Susanna Leonard Hill Makes Picture Book Magic

In my quest to become an author-illustrator, I’ve been studying books and taking classes to learn the craft of writing picture books. The most helpful class I have taken so far is Susanna Leonard Hill’s online course, Making Picture Book Magic. Susanna’s class is ideally designed for busy people, is reasonably priced, and best of all, covers all the basics and many advanced topics anyone would want to know about writing picture books.

In this post, I review her course, interview Susanna, and have the pleasure of having her announce some GREAT news (scroll down to the end of the interview).

Introducing Susanna Leonard Hill

Susanna is the award-winning author of nearly a dozen picture books, including Punxutawney Phyllis (a Book List Children’s Pick and Amelia Bloomer Project choice), No Sword Fighting in the House (a Junior Library Guild selection), Can’t Sleep without Sheep (a Children’s Book of the Month), and Not Yet Rose (a Gold Mom’s Choice Award winner). Her books have been translated into French, Dutch, German, and Japanese, and one may be forthcoming in Korean. She lives in New York’s mid-Hudson Valley with her husband, children, and two rescue dogs.

Her course: Making Picture Book Magic

© 2013 Loni Edwards
Susanna's online course is designed to be completed within a month, with daily email lessons and assignments that take 15-30 minutes a day. A new class begins each month. The three reasons I loved the course:

1. It is paced for busy people but covers all the bases.

What I loved best about the course was that I was able to produce a first draft of one of my best stories simply by following the 15 minute daily exercises, that covered every topic, from character development to plot to opening lines to middles and endings and much more. I had come up with an idea for my story about three weeks before the course started in a bout of insomnia, and all I did was work through the exercises to fully develop the story. Of course, I spent a lot of time after the course editing and rewriting, but it was great to have the bones of a good story to work with.

2. I joined a talented community of fellow picture book writers.

While in the class, the other students and I joined a Facebook group which served as a critique forum. After we had finished, we “graduated” to the alumni Facebook group. With each month, a new crop of MPBM alums join this group, sharing ideas, information, and continuing to critique each others’ stories.

3. It is very reasonable. At $99, it is affordable. This course, along with Ann Whitford Paul’s Writing Picture Books: A Hands On Guide From Story Creation To Publication, will jump start anyone’s picture book writing education. 

An added bonus is that taking the course gives a $25 discount off a paid critique by Susanna. Susanna's critiques are amazing and well worth their full price, but who doesn't like a discount? Learn more about her course at Making Picture Book Magic. 

Interview with Susanna

Susanna agreed to answer some questions about her path to picture book author and teacher extraordinaire:

Q. How did you make the leap from aspiring to published author? What was the key to your success?

Susanna' s debut PB
I have wanted to write picture books ever since I read Harry The Dirty Dog and Make Way For Ducklings as a child. I always wrote... a lot! But it wasn't until after my daughter was born that I found a way to pursue writing for children. Reading a parenting magazine one day, I saw an ad in the back for the Institute of Children's Literature. I sent in my writing sample, was accepted to the course, and I started my life as a children's author. There is no doubt that course played a huge role. I was a complete newbie, and I learned so much from it, not just about writing but about the world of children's publishing. Back then the internet was not yet a factor. The amount of information about writing craft, agents, editors, submissions etc. simply didn't exist.

Shortly after completing the course (which took me three times as long as it was supposed to because I kept having children :)), I was very fortunate to meet the woman who became my agent, Liza Voges of Eden Street Lit. While my daughter and her son played in the yard, she and I chatted about how she was a children's literary agent and I was a children's writer. She asked to see some of my work. It took me 6 months to get up the courage to show her any, but when I did, she liked it and took me on as a client. She sold my first manuscript, The House That Mack Built, less than a year later. From that standpoint, I guess the transition was relatively painless. I had a lot to learn. I worked hard at improving my writing all the time (still do!). But I was lucky in meeting my agent, and I think she may have been the key to my success (along with not giving up when the going gets tough!). Without her, I'm not sure when I would have had the courage to submit, and I'm sure I wouldn't have been as on-target with my submissions.  

Q. I’ve enjoyed so many of your books. Is there one that is a favorite? What inspired you to write that story?

That, Sylvia, is a cruel question :) It's like asking which is your favorite child! :)  I don't think I can pick just one. I love Punxsutawney Phyllis because of her spunk and self-confidence. Phyllis was inspired by wondering why on earth Punxsutawney Phil always had to be a boy when certainly a girl could do the job just as well :) I love Can't Sleep Without Sheep because it's silly and fun. Can't Sleep was inspired by my son, whose mind was always going a million miles an hour at bedtime. And I love Not Yet, Rose because I think it's a story that speaks to the questions a lot of kids have about getting a new sibling. Rose was inspired by my daughter while we were waiting for my son to be born, so it has a very special place in my heart.

Q. As an experienced picture book author, what do you recommend a beginner do to improve his or her craft (other than take your course)?

Susanna recommends this

  • Well, it's probably advice you've heard before, but I'd say read a lot of picture books. There's nothing like immersing yourself in what you want to write to get a feel for how it's done well. 
  • If you have the means, take a few courses. Different courses stress different things and explain them in different ways. 
  • Also, there are some excellent craft books out there from which you can learn a great deal. I highly recommend Ann Whitford Paul's book, Writing Picture Books: A Hands On Guide From Story Creation To Publication
  • Finally, if you're able, join Julie Hedlund's 12x12 group. It's an amazing community of writers (and illustrators) at every stage of their careers and there is a wealth of information and opportunity available.

Q. How did Making Picture Book Magic come about? What has been the most surprising or gratifying thing about this course?

One day I just got to thinking that I'd like to teach a writing course. I wanted to design my own. I wanted to make it something that busy people could fit into their schedules. And I wanted to make it affordable because most of us don't have tons of spare spending money, and I truly believe that everyone should have the opportunity to learn something they want to learn. I also think it's important to take multiple courses if you can (as I mentioned above), and one way to manage that is by not having to spend too much on any particular one. So I started writing my course. It took me 8 months of writing and beta testing and rewriting. I also wanted it to include art that would inspire picture book ideas, so I searched for illustrators whose work I loved that I thought would enhance the course. When I was finally pretty sure that it was as ready as it was going to be, I opened it up to writers starting in February.

What has been most gratifying is the positive response to the course. The people who have taken it seem to learn from it and enjoy it. And it's a wonderful experience for me to have the opportunity to engage with so many talented writers. Most of them stay on in the private Making Picture Book Magic alumni Facebook group after their time in the course is over, and it's a pleasure and a privilege to be able to keep exchanging thoughts, ideas, tips, and opportunities with such a great group of people.

Q. A quick challenge: provide any thoughts or words of advice in haiku form. 

Hmm... Haiku is definitely NOT my area of expertise... I had to look up the rules to do this :)  But I'm always up for a challenge:

Q. Do you have any upcoming projects you can share with us?

Yes, I DO have some news to share. :)  I have a new picture book coming out in Fall 2015! It's called ALPHABEDTIME! and will be illustrated by Betsy Snyder and published by Nancy Paulsen Books, an imprint of Penguin Books.

Yes, I am falling over myself with excitement. :)

                                        * * * 

Congratulations, Susanna, on the new picture book! I can't wait to see it on the bookshelves and thanks so much for the interview. I will also print out your wise haiku and post it on my computer.

Where to Find Susanna Online

Pinterest:  (which is new, under construction, and used for Perfect Picture Books)