Date Archives March 2020

Writing Endearing Picture Book Protagonists

If you write character-driven fiction like me, you know that sometimes, a brand new character will appear in your mind, suddenly “born” into your imagination out of nowhere. And the next thing you know? They’re demanding their own story.

Eureka! You have been entrusted with a make-believe life! Your task is now to fashion it into an endearing, larger-than-make-believe character that will spring off the page for your readers. But in the case of picture books, how does one create that kind of protagonist in the space of several spreads? 

Remember the good fairies in Sleeping Beauty, who bless the infant princess with special qualities just after her birth? You, too, have things to bestow upon your new character if they are to become an appealing, strong, and memorable protagonist worthy of a story. So wave your wand and repeat after me,

To my brand new picture book character, I give the gift of…”

  1. Plenty of personality. Will your new character be wickedly funny or devilishly mischievous or inspiringly brave, or all three? Whatever the case, your main character should NOT “fit in.” Your MC (main character) must stand out. They must be quirky. Even downright weird. If you suspect that your MC needs a personality-injection, try choosing one of the following and exaggerate it: the character’s voice (i.e. all the ways they express themselves), their humor, their spunk, their personal preferences, their idiosyncrasies, their beliefs, their flaws, their fears, their secret talents.
  2. A kid-like dimension: Kids need to be able to identify with your MC. Often in picture books, this comes down to physical smallness and/or “cuteness.” But beyond the physical aspect, the MC should have child-relatable concerns. Maybe it’s wanting to be bigger, a fear of the dark, or loneliness. Maybe it’s the feeling of being left out or left behind. In CLOVIS, my MC seems anything but childlike. He’s a huge, tough, former football-playing bull! But even as someone big and strong, Clovis struggles with controlling his own temper…and there lies a struggle certain children will find relatable.
  3. A true-to-life trait. By “true-to-life” traits, I mean qualities that can just as easily be flaws. My character Piglette, for example, is a perfectionist. Her perfectionism is not really good or bad. It is both good and bad. It is what drives her toward new pursuits, but it is also what impedes her happiness (especially in book 2, coming in 2021). 
  4. A relationship. It isn’t easy to make a lone character endearing or relatable (unless his/her main problem is loneliness, in which case the goal will be to bridge that loneliness and find connection). We are social beings, and if there is a real connection between the MC of a story and at least one other character, we have the relational dimension we crave. If your story is lacking “heart,” consider examining and developing your MC’s relationship to another/other character(s).
  5. A want or a need. Identify what your character wants early on in the story, and set them off on pursuing it.
  6. Frustration. Now, get in your character’s way. Just like in real life, frustration is key to the development of character (not to mention of your story). Frustrate your protagonist’s want or need, and allow them to react to that frustration in a way that is consistent with all the personality traits you’ve given them. Being too easy on your character, or sparing them from conflict, stunts their growth and makes for a boring story. So allow your character to confront obstacles and therefore to grow, to change, to evolve. There are exceptions, but usually, your character should not be the same at the end of the story as they were at the beginning of it. 
  7. Internal monologue. Not a long monologue. But sprinkle in a few of your MC’s private thoughts, so the reader can get to know them, and understand how they feel about things. Otherwise, you only give a surface-view of events and their superficial effect on your character. So let your reader see beneath the surface a bit, particularly if your story is written in 3rd person, which fiction picture books often are.

This is no recipe written in stone, but I do believe these tips can help you form a protagonist that is worthy of a story. If an editor eventually “adopts” your character as their own, it will be time to find the right illustrator to bring your MC to life. Only an illustrator can bestow the final gift upon your character: the right “skin” for them to live in! And for me, watching this particular step in the publication process has been the most magical part of the journey yet.

Interview with Elizabeth Gilbert-Bedia

Throughout 2020, I’m interviewing the new authors of Perfect 2020 PBs. Today, the spotlight is on Elizabeth Gilbert-Bedia. Her first picture book, Bess The Barn Stands Strongillustrated by Katie Hickey, debuts from Page Street Kids on September 8th, 2020. 

Welcome, Liz!

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Congratulations on your upcoming debut! What can you tell us about your journey to publication? How long have you been pursuing this dream?

My dream started over a decade ago. I worked as a researcher, an elementary school teacher and an audiologist, prior to staying at home to raise my kids. I had always loved writing and creating stories, but one day in 2007 I sat down and wrote my first children’s story. It was terrible, but I was hooked. I spent the next decade learning as much as I could about writing for children – reading books on craft, reading oodles of PBs, as well as MG/YAs, joining SCBWI and groups such as 12×12 and StoryStorm, attending conferences, and of course, writing.

Now you have not one, but two books in the pipeline. Can you describe the moment that you first knew your dreams of publication were about to come true?

I had been sending BESS out to a few editors who were open to unsolicited/unagented manuscripts and whose interests I’d been keeping an eye on. At that time, I had been receiving my fair share of rejections with BESS and with other manuscripts. I was probably at the lowest point in my writing journey– I felt completely discouraged. I had been actively working on my writing and submitting for about 6 years, and started to question whether I should be writing. I believed in BESS’s story, but it wasn’t striking a chord with editors…until Monday, October 15 th, 2018. I was standing in Panera Bread waiting for a to-go order when my phone buzzed. It was an email from Page Street Kids. I sighed and thought – Well, might as well get this over. I assumed it was a “thanks, but no thanks” email. Then, I opened it…

“Dear Elizabeth, Thanks so much for sending your manuscript, CELEBRATION BESS, to Page Street Kids….Reading BESS felt like home to me…”

It continued and was far from a “thanks, but no thanks” email. It was an offer to acquire and publish my story! I couldn’t even finish reading the email as the tears fell too fast. I had worked so hard to get to this moment – when it happened I was overwhelmed with emotion. So much so, I walked straight out of Panera without picking up my order. I didn’t realize I had forgotten it until I was starting to pull out of the parking lot. Needless to say, I was flabbergasted by the moment and the amazing opportunity that had just been offered to me.

Ha! Another case of “acceptance euphoria”–love it! Now, let’s back up a bit. From what age did you consider yourself a writer? What made you choose to pursue writing professionally?

When I was young, I loved creating fictional stories about the world around me. It wasn’t until after I had both of
my children did I find my way back to it. As I mentioned earlier, I worked as a researcher, elementary school teacher, and audiologist. I have publications in scientific journals – but of course, the writing for those manuscripts was dry and had to be “just the facts.” Writing for children is A LOT more fun and imaginative!

Today, what do you like to write about, in general? What are your preferred genres/target
audiences?

My sweet spot is picture books from lyrical, thoughtful ones to humorous, quirky ones. But truly, I love writing anything and everything for children, because an idea can literally come from anywhere. I love listening to children because their imaginations and dreams are limitless and provide such great ideas. I do have a middle grade novel that I need to dust off and look at again, but for now – picture books have me hooked and I can’t get enough of them.

What does a typical day in your life look like?

My day starts around 5 :00AM. I try to get a bit of work done before my daughter gets up at 6 :00AM to study before school. I run my two dogs after she heads off to school. Most days, I try to work from 10AM to 2PM but volunteering and running kids from activity to activity take priority some days. Evenings are busy with more activities and keeping my daughter on task with her homework. Later in the evening, when all is quiet – I read. I usually have several books going at once.

What feeds your creativity as an artist? Or helps you out of a creative “funk”? 

I run with my dogs every morning. If I am trying to work out a problematic part in a story I am working on – I tend to run faster and longer on that morning or I go out and run again during the day to clear my head. Chocolate is always a good plan B for me.

What tips do you have for other creatives?

I would say carve out time every day to let your creative juices flow. It doesn’t mean finishing a manuscript. It doesn’t even mean finessing that line that has been bugging you. It may simply mean taking 5 minutes to meditate, taking 5 minutes to read, or taking 5 minutes to doodle on a page. I think there is a lot of pressure to finish or have a finished
product in hand. In reality, finishing takes a lot of time, reflection, and revision. Sometimes, stories need to steep just like a good cup of tea. Be kind to yourself and your story will come together. I, also, saw a wonderful quote from Max Lucado that is a great tip for creatives working on their craft, especially picture book writers. He said, “Make every word earn its place on the page. Not just once or twice, but many times. Sentences can be like just-caught fish, spunky
today and stinky tomorrow. Re-read until you’ve thrown out all the stinkers. Write. Re-write. Repeat.”

Great insights! Now, back to your debut, with that burning question: How did the idea of Bess The Barn Stands Strong come to you? Do you remember your lightbulb moment?

When I was a child, I lived in the rural Midwest where barns dotted the landscape. When I became an adult, I lived in a few cities and now, I live in a suburban area. I have loved all the places I have lived, but my heart remains with the rural landscape. When we moved to our current home there was a mix of farmland and suburban homes. Among all the
houses along a street I drove up and down several times a day, there was a beautiful old barn. It had my heart from the first time I saw it. It was like seeing an old friend every day. It seemed strong and steadfast amongst all the change and modernization going on around it. Until, one day it was torn down. My heart broke, my old friend was gone. I began to think about the « what ifs ». What if, it hadn’t been tore down in the name of urban sprawl ? What if it had shown how strong and steadfast it was ? What if that it showed it was still very much alive and willing to be a part of the community ? That is how BESS THE BARN STANDS STRONG came to be.

A beautiful homage to that old barn. And now, your dream of publishing your very first picture book is about to come true! What’s next? What do you still hope to accomplish in the future?

My second picture book, ARTHUR WANTS A BALLOON, comes out on October 22nd! I am so thrilled for the opportunity. It will be published simultaneously the UK and the US from Upside Down Books/Trigger Publishing UK. Upside Down Books focuses their publications on the mental health and wellness of children. ARTHUR WANTS A BALLOON touches on a topic I am passionate about – emotional intelligence of children. It is a story about a young boy, Arthur, who wants a balloon because they make him smile, but his gloomy dad always says no. The story follows Arthur as he tries to understand why his dad is so sad and tries in his own way to help his dad find his smile again. Looking toward plans for the future, I would love one day to complete and polish a few middle grade stories I have, but for now, I am having the time of my life creating picture book stories!

ARTHUR sounds like a such an important and uplifting book! Looking ahead, will there be any promotional events readers where readers can meet you in the near future, Liz?

Currently, I have a few local book launches scheduled and a few local school visits. I hope to schedule more speaking events in the future.

Wonderful! We wish you all the best in your new career!

Thank you, Katelyn!

Readers can keep up-to-date on Elizabeth Gilbert-Bedia, her books, author visits, and resources by visiting her website and following her social media accounts:

Website: https://elizabethgilbertbedia.com

Twitter: @lizbedia

Instagram: lizbedia

Facebook: Elizabeth Gilbert Bedia

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Preorders are vital to a debut author’s career. To support Elizabeth Gilbert-Bedia and her new release, preorder Bess The Barn Stands Strong through any of the following retailers:

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