Tipping The Scales Between Heart And Humor by @leezaworks and GIVEAWAY

Recently, I saw Penn & Teller live. It was a riveting show filled with mystical “ooohs,” enlightened “aaaahs,” and of course, plenty of laughs. The magician-entertainers are dubbed as a comedy duo and they delivered right on point—tricks, tension, punch lines, you name it… all tied up into one gratifying package.

When I began tinkering with ideas for this blog post wondering what on earth I could possibly say that you might find helpful in writing/illustrating this year’s theme, I couldn’t help but think about the show. Or, rather, the relationship between Penn and Teller, their relationship with the audience—and their balance between heart and humor.

Penn—aka the tall, chatty one with glasses—took viewers on a journey, spinning tales of yesteryear. He harkened back to childhood, celebrated the pair’s relationship that has spanned four decades and walked us through old-school magic tricks such as the classic pull-a-rabbit-out-of-a-hat number and an impressive fire-eating act. He built up tension in between each illusion, and from start to finish, verbally narrated the evening that culminated with a satisfying ending.

He was the author. He told us a story full of heart.

Teller—aka the silent one—entertained us visually with magic acts. He expertly mimed with comical delight, using a wild array of facial expressions, props and body language (I’m still gaga over the turning-pennies-into-goldfish trick!). And he did it all without uttering a single word.

He was the illustrator. He painted the pictures and gave us the humor. (Not to mention being the epitome of “Show, don’t tell!’)


Setting Up

The warm-up act was a jazz musician who played piano for an hour during which, he invited the entire audience to inspect a large wooden barrel and box set up on stage. It was an unexpected surprise to me. I realized he had deliberately set the tone for what lay ahead in the show. Was that orchestrated by the magicians? Of course!

Clearly Penn and Teller’s success is rooted in the strength of their working relationship with one another and knowing how to composite great live entertainment. For me, the performance had just the right balance of heart and humor, interspersed with tension, drama, and unexpected twists.

This led me to thoughts of the working relationship between author and illustrator—and how we find just the right balance in our work between heart and humor. Maybe you can have a lot of one, but need a little of its counterpart to create harmony.

That doesn’t necessarily mean exactly equal parts. I doubt you would paint a room exactly half black and half white. But rather, when you work up a first draft, dummy or outline, you step back and see where to emphasize your main focus (heart or humor), pepper in a little of the other where it’s needed most and perhaps round out with some tension, drama or unexpected twists—with the idea of delivering one gratifying package to your viewer: the reader.

Invite your audience to inspect the wooden barrel and box

Front matter of a book—endpapers, title, copyright and dedication pages—offer valuable real estate that can help set the tone of what lies ahead (heart, humor, or both) before your story begins.

It’s easier, yes, if you are the illustrator or illustrator/author, but even if you are not an illustrator there’s nothing to stop you from making suggestions. Be sure to give whatever you’ve suggested a reason to exist, not just because it’s funny or sweet, but that it contributes to the storytelling. As well as thoughtful illustrations, cleverly-written dedications, disclaimers, or special notes to the reader can set up the tone of your book.

Know When To Lighten Things Up

When your story’s scale tips toward sweet or sad, offer up some subtle comic relief to give your characters and readers hope—plus a way to stay engaged. If you have kids, or recall your own childhood, think about an emotional time when you or another family member used humor to help them (or you) snap out of a mood? Or did someone discover you actually cared all along, but you wouldn’t admit it and immediately you made fart sounds with your armpit to create a diversion from … you know… your ‘feelings’?

Give Reason To Care Beyond the Jokes

When the manuscript’s scale tips to the funny or silly, make sure you pull on that heartstring once in a while to strengthen the bond between your character(s) and story. A book filled with a list of one-liners won’t give your readers any real reason to care—or desire to know how it all turns out—basically it’s just a joke book.

Add Surprises

Once you’ve established your basic structure, look at where you can then: add a dash of tension (even when a comically-clumsy magician thrusting swords into the box that currently contains the beautiful assistant can still cause a reader to catch his/her breath); sprinkle drama to create some anticipation to wild shenanigans (cue the page turn, or cliffhanger); or feature an unexpected twist that can cinch the deal to that satisfying ending.

Think Less is More

And, if you’re caught trying to shove the playing cards back up your sleeve in hopes that no-one notices, you might be trying too hard. Keep it simple. Take a break. Deconstruct your work then build it back up. That’s what revision is for, right?

With the Penn & Teller show, the comedy was expected. The tricks looked simple and effortless (although I am sure countless hours were spent perfecting every nuance of the performance). In the end, the heartfelt narration was a nice surprise that made me care about these two in a deeper way, far more than I did before walking into the theater.

So, whether illustrating or writing: Get all your props together, find that balance, hit the stage and deliver a gratifying and magical package to your favorite audience—your readers!

HernandezL_HeadshotLeeza Hernandez illustrates (and sometimes writes) picture books including Dog Gone! and Cat Napped! and Never Play Music Right Next To The Zoo written by John Lithgow—as well as The Eat Your Homework series by Ann McCallum. She’s currently on lockdown in her studio illustrating Amy Parker’s This Is Your Day (Scholastic, Fall 2017). No really, she’s been locked in and no-one will let her out until she meets her deadline! You can find Leeza on Instagram and Twitter @leezaworks or visit leezaworks.com

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

GIVEAWAY! Leeza is giving away a magical goodie box filled with surprises (including a 20-minute chat coupon where she’s happy to answer any of your burning questions) and fun props that may make you laugh, cry or both, plus three runner-up note packs. If you are a registered Summer School student and would like a chance to win a prize, please leave a comment on this post to be entered into the drawing. Good luck!

Don’t miss your chance to get perfect attendance! Leave a comment on this post within the first 24 hours. Moderators have to approve first-time commenters, so your comment may not show up immediately.

Week 2 Pop Quiz

KLSS 2015 BadgeNow that Week 2 is over, it’s time to review what you learned and take a Pop Quiz. We know you’re all going to ace it and make your teachers proud! So go ahead, take this quiz to see if you learned the basics during the second week of Kidlit Summer School.


On Monday, John Claude Bemis reminded us that…

  1. Your story should have both an internal plotline and an external plotline.
  2. Your external plotline should be resolved by actions and choices your protagonist makes.
  3. Your internal plotline should follow an emotional transformation your protagonist makes.
  4. All of the above

On Tuesday, Leeza Hernandez suggested…

  1. Keeping your plotting on track from picture books to chapter books using at-a-glance diagrams.
  2. Working with a 32-page storyboard first and listing keywords to map out where certain plot points need to happen.
  3. Using a spidergram as a visual breakdown and guide for your plotline to help you see where you’re going as you write … One. Step. At. A. Time.
  4. All of the above

On Wednesday, Yvonne Ventresca encouraged us to…

  1. Get your main character up a tree, and then throw rocks at them.
  2. Choose situations to put your character in that escalate in terms of importance, but that also relate to your theme.
  3. Create a table with columns and rows as an easy visual that enables you to focus on certain elements of the story.
  4. All of the above

On Thursday, in balancing the fear factor, Tracey Baptiste reminded us that…

  1. Plotting a horror novel for kids means tying all of the action pieces to an emotional reaction.
  2. Horror elements need to be cut with other things: humor, frustration, longing, success.
  3. Horror novels should not end on an emotional fear factor of zero. There should be something left over, that keeps the readers on their toes.
  4. All of the above.

On Friday, Robin Newman’s trail of crumbs revealed that…

  1. As a mystery writer, your goal is to guide your junior investigators onto a path that will help them crack the case.
  2. When that big moment is about to happen, you want to slow down the text. Don’t give the big moment away too quickly.
  3. Leaving something extra, like a twist at the end or touch of humor, will spice up the last scene in the book.
  4. All of the above

On Saturday, Lisa Lewis Tyre’s road trip reminded us that…

  1. If your protagonist doesn’t have something at stake, it’s not a story
  2. If you know your characters well, they can lead you to plot turns instead of you leading them.
  3. A variety of plotting methods can help you move forward and enjoy the process.
  4. All of the above

On Sunday, Courtney Pippin-Mathur encouraged us to…

  1. Think of all the ideas you can at first. (even the mundane)
  2. Separate them into components: Character, Setting, Conflict, Theme, Resolution
  3. List all of the outrageous ways you can change each of those to make the story more interesting including trying to flip an element or two of your story.
  4. All of the above

Yay, you got an A right? 100% correct? If you’re unsure, go back and check out the posts from Week Two. This is an open blog test. (And you don’t even have to turn it in. Grade yourself and then pat yourself on the back!)

Leeza Hernandez: Plotting With Spidergrams and GIVEAWAY

Keep your plotting on track from picture books to chapter books using at-a-glance diagrams.

Having settled into a groove with my picture book process I found myself venturing into unchartered territory with a chapter book project. The idea had been noodling around (with countless embarrassing ‘first’ drafts) for a few years but it’s always ended up back in the drawer with the book going nowhere and me feeling utterly out of my depth.

I’m used to working with less than a 500-word count and had no idea how to handle THOUSANDS of words—let alone think about plots, sub plots, chapters, multiple characters, cliff hangers and such. I needed to figure out how to break this project down so I didn’t feel like I was drowning.

“The secret of getting started is breaking your complex, overwhelming tasks into small, manageable tasks, and then starting on that first one.”
—Mark Twain.”

That’s when I stumbled upon the spidergram—a diagram using a central circle with extenders connecting to an outer ring of circles that you fill out with goals and actionable tasks.BlankSpidergram_LH_use
My first spidergrams were for a different topic to writing, but they worked so well in helping me see what needed to be done and the actions I needed to take to get to my goals, I thought that spidergrams might be a good way to help conquer the challenges of planning my chapter book, too, including a general ‘book overview’ to-do list.


As a result, not only do I have a better handle on a book consisting of multiple chapters with various moving parts without feeling overwhelmed, but I’ve also developed additional spidergrams to help with character development. They’ve even worked their way into my picture-book planning process.



For picture books, planning is simple. I work with a 32-page storyboard first and list keywords to map out where certain plot points need to happen. (Pssst … if you’ve taken classes with Sudipta before, you’ll be familiar with this method of breaking down your picture book!)


The storyboard gives me a rough page count for each section of the story—from opening to middle to ending. (Tip: the first few pages called front matter are allocated to title, copyright and dedication, leaving the story to start on pages 4-5.) The plan also includes:

  • Establishing the main character, setting and conflict/goal
  • Charting attempts/fails to solve/achieve the MC’s conflict/goal
  • Building tension to the story climax/turning point
  • Concluding with: an expected-unexpected ending; bringing the story full circle; adding a twist; or keeping an open ending for a sequel

With this grid, I can check for balance, flaws or other areas that need addressing—too much set up at the beginning, not enough pages to wrap it all up, and so forth. After I’ve got a handle on the structure, I develop a spidergram—working outwards from the center and clockwise from the top (front matter).

  • Central circle = Overview of Project [book title & number of pages]
  • First set of extended circles = pages/section [can be changed as story develops]
  • Second set of extenders = keywords relating to major plot points in story line
  • Additional extenders = notes/ideas/afterthoughts/alternative story directions


The spidergram shown above was for Cat Napped! A 32-page picture book for pre-K to Kindergartners told in less than 80 words. A large component of the story was told visually, but I still had to figure out how the story would unfold before getting into sketches. Planning in this way was crucial for me to stay on track with the plot.


For chapter books, the process is similar, but instead of using the 32-page grid for an overview of charting major plot points use a spidergram.


In the example above, see how the first ring of circles extending from the center refer to chapter numbers instead of page counts, sections or spreads. When all the basic keywords/notes are in place continue the breakdown in more detail using a separate spidergram for each chapter.

Seeing as there’s far more detail required in chapter books to picture books, opt to work on larger sheets of paper, or use a dry-erase board. Different colored highlighters can help cross-connect relationships, sub plots etc., or cut out circles and add to a push-pin board connecting with string. Be as creative as you like, go wild and have fun!

Using a spidergram as a visual breakdown and guide for your plotline can help you see where you’re going as you write … One. Step. At. A. Time.

leeza 2015Leeza Hernandez is a picture book illustrator-author who spends her creative time noodling around with story ideas and printmaking in her studio. She is Regional Advisor for New Jersey SCBWI and her latest illustrated book and third in the Homework series Eat Your U.S. History Homework (Charlesbridge) releases in October. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram @leezaworks or visit her on the web at leezaworks.com

Leeza is giving away a signed copy of Cat Napped! with cat doodle, plus a DIY spidergram starter kit. Five runners up will each receive a mini spidergram starter kit too! 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. Good luck!

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

If you haven’t registered for #KidlitSummerSchool yet click HERE.

Meet the Faculty: Kristine Asselin and Leeza Hernandez


1425737_10151884607793880_803966058_nKristine Asselin is the author of fourteen children’s books for the elementary school library market. She began her writing career penning short stories for her daughter before transitioning to writing a wide variety of nonfiction topics for elementary grades as well as young adult fiction and middle grade fantasy. Kris had the honor of directing the New England Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI New England) regional conference in 2014. Her debut novel, ANY WAY YOU SLICE IT, comes out from Bloomsbury Spark in late fall 2014.  www.kristineasselin.com


LeezaBioPicLeeza Hernandez grew up in England where she spent her playtime imagining, drawing and meeting characters from around the globe.  She’s the author/illustrator of Dog Gone! (Putnam) and its newest companion Cat Napped! and the illustrator of John Lithgow’s latest picture book Never Play Music Right Next to the Zoo (S&S) and the Eat Your Homework series written by Ann McCallum (Charlesbridge). Leeza lives in Central New Jersey with her family.  Visitwww.leezaworks.com.



Find more of our great Summer School guest bloggers on our Faculty page. And you haven’t preregistered yet, there’s still time! Click here to find the registration form.