LOOKING FOR IDEAS, INSPIRATION, AND LAYERS by Linda Joy Singleton￼
When I write middle-grade novels, like my CURIOUS CAT SPY CLUB series, I have a routine of sitting at my computer in the morning and working until words spill across the screen. I challenge myself to write a few pages every day—until the first draft is done.
` But there’s no routine for writing picture books.
At least, there isn’t a routine for me. I can’t force a picture book idea. In such a short format, every word has to shine with layers of story. A word or thought or experience will trigger an idea. I never know when or where inspiration will strike—but when it does, I pay attention and start writing.
My first picture book, SNOW DOG, SAND DOG (Albert Whitman 2014) was inspired by the photograph of a friend building a snow dog. This photo stuck in my mind, and the next day while driving to a SCBWI event, the opening line popped into my head. I had to wait till I stopped for lunch to scribble these words down on a napkin: More than anything, Ally wanted a dog—but dogs made her ACHOO.
My next picture book, CASH KAT (Arbordale 2016), evolved from a game I created for my grandson when he was learning to count money. He earned play money (think Monopoly) by doing fun activities like drawing a picture, writing a story, or picking up trash. When we picked up trash together, I remembered the excitement of finding coins on the ground when I was little. Putting these two ideas together, I wrote a fun story of Kat who goes to the park with her grandmother on clean-up day. While picking up trash she finds coins—even a dollar bill! —which becomes a lesson in counting money.
The idea for my new picture book, SUN & SON (Amicus 2022), sprang from word play. I love bouncing balls of letters in my mind and catching them in surprising ways. I wanted to write another homonym book like CRANE & CRANE (Amicus 2019), and combined my love of the outdoors with a special birthday for a father and son. My own father took me camping when I was little and I have wonderful memories of hiking, fishing, and sleeping under the stars. SUN & SON celebrates how a parent nurtures a child and the sun nurtures our planet.
For this homonym picture book format, each story must have layers of the Three C’s: Conflict, Comparison and Character. I wrote CRANE & CRANE because my husband is a crane operator and I live near the Lodi Sandhill Crane sanctuary. SUN & SON was a natural follow-up. And after researching homonyms, I discovered there is only one other homonym that works for this format. Can you guess what it is?
When writing a picture book, I always look for layers of story. For SUN & SON, there are multiple layers in very few words. There’s a birthday which shows the growth of a child, the loving family relationship between child and parent, a camping adventure into nature, the use of homonyms to contrast and compliment the action, and a sunny setting which teaches the science of the only star in our solar system: the sun.
In only 25 words, SUN & SON is layered with teaching opportunities.
- The book opens with the word “RISE.” Look closely at the beautiful art by Richard Smythe for the layers of a story unfolding. A father excitedly wakes his son for a special day, and through a window the reader can see the sun rising into the sky. Around the bedroom are hints of the boy’s passions for travel: a drawing of a boat, a toy train, and airplanes hanging from the ceiling.
- A page turn adds more layers with the word “SHINE.” While the boy brushes his teeth to a shine, a window view shows a car packed for a trip. On the opposite page, the sun is higher in the sky now, shining bright for a fun day in nature.
- “GROW” gives more hints to the story: a “Happy Birthday” banner, the father measuring the boy’s height against a wall (like my parents did with me!), and fishing poles and a suitcase in the background. The opposite page shows a growing plant with a view of roots and a worm peeking up through the ground.
What made SUN & SON work as a layered story:
CONFLICT: The same word having two different meanings like when the sun sets down while the tent is set up.
COMPARISON: The same word doing the same thing but in a different way like the sun glowing in the sky and a birthday candle’s glow wishing a happy birthday.
CHARACTER: Many homonyms might offer fun images like read and reed or blue and blew. But for this format to work, both words—SUN & SON—are characters that represent nature and humans.
A fun fact about this book! The illustrator put in the white cat because he knows I love cats. And as he was illustrating this book, his first child—a son—was born.
You may have noticed that I said there were only three homonyms that worked for this format. Have you guessed the third word? There might even be a prize if you guess correctly 😊 Email me through the link on my website www.LindaJoySingleton.com .
BONUS: I offer downloadable educational activities related to my books on my website—including a template for kids to write they own homonym stories.
Linda Joy Singleton is the author of over 50 middle-grade, YA, and pictures books about magic, animals, psychics, mermaids, aliens, clones, and ghosts. Her MG series, CURIOUS CAT SPY CLUB, was inspired by a club she created with her best friend. Her newest picture book is SUN & SON. She is a long-time member of SCBWI and Sisters in Crime. She and her husband David live in the country in Northern CA where they’re surrounded by horses, peacocks, dogs, pigs, and very demanding cats.