Tuesday, May 4, 2021

Becoming a Creative Jedi

You know how whenever just about anyone first hears that you make picture books, their immediate follow-up is, "oh! I've always had this idea for a picture book..." Guess what? - Me too. Having ideas and getting them on the page are two very different beasts. I have a baby animal petting zoo of ideas, but growing them into full-fledged manuscripts and dummies is a job for the Mother of Dragons. As an illustrator first and an aspiring author at present, I've struggled to write to the finish. Stringing those ideas together like pearls feels impossible. Or, at least it did. 

I was going to call this post something like "Harnessing Your Creative Morning Magic." Since today is May the 4th, it is now, of course, titled "Becoming a Creative Jedi." 

I'm early in my training, but after years of trying to harness my frenetic creative energy, I've been successfully nurturing two Jedi-level mind tricks to conquer my personal Darkside.  It's my goal to help you harness your Force.  After all, we're our only hope.

Lesson 1: Commit Your Life

"A Jedi must have the deepest commitment, the most serious mind. This one, long time have I watched. All his life, he has looked away to the future, to the horizon. Never his mind on where he was. Hmm? What he was doing." --Yoda 


Today is all we have. You hear this all the time, but for me, one day, it clicked. I like big pictures. I like minutia. Like many artists, it's the mid-field that gets me in trouble. I can ace my to-do list in the morning, make sure to get to bed at a reasonable hour a few days a week, write for a bit here and there when it feels good, and hit the gym Monday - Wednesday, but somewhere along the way, things fall apart. I have lofty and grand "somedays" in my mind, but they distract from the simple beauty of my to-day.

Putting this together at last, I set myself to task. I decided that I was going to dedicate myself, body, and soul to the making. All I needed to do was have One Perfect Day. For me, a perfect day means not forgetting to eat until I'm mumbling and mad at 2 in the afternoon; it means working out, so I'm tired enough to go to bed at a decent hour, that way, I can get up out of bed when my Muse is ready to go at six am. With ONE PERFECT DAY activated in my life, I never miss sitting with my Muse because they've grown tired of waiting in my studio while I sleep off a 2 am TRUE CRIME binge. ONE PERFECT DAY means living the life I imagine a writer to live, and the key here - is writing every day. 

Every night I sit down with a little black book and plan my ONE PERFECT DAY. Everything serves the books in some way. I am happy and fulfilled, and for the first time in my life, my mind is where I am, what I am doing - here in the studio, where I'm living my most profound commitment. 

As an aside, as an artist living in a pandemic with a spouse who is in close quarters too, sharing my OPD plan with my husband has eliminated the daily struggle for creative space I've had since last March. Everyone in the house knows that I have a perfect day ahead of me. No one expects me to go to Trader Joe's with them at 11 am on a Thursday anymore. Jedis do not go to TJ's before noon on a weekday. They are in training. 

I challenge you to attempt ONE PERFECT DAY. Design your day to serve your Muse and your purpose. Take it up with complete sincerity. I'm convinced you'll find it astonishing what your Jedi can do. 

Lesson 2: Ask the Right Questions

"Which way is the right way?" Ezra asks as he steps inside the Jedi Temple. 

To which the tiny wise master Yoda responds, "The wrong question, that is."  



For years I have worked half-heartedly following THE ARTIST'S WAY, by Julia Cameron. The thing that stuck with me was Morning Pages. I do them when I'm struggling emotionally or artistically, and they always help. In the past month, I've started using them as my figurative lightsaber. This idea came to me, like nearly all my good ideas do, during morning pages. For those who aren't familiar with the practice, morning pages are simply three pages of longhand, a stream of conscious writing, done first thing in the morning upon waking up.*

"They are about anything and everything that crosses your mind - and they are for your eyes only." - Julia Cameron

I've come to realize that my natural inclination when I hit a creative snag is to talk about it. I grew up as an apprentice to my fine-artist father, and now he lives downstairs in my house - he's clever about this stuff, so is my chef husband and my mom, who all live here too. My best friends are all writers and illustrators of picture books, and they're all just a phone call away. 

Guess what writing is not? Writing is not talking about it. I've been living with this nasty habit, and I hadn't even recognized it. The only way I can access my Muse is by talking to them. The less crazy way to do that is through longhand writing three pages in the wee hours of the morning before I'm fully awake. 

When I'm writing my pages, I intentionally open myself to asking creative questions and answering them. I do it half paying attention, letting my subconscious run the show. When I finish the day's pages, I take out three highlighters, turn to yesterday's pages, and highlight each sentence or thought I scrawled about my book. I highlight each new idea with a different color. Then I type those ideas out and cut them into strips. Like spaghetti confetti, I toss the strips into a bell jar on my writing table. If I hit a wall in my work, I fish out a strip of paper or three. The answer is almost always sitting in that jar at my elbow. I've never experienced anything like this magic; I'm almost nervous about sharing it, lest it stops working. Unseen, it's hard to believe a creative force exists, but wave your hand, and read what you wrote yesterday. Just like that, your manuscript will bend as easily as a stormtrooper under the spell of Obi-Wan. 

I have tried to access this process with my conscious self. Nope. Doesn't work. I 100% believe I'm more brilliant in pages. That's where I meet my Muse. The Muse is your personal Yoda, and you ask the wrong questions, you do. 

I hope that these two practices can come alongside you on your journey to control your Force. 

I want to remind you of one critical Jedi thought you should carry in your pocket all year, not just on this particular day. 

In this business, I find there to be a fair amount of doomsaying. I was a member of SCBWI when the publishing industry was convinced the Kindle was going to send us obsolete, and again when no one could fathom how you'd possibly sell a graphic novel. If your Muse is there for you in your studio on your ONE PERFECT DAY, do NOT second guess them! 

"Difficult to see. Always in motion is the future." --Yoda,

I wish you all the best as you set out to conquer your Darkside, and, of course, today especially, May the 4th be with you! 

Below you'll find a bit of an early draft to something a nerdy, struggling writer once hoped might turn out cool.


Amber Alvarez is the illustrator of Diana Murray's WILD ABOUT DADS, published by Macmillan Kids books, and the forthcoming MY MAGIC WAND, written by Pat Mora, and published by Lee & Low Books!

See more of her work at AmberAlvarez.com and on Instagram @SheSureisSketchy

Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Accountability groups and time boxing to help find focus

When the pandemic hit last year, I struggled to focus as society and the world as we knew it changed before our eyes. I had deadlines to meet, and projects to finish, but I was perpetually distracted, sleeping badly, and anxious. And it makes sense -- nothing this past year has been normal and it's even less normal to push through it and work anyway

In those early weeks, all I could do was draw coloring pages for families stuck at home, posted to Instagram, as some small way to help someone out there who might be struggling, too:

I'm part of the community at You Belong Here, an arts and co-working space here in San Diego. Last March, when I presented my focus problem during our entrepreneur meetups (now happening virtually on Zoom), my friend Nic enthusiastically suggested: CAVE DAY! Cave Day runs 1 and 3 hour work sessions on Zoom (like a silent study hall) facilitated by trained guides who lead participants through stretches and refreshing periodic breaks.

This combination of accountability and time boxing -- has really helped me, and maybe something like this will help you if you're struggling with focus, too.

A painting by Susie Ghahremani, created during Cave Day virtual co-working sessions

Accountability to me means setting goals or making plans with others in the same position. 

At Cave Day, hundreds of people working from home join sessions daily, all hoping to move the needle on our projects or work. Our cameras are all on as we video conference in silence together. We are a community of people who want to improve our focus and to have better boundaries around our work. At this point, I typically participate in Cave Day 5 days a week, and have logged hundreds of sessions. They continue to be helpful to me.

Accountability can also look like joining a group like 12x12, Storystorm, entering your work in a SCBWI manuscript review or portfolio show, a 100 Day Project, or taking a class -- all of which meet a specific challenge with SMART goal criteria.

What are SMART goals? SMART is an acronym that stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-based.

For example, in the 12x12 challenge: it's writing / revising 12 picture book texts during the course of a year. For Storystorm, it's generating a picture book idea every day for 30 consecutive days, in January. Specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-based -- with a community engaged in the same.

Time Boxing for me means dedicating a specific time to a specific task. By signing up for a 3 hour session on Cave Day, I can plan the work I want to do during that period of time. That has helped with the toxic feeling of Always Needing To Be Working. It also helps me set up an actionable plan around when I'll focus and what I'll accomplish. It also helps me to time box things like learning, revisions, working on new artwork, emailing, using social media, etc.

One hallmark of this past year is that time has felt basically meaningless when every day feels exactly the same, so time boxing helps with that feeling as well. Here's more info about time boxing.

It's hard to believe we're coming up on a year of pandemic life. During this time, folks here at KidLitArtists have continued illustrating, writing, creating, and releasing new books, while also tending to their kids and parents and friends and communities and mental/physical health. It's a lot! It was a lot even before the pandemic.

If you're not able to focus -- or you're feeling like you're just barely getting by -- you're not alone. Hope these tips help you, and please share your tips in the comments!

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Susie Ghahremani (@boygirlparty) is the author and illustrator of picture books STACK THE CATS and BALANCE THE BIRDS

She is also the illustrator of WHAT WILL GROW by Jennifer Ward, WHAT WILL HATCH by Jennifer Ward, LITTLE MUIR'S SONG by John Muir, SHE WANTED TO BE HAUNTED by Marcus Ewert, and LITTLE MUIR'S NIGHT by John Muir.

She paints with gouache, wanders in forests, listens to vinyl records, and snuggles her baby nieces.

Find her at: Boygirlparty | Patreon | Etsy | Fb | Twitter | Instagram | TikTok

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Online Portfolio Showcase Winners from the 2021 SCBWI Winter Conference

 by Debbie Ridpath Ohi

Congrats to everyone who submitted portfolios to the SCBWI Winter Conference Portfolio Showcase! Whether or not you won an award, kudos for putting yourself out there. Editors, art directors and agents have been looking through your work, as well as fellow creators.

For those who missed it, you can still browse all portfolios until March 31st, 2021.

You can find a list of the winners of the SCBWI Winter Conference Portfolio Showcase on the SCBWI Winter Conference Blog, but here is a list along with links to where you can find out more about everyone's work.

Portfolio Showcase Grand Prize Winners:

Leanne Hatch - LeeanneHatch.com. Represented by Janine Le at Sheldon Folgelman Agency. You can find Leanne on Instagram at @leannehatch_illustration. Previously Leanne won the SCBWI Narrative Art Award in 2020 and an Honor Award at the 2020 SCBWI Winter Conference.

Xin Li - LiXin.no.  Xin is a freelance illustrator based in Norway, born and raised in China. You can find Xin on Instagram at @lixin.illustration and Twitter at @lixinmakesart.

Portfolio Showcase Honors:

Anne Appert - Also on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. Represented by Charlotte Wenger at Prospect Agency.

Reggie Brown - Also on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. Represented by The Cat Agency.

Lenny Wen - Also on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. Represented by The Cat Agency.

Estrela Lourenco - Also on Twitter, Instagram. Represented by James McGowan at Bookends Literary Agency.

Congrats to all!

You can find more news and takeaways from the 2021 SCBWI Winter Conference at the SCBWI Conference Blog; I was on Team Blog this year!


Debbie Ridpath Ohi is the author and illustrator of SAM & EVA and WHERE ARE MY BOOKS?, both with Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers. Her illustrations have appeared in books by Michael Ian Black, Judy Blume, Aaron Reynolds, Linda Sue Park, Rob Sanders, Lauren McLaughlin and others. You can find out more about Debbie and her work at DebbieOhi.com, Twitter at @inkyelbows and Instagram at @inkygirl.

Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Art & Fear— Wisdom for Working Artists PLUS: Book Giveaway

 by Dorothia Rohner

Recently, I reread a book that my mother gave me years ago. Since then, I have referred to it many times on my artistic journey. 

Art and Fear–Observations On the Perils (and Rewards) of ARTMAKING. An Artist's Survival Guide. By David Bayles and Ted Orland

This book is filled with nuggets of wisdom that discuss the importance of finding your own work. The authors explore the nature of being an artist and pose questions and offer suggestions for those of us who have a passion to create.

Each time I read the book, it helps me to examine why I create, what I am trying to achieve and how I want to execute the work. Making books for children takes patience, determination, imagination, grit and patience among other traits. This books discusses why some artists keep going and some fail to find the courage to forge on. 

I have selected eight quotes to share with you here. I hope that these quotes will remind you that you are not alone on your creative journey and give you the courage to keep making books for children. 

The world needs more books made by kind and gentle people. 

Book Giveaway: 

I will be giving away a copy of Art and Fear.  Scroll down to see how you can enter to win.

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Parallel Stories

 After attending Toni Buzzeo's wonderful workshop at The Writers' Loft on picture book structures, I started noticing them everywhere – Mirror, Circular, 3-tries, and Parallel stories: this is where the plot follows two characters on separate journeys through the story. Sometimes the two characters come together at the end, and sometimes they don't but their experiences echo each other. You see a lot of compositional mirroring that is frequently found in any plot where there is a lot of symmetry either between characters or between parts of the story.

Todays examples are all from author-illustrators! Toot and Puddle by Holly Hobbie, Blueberries for Sal by Robert McCloskey, and Emma and Julia Love Ballet by Barbara McClintock.

Toot and Puddle by Holly Hobbie: 
This story follows two friends: one who is a homebody and one who likes to go adventuring. Puddle stays home and enjoys life there, while Toot travels the world and sends back postcards. The months of the year serve as a framework, and at the end of the year Toot comes home.

A typical spread shows a scene with Toot and a postcard on the left, and a scene with Puddle on the right. The two stories progress side by side.

I personally think this is one of the most perfect parallel stories I've ever read. This story alternates the two main character's adventures: first you see Sal eating blueberries with her mother, then Little Bear follows in almost exactly the same fashion. A lot of humor comes from anticipating that what you just saw happen to Sal will now happen with Little Bear, or vice versa. The two main characters never meet, but a great amount of delight can be found in reading about their two, almost exactly the same, adventures. 

Image © Robert McCloskey
Image © Robert McCloskey
Image © Robert McCloskey

Image © Robert McCloskey

This story involves a day in the life of the two title characters: Emma, who is a little girl taking ballet lessons, and Julia, who is a professional ballerina. At the end, Emma goes to Julia's performance, which sweetly ties the characters together as well as ending the day. 
Image © Barbara McClintock
Image © Barbara McClintock

Image © Barbara McClintock

I hope you find exploring story structures to be as fun and helpful as I do! 

Jen Betton wrote and illustrated HEDGEHOG NEEDS A HUG (Penguin-Putnam) and illustrated TWILIGHT CHANT by Holly Thompson (Clarion-HMH). Her newest book, BARN AT NIGHT, written by Michelle Houts and published by Feeding Minds Press will be published in winter 2021.

You can find more of her work here:

Monday, December 7, 2020

Things that are keeping me sane during the pandemic (aka cute and useful things from Susie Ghahremani)

I wanted to do a quick post to highlight a few things made by our very own Susie Ghahremani (available from her shop, boygirlparty.com) that have been really helpful during the past 8 months.

Growth: A Journal to Welcome Personal Change

I know that during the past 8 months, I've developed a lot of bad habits. This journal is full of prompts to spur your change, allow you to reflect, and celebrate your progress. Perfect for starting a new year and keeping you motivated while making improvements in your life!

If you want to see more images of some of the interior pages, check it out here.

Send Some Mail!

I was looking around for some cute cards and wanted to support an independent artist, when I remembered Susie's shop. I've sent more snail mail this year than I've probably sent in the past 10 years. Now that my son and I can't see his grandparents in person, we have been writing them cards to keep in touch. Plus, it's always fun to get mail! 

Susie has a variety of cards available here: https://shop.boygirlparty.com/collections/all/card

Get Organized!

And finally, this weekly organizer is helping me keep my life and my kid's homework assignments organized. Not only has the passage of time seemed very confusing lately, keeping on top of online school assignments has been a huge challenge. Using this organizer has been massively helpful to see everything that is due at a glance. 

Susie also has a variety of to-do lists and some other organizer designs to keep everyone on track, available here: https://shop.boygirlparty.com/collections/all/organizer

Sunday, December 6, 2020

Our 2020 Books (Year in Review!)

What a year 2020 has been! We've been busy making books, though! Here's the year-end review of what came out this year. 

Amber Alvarez

by Diana Murray and Amber Alvarez

See lions snuggle on the savanna and groundhogs play on the prairie in Diana Murray's Wild About Dads, a heartwarming picture book that celebrates dads of all kinds--featuring illustrations by Amber Alvarez!

Lisa Anchin
by Linda Elovitz Marshall and Lisa Anchin

Learn about the importance of vaccines and the scientific process through the fascinating life of world-renowned scientist Jonas Salk, whose pioneering discoveries changed the world forever.

Brooke Boynton Hughes
by Barbara Bottner and Brooke Boynton Hughes

Help Archer find his missing turtle hiding in the pages of this picture book!

Allison Farrell
by Joan Holub and Allison Farrell

When the road signs take a vacation, chaos and hilarity ensue--
and they quickly learn how important they are.

Kimberly Gee

Bear is very, very, very GLAD today! He’s taking his first ballet class. 
But he’s a little nervous too. This sweet and silly picture book is an honest exploration 
of feelings that little ones—and grown-ups!—are sure to relate to.

Susie Ghahremani
Marcus Ewert and Susie Ghahremani

With whimsical, rhyming stanzas, She Wanted to be Haunted offers a delightful, 
lyrical twist on the ever-important question of how to be your very best self.

Susie Ghahremani
John Muir and Susie Ghahremani
August 2020

An original board book that encourages a bedtime in tune with nature.

Susie Ghahremani

A journal can be so much more than an outlet--it can also be a companion, a resource, and a place to find answers.

Jessica Lanan

 Megan Dowd Lambert and Jessica Lanan

In this fresh and funny follow-up to the Ezra Jack Keats Honor Book A Crow of His Own, rooster Clyde is forced to adjust to new roommates on the farm when Fran the goat and her kid, Rowdy, take up residence. Can Clyde handle having a new kid in town?

Maple Lam
Raffi and Maple Lam

Shake, clap, jump, and wiggle your way through this classic Raffi sing-along book!

Corinna Luyken
Kate Hoefler, Corinna Luyken

A tender and timely story of compassion and finding common ground with others, 
perfect for fans of I Walk With Vanessa and Thank You, Omu!

Juana Martinez- Neal
Beth Ferry, Juana Martinez-Neal

From New York Times best-selling author Beth Ferry and Caldecott Honor winner Juana Martinez-Neal comes a sweet-and-salty friendship story perfect for pirate-lovers learning new ways to communicate while at a distance. 

Debbie Ridpath Ohi
written by Linda Sue Park, illustrated by Debbie Ridpath Ohi

This wildly imaginative, crayon-inspired picture book shows that with a bit of teamwork and a universe of creativity, anything is possible!

Dorothia Rohner
Written by Dorothia Rohner, illustrated by Vanya Nastanlieva

A simple, friendly game of Duck, Duck, Goose goes off the rails in giggle-inducing 
confusion when a silly goose tries to make it all about him.

Robin Rosenthal

Count up to 10 and back down again in this picture book starring 
10 traveling dogs and one very tenacious cat!

written by Duane Armitage and Maureen Doyle, illustrated by Rosin Rosenthal

An exciting board book series that asks deep questions in a wonderfully accessible way. Even little children have big questions about life.

Molly Ruttan

Adopting an extraterrestrial leads to hilariously mixed results!

Rob Sayegh
written by Holly Berry-Byrd, illustrated by Rob Sayegh Jr

Ho, ho, ho! Join Santa as he prepares for his big day. It's Christmas eve in the North Pole, and Santa's elves are busy making toys to deliver to good little girls and boys.

K-Fai Steele

Okapi Tale, the much-anticipated sequel to Noodlephant, is about what happens when the phantastic noodler—a public good—falls into the wrong hands (a rich okapi). But to whom does the machine really belong? Just one greedy Okapi, or the whole town of Beaston?

Alexandra Thompson

A foodie French bulldog finds a forever home in this heartwarming and adorable debut 
picture book, sure to appeal to fans of Gaston, Ellie, and Little Elliot, Big City.

Heidi Woodward Sheffield

A striking debut celebrating the warm bond between a little boy and his dad as they work hard to achieve their dreams.

Heidi Woodward Sheffield
Leslie Helakoski and Heidi Sheffield

In beautiful, evocative rhyme, this lovely picture book helps children consider 
the colors of their everyday lives . . . and imagine how others around the world 
experience the very same things.

Liz Wong
Helaine Becker, Liz Wong

The most powerful pirate in history was a woman who was born into poverty in Guangzhou, China, in the late 1700s. When pirates attacked her town and the captain took a liking to her, she saw a way out. Zheng Yi Sao agreed to marry him only if she got an equal share of his business. When her husband died six years later, she took command of the fleet.

Andrea Zuill
Nelly Buchet, Andrea Zuill

Here is the oh-so-hilarious and adorable story of a blended family-- using just a few 
words in various configurations-- from the pets' point-of-view!