little else? The immediate problem is solved as big sister relies on critical thinking, problem solving, and her environment to soothe her sister's feelings. A stick sketches a story from home, pebbles create a puzzle, a bag becomes a balloon, and finally Big Sister creates a doll that brings happiness to Little Sister.

The magic of creativity and reality is woven together by Janie's poetry, illustrator Morgan Taylor's warm, yet realistic illustrations, and a stunning final photo by Nora Lorek of ten-year old Susan James with a real clay doll. (See the true ingenuity of Bidibidi's children and their toys photographed here in the National Geographic article.) Although Amazon indicates the book is for ages 4-8, this fictional account grounded in real world problems is a perfect introduction for older children to discuss poverty, imagination, and the design process. The perfect question may be, "How can first world children make something out of nothing and help others as Big Sister has?"

Authors Marcie Atkins, Sherri Jones Rivers, Kristen Fulton, Kathy Halsey and Janie Reinart kick up their heels at a nonfiction retreat in Georgia, 2014.

Craft Chat with Janie Reinart

Chatting with Janie about children's books and writing is something we've done together since we first met at the WOW Nonfiction Retreat, 2014, with amazing writers, many who are now published authors. Today I'm kicking up my heels for Janie's debut picture book and the years of writers' craft that brought When Mud Makes Water to fruition.

Kathy: I notice lots of repetition and parallel structure  in your lyrical text, such as “something from nothing” and the structure of “something is something until . . .” Here's an example ,“A bag is a bag until . . .” Was that a “happy accident” or did you plan it?

Janie: Kathy thank you so much for interviewing me on the GROG. The repetition and parallel structure was more like a “happy plan.”  I wanted the text to be playful and invite the child reader to interact and say the lines with me. 

Kathy: Please share the inspiration that photographer Nora Lorek and writer Nina Strochlic’s National Geographic piece had on your story. Many writers wonder how to get photo permissions. Did you reach out to the NatGeo team or did your publisher? How does that work?

Janie: The photos pulled me in and the story grabbed my heart. In my case after reading the article, I noticed that Nora was on Instagram. I gathered my courage and contacted her. Nora gave me her email and we began to correspond. She became my inspiration and resource. Nora asked to see my story when it was done. She loved the story and said it reminded her of this photo. When I clicked on the link it was the very picture of Nora’s that started the story for me. I wanted the picture in the back matter.  It was so important to me for children in the USA to see that photo to empathize with children in other places in the world. Nora directed me to her agent in London. I purchased the photo. 

Kathy: Illustrator Morgan Taylor’s work is evocative, yet realistic. What surprised you most when you first saw Morgan’s art?  Are you collaborating with her for book promotion? 

Janie: I saw sketches early on and was blown away by Morgan’s talent.  Her use of color and the emotions captured in each picture takes my breath away. Morgan and I are collaborating on book promotion and hope to do some virtual author/illustrator visits together too!

Kathy: Janie and I would like to share a post that highlights illustrator Morgan Taylor's illustration background and process for this collaboration with Janie here.

Kathy: I know  you’ve begun virtual author visits. Will you share some of your highlights and challenges for our readers, please? How did you tailor the visit to different age groups? 

Janie: I love working with all ages. I divide my author visits: K-2nd grade, 3rd-5th grade,  6th-8th grade, and high school.  I include singing and reading the picture book story with K-2nd grade. With 3rd-5th grade and up, I include a readers theater version of the story and more writing prompts. These are some of the best responses I received this year to the question--Why do we write? 

“We write to change people’s lives.” 3rd grader in Minnesota

“We write to bring joy.”  3rd grader in Cleveland

“We write to express our emotions.” 5th grader in Cleveland

I loved a response from a kindergarten group in Cleveland. The students were sitting on a rug. Interspersed during the visit, I told jokes. There was always a pause--then they would literally fall on the floor laughing. It was so much fun to laugh with these students! 

A challenge was having kindergarteners on individual computers. They all had to be muted to keep the noise level down. I also couldn’t see anyone when I was sharing my screen. The teacher sent me little videos of the kids following along singing and doing the hand motions.

Kathy: What are you working on now? 

Janie: My husband and I previously traveled to France to walk in the footsteps of a saint. I am working on a rewrite of that story.

Janie revels in playing with words. As an author, educator, storyteller, and poet, words are her tools. Janie’s passionate about encouraging emergent writers of all ages to find their voice, share their stories, and experience the sheer joy of writing. She lives in Chagrin Falls, Ohio with her charming husband. Janie relishes reading historical novels and poetry, writing picture books and singing, and delights in playing with her 16 grandchildren.





Wednesday, May 19, 2021

A Flood of Kindness - Author Interview and Craft Chat with Ellen Leventhal by Kathy Halsey

I so enjoy featuring writers I've meet over my career who are now successfully published authors. My friend Ellen Leventhal has several published picture books to her credit, but A Flood of Kindness is extra special as she lived through three floods between 2015 -2017 at her home in Houston, Texas.  Like Charlotte, her main character, Ellen lost most everything, yet she focused on Mr Rogers and his advice to look for the helpers for hope and inspiration. That inspiration inspired her newest book.

Book Review

Yes, I am reviewing a friend's book that received my feedback early on, but my policy as an educator and K-12 retired librarian is that I only review books that I fully support and recommend. 

From a writer's perspective, I see a well-focused book with many elements to note and emulate in my own work. The beginning spread captures a river come alive and a hint of the danger ahead. The vivid verbs and short staccato sentences heighten the stakes for main character Charlotte and her family. The refrain, "But still it rained" and the modification of that refrain, "But still, water seeped in," and "But still, I shivered" shape the relentlessness of a flood with no end in sight and a through-line that propels the readers forward. 

With main character Charlotte, Ellen has created an emotional journey and internal arc. Charlotte knows she's too old to be comforted by her teddy, yet that's just what she needs.  The use of close third person for framing the story is perfect. Through a child's eyes we experience the fear, frustration, and anger that comes from uncontrollable disasters. Charlotte gains strength from the "helpers" and becomes one herself as she passes on her precious teddy to a younger child. 

From an educator and librarian's perspective, this is a book children need now whether it be for social emotional learning or to emulate Charlotte and pass on kindness in their own special way. The story gives children the agency to be "the helpers," too. With natural disasters such as floods and fires on the rise due to global warming or the pandemic we are living through, a book of empowerment like A Flood of Kindness can facilitate discussions on these issues.    

Ellen has also created a campaign, "The Kindness Challenge," found on her website with activities to promote kindness. Kids can create kindness chains, play kindness bingo and write group poetry. Find the projects here.

Craft Chat with Ellen Leventhal

First of all, thank you so much, Kathy, for having me on the Grog. I appreciate it a lot.   

Kathy: I was lucky enough to see early versions as A Flood of Kindness developed. What revision changes made the story stronger?  

Ellen: This is a fun question because I went back in my email and found what I sent you. EEK! So, thank you again for your help. There were a LOT of changes from the versions you saw. Some changes were major, and some were small tweaks.

One thing that made the story stronger was building a better arc. Charlotte’s emotional change came too quickly, so I spent a lot of time slowing the action down. I struggled with that because  it’s tricky in picture books. Don’t have the change happen too quickly, but don’t use too many words. I worry about word count, but my editor wanted me to add words to strengthen the arc. I did get rid of extraneous things that didn’t move the story forward. I spent a lot of time making Charlotte likable, but someone with flaws. I wanted kids to relate to her.

Kathy: Please share your favorite revision strategies.

Ellen: As far as my favorite revision strategies, I use the acronym CARE when I revise. CHANGE, ADD, REARRAGE, ELIMINATE. I don’t always do all of this, but it’s a good guide. When I do school visits, we use this technique with a little “dance” as we sing, “Put words in, take words out, turn words around, and look at it again.”

For most stories, I use the old story mountain to check if everything is there. Often, I find I must use the ADD component of CARE when I see that perhaps the climax isn’t strong or clear enough or something is missing. 

I do highlight the verbs to make sure they are strong, and don’t need the dreaded adverb to make the action clear. One trick I learned from a critique buddy is to try not to use “to be” verbs. That’s a clear sign of telling as opposed to showing. 

I did something different with a PB biography recently that worked. I read an editor’s remarks, but I was so caught up in what to put in and what to leave out, how to make her like it, and how many words it should be that I chucked all the drafts I was working from and started from scratch. I knew the character well and what I thought was important and related to my pitch, so it wasn’t hard. The essential info rose to the top. I haven’t tried this with fiction, but I may. It’s freeing.   


Kathy: You’ve said the themes of Flood are “kindness” and “empowerment.” Did the themes evolve as you wrote? This question goes to your writing process- do you set up certain parameters before you tackle draft one: theme, motif, obstacles? 

Ellen: The theme of kindness was there at the inception of the idea. I think “empowerment” came a bit later in the process. As I wrote, I began to realize that kindness and empowerment can be intertwined. I know the feeling of helplessness, and I wanted children to know that they don’t need to feel that way in the face of difficulties. They have the power to help themselves and others by passing on acts of kindness.

As far as setting up parameters, I do usually start with a theme, a “want or need,” and if my story is the traditional format (as opposed to a concept book), I list possible obstacles. But so many times I go back and look at early drafts, and they look like totally different stories. FYI…that didn’t happen with “Flood.” I knew where I was going, and the changes were just how I got there.   

Kathy: What were your experiences with illustrator Blythe Russo and editor Peggy Schaefer (WorthyKids)?  

Ellen: I had a wonderful experience working with Peggy Schaefer. We spoke on the phone after I signed the contract; she went over what I should expect. She answered my questions and was honest and transparent. She sent back some edits that made so much sense to me. I was shown the rough art, and Peggy asked me a question about a certain picture to make sure it was depicted correctly. I appreciated that since they knew I had experienced floods.


Blythe and I didn’t work together at all. She worked with the art director. As I said, I saw the roughs and really liked them, but I didn’t even know who did them for quite a while.  Once I found out who the illustrator was, I “stalked” her on Facebook  and messaged her about how much I love her work. Then, we communicated a lot, and became friends. She is amazing in so many ways. I feel lucky to have had her illustrate this book that means so much to me.


Kathy: Any advice for new authors regarding illustrators and editors?

Ellen: Let the editors and illustrators do their jobs.  It’s sometimes difficult to give up control (ok, it’s ALWAYS difficult), but it is important to remember that books, especially picture books, are a collaboration. In picture books, the illustrations are fifty percent of the story, so let the illustrator lend their creativity to your story.

When working with your editor, ask questions beforehand, but understand that editors know the market and have experience with how books will turn out. You editor will most likely give you some notes that will make your story stronger. Take notes graciously, but if there is something that concerns you, it’s fine to ask about it. If done well, the collaboration with author, editor, and illustrator can be magical. When your “book baby” goes to other people, know that they will begin to love it, just like you do.

Kathy: Ellen and I both belong to a cadre of writers called “The Caldecotts,” a group of writers 60+ . Many writers feel that they’re too late or too “old” for success. What do you say?

Ellen: That is definitely a misconception, but to be honest, I sometimes fall back into that belief. I think if it weren’t for the Caldecoots, I may have given up a few times. I am so thankful for the supportive and talented women who remind us that at our age, we are still have so much to give to the world.

So, my advice is to find a group of like-minded people who believe that age is just a number and lean on them when you’re feeling defeated. It happens to all of us. Remember at our age, we have the wisdom to understand life’s challenges and the experience to know that life is like a roller coaster. We’ve been around; things don’t knock us down as easily anymore.

Whatever you want to do -- write, sing, or start a new career, go into it with your eyes open, but with the confidence that your life experience will only help you. It is hard sometimes not to let the youth culture of this country intimidate us, but as someone recently told me, “You don’t have an expiration date, so do what you want until you don’t want to.” So, if you are 60+ and reading this, remember you are not a carton of milk and don’t have an expiration date! Do what makes you happy.

About Ellen and More on Her Process to Publication

Ellen Leventhal is an educator and writer in Houston, TX. Ellen is the co-author of Don’t Eat the Bluebonnets (Clear Fork Publishing/Spork 2017) the author of Lola Can’t Leap, (Clear Fork Publishing/Spork 2018) and A Flood of Kindness (Worthykids/ April 13, 2021). She has been published in magazines and newspapers, as well as in poetry and short story anthologies. Ellen loves school visits (in person or virtual)! When visiting schools, she coordinates with and supports literacy programs as well as diversity and anti-bullying programs. Ellen’s best days are when she can interact directly with the students and spread her love of literacy and kindness. To find out more about Ellen’s books and writing projects, please go to

  • Cover reveal and interview with Ellen's editor and her by Manju Howard:
  • Ellen's advice for book launches and interview with Maria Marshall: