Thursday, August 11, 2016


Author Kathleen Doherty is the self-proclaimed "Grandma Moses of picture book writing. I’m a slow-and-steady-wins-the-race kind of writer." She kept piling up rejection letters until she finally had her first two picture book sales in June, 2015--congratulations, Kathleen! We've asked Kathleen to share a few tips for writing a better picture book and she's compiled an excellent list of picture book tools below, just for our RYS blog readers. Enjoy!


At first I’d get rejected because the language I used wasn’t special enough. So I read poetry and picture books studying how authors put words together. Now I try harder to make my words dance across the page and let my personality shine through [voice].

When writing humor, I use words that contain these consonants:  p, b, t, d, k, and hard g as in goat. Notice how these letters explode off your tongue and produce funny sounds. That’s why the word underpants is funnier than underwear.

I make sure every sentence I write can be illustrated. I think of my story as an escalator, always moving and changing with each line. My words only tell half the story because I have to leave room for the illustrator.

I loved how Roahl Dahl used made-up words in THE BFG like whizzpoppers, frobscottle, and snozzcumbers. I borrowed that idea and made up words in the first two picture books I sold. Borrowing an idea or concept from another author and reworking it to make it your own is called intertextuality.

Stepping Stones
Rejection letters happen. Eileen Spinelli got 27 rejections on SOMEBODY LOVES YOU MR. HATCH. Jerry Spinelli never sold his first novel. Rejection letters are steppingstones to something bigger and better. After my first sale to Highlights in 2006, the magazine’s submissions editor sent me 10 rejection letters in a row before she bought a second story.  

I use personalized stationery with my name, address, phone number, and email printed at the top so I can submit professional-looking cover letters. I paper clip my letter to my story. I never fold or staple my submission.

When I think my manuscript is ready to submit, I tape record it. Then I play it back over and over listening for rough and boring spots. Then it’s revision time!

Page Turns
I make a dummy and read my story aloud. I emphasize the page turns as I read. I ask myself:  Do I have 14 different scenes? Will readers care about my main character? Did I rush the beginning? Is my ending satisfying?

I’m always looking for feedback and ways to take my writing to the next level. I attend SCBWI conferences, take workshops, belong to a critique group, and I’ve subscribed to RateYourStory for years. I read books on craft. And I type out my favorite picture books to study them. 

Perseverance is more important than talent. I’m living proof. Writing doesn’t come easy for me. Most writers let a rough draft flow off their fingertips. Not me. I agonize over every word and revise as I write. Every author is different. Candace Fleming writes in longhand before she gets out of bed in the morning. Beverly Cleary never reads other children’s books because she doesn’t want them to influence her. Eve Bunting likes to know the last line of her picture book before she begins. And Jane Yolen writes to find out how her story will end.

We picture book writers are important people. Be proud! We start children on the wonderful path of reading. Visualize a dad reading your book to his daughter at bedtime, or a grandmother buying your book for her grandson’s birthday. My dream has always been to read my picture book aloud to the children at St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital. I’M GETTING CLOSER! 


Kathleen Doherty
I’m a retired elementary school reading specialist / educational specialist. I enjoy presenting at state reading conferences. I’ve written standardized test questions that align with the Common Core for Pearson, Inc.

In June, 2015, I sold my first two picture books [Sterling and Peachtree] all in one week! My work has appeared in The Mailbox, Highlights for Children, Highlights High Five, Highlights HELLO, and Spider Magazine. I’ve won the Highlights Pewter Plate Award, the Highlights Celebrate National Poetry Contest, and a letter of merit from SCBWI’s Magazine Merit Competition.