Sunday, January 8, 2012

Book Store Study Sessions

I have read in several "writing for children" books that one of the best things you can do in order to improve your craft is by reading. 

Of course!  That’s not brain surgery! 

So, one of the things I enjoy doing is heading over to my local bookstore, usually B & N, and surrounding myself with books, books, and more books.  When I go to the bookstore, I walk around and grab picture books that I want to read, stack them in my arms (usually 6-15 books per visit), then find a comfy spot and begin my research. 

During my bookstore reading sessions, there are four things that I look for when I am deciding which picture books to pull out and scour.

4 Things I Look For When Selecting Picture Books To Study
  1. Caldecott Medal or Honor Winners
  2. Titles or covers that catch my eye
  3. Favorite authors or illustrators
  4. Current popular books

Caldecott Winners  

The Caldecott Medal and Honor Medal are annual awards given by the Association for Library Services to children’s books with excellent artwork.  These medals are extremely prestigious and are awarded to books with high artistic quality.  If you have ever seen the golden (for winner) or silver (for honor) medal stickers on a picture book, that book has been deemed a Caldecott Winner or Honor book.  When at the bookstore, I like to pick these out because of their award-winning status.  In my opinion, in order to have gained a Caldecott, the artwork must have been creative and noteworthy; furthermore, the words from the author must have truly inspired the beautiful artwork in the illustration, who was able to materialize it into a mesmerizing children’s book (for examples of beautiful artwork, check out David Weisner’s work, or The House in the Night by Susan Marie Swanson, illustrated by Beth Krommes).  I select these books and study the words and pictures to get a good idea of what award-winning work looks like.  Then, I think about how my own work compares. 

If you’d like more information about Caldecott Medals, or an entire list of Winners and Honorees dating back all the way to 1938, check out the website:

Eye-Catching Titles and Covers
I like to run my eyes over the shelves to see if anything seems interesting.  Pictures and titles that intrigue me usually make it into my stack of books to read.  This gives me a chance to go off of my own instinct, and read things that sound interesting to me.  Within this group may be books that I realize, upon reading, that I don’t like at all, or books that become one of my new favorites (read my posting on Interrupting Chicken by David Ezra Stein on my “Books I love” page for an example of this.  It’s also a Caldecott Honor Book.)  However, even if I don’t like a book that I select, I read it and analyze why it didn’t work for me.  I like using “unlikeable books” as learning tools for improving my own storytelling and writing skills.

Favorite Authors and Illustrators
In addition to Caldecotts and eye-catching books, I also like to grab a few newly released books from favorite authors and illustrators of mine.  I like to look at their books in order to scrutinize the range of their stories and characters.  I especially like looking at different books within series that my favorite authors create.  I pay close attention to how even though my favorite authors write about different characters or plotlines, their voices still shine through consistently.  I hope that I’ll be able to master that skill too.  A great example of one of my favorites is the great Mo Willems.  I am a huge fan of Knuffle Bunny One, Too, and Free, I adore Pigeon and all of his adventures, I enjoy Elephant & Piggie, and just recently I met Amanda and Alligator and am a fan of them now two.  Mo Willems has a great website if you are interested:

Popular Books
Last but not least, I like to look at popular books because of course, every author thinks about how to find characters and stories that are marketable and interesting to young readers and their families.  Usually, bookstores have many of their “bestsellers” in one easily accessible section.  Right now, you’d probably see Splat the Cat, Llama Llama, Bad Kitty, No David, Jane Yolen and Mark Teague’s “How Do Dinosaurs...”,  and the loveable Charlie & Lola, to list a few.   I think it’s good to see what children are interested in today as a gage for where my own work may fit in.

Now, in addition to all of this, bookstore reading sessions are all around fun.  These bookstore visits give me a chance to be away from the hubbub of my regular day, and allows me the chance to read engaging and fun books.  AND, I get a chance to see children and their families reading books, talking about  books, as well as playing with the usual train toy set that I always see at B & N.  Additionally, I get the chance to hear the entertaining conversations that children have with each other.  These visits often end up causing instant inspiration.  Luckily, I bring my trusty notebook along each time I do bookstore reading sessions just in case a poem or story pop into my head.

So, if you are having a hard time thinking of what to write, try visiting your local bookstore.  It works for me.


  1. I love that most writing books give us permission to spend lots and lots of time reading. The problem with doing it at the bookstore is that I end up buying too many books! I do the same at the library. ;-)

  2. JaNay, I liked your breakdown of how you approach the books to read, and also that you take a notebook with you when you go to B&N. Good websites to visit, too. Thanks.

    I'm afraid I'm too much like Rosi: I can never leave a book store or a library empty handed!

  3. JaNay, You are absolutely right- Reading books in your genre teaches an author so much about structure, dialogue, what works, what doesn't work and more. Often the books we choose to read are a clear indication of what we like to write. And I agree with you- why not study the best of the best? There's something so appealing about the shiny foils they use for awards...

  4. Thanks for reminding me to keep a notebook with me when I go to bookstores. I always keep one in the car to catch ideas that spring at the strangest moments. (Yes, I first pull to the side of the road.) But I am forever forgetting to take it in the store with me.

    Nice blog, JaNay.

  5. Rosi and Mitty, sometimes I feel like I should leave my wallet at home. I'll find a bunch of great books that all call my name, and won't be able to leave them behind which is great for me, but not so much for my wallet. But that's okay, I'm certainly building myself a lovely library.

    Grier, aren't those medals so pretty. I like to run my fingers over them, close my eyes, and visiualize one of them on a book with "written by JaNay Brown" on it! And yes, looking closely at the published books REALLY helps me with my own writing when I prepare picture book manuscripts.

    Pat, I try to go EVERYWHERE with a notebook. Not just a my book version, but I found this awesome app on my smart phone called "Inkpad" so I always have a means to catch my fluttering ideas before they leave me. I would recommend downloading a notebook app if you have a smart phone. It's SO convenient.

    Thanks everyone for your great comments!