Happy Friday and welcome to Picture Book Spotlight!
Keeping the theme of having zombie books published, my second picture book certainly fits that same ghoulish mold. This is the story behind This is Not a Sleepy Bear Book (Little, Brown, illustrated by Jenn Harney, Fall 2025). As disappointing as this may be, this one has no child-eating monster named Dennis who munches rule-breaking children. But similar to Rules, it was written in an intentional spirit of play and structural experimentation. I’m routinely finding that there’s something magical about that mindset that really generates something special.
It goes without saying, but diagnosing what’s “wrong” with a story and determining a plan for revision is key. And every story has its own set of unique creative problems that need solving. This is no easy feat. It can be very hard to get a pulse on what a story is lacking or needing (especially if it’s dead and has no pulse!). Sometimes it takes another set of eyes. Sometimes it takes two and a half years of sitting in the story crock pot while life is whirling by. Sometimes it takes a talented editor with a vision of what it could be. For me, apparently, this story needed all three!
Without a plan or a clear picture on what a dead story needs for resurrecting, revising is a bit like aimlessly rearranging furniture. Or limbs (if we’re talking zombies). You’re not bringing anything to life. You’re just tinkering. Stories need lots of things to come to life. The story that eventually became This is Not a Sleepy Bear Book suffered from an imbalance of order and chaos. This is something that’s captured my curiosity a lot lately.
Let me break these concepts down to help illustrate what I mean.
Pattern, structure, form, rules, tradition, convention, repetition, logic, clear purpose, the predictable, the known, that which is in control.
Novelty, randomness, the unexpected, a broken pattern, something out of the ordinary, absurdity, an unforeseen twist, a curveball, the unpredictable, the unknown, that which is out of control.
And now Brian discusses brain science…cause…brains…and…zombies.
In order to flourish and thrive, the human brain needs both order and chaos. The known and the unknown. Batman and Joker. Too much of one and we instinctually crave the other to balance things out. Set in your routine too much and you want to break out into something spontaneous. It’s that Friday night feeling of shaking the workweek and its rigid demands out of our systems with something fun. However, live outside the safety of that familiar routine for too long in chaosland and you’ll naturally create some sort of structure and predictability to balance it out—I’m feeling that one as a teacher on summer break! (the grass is always greener, isn’t it?)
Kids are no different, and, actually, it’s hyperarticulated for them. They thrive on consistency and routine. They LOVE pattern. Some repeated structure that helps them predict what might happen next. And boy, do they love it when they’ve “got it.” It delights them! In picture books, pattern is a rhyme scheme or rhythm, recurring convention, refrain, some repeated motif or idea, some reused sequence of events in plot or language. It’s saying no to green eggs and ham again and again, no matter the context. It’s safe. It’s something familiar and self-evidently logical.
Consequently, on the other side of the coin, kids love when patterns are broken or altered. Something that invites the reader/listener into an intimate and secret exchange, as if to whisper from the pages: “are you paying attention?” It’s the random plot twist. It’s all the different ways green eggs and ham might actually be good––and it’s the final acceptance that a new food might be tasty and our first impressions were not accurate. It’s danger. Surprise! Adrenaline.
Adrenaline junkies know this better than anyone. They’re out there, teetering on the razor’s edge of order and chaos to their own internal delight and our bafflement. Too much order and it’s not as fun. Not as dangerous. Too much on the side of chaos and it’s the emergency room. Can’t have fun when you’ve shattered every bone in your body! So they find that sweet spot, straddling the space between calm and calamity.
Our stories can provide such entertainment if we dare…
So, I think about that balance in manuscripts. Which dominates? Where are those moments of chaos and order? How have I layered in a structure so kids can take that journey of predicting and feeling like they “know where this is going?” And how have I totally pulled the rug out from under them for a bit of fun? A living story needs both.
That’s the revision my second picture book went through.
The very first story seed that inspired it all was my observation as a librarian that there were an awful lot of winter-themed picture books about bears and hibernation. Hoping to telegraph a playful deconstruction of cozy, winter bear books, the working title for several years was Another Sleepy Bear Book. And this book is anything but a sleepy bear book! It’s wild.
The concept is a story gone wrong and the narrator trying to bring it back into some semblance of order. It’s supposed to be a gentle, quiet story. A light, lyrical, wintery sort of cozy bedtime book for bears (and kids) that need to hibernate. You know the kind. Each time the owl narrator opens Bear’s den to usher him to sleep, something unexpected is waiting on the other side to disrupt the routine. The tension increases as Owl’s need for control is exacerbated by winter’s quick approach. The result of this accumulating tension is the breakdown of language and original style of writing—reflecting Owl’s cutting of corners to just get this bear to sleep—to quite a comedic effect!
The subtle story underneath (that parents will appreciate) is that Bear is the toddler and Owl is a parent with a desperate need for order—a dependable, sleep-conducive space for nap/bedtime with no surprises! As any parent or adult that has tried to put a child to sleep knows, a perfect space and bedtime routine is the stuff of fiction. Bedtime is often bonkers. And life is often bonkers. So the theme is just go with it! Stop trying to control everything or expect things to be perfect—embrace the chaos and meet the energy (and kid) of the moment wherever it’s at! That’s really the story.
My first draft was back in the winter of 2019 when I had just signed with my first agent, Melissa Richeson. Before we had even entertained the idea of subbing a silly, dead manuscript called The Book of Rules, I was experimenting with a few metafiction books with unruly characters and frazzled narrators trying to keep things going to no avail. Early drafts of this story were far too chaotic. It was totally out of balance. Bear’s den was a “magical den of infinite possibility.” Is there a better example of literal, pure chaos with absolutely no purpose or concrete logic? Nope! So every time the owl narrator opened the den door to help Bear go to sleep we were met with the most random crap imaginable. I mean…random…even for me. And you all know how random my mind can be. There were burping ogres, an ambiguous “deafening hullabaloo,” an active construction site, “basically just bees,” a dark, empty void, a guy eating shrimp, and a vibrant coral reef.
Fun as it was, it made the story too chaotic and lack purpose. It was a missed opportunity. What else could be chaotic in the room where Bear needed to sleep? What could be going on and how could the occurrences possibly relate or connect or lead to something else? This was pointed out by Andrea Spooner of Little, Brown. Her team liked the story but they immediately saw the imbalance of order and chaos and challenged me to rethink what might be going on behind closed den doors. It took several rounds of internal revision (and two more submissions to Little, Brown) and basically an entire year before the deal was made.
The end result of this process really sunk the power of revision into my bones. You can be pleased with a book and think you really know it. Then someone can come along and open your eyes to see it in a new light. To see some aspect you didn’t consider previously. This experience also solidified the power of YES. Could I have passed on an editor’s invitation to revise since I already had it out with several other houses? Of course. Could I have moved on after the rejection of the revision they asked for? Of course. But I didn’t. I said yes. So say yes! Say what if? Say why not? See what happens!
Keeping an open mind granted me a new perspective on revision. I now expect surprises and know that I’ll likely like something far more if I give it an honest chance to come alive in a new way. And sometimes that takes years. I love this book so much more and I simply can’t wait to see what new life Jenn breathes into it! You guys are just going to fall in love with Owl and Bear. Fall 2025 is gonna be lit and we’re gonna ruin a lot of calm bedtime story situations! Huzzah!
First Draft to Book Deal Timeline: This is Not a Sleepy Bear Book
First attempts/inspiration in February 2019––a functional first draft set in March 2019
Random 2.5-year incubation period with a career change, a global pandemic, Tiger King, an agent change, a second child being born, and my debut picture book coming out! Hurray LIFE!
Renewed interest, light revision, and shared with agent Jennifer Mattson September 2021
First-round subs in November 2021
Interest from Little, Brown in December 2021––requested a revision
Revision rejected in February 2022––but door left open to revise and share one more time!
Random 3-month incubation period as I unconsciously attempted to solve lingering creative problems
Revised June-August 2022 with Jennifer Mattson
Second-round subs/resubmitted to Little, Brown a third time in October 2022
Offer from Little, Brown in November 2022
To close out on this longish blog post, think about dead manuscripts you’ve got in the dusty corners of your Google Drive graveyard (or some random USB). Might you have a problem as I did? Is there too much order and not enough chaos? Too much chaos and not enough order? Do you even know what the dominating examples of each are? How can you course correct to better straddle that entertaining balance of the best of both worlds that delights kids? May your ridgid plots have an unexpected twist. May your random plots have a healthy dose of purpose.
May dead stories come to life…and walk again.
BRAINS! (couldn’t help myself)
I’d love to see what dead stories you’re hoping to resurrect! As a giveaway for this #kidlitzombieweek, I’m selecting one winner to receive a one-hour Zoom critique (manuscript and query–a $120 value!) Get in on the fun and pitch your work! Many thanks to the crew of "6 Ladies and a MANuscript" Critique Group for making this opportunity possible. This was so much fun!
If you’d like to work with me outside this giveaway opportunity and have deep talks about the balance of order and chaos and how to resurrect dead stories, I’d love to work with you!
This July, all critiques for my picture book story coaching service are 25% off if you use the promo code pbsummersale at registration. Let’s collaborate! I'll be taking a bit of an August sabbatical from my critique service to rest and better prepare for the school year. So lock in that critique while you can!
This is Brian. Brian and...Dennis for some reason. Dennis eats kids. He lives in a book called The Book of Rules. Brian does not eat kids or live in a book. This is Brian's bio. It lacks substance. It lacks wolves. It lacks most of the things you might expect to experience in a bio. That is because Brian's brain is mush. It is mush and after midnight. Midnight mush. Say, that's a good title for a picture book. Too bad Brian thought of it first...let us now race to write that book! Ready set go!