Picture book writing, or, songwriting just HAS to have some relevance here, right?

So last week was Paula Yoo’s second annual NaPiBoWriWee 2010, a collective writing effort inspired by National Novel Writing Month, and an event that once again I failed to take part in, partly because I’m not actually a picture book writer. Of course that didn’t stop me from participating in PiBoIdMo, a differently structured PB-writing event organized by my pal Tara Lazar, she of the recent deal to publish her PB THE MONSTORE (congrats again Tara!).

Now just to be clear, I’m a middle-grade writer. The manuscript I have out on query is middle-grade, the embryonic manuscript bubbling away on my hard drive is middle-grade, I’ve recently joined a new online community geared toward middle-grade authors, I read a ton of middle-grade…I’m a middle-grade writer. But every so often I get this crazy urge to write a picture book! In fact, way back in the misty depths of time, my very first explorations in the world of children’s literature were geared toward writing picture books.

So I’m almost certainly gonna try this in a real way at some point, despite my terror at the difficulty involved in this particular art form. Seriously, how freaking hard is it gonna be to write a PB? I have actually tried a couple of times, and (to shamelessly quote something I myself said on the blueboards somewhere), trying to write a picture book feels like trying to physically rearrange the lobes of my brain, through my ear, using nothing but a pair of chopsticks.

Typhoid Mary illustration
Songwriting inspiration? Picture book inspiration? Both?

I had a brief Twitter exchange with Laurel Snyder (one of those fabulous creative talents who occasionally shock the absolute hell out of me by actually interacting with me on some level) in which she talked about the kinship between picture books and poetry. I mulled on that for a while, and some time later I wondered if PBs might have a similar relationship with music.

I’m a decent songwriter, if you didn’t know. I got some chops. And every so often I see a deal where a song by someone gets turned into a picture book. Does the fact that I can write songs indicate anything about my potential to write picture books?

Oh, I dunno. Here, you tell me – these are the lyrics to my song about Typhoid Mary:


Mary Mallon, born in Ireland in 1870
Blue-eyed girl came to the States when she was just 15
She was just a simple girl, who had simple ways
She knew her way around a kitchen, that’s how she spent her days

People loved her peach ice cream, said it tasted like a dream
But Mary’s hands weren’t very clean, there was salmonella typhii bacteria underneath their milky sheen
And she said

They call me Typhoid Mary, the health department thinks I’m scary
These germs that they say I carry
Could wipe out the whole damn world, but I think they’ve got the wrong girl
‘Cause I’m not sick at all, I feel just fine

The wealthy families she worked for began to drop like flies
Something strange is going on they’d say, and then they’d die
There was an investigation, they tracked Mary down
Typhoid fever seemed to pop up when she was around

One day at her door a man walked up and said “Miss, I am
The health inspector of New York, we’d like to test your feces” and then Mary tried to stab him with a carving fork
And she said

They call me Typhoid Mary, but I’m truly ordinary
These germs that they say I carry
Could wipe out the whole damn world, but I think they’ve got the wrong girl
‘Cause I’m not sick at all, I feel just fine

But Mary had the typhoid germ they found it in her stool
She insisted they were wrong, and she was no one’s fool
She promised that she’d never ever be a cook again
They said “okay, I guess we can trust you Mary” then they let her go

Five years and three outbreaks later, they chased Mary down
She was working under the assumed name Mrs. Brown
They told her “you blew it Mary, now you’re going away
On an island is where you’ll spend your remaining days”

So for 20 years and more, Mary lived her life offshore
Cut off from society, but until the day she died she never stopped insisting that she should be free
And she said

They call me Typhoid Mary, but I’m treated so unfairly
These germs that they say I carry
Could wipe out the whole damn world, I still think they’ve got the wrong girl
I won’t give up the fight, they can’t deny my civil rights
‘Cause I’m not sick at all, I feel just fine


I could totally write a picture book.

As ever,


19 thoughts on “Picture book writing, or, songwriting just HAS to have some relevance here, right?

  1. M, you are one funny, funny man. I will be the first in line for your middle grades when they hit the shelves, and yer pb’s, too!!

    Er, I am assuming your mg’s are humour filled, kind of like Mary, above.

    1. Thanks Deb, and yeah, I do lean toward the whimsical and goofy side with my books. And the MG blog is definitely gonna be good!

    1. Thanks Madelyn! I do think there’s a connection – brevity, rhythm, imagery. I couldn’t write a decent poem if my life depended on it, but something about using melody and song structure changes the whole nature of the thing. So maybe that’s the parallel I can use…

      1. As a (lousy) guitar player myself, I spend a lot of time espousing the idea that creativity begets creativity. I’ve been thinking it would be cool to start a week where people would go out of their creative comfort zones and enter a different creative zone, just to see what would happen. For instance, a week where you, Mike Jung, WOULD write poetry, and I would go paint, and my artist friends would sing or something. And I would call it __________ week.

  2. It’s entertaining, it’s educational. What’s not to love? The teachers would be lined up to buy your PB for history class!

    1. Maybe I can turn it into my own niche in the market! Plague-bearers throughout history, or some such thing.

  3. HA! You need to record that one, with backup singers! You go for it. I’m the same way, I want to try it all. Makes for a long trail of WIPs and notes, but one day it’s all gonna make sense.

    1. Ooh, you know what Gbemi, I actually DID record it. Maybe I’ll put a clip up sometime. And yeah, MG will probably always be my first love, writing-wise, but I want to try everything (eventually). I have a couple of orphan PBs in the trunk, and I’ll likely write a YA one of these days.

  4. Holy crow, that’s one awesome song. In my head, Arlo Guthrie is singing it with dark glee. I think there can be a connection between songs and picture books, especially the sort of PBs that have repeating elements — they tend to read like: verse 1, chorus, verse 2, chorus, etc.

    You could totally write a picture book!

    1. Thanks Shan! Yeah, I think there’s a definite relationship – they both involve rhythm, timing, imagery, repeating structure…

  5. Not sure about picture books, but you could give Laurie Berkner a run for her money.

    (P.S. Thanks for the mention, oh master of the evil empire!)

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