AN ODE TO A BARN: Having an unexpected main character in a picture book

When I tell people my debut picture book is about a barn. Some say, “I love barns!” Or others say, “I grew up on a farm.” BUT when I tell them the barn is the main character of my story, and her name is Bess. They smile and say, “Oh… that’s nice.” I know what they are probably thinking…  A barn? Really? A barn can’t a main character.

Or can it be?

To be honest, I thought the same thing when I started writing BESS THE BARN STANDS STRONG. But, try as I might to have another main character step forward, Bess kept charging into the forefront of my story – strong and proud. As I wrote, it became clear that Bess had the potential to be a great main character.

Illustration © Katie Hickey 2020

But what makes a great main character?

What did Bess need?

Bess needed to be relatable.

Many times, picture books are read by an adult to a child, so the main character needs to be relatable to both. The reader and listener must feel a connection to the main character, whether main character is a human, a monster, a puppy, or even a barn. After reading the story, they may say –  “I’ve felt that way before” or “I’ve had that happen to me” or together, they may learn something new. Writing Picture Books Revised and Expanded Edition, points out main characters in picture books also need to be active, problem-solvers, and behave in believable ways (Paul, pg.56). These traits add to their relatability.

For Bess, she is caring, strong, steadfast, but when things change on the farm and her worth is questioned. That is her relatability. I think most people – children and adults – are caring and strong like Bess, but at some point in their lives may have had their worth (their value in a situation) questioned. I know I have. That questioning of worth may occur because perhaps they are too young or too old, or for many other reasons.

Bess needed to be flawed.

 No one is perfect, right? We all have flaws, this includes the main characters in picture books. These flaws allow the reader and listener to feel something for the main character. If the main character happily skips through the story…Tra-La-La-La… and doesn’t encounter any conflict – it adds up to a BORING story.

In real life – things go wrong.

What makes a great story is how the main character, flaws and all, deals with the conflict or the problems they encounter.

Illustration © Katie Hickey 2020

For Bess, her flaw is being different from what the new farmer wants. She is an old barn and the new farmer wants new everything. She is dismissed as being no longer useful or worthy to help on the farm. But this flaw becomes Bess’s strength in the end.

Bess needed to be worthy of the emotional investment in her story.

Bring on the emotion! Being relatable and flawed allows the reader and listener to invest their emotions in the main character and in the story. The reader and listener may cheer for the main character, cry with the main character, or even yell at the main character. A great main character elicits heightened emotion in both reader and listener and allows the heart of the story to be revealed. And if there is an emotional connection, the story also has the potential to be read again and again.

I know, you’re probably still asking…

But a barn?

Like many writers, I try to pull from my own childhood experiences when writing some of my stories. I have many wonderful memories of being in and around old barns. As a child, I loved visiting my grandpa’s cows, feeding the kittens and mama cat in our neighbor’s hay loft, watching the mama pigs feed their young, and playing in the piles and piles of hay. The barns always served as a place of safety and strength to run to as the summer storms rolled in across the prairie. But what I remember the most were the sounds the old barns made. The rain pitter-pattering on their roofs in an even rhythmic beat or the wind humming through their boards. As a child, I was sure the barns were singing to me. It was comforting and felt like home.

Many years later, I lived just off of a city street where an old barn sat perched on a hill. The barn seemed out of place in its suburban surroundings, but for me, it was like seeing an old friend – familiar and comforting – home. In the years that followed, the barn sadly succumbed to the urban sprawl around it.

When it did – my heart broke.

Then, I began to wonder… if given the chance to prove its worth, what path would have that old barn chosen?

And with that, BESS THE BARN STANDS STRONG was born.

I knew Bess would want a different ending to her story. It would not be one without trials and troubles, but she would show just how strong she was, how deeply she cared, and how much she celebrated every day on the farm she loved so much.

 

Illustration © Katie Hickey 2020

So, here’s to those unexpected main characters who bring heart and soul to picture books in their own unique way.

Yes, a barn is the main character of my story.

A strong, caring, steadfast barn.

And I can’t wait for you to meet Bess!

 

 

 

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BESS THE BARN STANDS STRONG (Page Street Kids) by Elizabeth Gilbert Bedia, illustrated by Katie Hickey is out September 8th. Available for pre-order now. For more information, visit http://elizabethgilbertbedia.com/books.

 

References: Paul, Ann Whitford. (2018). Writing Picture Books Revised and Expanded Edition: A Hands-On Guide From Story Creation to Publication. Writer’s Digest Books.

PB Love: Nature’s Beauty

HAPPY EARTH DAY!

I awoke this morning, not to my alarm, but to the sweet serenade of birds outside my window as the sun peeked over the horizon.

And it made my heart happy.

 

Birds singing, yards greening up, trees and flowers blooming their bountiful blooms, and sunshine aplenty.

Spring has arrived!

And so have three beautiful picture books that celebrate nature’s triumph, beauty, and hope.

 

NUMENIA AND THE HURRICANE: Inspired by a True Migration Story

Written and illustrated by Fiona Halliday

Published by Page Street Kids

“[I]deally suited to being read aloud… Readers of a variety of ages will appreciate this educational, beautifully designed homage to the many creatures who are affected by climate change around the world.” – School Library Journal, starred review

“Halliday’s vivid depiction of Numenia will capture readers’ hearts and minds.” – Booklist

 

THE NEST THAT WREN BUILT

Written by Randi Sonenshine, Illustrated by Anne Hunter

Published by Candlewick Press

 

“All in all, a delightfully readable and informative wrendition.” — Kirkus Review (starred review)

“This absolutely delightful rhyming bird book, patterned on the poem ‘The House That Jack Built,’ is fun to read aloud and incredibly detailed in both words and pictures. With perfect back matter on wrens and their nests, it’s a winner all around. Hurrah for the wrens!”
—Jane Yolen, author of Owl Moon, You Nest Here with Me, and An Egret’s Day

 

EARTH HOUR – A Lights-Out Events for Our Planet

Written by Nanette Heffernan, Illustrated by Bao Luu

Published by Charlesbridge

“A timely invitation to participate in raising energy consciousness.” –Kirkus Review 

“This appealing picture book opens with children and adults using energy day and night, all over the world. Energy warms our soup, our bath water, and our homes. It brightens our cities and landmarks at night. But each year, at 8:30 on a Saturday night near the spring equinox, people around the globe turn out their lights in observance of Earth Hour…”  — Booklist

 

This year more than ever, Nature and all of its glorious steadfastness is needed, even craved.

It is a profound reminder that through the dark winter nights and turbulent storms comes triumph, beauty, and above all…

Hope.

And I hope…

You will enjoy my PB Love picks as much as I do!

 

It’s Never Too Late To Start Your Writing Journey!

Happy New Year and Happy New Decade!

I’m a little late to the party.

But take it from me – it’s never too late to start your writing journey.

Aside from new year’s parties, I’ve always been a timely person. The “don’t veer from the plan” type. The “stay on the designated path” type. From the time I went to college I kept my blinders on, I received my degrees, worked for a time, went back and completed my masters, worked some more, started a family, worked some more, raised my children, volunteered and worked some more – and I loved absolutely every moment and still do. But one day in 2007, I sat down and did something I had always wanted to do but had put off – I wrote my first children’s story. It was very rough…alright, it was terrible, but I fell asleep that night knowing one thing. I had veered from the plan and taken a new path…and it felt so good!

I started my writing journey over a decade ago, and by 2010, I knew it wasn’t a hobby. It wasn’t something I could just forget and move on to the next thing. It woke me up at night with the “perfect” line that begged to be written down. It tapped me on the shoulder while standing in the grocery store with a new idea. It sat with me as I created and revised story after story after story. Writing had become a part of me and began to define who I was as a person. So, if you’re like I was and asking yourself the question – how could I even think of writing as a second or additional career, when everyone around me is thinking of retirement in ten to fifteen years?

I’m here to tell you, it’s NOT too late and you CAN do this!

I’ll turn 50 this year… and my first two picture books are coming out this fall. And I’m not alone. There are several of my writer friends that started their journey later after having another career, raising children, and now have books coming out this year.

Mind you, my soon-to-be published picture books didn’t happen overnight. I worked for a number of years learning about picture book craft. I read oodles upon oodles of picture books. I attended writing workshops and conferences. I joined writer’s groups – both locally and online. And most importantly, I found my beloved critique group. I submitted my manuscripts to publishing houses and racked up lots and lots of rejections. I worked on and continued to revise both of my picture books for close to 3 years before they were considered for publication. All of these things I continue to do today, including receiving my fair share of rejections.

 

Writing is a journey AND the journey is the best part. There are SO many amazing people you will meet along your journey. The writing community is vast and diverse and the most welcoming group of people I have ever had the honor to be a part of.

Now, you may be asking the same question I asked over a decade ago.

Where do I start??

It. All. Seems. So. Daunting.

 

Here are some fantastic resources I turned to when I was starting out and a few new ones. Please know there are so many MORE resources beyond the ones I listed, but these are some of my favorites.

  • A critique group is a must. My critique group is my conscience, my cheering section, and my support. I wouldn’t be where I am in my writing journey without them.
  • SCBWI – Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators – One of the best pieces of advice I received when I started writing was from my dear friend, Becky Janni. She recommended joining SCBWI. It has been one of the keys to my success as a writer. scbwi.org
  • Picture Book Builders – This amazing group of picture book authors and illustrators provide twice weekly blog posts about picture books, of course. Their wealth of knowledge in writing for kids and their wisdom makes this blog a true gem and one not to be missed. picturebookbuilders.com
  • Tara Lazar’s StoryStorm – is a wonderful group to join as a beginning writer as well as an experienced one. The goal is to come up with 30 ideas during the 31 days of January. Tara pulls out all the stops with informative posts by picture book authors, illustrators, and industry professionals. taralazar.com
  • Julie Hedlund’s 12×12 – is an amazing group of picture book writers and illustrators that come together to reach their individual goal of completing 12 manuscripts in 12 months. Julie, Kelli, and the entire 12×12 team are there to support you as you strive to reach your goals. There are webinars, tons of resources, and critiques. I guarantee that if you actively participate your writing will grow by leaps and bounds. 12x12challenge.com
  • The Children’s Book Podcast with Matthew Winner – I listen to this podcast on a regular basis and continue to learn something new every time. Matthew is an amaze insightful host, who interviews children’s book creators and delves deeper into the creation of their books. The Children’s Book Podcast can be found on Apple podcasts and at allthewonder.com
  • KidLit 411 – has an ABSOLUTE wealth of information on anything related to children’s literature. Run by the amazing duo of Elaine Kiely Kearns and Sylvia Liu. It is a MUST to check out! kidlit411.com
  • Justin Colon’s #PBChat – is a weekly chat on Twitter. Justin brings in PB authors, illustrators, and industry professionals to “chat” on topics related to picture books. It is a fun way to connect with other picture book creators. Plus, Justin organizes the #PBChat mentorship program. justincolonbooks.com
  • A few books about writing that I love!
    • Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
    • Writing Picture Books by Ann Whitford Paul
    • Take Joy: A Writer’s Guide to Loving the Craft by Jane Yolen
    • Writing with Pictures by Uri Shulevitz
    • The Nuts and Bolts Guide to Writing Picture Books by Linda Ashman
    • Save the Cat by Blake Snyder

SOOOO…what are you waiting for? It’s a new year. A new decade. A perfect time for a new journey!

 

 

You got this!

Best wishes for a happy, healthy, and creative 2020!!

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