Does Your Story Need a Heart Transplant? by @BonnieAdamson and #GIVEAWAY

Three case histories

Sometimes I have what I think is a great idea for a story. I plot it out, polish the text, start thumbnailing scenes and begin working on character design. And then I hit a wall. Many of the elements are there, but the story just won’t come to life. This happens most often when there’s something in the way of the characters.

Character = engagement = heart. When I haven’t fully engaged with my characters, there’s no heart and the project flatlines. In that case, the task is to give the characters some breathing room. Maybe the plot has taken over, or  there’s too much detail choking the story—or maybe I simply haven’t given the characters enough to do.

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Whose story is it?

For a long time, I didn’t know who the main character was in this story. I didn’t *care* who the main character was. A fellow who has accumulated enough points to win the big prize at the rodeo, doesn’t.  Misunderstandings ensue, plus slapstick humor and a surprise at the end. I liked it. I really, really liked it. But the story wasn’t breathing on its own.

The fix

A critique partner read the manuscript to her daughter. She reported that the daughter was sad when the fellow at the beginning didn’t win the trophy. Sad??? This was only a minor plot point! What about the funny stuff and the twisty ending? What did it mean?

It meant this young listener had found the heart I wasn’t even aware was missing.  Eventually, after much whining and thrashing about,  I realized I had to commit to the trophy-less cowboy. The immediate solution was to switch from a storyteller’s voice to close third person. The opening went from something like “Have you heard the one about . . .?” [plot-centered] to “Pete never met a trophy he didn’t like.” [character-centered]


The lesson

Find your star player and make it *all* about him.

Read your manuscript to an actual child.

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The lock-up.

I thought I had this one nailed—a classic underdog-saves-the-day story with heart built right into the concept. Yay! But was saving the day enough? What if readers didn’t care about my little bumbling bee from the start? I was also having a lot of trouble coming up with a visual identity for her main rival. Worse, this seemed to be the main character’s only story. I know you’re not supposed to think in terms of sequels, but I had a character I liked who was totally boxed in by a dead-end plot.

The fix

The Miss Marple Trick. Agatha Christie’s famous sleuth solves mysteries by observing behavior she can relate to that of inhabitants of her tiny village. One day while trying for the umpteenth time to come up with a sketch for my main character’s nemesis, I suddenly thought of two girls I had known in high school. One was better at *everything* that ensures popularity in that environment. The other was not so much an underdog as simply and thoroughly eclipsed by her friend. Eureka! Once I understood the dynamics  the story became more about the relationship than saving the day, and future story possibilities opened up.

The lesson

Draw on real people you’ve known to flesh out tropes like “the class clown,” or “the homecoming queen.”

Read vintage British murder mysteries.

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A thicket of details.

For this story, I did oodles of research to make sure the setting was authentic, accumulating notes upon notes about jungle habitats. I had a hook and a decent text and even some quirky character traits for the main character. But the obsession with the setting and the research had used up the energy that should have gone to showcasing the characters. My quirky crocodile didn’t have enough to do and came off as merely  part of the scenery.

The fix

Pure serendipity. In  organizing a list of portfolio pieces by project, this one happened to be followed by a wordless story that had its own problems. How about a mashup? What if the protagonist in the wordless story showed up in the jungle? Bingo! The crocodile leapt at the chance to reveal himself as a method actor, uncovering motivations I had not been aware of. The text hasn’t changed, but now there’s a much richer subtext playing out in the illustrations, and the secondary characters have gotten into the act as well.

The lesson

Energize your characters with something totally unexpected.

Have more than one idea in your portfolio.

If  *your* stories lack heart due to characters that are hidden in plain sight, boxed in by the plot, or smothered by the scenery, check out the download for exercises that will help you find the right treatment.

Meanwhile, the stories above are all off life-support and should be up and around soon. Stay tuned!

BonnieAdamson-2016 b&wBonnie Adamson is the illustrator of Bedtime Monster and the “I Wish” series of picture books for Raven Tree Press, as well as Rutabaga Boo!, written by the lovely and talented Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen and due in Spring 2017 from Atheneum. Visit Bonnie at

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

GIVEAWAY! Bonnie is kindly giving away a Kidlit Summer School tote bag, featuring her fabulous design. For a chance to win, please leave a comment below.

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 1 Pop Quiz!

badge final 4x4-brighter heartNow that Week 1 is over, it is time to review what you learned and take a Pop Quiz. We know you’re all going to make scores that will make your teachers proud! So go ahead, take this quiz to see if you learned the basics during the first week of Kidlit Summer School! 


  1. In Monday’s post, Julie Falatko  advises:

a) Trust your gut. If your story feels flat, even just a little, do what you can to make it more exciting.

b) Smash disparate elements together to make your story stand out.

c) Sometimes the best way to add humor is with an exploding sandwich of surprising and unexpected story elements.

d) All of the above


  1. In Tuesday’s post, Kami Kinard, suggests you:

a) Use the Rule of Three to set up your humor

b) Add a twist on the third beat

c) Try re-writing Goldilocks and the Three Bears

d) All of the above


  1. On Wednesday, Tom Angleberger explains that:

a) We should start with a funny idea and keep piling it on.

b)Writing funny books takes a lot of writing, drawing, revising, editing.

c) You have to be willing to let some ideas sail off into the sunset.

d) All of the above


  1. In her post on Thursday, Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen suggested:

a) Be unexpected, logical, and reserved, and focus on the things that make you smile.

b) Laughter makes everything better.

c) Emotion can stand on its own, and it’s much better by itself than propped up by a faulty foundation. Be real.

d) All of the above


  1. On Friday, Megan Shepherd shared that: 

a) Readers may initially be drawn to a book because of the premise, but it’s relatable characters that will ultimately capture their hearts

b) There are several strategies for crafting characters that readers instantly care about, such as putting them in danger, making them likeable, or giving them a special talent.

c) While character building worksheets that list a character’s physical, social, and family traits can be helpful, they should be supplemented by putting characters in situations that can demonstrate these traits

d) All of the above


So how’d you do? 100% right? If you’re unsure, go back and check out the posts from Week One! 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!)

Now that you’ve completed your test, you can kick back and enjoy your weekend… or use the time to catch up on the KLSS posts! One of the suggestions we’ve had in the past is that folks have a hard time keeping up, so we’re trying to keep Saturday’s virtually free for you all to take a breather and do just that!

Tomorrow is the last day to register for Kidlit Summer School 2016! Click HERE to register.

The Real Housewife of Kidlit: Daily Life Holds the Key to Humor with @TaraLazar

Oh, remember that old saying “write what you know”? Scholars have been trying to simultaneously support and debunk that adage for millions of years. (Yes, it dates back to the early Jurassic period and Shakespearasaurus.) But me? How do I feel about it? I can confirm and deny the statement with equal fervor, depending upon which story I am writing.

LazarT_headshotFor today, I will tell the tale of how my own life informed the humor of NORMAL NORMAN. I will support “write what you know” even though I had no idea what kind of animal Norman was when I began writing. That little tidbit I will leave for later…

One of the most common phrases overheard at Chez Lazar is, “Mommy, you are NOT NORMAL.” So that is how Norman came into being. I created NORMAL NORMAN with every intention of making him ABNORMAL. His opposite-than-expected antics are the basis for the humor throughout the book.

Then, I gave this strange animal his own stuffed animal. Guess what I named that stuffed anteater? Something soft and cuddly which would sound funny when Norman referred to his pal. I stole the name “Mr. Scruffles” from my daughter’s favorite plushie and had Norman call him “my wovey-dovey Scruffle-di-poo.” Again, real Lazar life crept into my story.

Then at one point Norman tries to escape. I wanted something hilarious for him to race away in. It triggered a memory of my husband’s favorite stuffed toy as a child, a koala named Rufus Dunebuggy. So what did Norman hop into? A dunebuggy. Think of it, a purple orangutan driving a dunebuggy—what’s not to love?

NNFinally, there is a line in the book when the junior scientist tries to pretend that all the previous madness did not happen. She tries to gloss over her major meltdown. So she says, “Please pardon that interruption. We were experiencing temporary technical difficulties.” Once again, I mined my mind for that humorous little pause. A similar thing happened to me in elementary school. I was being filmed but made a mistake and I asked the teacher to start over. She shook her head NO in that very authoritative teacher way and I had to think quickly to cover my goof. So I said the line above. And I’d also like to say that I got an A on that project!

So try it—comb through your own experiences to find humor for your stories. You don’t necessarily have to come up with something out of nowhere. Take it from somewhere. If it happened to you and it made you laugh, that’s good material. It’s gold. Write what you know!

But I am going to be abnormal (and a pain in the butt) by telling you that you can also write what you don’t know. Like, what kind of animal your character is. I did not know what species Norman was when I wrote NORMAL NORMAN. I thought the illustrator would have a far better idea than I would. There had to be some visual humor at play, and I did not know how best to approach that, so I left it up to him. And guess what happened? S.Britt created a character so far beyond anything I ever could have imagined!

In conclusion—write what you know…? Or don’t? That is for you to figure out in your next manuscript, my friend!

tarafall2011picTara Lazar loves writing bios that make her sound witty and interesting, but often fails. Her picture books play with puns, irreverent humor and irresistible characters. NORMAL NORMAN, featuring a nerdy purple orangutan, released this spring from Sterling. Tara is the founder of Picture Book Idea Month, affectionately known as PiBoIdMo. She is a RUCCL council member and a speaker at SCBWI events. Tara guffaws with a unique laugh that is often mocked by her two daughters and husband. If you’d like to bribe her, Manchego cheese and Rice Krispie Treats will do the trick.

To stay in touch with Tara, follow her on Twitter @taralazar and check out her website at




Play Cat’s Cradle: Making Character Connections with @RebeccaPetruck

Oft-quoted writing advice includes, “Put the manuscript in a drawer until you can read it with new eyes.” If you have time to do that, great. But there is another way to create distance and gain new perspectives on your work. I’ve called it “play cat’s cradle” especially for KidLit Summer School! 🙂

To play cat’s cradle you need a string tied into a loop by a knot. Without the knot, there is no loop, it is only string. The same is true of your main character and your story. Your main character is the knot—without him or her, your story is only a string of events. Every meaningful character in your story exists to effect change in the main character during the arc of the story. So a useful exercise for me is to follow the thread for how each character is connected not to the MC but to the MC’s change.

First, I ponder the knot, which for me has three elements: the MC’s Want, the MC’s Need, and Theme. Generally, the Want and Need are in conflict with each other, and that conflict shines a light on the Theme. Key words tend to pop up, and I use them and my trusty Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus to make connections.

The process is easiest to explain by example.

In my next book, Will Nolan Eats Bugs, Will’s Want is to be a good friend, which he identifies with being loyal, having someone’s back. His Need is to be a decent person, which requires he be loyal to himself and his personal values. Synonyms for “loyalty” include: allegiance, faithfulness, adherence, devotion, steadfastness, staunchness, trueheartedness, dependability, reliability, trustworthiness, duty, commitment, and patriotism. The key antonym is treachery.

All these words have the same connection—loyalty—yet watch what happens when I begin to group them by Will and the three key players who affect the most change in Will’s character.

Will: truehearted, steadfast, trustworthy.

Darryl (friend since kindergarten; overtly challenges Will’s personal values): staunchness, allegiance, duty, adherence. Darryl’s vision of loyalty is very much like patriotism, somewhat blind, owed, and any betrayal is like treason which makes Will a traitor.

Eloy (potential new friend; an ally, but one who calls Will on his crap): reliability, truehearted, trustworthy, dependability. Though Eloy has a growing loyalty to Will, he first and always has a deep loyalty to his family and self. He is very much in the camp loyalty is earned, not owed.

Hollie (Will’s sibling; is “betrayed” by Will’s actions): trustworthy, commitment, devotion, dependability. She can call Will an idiot, but no one else can. As family, loyalty is both owed and earned.

Grouping synonyms by character highlighted connections I hadn’t noticed, not only to Will but between the other characters.

cats cradle


(The pretty chart I drew just for KidLit Summer School!)

Darryl is the most overt antagonist, and now I see Why. Though the root word is the same for all, his approach to loyalty is very different from the others. Like Darryl, Hollie is betrayed by Will, yet her response to the betrayal is different because her sense of loyalty is rooted differently. Additionally, I see why Eloy and Hollie keep after Will, not abandoning him even when he acts like a doof—the three share similar senses of loyalty.

This bird’s eye view of the connections between my main character’s change helps me clarify what actions might be taken not only by Will but by all the characters. Now I have a great resource.

cats cradle 2. jpg

(The actual working chart; not as pretty, but useful.)

As I consider a scene, I hold it up to my chart and think, “Where is this on the thread? How does it pull at Will’s knot?” It also helps me think more intentionally about each character’s development. It’s not only that they do something to effect change in the MC, but also that I get why they do that something and how it pushes at the MC.

I hope this pre-writing exercise helps! And now I’m off to find more yarn…

PetruckR_headshotRebecca Petruck’s debut Steering Toward Normal is an American Booksellers Association New Voice and a Kids Indie Next List title. Vanity Fair’s Hollywood and the L.A. Times also have spotlighted the MG novel. Petruck was a member of 4-H, a Girl Scout, a cheerleader, and competed in MathCounts. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing. Her next book is Will Nolan Eats Bugs (Fall 2017).

This year we welcome Rebecca back for the third year in a row to STNKLSS to lead us in  #30mdares, online writing exercises where we motivate each other to write by setting aside 30 minutes and writing with a prompt Rebecca gives us. The only “rule” is to set a timer and go without stopping for 30 minutes. Look for more announcements about these fun events in future KLSS emails and blog posts! 


For now, follow Rebecca on twitter: @RebeccaPetruck, on Facebook: /rpetruck, and visit her website by clicking HERE.

KLSS Announcement: Webinar TONIGHT for pre-registered students at 8:00 pm, EST. Yes, the time is now 8:00 pm, EST.


The Awesome-Sauce by @JohnClaudeBemis


Ursula Nordstrom was the legendary editor for many children’s book luminaries such as 20160628_003124E.B. White, Shel Silverstein, and Maurice Sendak. Two years before Sendak wrote Where the Wild Things Are, he sent Nordstrom a letter (oh, the days of authors and editors exchanging actual letters!) lamenting that he was no genius like Tolstoy or Melville. In Nordstrom’s typically wry style, she assured him that, indeed, he was no Tolstoy.  Then she added, “But Tolstoy wasn’t Sendak, either.”

I love this advice. We often look with admiration and envy at other writers, when we should set our sights on recognizing the unique perspective only we have to offer in our stories. Sure, I would never have invented Hogwarts or Narnia, but Rowling and Lewis would never have dreamed up the magical America of my Clockwork Dark trilogy or the fantastical Venetian Empire in my latest fantasy-adventure The Wooden Prince.

What is the story only you can write? The story no other author possibly could because they don’t have your singular way of seeing the world?

One simple way of discovering your unique vision is to make a list of 10 – 20 things that fascinate you. Maybe they’re types of characters like 10 year-old con artists or astrophysicists. Or places like Venice or lost tropical islands. They could be video games, dust bunnies, Thai food, or even revenge, unrequited love, or shapeshifting.

Obviously, your list will include things that might fascinate other writers, but how many others will have your list? It’s the combination of things on your list that reveals aspects of your unique storytelling angle.

Wooden princeWhen I began developing The Wooden Prince, I knew I wanted it to be a retelling of Pinocchio. But what could I do with this classic story that hadn’t been done before? I began making lists of what I thought would be. . .well, to put it simply, awesome. Call it your awesome-sauce: the basic ingredients that not only make the story appealing to you, but hopefully to readers as well. I had ingredients like robots and sea monsters, Leonardo Da Vinci and reckless fairy princesses. At first, it didn’t seem like sci-fi elements like robots would go together with a magical Renaissance Italy. But I found a way to make it work organically and to develop a wonderfully strange world that put a new twist on Pinocchio.

The key was making connections between awesome-sauce ingredients that might seem disparate, like Da Vinci-technology with monsters and magic. Some might say all ideas have already been used. But truthfully there are endless new story ideas waiting to be discovered if we only combine things in ways readers have never seen before.

So develop your list of awesome-sauce—your ever-growing list of character-types, places, things, and story elements that ignite your imagination. Then look for unusual and unexpected ways that they might be combined in your story. This could be a first peek into the unique story only you could write, the book readers have never seen before and are going to be ecstatic to discover.

John Claude Bemis author photo 2015John Claude Bemis is the award-winning author of five middle grade novels and one picture book. His latest fantasy-adventure is The Wooden Prince, the first book in Out of Abaton series from Disney-Hyperion. John served as North Carolina’s Piedmont Laureate for Children’s Literature. He lives in Hillsborough, NC. You can find out more about him on his website HERE, or by visiting his FACEBOOK PAGE.



*Note: The pre-registration webinar will be held on Wednesday night. Pre-registered students, don’t forget to check your emails Wednesday.




What’s New at School? Free Webinar! More Posts! (+ a #Giveaway!)

badge final 4x4-brighter heartYou know how it goes, every year when school starts back up students want to know what has changed, what’s the same, and who is going to be around. Same thing happens with Kidlit Summer School, right? So we thought we’d fill you in on some exiting changes! For the first time ever, we are offering a week of PRE-Kidlit Summer School posts. For this awesome week of inspiration, five members of our KLSS Faculties from our first two years have volunteered to share their winning strategies for getting into the writing groove. Look for posts NEXT WEEK from Jen Malone, John Claude Bemis, Rebecca Petruck, Kristine Asselin, and Tara Lazar! Their wisdom will pave the way for  you to get psyched and excited about writing. Then we’ll take the week of July fourth off for these great ideas to percolate, and hit the books with enthusiasm on Monday, July 11, the first official day of Kidlit Summer School 2016!

Now … we want you to sit back and pretend you just heard the tell-tale buzz of the loudspeaker followed by the principal’s voice, because we’re about to make a big announcement:

OUR PRE-REGISTRATION WEBINAR with Editors Aimee Friedman and Caroline Abbey has been scheduled for this WEDNESDAY night, June 29 at 9:00 pm EST!

Here is a little information about our fabulous guests:

authorphotoAimee Friedman is an executive editor of middle-grade and YA fiction at Scholastic, where she has worked for fifteen years. Her projects include the New York Times bestselling middle grade series Whatever After by Sarah Mlynowski; The Secret Language of Sisters, the YA debut of New York Times bestselling adult author Luanne Rice; and of course The Boy Project and The Boy Problem by acclaimed middle-grade author Kami Kinard. Aimee is also a New York Times bestselling author of novels for young adults; her most recent book is Two Summers (Scholastic/May 2016). She lives and works in New York City. Find out more about Aimee on her website

 caroline abbeyCaroline Abbey is a Senior Editor at Random House Children’s Books. Her publishing experience also includes serving as Senior Editor at Bloomsbury Children’s Books. She has a B.A. in Creative Writing from Hamilton College where, over the course of many writing workshops, she discovered she loved editing more than writing.  When not editing, Caroline loves drinking milkshakes and learning random facts about anything and everything. One of her forthcoming projects is a fabulous chapter book series by Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen.

IF you are pre-registered for KLSS 2016, you will receive an email Sunday, June 26 with a link to a Google form where you can submit questions for Aimee and Caroline to answer. They will answer as many questions as we have time to ask in the hour long session, so if you have a burning question for a fantastic children’s book editor, take advantage of this opportunity! (If you are not pre-registered, click HERE to join the fun.)

Okay, you can put down those hands! We know you have more questions and we’re getting ready to answer them. 😉

You were probably wondering how to watch the webinar, right? Just keep an eye on your email inbox. You will receive a link that will allow the first 200 of you to join us live on Wednesday night. The email with this link should arrive on Wednesday.

What happens if you can’t join us Wednesday night or if you happen to log in after the first 200? No worries! The webinar will be recorded and all pre-registered students will receive a link via email that will allow you to watch the recording at your convenience this summer.

Next question? If you can’t watch the webinar live can you still submit a question? Yes! All pre-registered students will have an opportunity to ask a question.

Did you hear that? It’s the loudspeaker again. Time for another announcement!

This Contest had Ended. A winner will be drawn from all comments left before midnight June 27 and will be announced at the end of Kidlit Summer School. Thanks to all who helped spread the word! 

All you have to do to enter is share a link to this post on any social media platform and leave a comment about where you shared this information. We will draw a winner from the comments.

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Win a free online brainstorming session!

What will the winner receive? A free 30 minute brainstorming session with KLSS Administrators Kami Kinard and Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen. Winner will be announced at the end of summer school and will have until September 30, 2016 to schedule the session.

Don’t forget to leave a comment and share the news! See you on Monday!