skip to Main Content
Emma Walton Hamilton: January 12 X 12 Featured Author

Emma Walton Hamilton: January 12 x 12 Featured Author

Post Series: Featured Author

What do you get when you mix a shiny new year, the beginning of another round of the 12 x 12 picture book writing challenge, and an amazingly talented and generous NYT-bestselling author kicking us off with the first featured author post?

You get phenomenal writing tips to start your year AND unprecedented opportunities to get even more help to improve your writing.

Because Emma Walton Hamilton is not ONLY an author. She is also a gifted freelance editor (I know because I’ve hired her!) who can work magic on both manuscripts and query letters. So much so with query letters that I’ve dubbed her “the query whisperer.”

Several opportunities will be coming to 12 x 12 members as a result of Emma’s generosity. First, this month’s winner will receive access to Emma’s online, self-paced, 8-week picture book writing course — Just Write for Kids. I, along with other 12 x 12 alumni, have taken this course and trust me when I say it will change your picture book writing life! This course costs $297, but one lucky 12 x 12 winner will get it for FREE.

Secondly, Emma has once again agreed to critique query letters from Little GOLDen Book memberswho pay the one-time fee to join 12 x 12. This year the event will be bigger and better, however, because Emma and I are going to create a webinar where we record her giving verbal critiques (names will be removed from queries to keep them anonymous). GOLD members will then receive a copy of the recording to keep for reference. A single query critique from Emma normally costs $150. But one-time fee paying GOLD members will get the critique free AND have the benefit of watching Emma work her magic on many other queries.*

One 12 x 12 member, Marcie Colleen, had this to say about the query critique she received last year: “(Emma) made (my query) SING! And that is the query letter I sent out and landed my agent. What an amazing opportunity that was to have Emma’s expertise work on my little letter.”

But there IS a catch. In order to participate in the query event, youh must sign up for 12 x 12 by the end of the day January 17th at the Little GOLDen Book level AND pay the one-time (vs. quarterly) fee.Hurry so you don’t miss out!

Now, let’s move on to Emma’s fabulous advice – perfect to get us going on a great new year of picture book writing! Welcome Emma!

So, it’s the first month of a New Year, and twelve new picture book challenges stretch out ahead of us.

Maybe you participated in PiBoIdMo in November, and have a stack (or even a handful) of ideas waiting to be developed into picture books over the course of 12 x 12 in 2014. Now what?

How do we take the seed of an idea and develop into a story? One way to begin is to write down everything you know so far about your idea. Free associate – what do you know about any of your characters, the subject matter, the setting, the takeaway you’d like to leave your readers with? What words, images, smells, tastes or sounds come to mind when you think of this idea?

Then, organize these thoughts into categories or relationships to one another. You can use index cards, Post-its, or a mindmapping tool like Freemind ( to assist you. Once you have jotted down everything you know, you can begin to think about the central dramatic question of your idea.

A central dramatic question is at the core of every successful children’s book. It is the question the story raises, or what the book is really about. It can usually best be stated as:

“Will (the hero/protagonist) find, get, solve or achieve ______?”

For example, the central dramatic question at the heart of Whistle for Willie is: “Will Peter ever learn how to whistle?”


knuffle-bunnyThe central dramatic question at the heart of Knuffle Bunny is: “Will Trixie ever get Knuffle Bunny back?” (or, more specifically, “Will Trixie be able to communicate to her parents that Knuffle Bunny is lost – and thus, get her back?”)

If you don’t yet have enough information about your idea, or it isn’t fleshed out sufficiently to determine the central dramatic question, you can prompt yourself with other leading questions. For instance, if you have an idea for a character but don’t know what their story is, ask yourself:

  • What does s/he want?
  • What is his or her problem that must be solved, or difficulty that must be overcome? (Another way of thinking about this is, what is standing in the way of their getting what they want? What are the obstacles?)
  • How does s/he solve or overcome the problem?
  • What does s/he learn in the resolving of their problem, or how might s/he change or grow by the end?

If you have an idea for a theme or subject (such as adoption, bullying, feeling different) but don’t yet know who the characters are, or what the story is, ask yourself:

  • What do you want to say about your subject? What point or message do you want to give kids, or leave them thinking about?
  • Who might be the main character – someone kids can relate to and connect with – that can help you tell your story, or make that point?
  • What problem might they have to overcome?
  • What would they need to learn or achieve over the course of the story in order to illustrate the point you intend to make?

Can you see a central dramatic question emerging now? Identifying your central dramatic question helps you focus your story, and ensures there will be a compelling plot with a built-in conflict or problem for your character to overcome.  It is also a helpful pre-cursor to being able to summarize your story in a concise sentence – a powerful exercise when it comes to focusing an idea, but even more valuable later, when the time comes for pitching, selling and marketing the book.

Now, here’s a down and dirty template for converting your central dramatic question into a plot and character driven sentence: (Name of hero/main character) wants/needs to (need/goal), but s/he can’t because (problem/obstacle) so s/he (actions/resolution) and ultimately realizes that (message/takeaway).

Happy writing!

EMMA WALTON HAMILTON is a best-selling children’s book author, editor and arts educator.  With her mother, Emma-and-Julieactress/author Julie Andrews, Emma has co-authored over twenty children’s books, seven of which have been on the NY Times Bestseller list, including The Very Fairy Princess series (#1 Bestseller), Julie Andrews Collection of Poems, Songs and Lullabies, the Dumpy the Dump Truck series, Simeon’s Gift, The Great American Mousical, and Thanks to You – Wisdom from Mother and Child.

Emma’s own book, RAISING BOOKWORMS: Getting Kids Reading for Pleasure and Empowerment, premiered as a #1 best-seller on in the literacy category and won a Parent’s Choice Gold Medal.

Emma is a faculty member of Stony Brook Southampton’s MFA in Creative Writing and Literature, where she also serves as Director of the Children’s Literature Fellows programand Executive Director of the Young Artists and Writers Project (YAWP), an inter-disciplinary writing program for middle and high school students.  A former actress and theatre director, Emma was a co-founder of Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor, and served as co-Artistic Director and Director of Education and Programming for Young Audiences there for 17 years.

Emma also works as a freelance children’s book editor, and hosts Just Write for Kids! – an online home-study course in writing for children as well as the Children’s Book Hub – a center of resources and support for aspiring children’s book authors.

*Emma will critique as many queries as she can in a two-hour period. Julie Hedlund will critique any queries Emma is unable to get to in that time period.

Back To Top