Writing Exercise: What Color Inspires You Most and Why? (150 Words Max)

Sky blue.

It is the color of a sunny day,

spanning endlessly across the horizon.

Puffy white clouds break up the blue,

only to continue gliding by,

revealing the sky again.

Sky blue makes you feel anything is possible.

That today is yours for the taking.

That tomorrow brings unparalleled opportunity to follow your dreams.

That any disappointing day in the past is just that… in the past.

Sky blue is your future, and your future is what you make it.

Sky blue,

stretching up to Earth’s atmosphere,

or painted on a child’s ceiling,

reminds us that we are blessed to live each and every day.

That we can appreciate every moment, or not,

but life is ours to seize if we choose.


The sky blue hue – sometimes we glimpse it in the crests of the ocean waves, in the swaying wildflowers, in a robin’s nest.  


Sky blue.

Picture Book Revision Steps

This is a document I put together for a presentation for my Writing Barn Write. Submit. Support. group. For anyone stuck on a revision, or with a giant folder of picture book manuscripts that need polishing, this might help…  


Step 1: Check your pitch. Does your short pitch succinctly tell what your story is about? Is it unique? Does it hook the reader? Does the story sound kid friendly? 

Ex. Extra Yarn - A monochrome town gets a change of color and attitude with the help of a magical box of yarn and a girl named Annabelle. But what will the greedy, clothes-loving archduke find when he tries to buy--then steal--the box for himself?

Ex. Whobert Whover, Owl Detective – Help Whobert Whover, Owl Detective, keep his woods safe in this hilarious who-who-dun-it. What happened to Perry the Possum? Whobert is on the case!

Ex. Sophie’s Squash - Sophie chooses a squash at the farmer’s market, but instead of letting her mom cook it, she names it Bernice. From then on, Sophie brings Bernice everywhere. But what's a girl to do when the squash she loves begins to rot? 


Step 2: Check opening. Do your opening lines grab the reader’s attention? Ideally, they address the Who, What, Where, When and Why all in one power-packed beginning.

Ex. This Moose Belongs to Me – Wilfred owned a moose.

Ex. Adrian Simcox Does Not Have a Horse – Adrian Simcox sits all by himself, probably daydreaming again. And Adrian Simcox tells anyone who will listen that he has a horse.

Ex. Unicorn Thinks He’s Pretty Great – Things are a lot different around here since that Unicorn moved in.


Step 3: Check the need/problem. What does your main character want? What do they need? What is their goal? Have you stated your main character’s problem clearly?


Ex. This is a Moose – This moose wants to be an astronaut.

Ex. I Want My Hat Back – My hat is gone. I want it back.

Ex. Wanted the Perfect Pet – What Henry wanted more than anything else in the whole wide world, more than chips, more than a cowboy costume, more than an all-expenses-paid trip to the moon, more, even, than world peace itself, was a Dog.


Step 4: Check agency. Has the main character solved their own problem without the benefit of wisdom from adults or books?

Ex. Elwood Bigfoot – Elwood was too pooped to dance and holler. He could only smile. Other birdies swooped in, and something occurred to him: Did a dancing, hollering bigfoot scare little birdies? Elwood barely. Even. Breathed.

Ex. The Perfect Pet – “So you might not be a dog,” said Henry happily, “but you are certainly not JUST a duck. In fact, you might be the Perfect Pet for me.”


Step 5: Check story structure. Do you have all the elements for a story? Is there a beginning, middle, climax and end?


Step 6: Check theme. Does your story have a universal theme that’s relatable? Is it clear to readers what the theme is?


10 Common Themes In Children’s Stories

Ex. Teeny Tiny Toady (COURAGE) - Teeny tried to keep from crying as she scrabbled up the road, wishing she could be a bigger, stronger, hero kind of toad.

Ex. Love Monster (LOVE) - He decided to set out and look for someone who’d love him just the way he was.

Ex. Little Elliot Big City (FRIENDSHIP) - Elliot felt like the tallest elephant in the world!


Step 7: Check character arc. How has your main character changed from beginning to end? Or has your main character stayed the same, but those around your MC have changed? Every picture book doesn’t have a character arc, but often the most satisfying and memorable picture books do.

Ex. The Rabbit Listened

Ex. Library Lion (two characters change!)

Ex. The Carrot Seed


Step 8: Check VOICE. How is your main character’s voice unique? Can we tell the difference between your character/narrator and any other?

Ex. School’s First Day of School – They got everywhere. They opened and closed all of his doors and lockers, and drank water from his fountains, and played on his jungle gym. “So that’s what that is for,” thought the school.

Ex. Teen Tiny Toady – An idea flittered deep inside her warty little head, til she chased it round and pinned it down. “I’ve got it!” Teeny said.

Ex. Snappsy the Alligator - Snappsy the alligator was not feeling like himself. His feet felt draggy. His skin felt baggy. His tail wouldn’t swish this way and that. And, worst of all, his big jaw wouldn’t SNAP.


Step 9: Check heart. Do we care about your character? Are we rooting for them to succeed? See if you can go deeper and add even more heart?

Ex. Before I Leave – I’m scared to go. But you say it will be okay, and you’ll see me soon. But I’m not so sure. You seem so far away…until I unpack, and there you are!

Ex. The Rabbit Listened – The rabbit listened as Taylor talked. The rabbit listened as Taylor shouted. The rabbit listened as Taylor remembered…and laughed. Through it all, the rabbit never left. And when the time was right, the rabbit listened to Taylor’s plan to build again.


Step 10: Check room for the illustrator and the reader. Does the story need illustrations, or could it be told just as clearly without the pictures? Words do not need to repeat what the pictures can show.


Step 11: Check your illustratable moments. Do you have ~13 distinct, illustratable spreads? Have you dummied your story to check for variation, page turn hooks (what keeps the child reading), and pacing?


Step 12: Check pacing. Check your page turns and word choice, which impacts pacing. Are you using words that match with your story? If your story is a about birthday party, are the words fast and upbeat? If your story is about a sloth, are you using words that could only be said slowly?

Ex. Game Night at the Zoo - Sloth sauntered so slowly that he hadn’t even moved an inch before Snake slithered to tag him.

Ex. When’s my Birthday? -

will my birthday have some singing?

will we sing so happy happy?

will we dance around and round?

will we jump and jump and jump?

Ex. Swan, The Life and Dance of Anna Pavlova – Shirt, shirt, laundry. Shirt, shirt, laundry.


Step 13: Check humor. If it’s a humorous picture book, where can you amp up the humor? Can you make your reader laugh out loud? Can you end the story with a humorous surprise?

Ex. Penguin & Tiny Shrimp Don’t Do Bedtime – “There is no room for toothbrushing and bath time in this book.” “Hit the road, Ducky!”

Ex. Z is for Moose – M is for Mouse. “What?” Wait! No! That was supposed to be me! Moose! With an M!”

Ex. I Want My Hat Back – “I love my hat.”


Step 13: Check rhyme. Editors suggest avoiding rhyme for many reasons, including the fact that the book can’t be easily translated into other languages. But if you’re going to rhyme, it’s all about the rhythm.

Examples of books with excellent rhyme:

Ex. All the World

Ex. Bitty Bot

Ex. Bear Snores On


Step 14: Check show vs. tell. Are you showing whenever possible, or are you telling us what’s happening? The more you can show, the more we’ll feel like we’re a part of the world you’ve created and the more we’ll be invested in your character’s success.

Ex. Adrian Simcox Does Not Have a Horse – I could feel some words coming up in my throat and tangling in there, like when I swallowed something and it went down the wrong pipe. (vs The words stuck in my throat)

Ex. Library Lion – Finally, the lion did the only thing he could think of to do. He looked Mr. McBee right in the eye. They he opened his mouth very wide. And he roared the loudest roar he had ever roared in his life. (vs. The lion roared!)


Step 15: Check for rule of threes. Threes are super satisfying. You can have three characters, three characteristics, three attempts at solving the problem, or any other combination of three.

Ex. Wemberly Worried – Wemberly worried in the morning.
She worried at night.
and she worried throughout the day.

Ex. Me Want Pet – Cave Boy had lots of things.

Rocks. Sticks. A club. But no pet.


Step 16: Check word choice. In a picture book, it’s important to make every word count. Have you chosen the best word possible? Replaced prepositional phrases with adjectives? Replaced verbs with strong verbs? Replaced weak nouns with specific nouns? Added word play? Listened for the sounds your words make – the rhythm and music?

Listen for the sounds, the rhythm, the “music” and emotion that are created. See the images. Imagine a [reader] reaching for the book to touch, taste and even feel the words. — Nancy Bo Flood

Here’s a list of words to try to cut from your writing when possible:

Free lyrical language lessons:

Ex. The Bear Ate Your Sandwich – After a berry feast, the bear curled up in the sunlight and listened to the buzzing of the bees.


Step 17: Check readability. Read it aloud. Again and again and again. Have someone else read aloud and note places where they get tripped up.


Step 18: Check your ending. Does your ending have an Awwww (cute/endearing/teary), Ah-Ha (surprise), or Ha-Ha (funny) moment? Surprise endings are extra satisfying as long as the surprise is logical in the context of the story (i.e. you’ve left breadcrumbs). I also personally find satisfaction in circular endings, where the story starts and ends with a similar sentence.

Rob Sanders – More on endings…

Ex. Boats for Papa – Mama walked to the beach. She looked out to sea and thought about Papa. Carefully, she pulled Buckley’s boat from the kelp and brushed off the sand. As she wrapped it gently in her shawl, she saw the note Buckley had written. It read: For Mama, Love Buckley.

Ex. The Bear Ate Your Sandwich - So that’s what happened to your sandwich. The bear ate it.

One-Minute PB Review - The Invisible Boy

Everyone can connect with Brian in Trudy Ludwig and Patrice Barton's The Invisible Boy. Who hasn't had the feeling of being invisible at one point in their lives?

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Can you see Brian, the invisible boy? Even Mrs. Carlotti has trouble noticing him in her classroom. She's too busy dealing with Nathan and Sophie.


Nathan and Sophie take up a lot of space. Brian doesn't.

The Invisible Boy is a friendship book, but there are many other layers within the pages: understanding, acceptance, and being the new kid. Warning: This book tugs at your heartstrings.

Favorite Line: Maybe, just maybe, Brian's not so invisible after all.

Favorite Illustration: I LOVE that we see Brian as shades of gray in the beginning, and that sparks of color begin to appear as he interacts with the new kid in class.


One-Minute PB Review - Swan

I'll be blogging here about a favorite book for little humans - whether it's a picture book, chapter book, middle grade, or young adult. 


Today's book is the picture book Swan, The Life and Dance of Anna Pavlova, by Laurel Snyder, illustrated by Julie Morstad.

It's a book I've been swooning over since the first time I read it.

The city is big.

Anna is small.

The snow is everywhere and all around.

I love everything about it. The language is breathtaking. Julie Morstad's illustrations are beautiful. The lessons, from never giving up, to sharing beauty throughout the world, are universal.

You and your children might find yourselves swish, swishing throughout the house...



by Michelle Howell Miller

(Word Count 199)


Everyone wore red and pink, hummed love tunes, and cut out hearts for Valentine’s Day.

Everyone, except Eve.


Valentine’s Day represented love.                                             

A feeling Eve was not worthy of.


Because Eve had a secret.

Eve had hidden the beautiful card she and dad made for mom last year.

Then her dad left.

Because of Eve.


She slipped the card out of its hiding place.

If only she could go back in time.


Then she had an idea.

She delivered the card… one year late.


“Happy Valentine’s Day,” her mom said the next morning. “I love my card!”


Eve waited for the magic to happen.

For her dad to walk through the door, grab his favorite mug, and call them “his favorite girls.”

But the door remained stubbornly shut.


“I thought,” Eve said. “Oh forget it.”


Why did she think a card was going to change anything?

Of course it wouldn’t. It was just a card.

A card she never should have kept for herself.

But now she was free of it.


She reached for her black shirt, then changed her mind.


Everyone wore red and pink, hummed love tunes, and exchanged hearts for Valentine’s Day.

Everyone, including Eve.

Michelle Howell Miller
A Perfect Valentine’s Day

A Perfect Valentine’s Day

by Michelle Howell Miller

(Word Count 118)



Who wants to make Valentines?


We do!


I have the paper.

I have the scissors.

I have the … snacks.


Snacks? We don’t need snacks for Valentines!

Right. Sorry.


I have the glitter.

I have the glue.

I have the … pillows.


Pillows? We don’t need pillows for Valentines!

Right. Sorry.


I have the string.

I have the markers.

I have the … fire.


Fire? What are you thinking? We definitely don’t need fire for Valentines.

Right. Sorry.


Time to deliver our Valentines.


Oh no! There’s snow!

Valentine’s Day is ruined.


I have the snacks.

I have the pillows.

I have the fire.


Sorry. You were right all along.

That is exactly what we needed for the perfect Valentine’s Day!


Michelle Howell Miller
Perfect Penelope

Perfect Penelope

by Michelle Howell Miller

(Word Count 211)


Perfect Penelope twirled her pretty pink dress.

“Don’t you look like a little angel this Valentine’s Day?” their teacher said.

But Penelope wasn’t an angel.

Ally knew Penelope was the opposite of an angel.


Because Penelope had stolen Pierre, Ally’s best friend.

At least he used to be, before perfect Penelope!


Penelope and Pierre…

Sitting in a tree…


Ally couldn’t finish the song without feeling punched.


It was time to plot her revenge.

Ally knew what she had to do.






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One card for perfect Penelope, from Pierre.

One card for Pierre, from perfect Penelope.


Ally’s plan worked perfectly.

By lunch, she had Pierre back.


Ally felt only slightly guilty watching Penelope cry in a corner.


But Pierre didn’t want to play any of their favorite games at recess.

He didn’t want to read aloud at story time.

He didn’t even want Ally’s fruit snacks.

And Pierre loved fruit snacks more than anything.


Ally knew what she had to do.









One card for perfect Penelope, from Pierre.

One card for Pierre, from perfect Penelope.


Ally felt only slightly better,

watching Pierre twirl perfect Penelope.


Ally did love Pierre’s card though.









Michelle Howell Miller
Critique Notes for Writers
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For picture books, I read through the manuscript once. Then at the top of the page, I write Michelle’s Critique Feedback, with bullets for all of the pros. Then another section of suggestions where I add bullets for the areas that aren’t working for me. I also add comments in line throughout the manuscript, where I love the writing, where I might be confused, and where I have suggestions.

For writers new to critiques, or looking for a format to help with critique groups, here’s the template that I received for my critique at the 2018 SCBWI Austin conference. I use this longer critique format for chapter books and novels, but if you’re new to critiques, this might be helpful for picture books too…



Title of Manuscript:




1.     What are the positive aspects of this work?




2.     What elements need the most attention and improvement?




3.     Notes on plot and pacing




4.     Notes on viewpoint




5.     Notes on voice




6.     Notes on characterization




7.     Notes on language/dialogue



8.     Notes on setting



9.     Notes on audience elements



10. Notes on marketability



11. Next steps/Would you want to read more?



12. Additional comments



Michelle Howell Miller
In the Garden


In The Garden

by Michelle Miller

(Word Count 107)


A family of mice moved into the garden just before Christmas.

“Take care of those mice,” the boy’s father commanded.

And so he did.


He built them a house, decorated with holiday lights.

He presented them with platters of food.

He even gave them a sleigh, though he wasn’t sure they could drive it.


When the boy’s father discovered the little mouse world, he was outraged.

“I told you to take care of them!” he yelled.

“I know,” the boy replied, confused. “I have taken care of them!”


The boy’s mother gave him a hug.

“You certainly have. You’ve given our mouse family a magical Christmas.”


Michelle Howell Miller
Samantha Claus

Samantha Claus

by Michelle Howell Miller

(Word Count 215)


All the hubbub.

All the toys.

All the effort to make other kids happy.

Samantha Claus couldn’t understand why her dad still did it.


It was the most magical night of the year,

But not here at Santa’s workshop.

It was just work, work, work.


Samantha found the elves in chaos. Santa was missing.

Who would take his place? Not her. No way. Not interested.



The reindeer did love her just as much as Santa. Maybe more. She always fed them treats.

She knew how every elf gizmo and gadget worked.

And she had always wondered, just a little, what it would be like…

To Actually Be Santa Claus.


When Samantha told the elves her plan, the sound of thousands of elves laughing was deafening.

“What other choice do we have?” Samantha asked. “Cancel Christmas?”

The elves stopped laughing.

They would not, could not, dared not cancel Christmas.


So they scrambled to help.

They hadn’t thought of everything…

But Samantha found a way to deliver every present.


It was the most chaotic, exhausting night of her life...

And the most magical.

Samantha finally understood why her dad still did it.


When she found Santa in his closet, fast asleep with his red suit partially on, she delivered her last present.

“Merry Christmas, Dad.”

Michelle Howell Miller
One Minute PB Review - The Very Fluffy Kitty, Papillon

A.N. Kang's debut picture book is a winner. Who can resist a kitty that is so fluffy, he floats? 


Papillon is a big kitty.

He is not fat.

Just very fluffy.

I mean FLUFFY!

He is lighter than air,

which can get him into trouble.

Papillon will fly away if something's not holding him down. And one day, he does just that, following after a bird friend. But alas, he comes to a scary wood. Can his bird friend help Papillon find his way home?

Favorite Line: Papillon did not like wearing clothes. One day, he refused. Cats are like that.

Favorite Illustration: Final spread of Papillon in his new hat.


One Minute PB Review - You Don't Want a Unicorn

Everyone wants a unicorn, right? Author Ame Dyckman and illustrator Liz Climo are out to convince you there are many reasons why you should NOT wish for a unicorn.

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You were gonna wish for a unicorn, weren't you?

Wishing for a unicorn is a BIG MISTAKE!

Just step away and -



Unicorns shed, scratch and they can't be house trained. When the unicorns begin to multiply, our main character must finally wish them away.

Favorite Line: Great. You've unleashed the most destructive force in the universe - A UNICORN PARTY!!!

Favorite Illustration: Last page turn surprise.

One Minute PB Review - Chicken in Space

Chicken in Space, written by Adam Lehrhaupt and illustrated by Shahar Kober, is rich with voice and humor. 


Zoey wasn't like the other chickens.

She had dreams.

She had a plan.

She had a pig. 

"Put your hat on, Sam," said Zoey. "We're going to space!"

Chicken and her pig explore "space" in a basket powered by balloons, dodging comets (kites) and battling aliens (birds).

Favorite Line: "Not a problem!" said Zoey. "An opportunity!"

Favorite Illustration: Chicken's pig, tongue out, amazed by her gift of a moon pie.

One Minute PB Review - Peep and Egg, I'm Not Hatching

Egg is not hatching. No way. No how. It is too scary out there. This sweet book by Laura Gehl and Joyce Wan covers the themes of friendship, persistence, and facing our fears.

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"Are you hatching yet?" Peep asked. "We're going to have so much fun once you hatch!"

"Too scary," said Egg. "I'm not hatching."

We can watch the sunrise from the roof of the henhouse," Peep said.

"Too high," said Egg. "I'm not hatching."

Peep continues to pitch Egg on all of the fun they will have together. Egg continues to find a reason not to hatch. Until he's left alone - crack, crack, craaack, "Peep, wait for me!"

Favorite Line: "We can watch the sunrise from the roof of the henhouse," Peep said. "Too high," said Egg.

Favorite Illustration: Egg in a helmet on top of the henhouse.

One Minute PB Review - Flashlight Night

The amazing rhyme from Matt Forrest Esenwine combined with the intriguing artwork by Fred Koehler makes for a winning picture book in Flashlight Night.



opens up the night.

Leads you past old post and rail

along a long-forgotten trail

into woods no others dare, 

for fear of what is waiting there.

The story follows children exploring woods, tombs, ships and mountains - their imaginations spurred on by beloved books.

Favorite Lines: Sinking under covers deep as weary eyes fight off the sleep. Adventure lingers, stirs about - until a voice says, "Shhh...lights out."

Favorite Illustration: Girl making wolf shadows on the tomb walls.

One Minute PB Review - The Curious Garden

Peter Brown's The Curious Garden, about a boy creating beauty in a city without greenery, is a favorite in our household.


There once was a city without gardens or

trees or greenery of any kind.

Most people spent their time indoors.

As you can imagine, it was a very dreary place.

However, there was one boy who loved being outside.

When Liam discovers a few plants in an old railway, he tends to them to help them grow. They grow, and grow, and grow until ... the entire city has blossomed.

Favorite Line: But the most surprising things that popped up were the new gardeners.

Favorite Illustration: The moose, elephant and giraffe tree sculptures.

One Minute PB Review - XO, OX A Love Story

This is not your everyday love story. Adam Rex's humor and wit, match perfectly with Scott Campbell's watercolors in this tale, told through love letters between a clumsy Ox and a graceful, famous Gazelle.

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Dear Gazelle,

For some time now I have wanted to write a letter to say how much I admire you. You are so graceful and fine. Even when you are running from tigers you are like a ballerina who is running from tigers.

I think that what I am trying to say is that I love you.


Gazelle responds with a form letter, then another, but when Ox continues to write, complimenting and insulting her at the same time, she can't help but write back. The hilarity ensues...

Favorite Line: You make me want to be the best ox I can be. So I thank you again - you are the unflattering light of my life.

Favorite Illustration: The endpages!


Michelle Howell Miller
One Minute PB Review - Extra Yarn

There are classic picture books, like Where The Wild Things Are and The Little Engine That Could, that stand the test of time. Extra Yarn, written by Mac Barnett and illustrated by Jon Klassen, has that feel to it. Fifty years from now, kids will still be reading it.

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On a cold afternoon, in a cold little town,

where everywhere you looked was either the white of snow

or the black of soot from chimneys,

Annabelle found a box filled with yarn of every color.

So she went home and knit herself a sweater. 

And when Annabelle was done, she had some extra yarn.

Annabelle doesn't stop with her sweater. She knits sweaters for everyone - even things that don't usually wear sweaters like trees and houses. Annabelle won't sell her box, even for ten million dollars.

Favorite Line: All of them ;-)

Favorite Illustration: The cover

Michelle Howell Miller
One Minute Picture Book - Max and the Won't Go To Bed Show

Max the Magnificent is a daring magician. But will he be able to accomplish the most difficult trick of putting off bedtime?


Ladies and gentlemen! Boys and Girls!

Hurry, hurry, for the


Tonight for your entertainment and delight,

we proudly present, from all the way behind the curtain,

the world's youngest magician. Please put your hands together for...


Mark Sperring and Sarah Warburton's bedtime book is kid friendly and full of voice. Parents and kids alike will enjoy the bedtime mayhem...

Favorite Line: Tonight we will see his world-famous and death-defying PUTTING OFF BEDTIME FOR AS LONG AS POSSIBLE SHOW.

Favorite Illustration: Max's Abracadabra spread.


One Minute PB Review - Stick and Stone

Stick and Stone, the rhyming picture book written by Beth Ferry and Tom Lichtenheld, is a heartwarming friendship story. 

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A zero.

A one.

Alone is no fun.

Stick and Stone become fast friends after Stick sticks up for Stone. 

Favorite Line: Stick. Stone. Together Again. Stick. Stone. A perfect 10. 

Favorite Illustration: Stone alone, looking up at the full moon.