Friday, February 9, 2024

FINDING THE RIGHT “CONTAINER” FOR YOUR WRITING

By Jolene Gutiérrez

In addition to writing for kids, I’ve worked as a teacher librarian at a school for neurodivergent learners for nearly 30 years. Many of my students are reluctant readers, so I’ve become adept at matching readers with certain styles of writing that feel more comfortable to them. In print format, this includes verse novels, Choose Your Own Adventure books, short stories, and graphic novels. Features like more white space on a page, visual support, and shorter text lengths all make for books that feel less intimidating to many readers.

So when I start a writing project, I tend to think about my story and who my intended audience might be. I love picture books—both teaching them and writing them—so I often start there. Whittling certain concepts down to 500ish words can be difficult, though, and while I love using picture books with students of all ages (including my high school students) the picture book “container” has limitations on depth and quantity of content.

When I wrote the first draft of my nonfiction book BIONIC BEASTS: SAVING ANIMAL LIVES WITH ARTIFICIAL FLIPPERS, LEGS, AND BEAKS, it was a ~1000-word picture book. My editor Carol Hinz saw that picture book format and realized it might not be the best way to deliver some of the high-level science concepts, so she suggested trying the manuscript as a ~10,000-word middle grade book with five chapters, each about a different animal. This was the perfect fit for our content: I had space to share information about each animal, their limb differences, and the scientific interventions that helped them. I didn’t shy away from higher-level content, but by including things like photographs and hands-on activities and by breaking the content up into 5 short stories, this book appeals to a wide range of students.

My recent picture book TOO MUCH! AN OVERWHELMING DAY started as a 50-word board book, but that short story didn’t show enough of the child’s day to give a full understanding of sensory overwhelm, so after edits, I ended up with a ~250-word picture book with extensive back matter that walked us through everything that overwhelmed our main character, Birdy, and gave her a chance to practice mindfulness and find peace and calm as well. I went from a small, focused container to a space where I could spread out and tell the story of Birdy’s day. Readers were better able to understand each of the things that overwhelmed Birdy, and caregivers were given content they could use and share with child readers as needed.


My upcoming picture book UNBREAKABLE: A JAPANESE AMERICAN FAMILY IN AN AMERICAN INCARCERATION CAMP, coauthored with Min Tonai, was an exploration in containers. I started working on what became Unbreakable in 2016, and at that time, I wrote it as a middle grade nonfiction book that explored Colorado’s governor Ralph Carr and the Amache incarceration camp in Colorado. A friend who was incarcerated at Rohwer Incarceration Camp in Arkansas connected me to Min because he knew Min’s story would add to my manuscript. After interviewing Min and learning about his experiences in the Amache incarceration camp, we decided to work together and write his family’s story. We tried it as a middle grade novel, but layering Min’s story with information about Governor Carr and other history interrupted and weakened the story. We wrote it as a graphic novel manuscript, but the graphic novel format didn’t emphasize the quiet power of the story (although that could’ve been the fact that it was the first graphic novel manuscript we’d ever written). When we tried it as a picture book, though, we finally found the right container. A picture book manuscript was the perfect format to strip the story down to its heart. This ~1,000-word picture book will have 1,400+ words of backmatter and hopefully will appeal to readers of all ages.

I’m also working on a couple of other informational fiction or nonfiction projects. One is a novel in verse and the other is a graphic novel manuscript, and I believe these formats fit the topic and their intended audience. Time will tell, but after my experiences with finding the right container for my stories, I’m not afraid to try other formats with these projects as well. I encourage you to take a look at your current project(s) and think about the story you’re trying to share, who you envision reading it, and how you might best reach that audience. Testing the fit of different stories in various containers keeps me on my toes as a writer, but it’s also the perfect way to help your story reach its readers.

 


About the Author:
Jolene grew up on a farm and now lives with her family and a variety of animals in a suburb of Denver, Colorado. A teacher librarian since 1995, Jolene spends her days sharing children’s books and her nights writing them. She’s the author of 
UNBREAKABLE: A JAPANESE AMERICAN FAMILY IN AN AMERICAN INCARCERATION CAMP (2025), MAMIACHI AND ME (2024), THE OFRENDA THAT WE BUILT (2024), TOO MUCH! AN OVERWHELMING DAY, The Stars of Latin Pop series, BIONIC BEASTS: SAVING ANIMAL LIVES WITH ARTIFICIAL FLIPPERS, LEGS, AND BEAKS, and MAC AND CHEESE AND THE PERSONAL SPACE INVADER. Find her online: www.jolenegutierrez.com.

  

41 comments:

  1. I love this way of looking at format as finding the right container. I was told a PB I wrote should be a MG, and I didn't listen. Now, I see how letting it breathe with the extra space and word count will make it stronger and reach the right audience!

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    1. Thank you so much for reading and for your thoughts, Tanya!

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  2. I struggle trying to make everything a lyrical picture book! Thanks for broadening my scope.

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    1. I understand that! Thank you so much for reading, Robin!

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  3. Robin Brett WechslerFebruary 9, 2024 at 9:23 AM

    I appreciate your story behind the stories and suggestion to try different ways to tell a story. I also love that you share picture books wit high school students! Thanks, Jolene. I'm excited to check out all your new books.

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    1. Thank you so much for reading and for your support, Robin! And yay for picture books for readers of all ages! :D

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  4. I'm looking forward to checking out your work, and to thinking more about container options for my current WIP! Thanks so much for this helpful post!

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    1. Thank you so much for reading and for your support, Heather!

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  5. I always enjoy the journey of a book! Thanks for the idea of finding the right container for our stories.

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  6. Yes! So often we are married to our initial ideas. But getting published means exercising that flexibility muscle and doing whatever the story needs.

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    1. I love hearing your take on it, Lindsay! Thank you for reading!

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  7. Jolene, what a wonderful way of looking at how we choose to tell our stories! The right container makes all the difference and we shouldn't be afraid to experiment.

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  8. JOLENE: THANK YOU for OPENING our eyes to the IMPORTANCE of finding the right "container" to tell our stories. Your examples truly show how VITAL it is to play with different methods of writing our stories, in order to find the right fit for them and to reach the heart of our readers. I think we see the 500 word PB format, and we try to fit--SQUISH or mold--our story within its confines; when what we really need to do is discover the story's true shape and the best way to present it to our readers. I learned SO MUCH from this post! THANK YOU!

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    1. Natalie, thank you for reading and for your comments! I'm so happy that you found this helpful. I hope you enjoy playing around with different formats!

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  9. The right container makes all the difference! Thanks for sharing your experience in trying them out for your books, Jolene!

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  10. Jolene, I like the way you call the format a "container" for the story you want to tell. And I am also impressed with your willingness and ability to explore the different possibilities for your manuscripts. Great work! And, thanks for sharing!

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  11. Thank you, Jolene, for sharing your insights to finding the right container for the story you wish to tell.

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  12. Oooh! I like the idea of looking at different formats as "containers" because: 1) I collect tins and boxes; and 2) thinking about "too big" or "too small" or "just right" sounds like a wonderful way to discover what best fits the story.

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    1. What a great connection, Sue! I love that this feels like a good way of looking at this concept--thanks for reading!

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  13. Thanks for sharing! BIONIC BEASTS is a great mentor text. It's the perfect format for the level of information being shared. I'm adding TOO MUCH! to my reading list.

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    1. Manju, thank you so much for reading and for your kind words about BIONIC BEASTS! I appreciate your support and hope you enjoy TOO MUCH!

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  14. Love this container idea and questions to ask yourself when choosing a format. Thank you Jolene!

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  15. Great post, Jolene!

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  16. The last comment was from Carol Baldwin

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  17. Thank you, Jolene, for sharing how various formats worked best for your book creations.

    Suzy Leopold

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  18. Thank you for exploring how each of your books worked (and didn't) in various containers. Great reminder to not get to entrenched in one version, but to experiment and find the best way to tell the story.

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    1. Thank you so much for reading and for your kind words!

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  19. Great post, Jolene! Thank you for sharing these experiences!

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  20. Wonderful post! Picture books are for everyone so I’m so glad you share them with your high schoolers! This is a fabulous way of thinking about size, shape, length, audience, etc. Finding the right container is crucial!! Thanks for sharing!!

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  21. Thank you for sharing your patient journey to find the container for your stories. Lots to think about here.

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    1. Thank you so much for reading, Sue! I hope this is helpful!

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  22. Excellent post. What a great reminder that sometimes we have to reimagine our story and put it in the right "container" to tell it in the best possible way. Thanks for sharing.

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  23. Thanks for sharing your process - I love your container metaphor. I look forward to reading your upcoming books - you know I love your stories!

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    1. Thank you so much for reading and for your ongoing support, Melissa--I'm so grateful!

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  24. Thanks, Jolene, for this reminder. I struggle with this, because I really only like to write in certain containers: board book, picture book, easy reader, poetry collection. I've had to let go of some projects I truly loved because they needed a different container (one I found no joy in writing) to really be what they needed to be.

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  25. Jolene, I love how your ideas move into a format and length to make the perfect match.

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