A few weeks ago, I had the great pleasure of traveling to the bayous of Houma, Louisiana to give a talk at the Jambalaya Writers’ Conference to a group of aspiring children’s book authors and illustrators. Being a Southern girl to the bone and a former resident of that sweaty, wonderful part of the country, I could not wait to get back to Louisiana to run my mouth about my favorite subject: picture books!

My session, which was called “Picture Book Dos and Don’ts,” was an amazing experience. I got to discuss children’s books, from concept and execution all the way to submission and publication, with an enthusiastic group of writers, artists, agents and booksellers. I even found time to have a little fun, too! I spent much of the long weekend soaking up the sunshine, shoveling in jambalaya and crawfish étouffée, and laughing with all of the wonderful, creative people I met there.

Enjoying some crawfish and crabs on a warm evening with a new pal

By far the highlight of the weekend was the keynote address by Rick Bragg, who is a beloved Southern nonfiction writer and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. I have been a huge fan of Mr. Bragg’s since I read his memoir All Over but the Shoutin’, a chronicle of his humble upbringing in Possum Trot, Alabama, and the deep connection he has always shared with his mother. When I found out he would be speaking at the conference, I was beside myself.

Rick’s talk was about the power of memory. He regaled the delighted crowd with funny stories from his childhood—the kinds of stories about dogs and pickup trucks than can only come from growing up in the country—and punctuated them with the same question, repeated: What is worth remembering?

Rick Bragg giving his keynote address

Later that afternoon, Rick’s words were ringing in my head. I decided to take advantage of the sunny afternoon to warm my pasty New England shoulders by the hotel pool. I took the elevator down to the lobby, sporting nothing but a polka-dotted bathing suit and a bandana in my hair, and when the elevator doors parted, I found myself face to face with Rick Bragg.

I couldn’t miss the opportunity to talk to him, despite my devastatingly bad sartorial choice. I shook his big, warm hand and told him how much I loved his books. We chuckled over my pool-ready appearance. I told him how much his book meant to me, that I had read it the same summer I lost my grandmother. He told me he was so sorry she was gone. I smiled. He smiled. And then he was gone.

As an editor, I think a lot about what is worth remembering. Making picture books is all about choices—what are the moments to pull out and highlight, and what can fade away in the background? What separates the ordinary from the extraordinary? In my talk, I advised the authors in the room to concentrate on including lots of specific sensory details in their manuscripts to bring their readers into their characters’ experiences. But how is an author supposed to know which moments of a character’s story—real or fictional—are important enough to relate to an audience? What is worth remembering?

When I think about the time I bumped into one of my favorite authors while wearing nothing but a bathing suit, I kind of want to hide my face in my hands. What was I thinking? I groan inwardly. The white polka dots on the black suit, the coconut scent of sunscreen and the taunting ding! of the elevator race through my brain unbidden. I want to chase them out of my mind.

But then I remember that this is precisely what Rick was talking about: the power of the peculiar details of a story. It’s the details that bring you in and make you smile, or make you squirm, or maybe make you do both at the same time. Some stories have the power of bringing you right into one moment in time and letting you step right in. And that is exactly what that makes something worth remembering.

Rick Bragg and his mother, Margaret

So, I went to Louisiana to teach folks about picture books, but I came home having learned a few things about them too.

Check back soon to learn more about this editor’s list of Picture Book Dos and Don’ts!

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