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Thursday, July 2, 2015


There's something special about children's picture books.  It's because they are exactly that--pictures and words together just for children.

The very best of them, and I'll share a few of my favorites shortly, are wonderful because they're the perfect marriage of art and text. I've written quite a few picture books and happily many have been honored with awards. 

I'm frequently asked for tips about how I work.  In fact, a writing friend recently said she wished she could have a tour inside my brain to see how I think while writing one of my books. SMILE. So I've given my creative process serious thought and, for me, it comes down to the following:

Have a clear vision.

Think in spreads.

Listen to the story like a reader.

Be willing to tweak to merge text to art.

Okay, starting at the top--Have a clear visionIMHO, the world is full of stories. I'm constantly on the hunt for that special one worthy of a picture book. I watch, read, talk to scientists and researchers. 

While there are lots of different kinds of picture books, I love to tell stories based on real life animals and people. Stories that have tension, characters you care about, moments of humor, moments that will make your breath catch, and even moments that will tug at your heart. 

That may sound like a lot for a thirty-two page book with limited text. But if I do it right, it'll all be there. For me it's often taking a big story, researching and experiencing firsthand whenever possible. 

Next, finding the main through line of the action and zeroing in on the heart of the story. Then putting it all through a sieve (mentally) to squeeze out just enough.

So that step is all getting ready. What I think of as brewing the story in my mind.

Next, is step two--Think in spreads. I'm sure there are lots of picture book writers that jump in and write the story at this point; later figure out how to split it up for the different pages. I think in spreads before I write.  

From my book TOAD WEATHER (Peachtree Publishers)

I lay the book out listing LR pp and the page numbers. I decide if I want to start with a full two page spread or if I want a 1 page intro and then into the story. Then I plan out that all important story arc. I'm happy--in fact thrilled--that my publishers have chosen amazing illustrators to bring my stories to life. But I am an artist (painting in oils and water colors) and I admit to my story leaping to full color life in my head at this point. I imagine where children will enjoy seeing the action spread across two pages. 
From my book FINDING HOME (Charlesbridge)

And where the story will be more interesting broken into one section on the lefthand page and showing what happens next on the righthand page. I also think long and hard about the action moments in the story: what will illustrators be able to show; what will children love seeing.

At last, I write. However, I described this step as Listen to the story like a reader. That's because my writing process goes like this:
I write and read aloud. 
Rewrite and read aloud. 
Revise and read aloud.
Tweak and read aloud. 

 I probably read one of my picture books aloud gazillion times during the course of writing it. And every time I think about children reading it--even better sharing it with others.

You don't believe me? Ask my husband. SMILE! 

I usually start each writing session by reading aloud something I've written that feels like it sets just the right tone, pacing, and rhythm for this new story. Then I dig in. And the story sticks with me even after my work session ends.  

When the text for one spread doesn't feel quite right, it keeps replaying in my mind. And I frequently rush to my computer or grab a notepad to jot down a phrase or wording change to fix that spot later. There does comes that moment when the story feels right. It's like finishing a jigsaw puzzle--the good feeling of all the pieces clicking into place. That's not to say I won't revise more later. SMILE. There's also the editing process. I've been blessed with wonderful editors to work with who ask me questions or challenge me to think about certain parts of my picture books. Then I make still more tweaks. 

And read aloud some more.

The final part is short but critical. The author and illustrator don't communicate--well, we do through our editor but we don't talk directly to each other. The reason is the purest creative process happens when the illustrator can bring his or her own vision to the picture book. I first see the illustrations when they're just sketches. Sometimes, those are very rough sketches. 

From my book RACE THE WILD WIND (Walker)

Other times, they're very detailed. I remember getting the sketches for RACE THE WILD WIND. Layne Johnson's black and white pencil sketches were so amazingly detailed I called my editor and asked, "Are we doing this book in black and white?" 

I believe my role during the illustration process is to make sure anything factual, like anything scientific, is accurately portrayed. But I also believe in doing my part to merge the story with the art. In TOAD WEATHER, for example, I didn't have a moonlit scene. Thomas Gonzalez, though, created an awesome moonlit scene. So I worked the moon into the text. SMILE

Also, I've now written three WHAT IF YOU HAD ANIMAL PARTS books. I love Howard McWilliam's illustrations for this series. And as I worked on the newest book WHAT IF YOU HAD ANIMAL EARS?! (coming out 2016) I found myself giving the kids having animal ears things to do that I knew Howard would turn into super cool art.

Finally, as promised, here's a list of some of my all time favorite picture books by other authors (not in any particular order except as I thought of them):

Possum Magic by Mem Fox
TheVery Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle
The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats
Huge Harold by Bill Peet
Brown Bear, Brown Bear What Do You See? by Bill Martin
Two Bad Ants by Chris Van Allsburg
The Church Mouse by Graham Oakley
Down The Back of the Chair by Margaret Mahy
The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs! by Jon Scieszka
Winnie the Witch by Valerie Thomas
Feathers for Lunch by Lois Ehlers
The Rascally Cake by Jeanne Willis

And lots more but this is a good start. SMILE.  Most of all love the process and the book you write is bound to shine.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

JUST FOR WRITERS......In A Few Verbs

Hello!  You haven't heard from me for awhile. I've been busy writing and so that's what I'd like to blog about for a bit--until I run out of steam. Or y'all send me emails telling me to quit. SMILE! 

First and foremost, for me, writing is all about language. Okay, that sounds obvious but it's not. Words are amazing. Powerful. Can be wielded like an artist's paint and brush to create a world and everything and everyone in it. Even more amazing words can add the many hues and shades of emotion.

Start by focusing on verbs. They're powerful. 

For example, Charlie can walk from Point A to Point B. But think how you view what's happening if Charlie---------

Jump in and brainstorm some other possibilities. 

Don't overdo it, of course. Ben Franklin, bless him, cautioned "All things in moderation." Charlie needs to walk sometimes so the other ways he moves have impact.

Definitely take out those adverbs--not just with moderation. SLASH! The name literally means to "add onto" verbs. But adverbs often weaken more than strengthen.  Consider these two sentences:
1.  Charlie walked easily through the tall grass.
2.  Charlie slipped through the tall grass.

Or compare these two.
1.  Charlie gently stroked her cheek.
2. Charlie caressed her cheek.

See what I mean. When I'm writing, the first words I focus on and choose like plucking one candy out of box of chocolates are the verbs.

Power up your verbs and your writing will be clearer and more colorful. Dare I say, more interesting.

Jane Yolen and Patricia MacLachlan are masters of the power verbs. Read any of their children's books to immerse yourself in language at its storytelling best. 

Monday, April 20, 2015


It's time once again to celebrate SAVE THE FROG DAY. Of course, that also includes appreciating their cousins TOADS.

I value these amphibians for all they do for us:

Eating lots of insects like mosquitoes and flies that would otherwise become pests.

Being food for lots of animals, such as birds, snakes, foxes, and some fish like pike and bass.

Plus they are just plain cool. Like the fact that they have a sticky tongue attached to the inside front of their mouth and it rolls out in less than a second to snag a bug. Or that to swallow their eyes sink to push food down their throat.

Here are some more fun facts about frogs and toads:

A group of frogs is called an army. A group of toads is called a knot or a nest.

Only male frogs croak. They may also whistle or bark. In some kinds of toads both the males and females make noise.

Some toads play dead or puff up to look bigger, if threatened by a predator.

Toads have special glands on the back of their heads. If the toad is stressed, these give off poison that can kill a predator that bites it. It won't cause warts on people but it's best to not touch toads or wash well if you do.

No matter how many times you kiss either a frog or a toad, though,
it won't turn into a prince.

And here are some fun frog and toad activities to enjoy in honor of this special event.

Hopping Off The Page

Compare the toads in each of these two book. To do this, first read these books.

Fiction:  Frog and Toad Together by Arnold Lobel (Harper Collins, 1972)

Faction (fictional story where all the facts are true): Toad Weather by Sandra Markle (Peachtree Publishing, 2015)

1. What is one way the toads in these two books are different?

2. What is one way the toads in these two books are alike? 

3. What time of day does the fiction story take place? How about the faction story?

4. Look at the pictures of toads in each book. What's one way the toads look alike? What's one way they look different? 

Say It In A Poem

Create a cinquain (say sin-cane) about a frog or toad. This is a kind of poetry first created by the American poet Adelaide Crapsey about 100 years ago. 

This kind of poem is just 5 lines long. It usually tells a short story about something and follows this format--2,4,6,8.2. That means
The first line has just 2 syllables (pronounced beats)
The second line has 4 syllables.
The third line has 6 syllables.
The fourth line has 8 syllables.
The fifth line has just 2 syllables again.

What's more there's a flow to the short story shared in a cinquain. It goes like this:
Line 1 = Name the subject
Line 2 = Describe it
Line 3 = Show some action
Line 4 = Share some feeling about it
Line 5 = Give a quick conclusion

For example

Bull frog.
Green and hungry.
Sees a fly and snags it.
What a master garden insect

BONUS Fold A Hopper

Visit this website and follow the directions to fold a paper frog. Then push on the frog to make it hop off a starting line. Measure how far it hops. 

Try your paper hopper on 3 different kinds of surfaces, such as carpeting, wood and tile. On which does your frog hop the farthest? How much farther is the longest hop than the shortest?

Saturday, March 21, 2015


I want to kick off my newest WHAT IF YOU HAD!? book WHAT IF YOU HAD ANIMAL FEET!?. So here are some fun activities to start things hopping.

( Below each activity, the Common Core State Standards being developed for grade 2 and 3 are identified)


Have each child choose his or her favorite animal feet. 

Choose some foot stomping music and have the children spread out at least an arm’s length apart. Then turn on the music and have kids dance where they’re standing. 

Remind them to dance as if they had their favorite animal feet.

Afterwards, ask the children to tell how it was different to dance with that animal’s feet. Next, have them tell how they think it would be different to do each of these things if they had that animal’s feet.
  • Take a bath
  • Pick up their room
  • Make their bed

Now, let them pick another animal’s feet, start the music, and dance some more!

   CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.2.3 Write narratives in which they recount a well-elaborated event or short sequence of events, include details to describe actions, thoughts, and feelings, use temporal words to signal event order, and provide a sense of closure.


Start by having children list all the kinds of shoes they can think of. That list will include: boots, sneakers, loafers, high heels, waders, sandals, high tops—and more.

This animal's shoes will need to be big and tough!

As a class, vote on one animal from WHAT IF YOU HAD ANIMAL FEET!? to treat to their very first pair of shoes. 

Share building a list of ideas to answer these questions:
  • What should those shoes do for the animal’s feet?
  • What material will the shoes need to be made out of to fit the animal’s habitat and behavior?
  • What special features could be added to the animal’s shoes to make them extra special?  

Have the children work alone or in small groups to draw and color pictures or make models of their special animal’s new shoes.

   CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.2.7 Participate in shared research and writing projects (e.g., read a number of books on a single topic to produce a report; record science observations).


The Rest of the Story

Have children look through WHAT IF YOU HAD ANIMAL FEET!? and pick their favorite picture of a boy or girl with animal feet. Now have them tell the rest of the story.

Each of those pictures shows only one moment in a story. Challenge children to imagine--and tell--the rest.
  • What led up to the moment shown in the picture?
  • What is really happening in the picture?
  • How is this story likely to end?

For example, look on page 19 at the boy digging for treasure with aardvark feet. How did he get the treasure map and find the right spot to dig?
How does he feel about finding the treasure? And what kind of treasure did he find?
What will he do now that he’s found the treasure? How will it change his life?

   CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.3.3 Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, descriptive details, and clear event sequences.


I'm sure everyone will agree that the animals in the book  have totally cool feet. For this activity ask children to pick an animal that isn’t in the book. 

Have them dig into books and work with older students or adults to search on-line and find out about that animal. 

Most important, encourage them to find the answers to these two questions:
1. What are that animal's feet like?
2. How does the animal use its feet to move and stay alive?

Next, like WHAT IF YOU HAD ANIMAL FEET!? have children make two-pages (a left hand/right hand spread) for their animal. On one page, they should answer the two questions. On the second page, they should share at least one super fun way it would be cool to have that animal’s feet for a day.

       CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.2.5 With guidance and support from adults and peers, focus on a topic and strengthen writing as needed by revising and editing.
       CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.3.4 With guidance and support from adults, produce writing in which the development and organization are appropriate to task and purpose. (Grade-specific expectations for writing types are defined in standards 1–3 above.)


What if one of the animals in WHAT IF YOU HAD ANIMAL FEET!? woke up one day with another kind of animal’s feet!?

Ask children to imagine what it would be like if—
A Mountain Goat had White Rhinoceros feet?
A Cheetah had Eastern Gray Kangaroo feet?
A Barn Owl had Cheetah feet?
A Giant African Millipede had Green Basilisk feet?
A Wolf had Duck-Billed Platypus feet?

Or make up another foot swap.  

Challenge children to think of something totally cool that animal could do with its new feet. Be sure they also consider how that swap might cause serious problems.

   CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.3.1 Write opinion pieces on topics or texts, supporting a point of view with reasons.

Did you and your students enjoy leaping into these activities? Then run with these ideas and come up with even more.