Your Novelty Picture Book (part II)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAby Claudia Cangilla McAdam

In a previous post, I examined the first of many ways in which an author might look to do something “novel” with his or her next picture book: co-author with someone more famous than you are.

But there are other ways to get the juices flowing when it comes to penning a book that might get the attention of an agent or editor . . . AND aid in the marketing of such a work. Today, I’ll look at another one of those potential ideas:

Write about Something/Someone Famous

When something or someone is famous (either for a long time or just recently news-worthy), writing about that person or thing often comes with a built-in audience and corresponding sales venues. I’ve pulled together some recent examples of this type of picture book:

Owen & Mzee, a book written by 6-year-old Isabella Hatkoff, her dad, and a doctor. It’s the story of a stranded hippo, separated from his family during a tsunami. Brought to a wild animal park, he is comforted by Mzee, a giant tortoise, who teaches the hippo how to live with the other animals. Think of this book as being a staple in the gift shops of zoos everywhere.

The Librarian of Basra by Alia Muhammad Baker, librarian in Basra, Iraq, who moved 30,000 books out of the city’s library to save them from the looting and burning of the library following the US invasion of Iraq. What librarian wouldn’t want a copy of this work in the library’s stacks?

Alphabet Denver: A GPS Alphabet Hunt Book by Kitty Migaki. Thinking about a project for her Capturing Your Creativity photography class while driving in downtown Denver, Kitty saw an “L” that “popped out” in the architecture of a building, then an “F” in a light pole. How many letters could be found? It caught her attention – and her imagination. The idea grew, and Kitty included suggestions from friends: she took pictures, added text, included the GPS of each location, and augmented everything with a sticker page. Kitty’s homework submission from photo class grew into a 64-page full-color children’s book. She’s done the same thing with Chicago, with other books to follow. Think gift shop sales and souvenir shops at Denver and Chicago tourist spots.

Monet Paints a Day by Julie Danneburg takes young readers on an outing with the famous painter. What art museum wouldn’t want to carry such a book?

• In the aftermath of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the news was all over this story and the devastating results of the spill. Olivia’s Birds by Olivia Bouler supports the Audubon Society’s conservation mission, including Golf Coast cleanup efforts.

Beatrice’s Goat by Page McBrier celebrates the work of Heifer International, and a portion of proceeds supports the Heifer International organization.

In my own experience, my book The Christmas Tree Cried the story of the White House Christmas Tree found a built-in audience with not only people who love and collect Christmas picture books, but with people who enjoy anything associated with the White House.The Christmas Tree Cried

In addition to being carried by book stores, The Christmas Tree Cried was also stocked at the White House Gift Shop where I was able to sign copies on a couple of visits to our nation’s capital. Also, I had a unique opportunity for sales a few weeks before Christmas one year when I participated in a day-long sale at the Treasury Department in D.C. where federal employees and others crowd the venue to purchase government-related gifts. Book sales were extremely strong and proved to me that being able to tie my work into a famous place (the White House) definitely had some pluses when it came to marketing and sales.

If profiling a famous person, place, thing, or news event isn’t your style, I invite you to read about some other ideas in part III of this series when that blog posts on June 2. In the meantime, happy writing!



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Lessons from Writing My First Book

CLP 200x216

by Christine Liu-Perkins


My debut book, AT HOME IN HER TOMB: LADY DAI AND THE ANCIENT CHINESE TREASURES OF MAWANGDUI, was released last week (April 8)! Over the fourteen years it took from inspiration to publication, I had time to learn a few things along the way.


Writing a nonfiction book can take several years. If I’m not sure how long I can stay interested in a topic, I may write an article about it rather than aim for a book. But when I started doing research on the Mawangdui tombs, I discovered they had so many amazing artifacts and revealed so much about life in ancient China—there was more than enough for a book. As I got further in, I could see a large web of connections between the tombs and other topics (e.g., forensics, art, and mourning traditions). Fortunately, my vision kept on growing with each draft I wrote, so I never lost interest.


My first proposal used 33 sources, the proposal that got accepted had 61 sources, and the final manuscript had over 400 sources. Collecting all that information was crucial for giving me facts, insights, and high impact details to enrich the book and to ensure accuracy. A friend once asked me, “Do you get tired of doing so much work?” My answer: there are two sides. I accept that I have to track down lots of sources, read them all, take notes, organize those notes, and let my mind wrestle with the chaos of so much information—that’s the time-consuming work part. But I do all that willingly because of the fun part—learning new things, seeing connections, and enjoying the writing because I have lots of wonderful stuff to work with.


AtHomeInHerTomb smFourteen years is a long time to keep one’s motivation up. Periodically along the way, I journaled about why I was writing this book, what I wanted it to be, who I was writing for, and what I hoped readers would take with them from it. Keeping these in mind helped sustain my faith in the value of pursuing the book.


I had plenty of opportunities to practice tenaciousness in every stage of the process. A few examples:

  • It took eight years and six proposals before the book was acquired.
  • A few chapters worked well from the beginning, but others were a struggle. I had to keep trying different approaches, trusting I could figure out how to make the chapters or sections meaningful and compelling.
  • I traveled to China to see the artifacts and the site of the Mawangdui tombs. My local guide took me to the museum, but three separate times he balked at taking me to the tomb site. “There’s nothing to see,” he insisted. Having come all the way from the other side of the world, I had to see where Lady Dai had lain hidden for two thousand years. After the third balk, I told him, “Even if it’s been built over and there’s only a sign marking the spot, I want to see the tomb site.” Finally, we went. Two of the tombs had been built over, but the third was open. I felt stunned staring down into the 33-foot deep, cavernous pit—an experience no photo or description could have given me.

Was it worth the marathon wait, the countless hours of work, the roller-coaster of ups and downs? I believe so. It’s a wondrous feeling to hold in my hands a book that I poured my heart, mind, and soul into. I appreciate the amazing journey it took to reach this point, and I’m grateful to the many people around the world who helped make the book come to life.



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2014 Colorado Teen Lit: Windows & Reflections

Denise VegaOn Saturday I had the privilege of helping to host the exhibit table for the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators – Rocky Mountain Chapter at the 2014 Colorado Teen Literature Conference. It was a blast meeting teachers, librarians, and writers of all ages!

One of the benefits of exhibiting is we get to hear the two keynote speeches. It’s always gratifying to me to have one of those “meant to be” moments, when something you’ve been talking about or working on is then reiterated later. This happened when author A.S. King (Reality Boy, Please Ignore Vera Deitz–Printz Honor, and more) kicked off the morning. She talked about the personal baggage we carry that gets in the way of achieving our dreams and goals and pointed out that it’s our suitcase; not anybody else’s. I put that person’s criticism in there, or that negative experience, or that limiting belief. And if I put them in, I can take them out. She encouraged us to claim our power, not give it away, and use it to fulfill out dreams. She also talked about giving back–through your life and your works as well as writing the books that resonate even if it doesn’t seem like those are the books that might sell. These are all things I’ve been focused on for the last 12-18 months and had just been talking to an author about them just before the keynote. Synchronistic validation…gotta love it.

Then after lunch, we heard from David Levithan. He read movingly from two of his books, including his latest–Two Boys Kissing–which provides points of view of current gay characters and the generation or so before them. As he continued, he brought up two approaches we, as novelists, can take. The first was that we can reflect the reality of our readers’ lives so they can say, “That’s me! Thank you! I’m not alone.” This is a wonderful way to connect and, interestingly, I had a conversation with two different people about this very thing at our exhibit table prior to David’s talk (more synchronicity). They both wanted to see their experiences reflected more widely in the literature and they had a passion to make that happen. It was thrilling to listen to.

David then moved from reflection to the idea of a window, presenting a story that shows what could be or might be in the future. It’s a window of hope and promise and even as I write these words I am getting goose bumps. I loved that. And I know he has done this in his books–most notably in his first novel, Boy Meets Boy–but I never made the connection that he did in his talk. I found it empowering and exciting to think about writing books that present people, attitudes and a world that could be, even if it’s not here yet. Perhaps that story might even be the beginning of change, planting the seeds of new views and new ways of living and seeing and loving.

Our writing can be anything we want it to be. In a time when we can feel inundated with the message that we must write books that will sell (as if there is a guide somewhere that we can follow to guarantee that), it was gratifying and inspiring to hear two gifted authors not only tell us–but show us through the success of their work–that writing from passion is a path we can and should take.


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