The show must go on . . . the pages

By Kate Carroll


Fellow picture book writers, do you struggle with SHOW DON’T TELL? It’s a demanding task when writing in this genre. One experience I had gave me an interesting perspective on how to tackle it.                                                                                                    

I attended a workshop led by experts in the field.  Among them was the celebrated illustrator, Eric Rohmann. I had settled in my spot, notebook opened, wanting to pinch myself over the “craft gems” to come. We were tasked with our first assignment - create a dummy for our picture books. My stomach tightened as I looked around the room. Everyone had “dug in” to work. My hands felt clammy as I picked up a pencil.  I only had paltry stick figures in my repertoire. With no choice, short of bolting, I designed a dummy and placed my copy onto the pages. My fingers cramped as I drew. Erasing again and again. I managed one scene on the cover, and then I heard, “Time to wrap up.” I bit my lip thinking Well at least my manuscript is good. 

The moment of truth arrived when the facilitators directed us to a mentor.  My heart pounded like a hammer.  Eric opened the booklet and doodled on the first page. What a gift!  What followed was a gift too, although I didn’t exactly think that at the time. 

 As we chatted about my project, he created another illustration to compliment my words.  But after the first two pages, Eric grew quiet.  He turned a page. And the next page, and the page after that.  He stopped illustrating.  I stopped breathing. I couldn’t tell if he was deep in thought, confused or bored.

 Those few moments lasted forever. He looked up at me and said, “You took over my job.”  My throat was dry. He pointed to my words that took away his creativity and stole his chance to develop his half of the story. I was telling, telling, telling.

The lightbulb moment: Save half the story for the illustrator!  Yes, I had heard that advice over and over, but until an illustrator, and an amazing one at that, critiqued my work, I don’t think I fully understood it.


My meeting with Eric Rohmann was one of the most useful experiences I’ve had in growing as a picture book writer.


Here are a few takeaways to think about as you work on those pesky telling sentences in your manuscripts.

 Share!  Are you giving an illustrator space in your manuscripts?

 Describe actions that show the emotions of a character.

Even if you write gorgeous description, remember that the word budget of picture books is tight. Leave it to the illustrators.

Look for a chance to have your project critiqued by an illustrator.  A revelation and revolution for your future projects!

Build dummies and draw, sketch or doodle the art. Then decide if every word you wrote is necessary.

Make a list of telling statements. Example: He is scared. Next prove that he is scared. What is he doing, saying, thinking to show his fear? How is he moving, speaking? What would I hear or see him doing? Repeat that with your list.

Use sensory images, metaphors and similes.

When you get to the place where your manuscript is done, pick it apart one more time and exercise some of these tools to give it the best chance of acquisition.


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