Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Meet Lisa Wheeler - Rate Your Story Judge

Well, March is going "out like a lion" with this roaring interview with an amazing author who has published as many picture books as years I've been alive.  I doubt highly she needs much introduction, since pretty much everyone in the world knows who she is.  WELCOME...
Children's Author Lisa Wheeler!

About Lisa Wheeler
Lisa Wheeler is the author of over 30 children’s books including Spinster Goose: Twisted Rhymes for Naughty Children, Ugly Pie and Dino-Basketball. Her various awards include The Michigan Mitten, Texas Bluebonnet, and the Theodore Geisel Honor given by the American Library Association. Lisa shares her Michigan home with one husband, one dog, and an assortment of anthropomorphic characters. Read more about Lisa, her books and her freakishly long thumbs at 


Miranda:  Welcome!  So excited for this interview, especially because you're well published.  Tell us how you got there...well, not the whole story - but how long did it take?  What were the challenges?

Lisa: Like many writers, I’ve been at it most of my life. I didn’t get serious about publishing my work until January 1995. That is when I started gathering my rejections. It took nearly 4 years and over 200 rejections before I sold my first book. In the mean time I sold magazine stories, did some freelance writing, and tried to learn as much as I could. When I look at some early work compared to what finally sold, I realized that I had gotten better. 

Miranda:  Yes you have!  Award-winning.  Your stories have won prizes and have been praised all over.  Although I won't ask you to choose a favorite, which one was the one you had to revise the most? 

Lisa: Thanks for not asking me to choose a favorite! They’re like my kids and that could cause quite a ruckus in my household.

The book I revised the most was actually Avalanche Annie. It is still one of my favorites even though it was only in print for 1 ½ years. Many people have never seen it, but I get told by teachers that is has terrific verbs. I revised it for Michael Stearns whom at the time, was at Harcourt. He really made me see the story in a whole new way. I had to cut it, remove a secondary story plot that went nowhere, change the ending, and expand Annie’s battle with the avalanche. I still get a kick out of that book.

Miranda:  Thanks for sharing.  I find it so interesting to know more about the 'behind the scenes' of a book.  And with so many books, where on earth do the ideas come from?  How long does it take to turn that idea into a polished story?

Lisa:  Ideas are everywhere! I think the more I write, the more in tune I am with new ideas. Although none of my books are a direct result of something that “really happened” every one of them is influenced by my reality. When my niece spit a piece of gum out of the car window, Bubble Gum, Bubble Gum was born. A dream I had about hockey playing dinosaurs resulted in Dino-Hockey and an entire sports series. Old Cricket came to be when an annoying cricket living in a shrub outside my bedroom kept ‘cricking’ all night.
I am wired for children’s books. In my world, everything becomes anthropomorphic, from my little blue truck, Chuck, to my hand puppets, to my dog who regularly converses (through me) with others. Ideas are all in how you see the world.

Miranda:  Well said!  Now, as someone who critiques a lot, what is something you see often that can hurt a manuscript?

Since I only critique picture books, the most common thing I see is novels disguised as picture books. Many writers want to write a picture book but are geared to longer sentences, paragraphs, and ideas. In most of these cases I suggest that the writer expand the picture book idea to become a chapter book.

But in picture book manuscripts that are definitely meant to be picture books, the most common problem I come across is too much telling and not enough showing.

6) Let's talk rhyme.  A lot of Rate Your Story submissions come in as rhyming children's picture books.  Are you of the mind that people are "born rhymers" and others aren't?

Rhyme is tricky. I often tell people who take my Picture Book Bootcamp that if you cannot rhyme—don’t. Yes, you can get better. But if you do not have an ear for meter or if you are not poetic, your poor rhyme is more likely to hurt your story than help it. Rhyming picture books should be poetry—not just rhyming end lines. Try telling your story in a prose format if you struggle with rhyme.

I also ask folks why they chose rhyme as the vehicle to carry their story. If the answer is. “Because kids like rhyme.” I cringe. That is not a good reason to rhyme, especially if you are not adept at it.

Miranda: Great advice.  So...I just finished reading Ugly Pie, so I'm going to ask you about that.  In many ways, it breaks picture book norms such as mixing rhyme and prose and using an accelerated vocabulary.  That said, it's a LOVELY published book!  What PB rules or norms do you think are important to stick to, and which can be broken?

Lisa: Every rule can, will, and has been broken. The trick is breaking it spectacularly! Truly creative people are rule-breakers and who am I to argue with success? If it works, it works.
That said, I do have a few things I look for in a good picture book manuscript:

  • Economy of words—keep it tight.
  • A strong beginning or set-up. Draw the reader in.
  • Forward movement. In a picture book, every sentence needs to move the story forward.
  • A strong ending. Does your ending make readers want to read it again?
  • Have fun! Remember who you’re writing for and enjoy the ride 

Miranda:  Great advice.  These days I feel like children's authors need as much advice as possible since the industry is difficult for newbies.  What encouragement do you have for pre-published authors?

Lisa: You can’t throw in the towel. You just have to keep on doing what you do: writing, revising, learning, re-writing, etc. 

Even though I have had the good fortune to publish many books, I still collect my rejections—more than acceptances by far!
In short, the only thing we have complete control of in this crazy business is our manuscripts while they are in our hot little hands. Once we send them out into the world we cannot control what happens. So in order to up your chances of publication, make sure that manuscript is as absolutely good as it can get before you send it out. That is your real power!

Miranda:  Thank you so much for sharing that, Lisa.  I know that many assume once you're published, you'll never see another rejection.  It's sobering to know that the challenge and the rejections will keep coming.  Let's hope we can all stay encouraged.  

I appreciate all that you contribute to Rate Your Story!  We really love having you.  I'm sure that many of our readers will want to check out your books, your site, and learn more about your Picture Book Bootcamp at!

Comments are open, people!


  1. Every single one of these books by Lisa looks delightful. Love the titles, too. Great advice and lots of inspiration here!

    1. Right on, Anne! I just looked up "picture book" in my Thesaurus and the first synonym listed was Lisa Wheeler. :) She's great.

  2. Wonderful interview, Miranda. Many thanks to Lisa for her insights, tips, and inspiration. The bootcamp sounds marvelous.

  3. I bow in admiration. Already have Avalanche Annie on hold (Quelle surprise - 7 libraries have it in CO!). Lisa's words scrawl with motivation...getting back to work!

  4. Thanks, Lisa, for a peek into your mind through your critiquing questions. Very helpful! I look forward to submitting other stories to RYS, and checking out your books in our library...they sound delightful!

  5. That was a great interview. Really appreciate Lisa's insight and tips. 200+ rejections, thanks for that tidbit.

  6. Thanks for your advice and thanks for being a Rate Your Story judge! I love Castaway Cats and One Dark Night!

  7. I have a few more books to add to my library list! An excellent interview and thank you for sharing so much great advice, Lisa.

  8. I have had the pleasure of attending Lisa's Boot Camp; it's a goldmine of information (and fun!). Thank you Lisa! I love so many of her books, but I think my favorite is Uncles and Antlers; it's so much fun to read and I'm in love with the rhythm and rhymes!

  9. Great interview, Lisa! I attended your Picture Book Bootcamp last year and it was SO helpful! I highly recommend it!


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