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.