Reaching A Child’s Heart By Trusting Your Own by @wenmass plus a #Giveaway

MassW_book_001I hope you don’t mind taking a break from your regularly scheduled programing (ie: the craft of writing) for just this week. While considering how a writer might go about infusing their characters with heart, I couldn’t help thinking about how we have to remember to have it for ourselves first. If we want to convincingly create characters who believe in themselves enough to accomplish whatever their goals are within the story, we have to be their role models.

No matter where we are in our writing careers, so often we are (to borrow a phrase from Emerson) “… standing in our own sunshine”. We put ourselves down, we dwell on our failures, we downplay our accomplishments. I suppose there are writers out there who have loads of confidence and think everything they create is brilliant, but we must not hang in the same circles. The things we tell ourselves when something we write is rejected or gets a bad review is much harsher than what we would tell a friend if it happened to them. We would try to build our friend back up, insist they weren’t rejected, that the piece simply wasn’t a good match for that editor. We would remind them of all the rejection letters even the greatest writers got. We would convince them how they’ve gotten so much further than so many others who are still dreaming about putting pen to paper.

So be proud of all your hard work and fortify your heart against disappointment, against unsupportive friends or family who just might not “get” why you want to do this. Don’t ask for permission, because that might never come. Don’t be your own worst critic. There are plenty of others willing to take on that role (anonymous reviewers, I’m talkin’ to you), so rise above that and don’t help them along.

heartburstLet’s face it, we don’t write children’s books to become rich or famous. Our motivations run deeper than that. If you remind yourself why you want to dedicate your life to telling stories that could affect a child in ways you can’t imagine, it just might fill your heart to bursting. Then there will be no more room for negativity, only conviction and purpose.

Here are some reasons I came up with, but you will no doubt add your own. We write for the next generation because we were the kids reading under the covers with flashlights past bedtime and we remember what books meant to us when we were that age. I write out of gratitude for Narnia, for Margaret, for Charlotte and for Harriet, and each of us writes for the child in ourself. We write for our own kids to teach them what we wished we’d known. We write to entertain young readers, to make them laugh so that they’ll learn to laugh at themselves. We make them cry to teach them empathy. We show them adversity so they can learn to be strong. We pluck them from their lives and place them somewhere else, in the hopes that when they close the covers of the book they will come back to themselves stronger, with their minds open to new possibilities. We want to protect them and also challenge them. Writing for children is a big responsibility. By placing a story in their hands, your heart has reached their heart in a really tangible way. Your efforts have made a difference in their life. That’s the goal of the job, right? That’s why we do this. Well, that and getting to work in our pajamas all day.

For the exercise portion of this post, I’d like you to CHANNEL YOUR OWN INNER STUART SMALLEY/AL FRANKEN, look in the mirror and say, “I’m good enough. I’m smart enough. And doggone it, people like me.”

Just kidding. Go treat yourself to a massage and some high quality chocolate before you sit back down to squeeze a little more of your heart onto the page. You deserve it.

MassW_headshotWendy Mass is the author of twenty books for young readers including Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life, A Mango-Shaped Space, the Willow Falls series that began with 11 Birthdays, and the Space Taxi series which she co-writes with her husband, Mike. Her most recent is THE CANDYMAKERS AND THE GREAT CHOCOLATE CHASE, (out 8/2/16), which is the sequel to the New York Times bestseller, The Candymakers. She ate a lot of candy while writing those last two. She is currently on a cross-country RV trip where she offered her firstborn to the Ford dealer if he’d fix the air conditioning. He declined the kid, but the RV is nice and cool now. Visit her at, @wenmass on Twitter, and here on Facebook

If you are registered for Kidlit Summer School, you can download a worksheet of Wendy’s writing exercise at our Exercise Book. This is a password-protected area — only members allowed! Please check your email for the password.

GIVEAWAY! Wendy is kindly giving away a copy of  The Candymakers And The Great Chocolate Chase—hot off the presses! For a chance to win, please leave a comment below.

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Author and Illustrator Comic Duos … or 32 Pages to be Schmidt and Andromedon by @joshfunkbooks plus a #Giveaway

If you write picture books, you’ll have the privilege of working with some of the finest artists in the world. You get the opportunity to guide these talented illustrators as they create a variety of fantastic images: glorious images, stunning scenery, pulchritudinous* characters. 32 fully-illustrated pages! How glorious?!?

But 32 can sometimes be a lot. It might not seem that way, especially when it shrinks down to 24-28 depending on how the end pages are used. I know it’s sometimes a struggle to fill those 32 pages with enough varied imagery to keep the book compelling for the reader.

I’ve written in the past about how I come up with ideas (here and here) – my go-to is “what do I want to see illustrated?” Well, I know what I don’t want to see illustrated: the same picture on every page (no matter how pulchritudinous** the characters look).

French toastWhen limiting your picture book manuscripts to 0 to 300 (to maybe 500) words, it’s important to ensure that what’s being shown changes pretty frequently. If you’ve got a scene in your picture book lasting 50-100 words, that’s likely too long. Either all of those words will have to be on the same spread with a single illustration … or … those 50-100 words will be spread across 2-4-6-8 pages … that all have basically the same illustration.

[Note: this may not apply if you’re writing an Elephant & Piggie-style dialogue-driven book – but unless you’re Mo Willems, your book is probably not entirely dialogue with little-to-no action – and even Mo Willems is no longer writing books like that]

Once you’ve given your illustrator enough variety of scenery – it’s time to let them run wild. In my experience, illustrators are some of the funniest, most creative, worst-spelling*** people in the world. I’ve said before that the illustrator is your partner. Like any great comedy duo, you’ve got to set up your partner to knock down those jokes.

pirasaursAnd you, the writer, are the straight man. The Abbott to his Costello. The Fey to her Poehler. The Schmidt to his Andromedon. Put the illustrator in the position to add as much humor as possible.

Throw in puns that could be illustrated should they so choose.
Use the page turns to surprise!
Let the reader expect one thing, but have the illustration show another.

And don’t be afraid to use illustration notes … very sparingly. If there’s a visual gag you’ve got, feel free to throw it in – but make sure only to say what not how.

dear dragon[Warning about illo notes: the illustrator is probably funnier than you are. It might be better to let them come up with the funny ideas to fill in your gaps and not suggest your lame ones]

So, make use of those full 32 pages with the potential for a variety of imagery. And consciously pay attention to the opportunities you’re giving your partner. A Spade plus Farley way is better than either one alone.


* You owe me $10, Tara Lazar – I told you I could get pulchritudinous published!

** Twice. (does that mean $20?)

*** It’s true. But I still love you all.


  • With so few words in today’s picture books, it’s important that what’s being shown changes frequently.
  • Put the illustrator in the position to add as much humor as possible
  • Let the reader expect one thing, but have the illustration show something entirely different


Josh Funk writes silly stories and somehow tricks people into publishing them as books like Lady Pancake & Sir French Toast, Pirasaurs!, Dear Dragon, and more. Josh, a board member of The Writers’ Loft and co-coordinator of the 2016 and 2017 NESCBWI Conferences, is a software engineer. When not writing Java code or Python scripts, he drinks Java coffee and writes picture book manuscripts. You can follow Josh at and visit his website at

If you are registered for Kidlit Summer School, you can download a worksheet of Josh’s writing exercise at our Exercise Book. This is a password-protected area — only members allowed! Please check your email for the password.

GIVEAWAY! Josh is kindly giving away one signed hardcover copy of each of his three picture books: Lady Pancake & Sir French Toast, Pirasaurs!, and Dear Dragon (one each to three lucky winners). If you are a registered Summer School student and would like a chance to win, please leave a comment on this post to be entered into the drawing.

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Brushing Up on “Show, Don’t Tell” by @marciecolleen1

Ever try to tell someone a story only to end up saying “I guess you had to be there” when they don’t respond with the emotion you want them to?

Do you want to know why that is?

It all comes down to “show, don’t tell.”

distanceTelling keeps your readers (or listeners, in this case) at a distance. Telling merely summarizes what happened in plot points. “This happened. Then this happened. Then I said this. Then I thought that. And this is how it made me feel.”

Showing, on the other hand, allows your readers (or listeners) to experience the story. Showing paints a picture. Showing draws the reader in. Showing uses description, action, and dialogue to portray how a character is thinking and feeling and therefore, builds emotion…or heart.

Sounds easy enough, right? Then why do so many of us fail to show?

In her book Writing Picture Books, Ann Whitford Paul writes, “Too often writers don’t write the most important scenes. It’s much easier to write, ‘The two friends made up’ than to write the dialogue that allows the reader to see their feelings move from hostility to understanding. Skipping an important scene is not only lazy writing, it is poor writing.”

Wow. Ouch! No one wants to be a lazy or poor writer. So how do we get better at showing?

When I write, I visualize my story as a Pixar film or a Pixar short. After all, Pixar has been lauded for its storytelling. And I can’t argue when the movie Up had me bawling—like totally ugly crying—within the first few minutes.

So let’s look at Up as an example and see how we can use it to strengthen our showing skills. If you are unfamiliar with the movie, shame on you. But we are going to be looking at a scene which happens about twelve minutes into the movie, after the ugly cry montage, in which we are shown the current world of the protagonist, Mr. Fredrickson.

First, to tell you the emotion or heart of the scene:

clockMr. Fredrickson wakes up to his alarm clock at 6am. He is all alone. While he eats breakfast he is sad. He does a little cleaning of his house and it reminds him of his wife who passed away. Mr. Fredrickson is lost without his wife. He continues his regular routines, but things seem empty without her. And now his house, the house they shared together is surrounded by construction. The house is alone, too.

Now, how does this scene show us Mr. Fredrickson’s current mood or emotion without a voiceover telling us how he feels or what he thinks?

In a movie this is easier than in a book, but this is where you need to employ some serious visualization.

Example #1

Imagine that you are watching Pixar’s version of your story. What do you see? What is the scenery? How does the scenery somehow help understand your main character?

Telling: Mr. Frederickson wakes up to his alarm clock at 6am. He is all alone.

Showing: Mr. Frederickson wakes up to his alarm clock at 6am and reaches for his glasses purposefully getting out of bed without looking at the cold, empty, “hasn’t-been-slept-on-in-months” pillow next to his.

 See how the mention of the pillow immediately illustrates the absence of his wife? And the fact that he has kept it in the bed, but not used the pillow for his own use, indicates that he is trying to make it seem like she is still there. We, therefore, get some insight into his thoughts and feelings without a voiceover telling us, “Mr. Frederickson is sad. He misses his wife.”

Example #2

Telling: While he eats breakfast he is sad.

Showing: With a sigh, Mr. Frederickson sips his coffee and wishes the empty chair across from him would have something to say. Ellie always had a story to tell at breakfast.

 Providing more information, beyond “he is sad,” breathes life into the scene. Readers are given an insight to Mr. Frederickson’s life with Ellie, while also seeing his current life without her.

Example #3

Telling: Mr. Fredrickson is lost without his wife. He continues his regular routines, but things seem empty without her.

Showing: Mr. Frederickson looked up at the sky which was dulled by the dirt and dust of the surrounding work site. “Quite a sight, huh, Ellie?” he said loud enough to be heard over the noisy construction.

 Through his speech we learn a lot about Mr. Frederickson. He goes on to refer to the house as our house and to talk to Ellie even though she isn’t there. Do not underestimate the power of what a character says to show how they feel and what they think even if they do not come right out and say it. After all, how often do we actually say “I feel ______” in real life? Often it is what we say that allows those listening to read between the lines and determine how we are feeling and what we are thinking.

So, next time you are struggling to “show, don’t tell” remember, visualize your story as if you are watching a movie version of it. For practice, watch a Pixar short. Many of them are on YouTube. First time you watch it through, state the emotions or heart of the story in “telling” language. Then, watch it a second time through, this time paying close attention to the showing that bring all of that heart to life. Who knows, practice enough times and you might make your readers ugly cry in the first few pages—I can’t think of a better goal.

ColleenM_headshotMarcie Colleen is a former classroom teacher turned children’s author. Her forthcoming books include The Super Happy Party Bears chapter book series with Macmillan/Imprint, as well as picture books The Adventure of the Penguinaut, to be published by Scholastic, and Love, Triangle, which sold at auction in a two-book deal to Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins. She is a frequent presenter at conferences for the SCBWI, as well as a faculty member for Kidlit Writing School. Her educational work in children’s literature has been recognized by School Library JournalPublisher’s Weekly, and the Children’s Book Council. To learn more about Marcie, visit or follow @MarcieColleen1 on Twitter.

If you are registered for Kidlit Summer School, you can download a worksheet of Marcie’s writing exercise at our Exercise Book. This is a password-protected area — only members allowed! Please check your email for the password.

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Finding a Shetland Pony in a Pile of Poop by @rcpjallen plus a #Giveaway

CAllen post

One of my grandma’s favorite sayings when an imminent disaster on our Indiana farm turned into a hilarious moment was, “Well, I just found a Shetland pony in that pile of poop.” Everyone would laugh. I didn’t, because I was too busy looking for the pony! It wasn’t until much later in life that I understood her metaphors, and eventually, how they would help me in my writing.

Let’s face it, we all poop. (If you don’t, please seek medical attention immediately!)  When I’m contemplating a humorous scene, poop is a metaphor for anything problematic or “not usually funny.”  For instance, a funeral, a physical or mental condition, bad grades, getting grounded, bullies, and a million other issues can all be poop.  The idea of ‘finding the Shetland pony’ takes us to the hilarious result – something that happened through the unexpected, through a person, place or thing that is not usually funny.

The poop and pony lesson here is that the potential for humor is in everything. It doesn’t have to start out as funny. Actually, a very funny situation can begin as something not funny at all.

For an example, come with me into my first book, How Lamar’s Bad Prank Won a Bubba-Sized Trophy.  In this story, Lamar likes a girl named Makeda.  When he goes to her house to visit, Makeda’s grandma is always on the porch.  Makeda has warned Lamar that her grandma is senile.

Senility is not funny. Lamar visits Makeda again, and Grandma has a bowl of peanuts in her lap.  She offers some to Lamar, and he eats them — a lot of them — totally forgetting, or ignoring what Makeda had told him about Grandma’s senility.  Here’s the ensuing conversation between Makeda and Lamar.


“Are you eating peanuts from Grandma’s bowl?”

I nod because I’ve got a mouth full of them.

“Didn’t I tell you she was senile?”

I nod again.

“Those peanuts used to be chocolate covered. Grandma sucks the chocolate off, then spits the nuts back in the bowl.  We try to stop her, but she keeps doing it.  How many have you eaten?”

 Hello, Shetland pony!

The idea is to create a well-developed storyline out of a poopy situation. And then, add a humorous punch at the end. Your question may be, “Where can I find these opportunities for humor?”

crystal allen
They are everywhere! Here are a few places to consider:

  1. 1. An incident from your childhood, or someone else’s; (Don’t mention real names, or you’ll become poop to them!)
  2. 2. Joke or riddle books;
  3. 3. “What if” ideas

Yep, it’s that easy! So, try taking my grandma’s famous farm advice, and remember – “Where there’s poop, there’s ponies!”


AllenC_headshotCrystal Allen is the author of How Lamar’s Bad Prank Won A Bubba-Sized Trophy, The Laura Line, and The Magnificent Mya Tibbs – Spirit Week Showdown, all published by Balzer and Bray.  Her next book, The Magnificent Mya Tibbs – The Wall of Fame Game, will launch on January 30, 2017. Crystal lives in Sugar Land, Texas with her husband, Reggie, two sons, Phillip and Joshua, and very loveable dog, Angel. You can follow Crystal at and visit her website


If you are registered for Kidlit Summer School, you can download a worksheet of Crystal’s writing exercise at our Exercise Book. This is a password-protected area — only members allowed! Please check your email for the password.

GIVEAWAY! Crystal is giving away a copy of  The Laura Line, and of The Magnificent Mya Tibbs – Spirit Week Showdown. For a chance to win, please leave a comment below.

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#KidlitSummerSchool Week 3 begins tomorrow

Yay for Kidlit Summer School 2016!

Woo hoo! You made it through week 2 and we have more fun in store for Week 3!

As a friendly reminder, for the most successful school experience, try your best not to skip class! They’re offered Monday through Friday right here on the blog through our fabulous faculty guest bloggers. All you have to do is virtually show up here. If you subscribe to this blog, you can have the school come to you instead. And don’t forget if you’re not already subscribed, just head to the right sidebar and subscribe—it’s that easy!

Take a look at your class schedule for week 3. You’re going to learn a lot!

KLSS16 3









As always, please help us share the love for #KidlitSummerSchool by posting about it on Twitter, FB (including in groups of writers), Pinterest, and all other forms of social media. Simply use the tag #KidlitSummerSchool wherever you post. If you want, you can copy the ready-made tweet below and paste it into your feed. Super-easy!

More HEART&HUMOR on the 3rd week of #KidlitSummerSchool with blog posts, webinars, exercises, and more!

Here are some ways you can get the most out of Kidlit Summer School:

  • Make sure you are on the email list! All passwords, webinar links, etc. will be sent out through email ONLY. If you are not getting emails, please click HERE to troubleshoot. Because there are so many of you, we ask that you read this carefully before contacting us about a problem. A regular weekly email will be sent out (usually on Sundays). Look for it to make sure you get it!
  • Join our Facebook Group! If you have registered for Kidlit Summer School 2016, follow this link to ask to be added if you haven’t already.
  • Participate in our Twitter #30mdares: This year, Rebecca Petruck will post prompts on Twitter and Facebook twice a week so students have the freedom to arrange group dares that suit their schedules and time zones, or do them on their own. The only “rule” is to set a timer and go without stopping for 30 minutes. You can find her on Twitter at @RebeccaPetruck.   Prompts will be posted Tuesday at 9p ET and Saturday at 10a ET. To get prompts, check the Twitter hashtag #30mdare or visit the Facebook group.Publisher’s Weekly covered Rebecca’s first experience with the #30mdare. You can read about that HERE.
  • FAQ page: Check out the pages for FAQs in the navigation bar for more information on webinars, email, and #30mdares.
  • Cafe Press: Soon our 2016 design will be ready to order from our Cafe Press store. You can have your own Kidlit Summer School uniform.😉
  • Webinars: Stay tuned — we’re still working on these.
  • New to School? If this is your first time attending Kidlit Summer School, check out our updated ABOUT page for a brief explanation of how things work!


  • Perfect Attendance:
    Remember the blue-star-thumbperfect attendance award? You can get one for attending Kidlit Summer School! We’ll hold a drawing at the end of Summer School for people who commented on every post here on the blog within the first 24 hours of it going up. When Summer School is over, there will be a post explaining how to be entered for the drawing for the Perfect Attendance grand prize.
  • Author Giveaways: Some of our amazing authors will be sponsoring giveaways with their posts. You must comment on their post to qualify for these. Details will be at the end of each post.
  • #30mdare Giveaway: Students who complete at least five of the seven dares will be entered to win a 20-page critique and follow-up phone call from Rebecca. 


Relax, enjoy your day and get those pencils sharpened because tomorrow kicks off another great week … See you in class!

The Kidlit Summer School Board of Education.

Follow us on Twitter: @dawnmyoung @kamikinard @leezaworks @marciecolleen @sudiptabq





Slapstick and Subtlety: Yes, Please by @cordellmatthew

One of the greatest misconceptions about children’s picture books is that these are books with pictures that are meant for children. This is simply not true. I would agree that, obviously, a significant amount of eyes and ears and hands (some might say noses and even tongues) that are devouring these books belong to children. But, in truth, picture book readership is also significantly adult. Librarians, teachers, parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, big brothers and sisters, neighbors, good Samaritans, adults who love picture books (like me)… Well, you get the, uh… picture. (oof) So, if a picture book writer is in no way considering the adult in the picture book reading scenario, then that writer is doing his or herself and the adult picture book readers of the world a disservice.

This presents one of the most challenging aspects of crafting a successful picture book: writing and illustrating a book that can satisfy two vastly different minds. A child and an adult. If the story and art are unbalanced and tip too far in one direction, then the whole thing is thrown off. If a picture book is detested by an adult—by perhaps skewing TOO much for the child—then chances are, that book will not be acquired by the adult gatekeeper (if you will) in the picture book reading scenario. It will not be bought or checked out or read (certainly not re-read), dooming it from the get-go. On the other hand, you may have a book an adult is wild about in some adult-y way. But If the book is too sophisticated—skewing too far for the adult—then it will go over the child’s head and will be pushed aside, forgotten, or… worse. (Hell hath no fury like a disregarded kid.)

There are many things to consider when making a book that is appreciated by adult and child, but let’s pick one and tease that out a bit. Humor. I feel like—generally speaking… you know… not selling anyone short—kids often respond to humor that is presented in broad strokes. Slapstick comedy. Slipping on banana peels, farts, getting kicked in the butt, pratfalls, etc. (um… all things I’ve plugged into my books at some point or another.) But if you ask me, a cover-to-cover book of this is doomed to fail. Ask me sometime about my abandoned manuscript involving a lactose intolerant unicorn. Yes, some adults share these same humorous sensibilities (or some might say lack thereof), but a lot of adults are savvy to a more subtle brand of humor: witty, dry, and even a dash of sarcasm here and there could do wonders to even out the scale. A lot of that very well might go over the heads of our kiddos—particularly the younger set—but the older kids may get it and if it’s done right, it won’t matter if the young ones don’t pick up on every single joke. So, how do we do it right? We do it all.

I’d like to use my picture book, ANOTHER BROTHER, to provide some examples of how weaving together big and less big moments of humor might lead us all down the same path to some laughs.

TJ15-3-11 JKT 150L CTP.indd

To set the stage a little, the book is about family of sheep that starts small: Two parents and one child. But things escalate quickly, turning this family into parents with—get this—13 children! I mean… already funny, right?? (And already, with a kinda blink-and-you-missed-it grown-up joke. Remember when “cloning” first entered serious conversation with Dolly the sheep?)

In opening things up, I establish how important only-child Davy is to Mom and Dad. There’s a bit of humor here, but it’s mostly setting the stage info, so the humor is kept subtle and dry. (tender ballad, wooly masterpiece=sock, etc.)

TJ15-3-11 P01-40 150L CTP.indd


As the story and pages turn, Davy gets a brother. The humor and language is paralleled but amped up more for slapstick-y kid laffs! (pukes, farts, etc.) Looking at this page, there’s something else I’d like to point out. Sometimes it’s better to let the pictures do the heavy lifting when it comes to slapstick. It can make it a bit more… tasteful?

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As the story progresses and the family grows (and quickly it does), there is a wildly climactic and mostly wordless spread of the multitude of things the now 12 brothers are doing to annoy Davy. You see, they copy him endlessly. I tried to combine both subtle moments of humor here with over-the-top/knock-you-over-the-head ones.



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Moving on, Davy’s brothers mature somewhat and decide to start doing their own things. Ergo: they leave him completely and sadly alone. This brings me to one of my favorite moments in the book. Davy misses the company of his brothers and is trying to reconnect in various ways. He wants to do and like the same things they do, but nothing is lining up. For instance, their distinct preferences in television.

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The inspiration here being those kids’ shows out there that are well-meaning but are out and out CREEPY. (Think TELETUBBIES.) I’d thought kids would pick up on this, but at school visits (depending on the audience and time of day) the kids are usually quiet on this spread. I do, however, always hear some light snickering from the adults in the room.

And finally (spoiler alert!) things are resolved when Davy gets a sister who adores him and copies his every move. On the end page, we’ve got a nice tapestry of sweetness and humor—of both slapstick and subtle varieties.

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Picture book humor is not “go big or go home.” I think we’d be selling kids short by thinking that and also neglecting the adults who will be in on the experience. But it certainly can’t be “play it cool, hipster” either. (I just made up that expression.) Perhaps if we, picture book makers, can go into it with both eyes open, we might be off on the right foot. Just watch out for that banana peel.


• Write picture books not just for kids, but also for the adults who love and read them too.

• Vary the way humor is used in your book, so both kids and grown-ups can be satisfied.

• Always be funny. Even if just a little bit.

CordellM_headshotMatthew Cordell has illustrated many books for children including Special Delivery by Philip C. Stead, a Washington Post best book of 2015. He is the author and illustrator of several picture books including Trouble Gum, Another Brother, Wish, and Hello! Hello!, a New York Times Notable Children’s Book. Matthew lives outside of Chicago with his wife, author Julie Halpern, and their two children. Visit him online at, find him on Twitter @cordellmatthew or on Facebook

If you are registered for Kidlit Summer School, you can download a worksheet of Matthew’s writing exercise at our Exercise Book. This is a password-protected area — only members allowed! Please check your email for the password.

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Unexpected Character Traits Bring In The Funny by @lauriewallmark and GIVEAWAY

Whether your novel is humorous or serious, a bit of levity can add to a child’s reading enjoyment. Let your characters help you inject humor into the story, by giving them unexpected traits, such as:

  • unusual talents
  • competing personality features
  • a unique self-image
  • peculiar behaviors
  • idiosyncratic speaking patterns.  

Kate DiCamillo’s Flora and Ulysses (Candlewick Press, 2013) is a mentor text on how to bring out the funny through the use of unexpected character traits.

Wallmark_FloraBookIn Flora and Ulysses, Ulysses has talents that are, shall we say, more than a little unusual. Though he’s only a squirrel, Ulysses can fly, type, and write poetry. As a reader, you certainly don’t expect to see a squirrel sitting at a typewriter, his bushy tale waving behind, let alone with his tiny “fingers” poised over the keyboard. The unexpectedness of such an unusual character is automatically funny.

Throughout the novel, Ulysses provides comedic moments through the juxtaposition of competing personality features—his human side and his base animal instincts. When Ulysses becomes frightened by the waitress at the doughnut shop, he tries to calm himself down, as a person would. But eventually, his innate squirrelness takes over, and he attempts to escape. The ensuing mayhem provides several laugh out loud moments, especially when he lands in the waitress’s huge hair. Your characters don’t have to be human-like animals to be funny. All you have to do is give your human characters contrasting personality traits that are at odds with each other.

The other main character, Flora, is humorous in a different way than Ulysses. In her case, it’s not that she has bizarre human talents, but rather she has a unique self-image for a child. She has branded herself as a cynic, so will let nothing about humans surprise her. Here again, the humor comes from the unexpected—a child with the world-weary views of a cynic. The combination of her adult-like cynicism with her childish companion, a doll in a shoebox, provides the same sort of juxtaposition humor as above.

Another secondary character, Flora’s friend William, has peculiar behaviors, in that he presents like a miniature adult, in both speech and action. The contrast between William’s actual and apparent age leads to humor. This type of character, with his unexpected behaviors, provides a perfect crucible to generate humorous situations.

A character’s idiosyncratic speaking patterns can help create a funny scene. In William’s case, his non-standard dialogue is taken to an extreme. While most children would say something like, “I scratched my knee,” not William. He has to elaborate and exaggerate every explanation with his own unexpected way of speaking. William’s over-explanations, so unchildlike, create a thread of humor that runs through the entire book.

Be brave. The more outrageous you are with your unexpected characterizations, the funnier it will be. In addition, it’s your characters’ quirks will endear them to your reader.


  • You can add humor to any novel by giving your characters unexpected traits.
  • You can apply this technique to any character, not just your main one.
  • The more outrageous the character trait, the funnier.



Laurie Wallmark writes picture books and middle-grades, poetry and prose, fiction and nonfiction. She has an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. When not writing, Laurie teaches computer science at Raritan Valley Community College. Her debut picture book, Ada Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine (Creston Books, 2015), received four starred trade reviews (Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, Booklist, and School Library Journal) and several national awards. It is a Cook Prize Honor Book. Her next book, Dare and Do : The Story of Grace Hopper, Queen of Computer Code (Sterling Children’s Books) will be out Spring 2017.

If you are registered for Kidlit Summer School, you can download a worksheet of Laurie’s writing exercise at our Exercise Book. This is a password-protected area — only members allowed! Please check your email for the password.

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