First Line Transformations & GIVEAWAY

A story’s first line is an invitation to the reader. In a few short phrases, the author introduces the subject and tone of the story, creating context and mood. This is particularly true of picture books, where low word counts create even more pressure for an opening line that pulls the reader in. So much pressure can make finding just the right words challenging.

Today, I’m going to show you the transformation of my debut’s opening line. Keep reading to the end for details on a critique GIVEAWAY! (Spoiler: everyone who enters wins!)

Finding the Right Words

When I was getting ready to query the manuscript that became my debut, Pando: A Living Wonder of Trees (illustrated by Turine Tran, out from Capstone on August 1st), I thought I had a solid opening.

The environmentally-focused story, which tells the story of 47,000 Aspen trees connected by their roots to form one of the world’s largest living organisms, began with a somewhat long introduction of the trees and their roots.

Then, I entered the fabulous #PBParty contest, where the submission required only sending the first 50 words. Looking at my first 50 words, I realized that there was no tension in my opening. It was all introduction.

I redesigned and tightened the opening to make the best impression I could–cutting the second paragraph to get to meat of the story sooner. I entered the contest with high hopes, but in a crowded field, I didn’t make it to the final round where agents and editors could request my work.

I was a bit crushed, but I kept going. As I read through the finalists’ entries, I saw that agent Mary Cummings was participating in the contest and was looking for books like mine. Feeling hopeful, I sent her my query with this opening line:

“Thousands of trees stand in one grove                                              

So many trees that you could start counting at dawn

And keep counting until the moon rose.”

But when I heard back from Mary, the opening line was the first thing she wanted to change. She pointed out that my opening lines sounded like an attempt at rhyme. A near-rhyme at the beginning of a non-rhyming story sets the wrong expectations for a reader. This invitation-to-the-reader was for the wrong party.

Looking back at this now, I also see that while it introduces the trees, it doesn’t do much other than that and is a bit overwrought.

With Mary’s feedback, I decided to reimagine my opening (again). I wanted to foreshadow the story’s tension between nature and development. I thought of starting with the image of a highway near the forest. I came up with “Near a highway, a forest stands firm.”

It had tension, and I liked the idea of the forest enduring or “standing firm.” And it was a lot shorter (a plus in my book)! But it didn’t sound quite right to my ear. I wanted an adjective before “highway.” A word to describe its sound. But what? I couldn’t find the right word.

I did what any young(ish) person in 2019 would do. I turned to the internet! In the private Facebook group of the 12×12 Picture Book Writing Challenge, I asked for suggestions to describe the sound of a highway. Someone suggested “humming,” which I loved the alliteration of.

I revised to “Near a humming highway, a forest stands firm.” I sent that opening to Mary, which she liked and submitted to publishers.

After getting an offer from Capstone, I began revisions with my wonderful editor. She suggested adding the word “giant” to give the audience a sense of the size of the forest (while that had been the singular focus of my earlier drafts, it wasn’t even included in my revised opening line). So, I revised one last time.

In the final book, the opening line reads “Near a humming highway, a giant forest stands firm.”

A lot of work for nine words, but finding the right words is always worth the effort!

Pando: A Living Wonder of Trees is out August 1st from Capstone Editions


In celebration of Earth Day, I am giving away critiques of the first 50 words of any manuscript.

All you have to do is pre-order Pando: A Living Wonder of Trees between April 18-22. Send proof of purchase on one of those dates and your first 50 words of your manuscript to with “Earth Day Giveaway” in subject line.

Pando: A Living Wonder of Trees is out August 1, 2021 from Capstone Editions. You can preorder a copy from your local indie bookseller, Barnes & Noble, or Amazon.

Preschooler-approved PB: COW SAYS MEOW

It’s been a while since I’ve featured a preschooler-approved picture book, so today I’m thrilled to share Cow Says Meow by Kirsti Call and Brandon James Scott, which launches on March 16th!

Cow Says Meow is out March 16th from HMH

With this fantastically fun read, Call, who co-authored Mootilda’s Bad Mood, has become the official queen of Bovine Silliness (you heard it here first!). And the world is a better place for it.

As always, we’ll start with a quick synopsis of the book:

A humorous picture book filled with wordplay and mixed-up onomatopoeia, Cow Says Meow features bold graphic art, silly animals, and unique cover cut-outs at the front and back.

Cow says . . . Meow!

Cat says . . . Neigh!

. . . or does it?

With bold graphic art and a punny narrator, this zany picture book is full of outrageously mixed-up animal sounds. 

Quoted from

There’s so much to love about this book! Let’s start with the obvious: it is, to quote my preschooler, “silly, silly, SILLY!” Each page turn to a new mixed animal sound invites laughter from listeners of all ages. My toddler also got in on the fun, joyfully repeating animal sounds and declaring “COW NO SAY MEOW!””

Older readers will love the narrator’s pun-filled wordplay on each spread, while younger readers will be drawn in by Scott’s colorful and bold illustrations.

Even the book’s endpapers (those are the papers glued to the insides of the front and back covers) continue the fun. In the front, the animals are saying the wrong sounds, but by the back cover, they’re singing the right tunes. Kids of all ages will find much to love in this joyful and udderly silly read.

Order your copy today to see what everyone’s clucking about. And click here to save your seat at a FREE virtual launch event.

About the author

Kirsti Call is the author of Mootilda’s Bad Mood, and other farm-related picture books. She lives outside of Boston where she gets inspiration from her five kids, husband, and backyard chickens. Instagram @kirsticall;

About the illustrator

By day, Brandon James Scott is a Creative Director working in animation, and by night he illustrates children’s books. For over a decade, Brandon has worked on a range of hit animated entertainment including his own creation, the award-winning preschool series, Justin Time. He’s passionate for projects that value a sense of adventure, levity and heart—those that bring a genuine curiosity for the fantastic and whimsical world around us. A born and raised Canadian, he currently lives with his family in Toronto, Ontario. 

Critique Giveaway: #PBCritiqueFest

As a picture book creator, getting high-quality feedback on your work can be a huge hurdle to upping your writing game. Good news! Brian Gehrlein (author of THE BOOK OF RULES–out next year–and creator of is running a FANTASTIC critique giveaway this month!

Some of the biggest names in kidlit, including Ame Dykman, Tara Lazar, and ten top agents (and so many more!), are giving away critiques. This is an amazing opportunity to get professional feedback on your work for $0. That’s right. ZERO DOLLARS. My favorite price of all the prices.

So, hurry over to to enter to win before doors close on October 30th.

Perfect Picture Books for Science Homeschooling

When you think of teaching science, you might imagine dry, boring textbooks. And if you unexpectedly find yourself homeschooling this year, you might be less than enthused about teaching those.

Luckily for you, your local library is chock full of gorgeous, engaging STEM picture books. These books are perfect for early elementary schoolers and also have great read-aloud qualities for preschoolers. If you have older kids, consider using an engaging picture book to ignite interest in a topic before delving deeper into the details.

I firmly believe that picture books are for everyone from babies to adults. Jeopardy! champion James Holzhauer used them to prep for his historic winning streak. And these books are not only informative, but beautifully written and illustrated pieces of art.

Here are a few of my favorites…

Water is Water by Miranda Paul and Jason Chin

Read the full review here.

Gravity by Jason Chin

Read the full review here.

Giant Squid by Candace Fleming and Eric Rohmann

Read the full review here.

Honeybee: The Busy Life of Apis Mellifera by Candice Fleming and Eric Rohmann

Read a full review here.

Wood, Wire, Wings: Emma Lilian Todd Invents an Airplane by Kirsten Larson and Tracy Subisak

Read a full review here.

Volcano Rising by Elizabeth Rusch and Susan Swan

Read a full review here.

Wait, Rest, Pause: Dormancy in Nature by Marcy Flinchum Atkins

Read a full review here.

Being Frog by April Sayre

Read a full review here.

Review: Mootilda’s Bad Mood

I am this cow. She is me. We are one. And we are in a bad moooooooood!

Mootilda’s Bad Mood by Corey Rosen Scwartz and Kristi Call, illustrated by Claudia Ranucci is out September 1st!

Mootilda’s Bad Mood by Corey Rosen Scwartz and Kristi Call and illustrated by Claudia Ranucci comes out September 1st, and I may need all the time between now and then to list all the things I love about it.

The rhyme rolls off the tongue. The puns are hilarious. The story is quick and fun; full of emotion and action.

Despite Mootilda’s titular bad mood, I can’t read a page of this book without smiling. And there’s this:

This is a BIG mood.

This refrain is irresistible. If you can read this without moo-ing, I will award the highest award of the Order of Seriousness because is this seriously silly stuff. My two-year-old mooed with delight. My four-year-old giggled. They both mooed for the next twenty minutes.

Which was great because I could do the dishes in peace. Cheapest babysitting I’ve found in years.

In all seriousness, I love this book (if you can’t tell). It’s 32 pages of perfect rhythm, rhyme, and fun. And let’s not forget the bright and beautiful illustrations! They’re just as packed with fun and emotion as the text.

Underneath it all, there’s a wonderful theme of acknowledging and honoring your emotions. Even if you need to moo to do it! This book is a surefire way to get out of a bad moooooooooood!

Mootilda’s Bad Mood is available for pre-order here! It’s perfect for fans of Click, Clack, Moo, Little Blue Truck, and laughing in general.

Review: Two Tough Trucks Get Lost

Need some good news? Two Tough Trucks has a sequel! And, it’s coming out in less than a month. WOO-HOO!

Last year, I wrote about the delightful Two Tough Trucks as a zippy and fun addition to the back-to-school genre. That its sequel, Two Tough Trucks Get Lost(written by Corey Rosen Schwartz and Rebecca J. Gomez, illustrated by Hilary Leung), would come out during this strange back-to-school season seems like fate.

Two Tough Trucks Get Lost echoes the zooming language and playful illustrations of its predecessor, while showing Rig and Mac dealing with fear and complex emotions as they get lost in the desert.

The “Vroom! Zoom!” refrain is a hit in this household.

The book is just as fun for preschoolers as the first with great language, intrigue, and the beautiful backdrop of the American Southwest. But the book also has unexpected depth.

It opened a conversation with my preschooler about his fears (and who doesn’t have some of those right now?). I loved that both Mac and Rig, who are coded as male, are unabashedly afraid and concerned for each other while still being “tough.” Male characters, especially vehicles, still rarely cry in children’s books. I appreciated how Mac and Rig modeled expressing emotions in healthy ways.

We’re all feeling a little lost these days, aren’t we?

In this back-to-school season when there isn’t much to go back to, we’re all feeling a little lost. Seeing two tough trucks find their way home was a comfort and a joy to my truck-loving boys.

Two Tough Trucks Get Lost is out September 1st from Orchard Books/Scholastic. Find your copy here!

And keep your eyes on this space! Next week, we’ll be featuring another fun and fabulous read from Corey Rosen Schwartz that will have you mooing in delight!

Don’t miss this one!


It’s a strange time right now. There’s uncertainty and anxiety and cabin fever. And, in difficult times, there are stories. Stories can entertain, transport, and comfort. And, picture books, in particular, foster closeness between reader and listener, parent and child.

That’s why I’m highlighting a fabulous new picture book, which is itself an ode to books and the beauty of a bedtime story. HELP WANTED: MUST LOVE BOOKS by Janet Sumner Johnson and illustrated by Courtney Dawson is a perfect read for your favorite bookworm.

HELP WANTED: MUST LOVE BOOKS is a new release from Capstone Publishing.

First a summary:

Shailey loves bedtime, especially reading with her dad. But her dad starts a new job, and it gets in the way of their bedtime routine. So Shailey takes action! She fires her dad, posts a Help Wanted sign, and starts interviews immediately. She is thrilled when her favorite characters from fairytales line up to apply. But Sleeping Beauty can’t stay awake, the Gingerbread Man steals her book, and Snow White brings along her whole team. Shailey is running out of options. Is bedtime ruined forever?

This picture book has loads of humor with unexpected and fun twists on familiar stories. Kids will love guessing who’s going to apply to be Shaileys reader next and what havoc they might wreak. Dawson’s playful art complements Johnson’s clever text, giving the story a light and fun feel (and who doesn’t need that right now?).

But, in the end, it’s the story’s heart that makes it an instant bedtime classic. Because, in the end, there’s no replacing Dad at bedtime. There’s no replacing the coziness of reading with someone you love. And, in difficult times, there’s no replacing the closeness between reader and listener, parent and child.

So grab a copy of HELP WANTED: MUST LOVE BOOKS here and enjoy a heartwarming story in difficult times.

Stay safe and healthy, friends!

Nonfiction Picture Book Perfection: WATER IS WATER

This is the third in my series of nonfiction picture book reviews (read the first and second) that explores what makes outstanding nonfiction. Have a nonfiction picture book you love? Let me know in comments!

WATER IS WATER (written by Miranda Paul and illustrated by Jason Chin) is a book that I beg my children to read–not that they object. It’s the kind of book that amazes me with its simplicity and poetry. The kind of book I wish I wrote.


Photo credit: my four-year-old.

WATER IS WATER follows the water cycle. It has a wonderful concept, built-in tension for every page turn, perfect rhyme, and a satisfying conclusion (not always easy to pull-off in nonfiction). It is simple, but never simplistic–a great feat for a picture book in my opinion.

Each part of the water cycle is described with kid-relatable examples that celebrate the simple joys of childhood. I love that Paul has taken a science concept and turned it into something familiar and wondrous, beautiful and inviting.

Jason Chin’s art adds an entire storyline that is exclusively told in the illustrations, which perfectly compliments Paul’s sparse poetry.

This book is one my toddler begs for again and again (and he’s not my bookworm child) and one I adore reading.


water is water

Nonfiction Picture Book Perfection: GRAVITY

This is the second in my series of nonfiction picture book reviews (read the first here) that explores what makes outstanding nonfiction. Have a nonfiction picture book you love? Let me know in comments!

My four-year-old loves asking questions. Right now, everything is “why?” Or “what does that mean?” He particularly loves asking the definitions of little words like “if” or “unless.” And let me tell you–defining the connecting words is hard. Like the proverbial fish defining “water,” I struggle to relate the simplest concepts because they simply are.


So, when I read Jason Chin’s GRAVITY, I was impressed. Gravity itself is much like the air we breathe. It’s omnipresent, taken for granted. But Chin describes it beautifully by leaning into its simplicity.

A talented (and celebrated) author-illustrator, Chin lets the art do much of the talking. Many of the spread feature more illustrations than words and plays with the idea of what would happen without gravity. I particularly enjoy that he incorporates a copy of the book itself into the art.

Though the text itself is sparse, ample backmatter provides a more scientific grounding on the subject.

Nonfiction Picture Book Perfection: GIANT SQUID

Opening GIANT SQUID (written by Candace Fleming, illustrated by Eric Rohman) is a revelation. It’s beautiful. It’s strange. It delights in the beautiful strangeness of this world we live on. And one beautifully, strange creature in particular. This creature is, of course, the titular Giant Squid.

giant squid


GIANT SQUID is lyrical, but it’s lyricism always clarifies, never confuses. It expertly uses backmatter to leave the main text free to follow its theme–in this case, mystery. I adore picture books that explore nature while illuminating a theme, and this is the best example I’ve come across.

Because the theme, the subject, the lyricism, and the art work so well together, the overall effect is breathtaking. The reader in immersed in the mystery of this strange, beautiful creature. And left wanting to know more–the starting point of all good science.