How to Make Your Book Appealing for Children and Adults and Full of Heart

Hey friends! Today I’m bringing a special guest to you, my special readers!

Karen Ferreira is an illustrator, award-winning creative director and owner of GetYourBookIllustrations. She helps self-publishing authors get amazing, affordable illustrations. She has spent many hours learning about self-publishing and enjoys helping others succeed in this field. In fact, she’s one of my newest favorite resources to recommend to the many children’s book authors I coach through the writing and publishing process. Without further ado, welcome Karen!

Start by telling us more about GetYourBookIllustrations.

Karen: Thank you, Marcy! My creative agency specializes in providing high quality, affordable illustration services for authors.

As a keynote speaker on my annual conference, Children’s Book Mastery, I interviewed Marcy about how to make your book appealing for children and adults and full of heart. Marcy gave such valuable pointers that I wanted her audience to benefit from her advice too. In this article I share the highlights of our interview.

We explored the following:

  • What doesn’t make a good children’s book
  • Key elements to create a book full of heart
  • How to take the reader on a journey despite word count
  • How to build emotional support into your book
  • What a character interview is and how to use it
  • How many children’s books should you read to hone your craft?
  • Showing versus telling

We wrapped up with Marcy’s top tip to help children’s authors succeed. Make sure to read to the end so you don’t miss it!

What doesn’t make a good children’s book?

Karen: So, I know that pretty much anyone could go through the steps of writing a children’s book, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to be a good book. So, I’d like to ask you first, what actually doesn’t make a good book?

Marcy: There’s a good list of things that don’t make a book good. Those things are being really didactic and preachy. Kids live in a world where they’re lectured to all the time, taught all the time, and so, we want to avoid that in our books for kids because we want to give them a chance to see other kids overcoming obstacles and taking responsibility and ownership for their decisions.

Books that really don’t have a strong character or even a plot-line, don’t do that well in the industry. Those books tend to be called ‘quiet books.’ Some have sold and done well. These are books that are sweet but don’t really have a storyline.

We want to see characters change, learn, and grow because that’s real life. 

Marcy: We want to set kids up for realistic expectations of real life. Those are a couple of things that make books not very good.

Rhyme comes up a lot, and I am not a rhymer. If you’re not perfect at it, you should avoid it. It actually does more damage in the sense of the success of your book when kids are being pulled out because the rhyme or the meter or the rhythm doesn’t work, versus just having a real smooth book that works.

If you’re going to write in rhyme, you should definitely have a very good, solid editor who edits in rhyme and can give you that kind of feedback. Otherwise, don’t try.

Karen: That makes a lot of sense. Yeah, I’ve also heard you can judge, if it takes away from the storyline at all then don’t try.

Marcy: Yeah, if it can be told equally in prose as it could in poetry, then just write it in prose.

Does age matter?

Karen: Okay. What’s interesting, you mentioned about the strong character and the strong storyline versus just something cute. That seems to also become more and more true as the age goes up. Like a book for a 1-year-old often—or 2-year-old often is kind of just cute. Is that right?

Marcy: It is right. That’s a very good point. Age does matter, even so, you want to keep the adult’s attention. So, in children’s book writing, you’re not writing just for a child, you’re writing for the adult buyer who’s going to read that book over and over and over.

Key elements to create a book full of heart

Karen: Right, okay. So, what stood out for me from your children’s books that I read was it’s really full of sensitivity and tenderness and full of heart. What are some of the key elements that sets an okay book apart from a really good engaging book that’s full of heart?



Really what it comes down to is: Can the reader feel the story versus just read it? 

By that I mean, there’s a level of emotional engagement that they feel. Agents and editors will not acquire a book that doesn’t have an emotional connection to the audience in some way. And especially to them, first of all.

And that’s just as important when you’re self-publishing as well. You want to have that emotional connection with your readers. That’s what brings them back to it over and over.

How to take the reader on a journey despite word count

Karen: That makes total sense. Then, since it has to be quite short, a children’s book obviously gives you limited words to work with, so how do you still take the reader on a complete journey despite that?

Marcy: You have to do it strategically, with some intentionality. So, for example, if I had 50 thousand words to build out a story, I still want to be intentional and thoughtful. But I’ve got so much space to develop and play and build-out.

Whereas in a picture book, if I’ve got zero to seven hundred words, usually over twenty-eight pages of story, I have to pay attention to the pacing right away. Like, where are those pages turning and what’s happening and why does the kid want to turn the page? I have to pay attention to where the climax is.

Being mindful about how that story folds out. I use a story map. It’s basically an outline. It’s my guide for where I’m going to build in certain aspects of the story to make sure everything’s covered.

It’s also about remembering that children’s books have a partnership with an artist and with the artwork. My words need to tell part of the story, but that illustrator is telling the other half of the story and I need to leave space for that. They’re bringing their own creativity to the story.

Children’s books are the most difficult type of literature to write. It’s the most difficult for the reason you said—we have so few words to do it in. We have so few pages to do it in, but you have to engage an adult reader/purchaser and this child who’s going to beg them to read it again over and over and over.

Karen: Yeah, exactly. I know you wanted to show us a little presentation in this regard.

Marcy: Yeah. You had asked how I built into Speranza’s Sweater, specifically, so much empathy and emotion. So, I put a few things together to show that.

Karen: Awesome.

Marcy: So, first, why does emotion matter in books? Why do we want to include it? We touched on it already. It’s what makes a book good. If you think of any movie you’ve watched or even book you’ve read as an adult, it’s the same.

The ones that really stick with you, you felt something. I watched a movie recently where everybody died in the end and I didn’t care. I felt betrayed by the writers of the movie because they didn’t develop the characters strongly enough in that movie for me to care that they all died at the end.

And this actually really matters psychologically for the kids as well. So, this is from a website: ‘Children who are socially and emotionally healthy tend to demonstrate, and continue to develop, several important behaviors and skills. They usually have a more positive mood. Listen and follow directions better. Have closer relationships with caregivers and peers. Are able to recognize, label and manage their own emotions. Show empathy, can understand other people’s emotions, express their wishes and preferences. Are able to gain access to ongoing play and group activities, are able to play, negotiate and compromise with others.’

Right now in our general society, there are not a lot of emotionally healthy children. And there are not a lot of emotionally healthy families and adults. There has been so much brokenness, whether it’s through poverty or through lack of education or circumstance. Families are struggling, and so then are our kids. And so, what’s the importance of building this into our kids’ books? Well, it’s one of the few places where kids can go and experience something really healthy.

Even if a child does have that in a family setting, they probably aren’t experiencing it at school or in all the homes of their friends. We have an opportunity as writers to give them a safe place to go.

We want to show other kids, or other circumstances, where a character is confronting an obstacle or conflict or tension and overcomes it in a healthy way, because they’re not getting that necessarily in their everyday life.

They’re getting to see a childlike character overcome things on their own without an adult preaching the answer to them. If your book is preaching the answer to them it’s not a good book anymore. That’s real life.

In our kids’ books, we want to give them the opportunity to see that children can and do make good decisions or when they make poor decisions, can overcome that too.

Marcy: We want to give them the opportunity to catch the lesson. This is an example of Weirdo and Willy that I kind of brought up a bit ago.

Willy gets teased every day. So, they said it on Monday, ‘Willy is a weirdo, Willy is a weirdo.’ They said it on Tuesday and Wednesday, but on Thursday, something strange happened. And what happens is that a Weirdo shows up.

He’s a creature whose name is Weirdo. He hears them saying ‘weirdo’ all the time and he thinks, Oh, they’re calling me to play. And so, this creature shows up, but he actually ends up terrifying all of the bullies. All the bullies just run away and Weirdo’s just like, ‘Why doesn’t anyone want to be my friend?’

And so, it ends up being this story where I’m flipping language, turning it from something negative into something endearing, but it’s also a story of bullying and of learning to love yourself. And what is the importance that we put on other people and what they think of us?

One reviewer made a comment that they were disappointed that at the end of the book, the bullies don’t have this major transformation story. They do show up again in the end, but it’s not like they repent, or they realize how wrong they were, and they make amends. And it got me thinking, ‘Yeah, why didn’t I do that?’ And the reality is, because I based this on my own childhood and some bullying I had.

The writing of this book was really of my own journey as well, and how the book ends is that Weirdo and Willy don’t need the approval of the bullies anymore. That’s why it doesn’t matter that they don’t transform because Weirdo and Willy have transformed. And so, this again is an opportunity for kids to catch a lesson. There’s never in this book where I just straight out say, ‘Hey, kids, learn to love yourself.’ There’s no adult saying, ‘But Willy, you’re not a weirdo, those kids are just mean. Here’s all the things I love about you.’

Speranza’s Sweater is a story of a child who’s removed from the birth home, placed into foster care and ends up in an adoptive family. So, I wrote that book to give kids an example to see themselves reflected in the story. ‘Hey, there’s a book about a foster kid. I’m a foster kid. Oh, she’s been caught for lying. I’ve been caught for lying. She was loved anyway. Oh, maybe I’m loved anyway, too’. Like, they get to develop that.

But then I have also gotten lots of feedback that kids who are not in foster care have read this book and suddenly had a new understanding of what it must be like for their classmates or their friends or whoever they might know who has to move from home to home or isn’t living with their birth family. It gives them an inside look. So, what was foreign and therefore scary before is now familiar and filled with compassion.

How to build emotional support into your book

Marcy: I love this quote. Flannery O’Conner is known to say:

‘I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.’

All of the books I’ve written for children, if I think about it, were me working out something that mattered to me, either in my own childhood or right now, or things I’m experiencing with my kids. And I don’t understand what I’m thinking until I’m able to read this draft that I’m putting together. And that was true for Weirdo and Willy.

I was in grade 4 and we were out at P.E. playing softball, and my team went out into the field, and I didn’t know how to line up. Wherever I went in line, kids would tell me the opposite. I didn’t know where to go. No one would let me in. So, I asked the teacher, ‘How do you want us to line up?’

The whole entire class began to chant at me: ‘Nark, nark, nark!’, which means ‘tattletale.’ I was mortified. I was already this shy kid, super insecure. And now my entire class is chanting this at me.

I started crying at lunch and some of the kids started to say, ‘Oh, I didn’t do it. It wasn’t me.’ Now I’m angry, ‘Yes, you did! You all did! You’re all mean people!’ That stuck with me. I hadn’t meant to tell on anyone or do anything wrong.

Years later, I’m with Tara Lazar on her website, participating in Storystorm, which I think happens each January now. But one of her blog posts was on how to come up with ideas, and it was around taking a story in your life that, if you could rewrite it, how would that story go? And immediately this childhood story came up. Oh my goodness, if I could rewrite that childhood story, a ‘nark’ would have shown up and eaten them all.

So, when I began to write that story, I was rewriting my childhood story, that was painful, into a story kind of the way I wish it had gone. What makes it so special now is, after 38 revisions or whatever, the book went from the character eating all of the bullies to make me feel good, to the characters not needing the approval of the bullies anymore.

How do I build the emotional support in? I’m building it in because I had to be aware of myself and my own journey with this story, with my part in it, but also my deep care for it. It really does mean that when you have a story idea, stop and think about what is your real connection to this? Why does it matter to you?

Character interviews

Marcy: I had a student I was coaching who was having writer’s block with her children’s book. And she’d never had writer’s block. And as we spoke together, what came out was that she had been bullied as a child and she was experiencing deep guilt about putting this beloved character into a bullying situation because it had been so hurtful to her as a kid and she had to recognize that.

There’s an awareness of yourself that sometimes doesn’t come out until you’re in the middle of the story. And so, knowing your character is really important.

What I had her do after that was have a conversation with her character. Have a conversation and just tell that character like, ‘I’m so sorry that I’m putting you here, know that I love you and I’m not trying to cause you harm. And the reason you’re here is because I want kids to know that just like you, they can overcome.’ Just to have a real honest conversation with her character. It did something-it gave her space to feel peace, to move forward with that story.

Karen: I love that, that’s such a cool way to do it.

Marcy: Yeah, it’s amazing. I often recommend doing character interviews because I think the more that you know your character—even if it’s only 28 pages of a story where you are using this character—the more you know that character, the more you’re going to care for them, the more your reader is going to care for them.

A character interview is essentially a list of questions that you ask your character and you write the very first answer that comes to mind. I know this feels a little bit like playing with multiple personalities. I’m sure you’re thinking: But Marcy, this is a character in my head. It’s not going to answer me, but it is part of who you are. You will be surprised and maybe even a little freaked out, but in a good way, at the kinds of answers that you’ll get from your characters.

Some of the things I like to ask are, ‘What are you most afraid of?’ Then I just write the very first answer that comes, and sometimes it surprises me. It’s not what I thought.

So, I’ll ask, ‘What’s your greatest fear? What gives you the most excitement or happiness in life? What do you feel the most sad about?’ I’ll ask them emotional questions, but I also might ask like, ‘What’s your favorite food?’ Just so I know.

Writing that first answer can sometimes surprise you, but write it down anyway. At the end of that document, you’ll be amazed at how much you learned about your character. You’ll have a greater sense of who they are and how they’re going to change through your story and how they’ll act.

Showing vs. Telling

Marcy: Be so thoughtful about your audience and how they’re best going to both experience your book versus just have it preached to them. That’s your showing versus telling. Your art is going to show quite a bit.

Showing versus telling is both done in the artwork, but also in not just saying it. For example, Speranza also visited her brothers. She couldn’t help but smile to see them happy and laughing.’ I don’t just come straight out and say, ‘Speranza was happy to see her brothers.’ I’m showing it with her smile. I’m showing it with what her eyes are doing, what her shoulders are doing. Again, giving you an opportunity to show it in the words, in the language.

How many children’s books should you read to hone your craft?

Karen: Thank you, that’s very helpful. All right, and then I know also that reading children’s books is essential for authors to hone their craft. How many books should they read?

Marcy: All of them. I wouldn’t put a number on it. I just think read as many as you can until you feel like you understand what makes a book good. One of the ways to understand that is to pay attention to what attracts you to the book. There’s a lot to be said about your own attraction to a story, even as an adult because there is still a childlike person in each of us, right? We might be embarrassed to say we love picture books, but we totally do.

Karen: I’m not embarrassed to say I love them.

Marcy: No! Be surrounded by books, and not just what’s up-and-coming. I think that’s important for trends and to understand what’s being done and where kids are at. What’s the industry saying kids want right now?

And also, classics. They’re classics for a reason. They’re timeless, they’re universal. They are still being read because there was something about them that didn’t only matter in the 70’s or the 60’s or the 50’s when they were being written. And so, going back to those and saying, ‘What made this timeless and what made it universal?’ and building that into your own writing. So read lots and lots.

What is your top tip to help children’s book authors succeed?

Karen: Okay, good answer. Alright and then my final question for you: What would be your top tip to help children’s book writers succeed?

Marcy: My top tip for children’s writers to succeed would be, to not quit growing as a children’s writer. So, there’s ‘don’t quit’—but don’t just not quit writing, but don’t quit trying to grow.

When webinars or conferences or critique groups or these options come along, where you can learn more about the craft of writing, but also have someone else give feedback, take advantage! In that critique kind of setting or session, be willing to submit your work to feedback from people in the industry who know, so that you continue to grow. Every book is going to be a little better than the last book, or it should be because you should be growing as you go.

Don’t quit growing.

Karen: Good tip. Thank you so much for that. Thank you so much for coming on, Marcy. That was really awesome.

Looking for an Illustrator?

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While We Slept – Our Memoir

While We Slept: Finding Hope and Healing After Homicide - A Memoir -

In 2005, my husband and I woke up to the murder of his mother, Mary Ann Larsen-Pusey, by his father, Clinton Pusey, while we slept down the hall. 

It was a long hall. Long enough that Mary Ann sometimes called us from her mother-in-law suite rather than walk down it. We shared this home for a few months while we were all in transition: Us, into newly married life and them into newly retired life. They were packing their belongings and moving to Clinton’s native Colombia. 

That morning was a shock to us all, Clinton included. He has no memory of that morning, except for a few random, seemingly unimportant tasks he accomplished. 

As a writer at heart, I process my world through writing about it. Years of private entries fill my journals. My husband sent emails and letters to inquiring friends and family. And after some time, with some feedback from new friends, “old” friends, and a couple of family members, we realized we had a story that wasn’t meant to be selfishly hidden away. 

You see, we desperately love Clinton. And we have had to work through the grief, anger, loss, confusion, disappointment, fear, shock, resentment, and pain of losing two parents at once: one to death and the other to the criminal system. A journalist once asked us how we were doing so well. He had seen many tragedies and families break up, fall into addiction, and even commit suicide in hard such as ours. This made us realize that perhaps our grief journey was different. Perhaps, even amidst great suffering, there was hope. 

And what if we could share this hope with others? And what if people could also find forgiveness, reconciliation, reunification, and joy after such heartache as we three have? Dare we hoard this gift to ourselves? 

Well, I tried. It’s a hard story to tell. It’s a scary story to tell. Not because of the details but because of the love we have for Clinton. A deep desire to see him free from harm. But as we researched, we found that a simple Google Search for either of their names led people to graphic news articles telling a superficial, surface-level version of our life story. A wife-killer ruled insane. 

But Jeremy’s dad is far, far more than this. 

What if we could add our voice to the digital conversation about who he is? It would mean detailing the truth of that morning, yes, but it would also mean detailing life leading up to that point and the marvel of life beyond. It would mean restoring dignity to a man worthy of the love and affection of his family simply because he is

Thus, we release our story of redemption into the world. Not that we can redeem, but that by God’s grace, He has wrapped all this pain into a story of glory, mercy, and compassion. Redemption. Beauty from ashes. Pain that has sharpened us into deeper, more connected people. 

So we invite you into our story. The painful, the hard, the grief… and the joy, the restoration, the recovery, and the sweet mercies that only God can unveil. ,

"Ok. So I finished the book. All I can say is WOW. Wow, not just because I had no idea any of this stuff happened in your life, but also wow because your writing is wonderful. You really made me love Jeremy's mother. All the scenes you show of her, her interaction with others, the bottle collecting, and all the quotes people provided. They all work together perfectly. Then the details about Jeremy's father. Well, since my husband's father suffered from dementia and I know how confused they can get, I could already relate to his issues. And by the end of the book, I forgave him too. I also like that I learned so much about you and Jeremy along the way. The more I get to know, the more I adore you. Kind hearts and lots of strength. Unfortunately the Kindle version doesn't show the newspaper articles so I missed out on those pages [they are in the print version]. But it didn't matter. This book is very well written and although I had to cry during Chapter 19, "My House, My Crime Scene," I didn't feel that the book was overly depressing. You accomplished what I think you set out to do: To document a very sad story but to also offer uplifting moments and hope. So, although it sounds weird to say this, since the story comes from your tragic experience, congrats on this book. For those who love true crime books, it will remind them behind a sensationalized story, there are real people who are hurting and trying to find their way through grief. For those who like inspirational or spiritual writing, it certainly covers that as well. And, maybe most of all, for all those who watched the news, those in your former neighborhood, anyone who knew your family, it sets the record straight and tells the truth. It was very brave of you to write this book and I admire your ability to open yourself up to the world (even if opening old wounds) in order to help others who might go through a similar experience."
"A Little Redemption in the Here and Now: We don't often hear about homicides, unless they're exceptional by virtue of the number of victims or perhaps the brutality of the crime. Even less frequently do we hear of how the survivors continue with their lives and search for some sort of resolution. Marcy Pusey gives us a glimpse into the life after homicide, with all the attendant pain, memory attacks, and doubts. It's hard to read about a man unraveling just enough to commit an atrocity and its effects on his immediate family, but to see how by staying open to God's healing and redemption rather than chasing the mirage of security, the tantalizing but unattainable certitude of "never again," Marcy and her family were able to find closure not in punishment and revenge, but love and redemption. It is inspirational to see a family transformed and a man regained, if not to complete health and restoration, at least to dignity and love. If you've experienced a homicide in your family, some of the descriptions of what happened, while not gratuitously graphic, might still make you uncomfortable. Even for those like me who have never had to deal with such an event, imagining the event is unsettling. But there's power and hope in that: if Marcy and her family could rise from the ashes, with God's help, the so can others. And perhaps, so can we, as a society: learning to forgive and re-embrace even the worst of sinners and thus re-framing the debate about homicides that seems to have run aground on the shoals of quick fixes. Despite the heavy topic, "While We Slept" is indeed a book of hope and redemption worth reading for anyone who has ever stopped and wondered why anyone would kill and what could be done about it."
"Wow! A Story of Forgiveness: While We Slept is proof that God is good and forgiveness is real. Marcy writes her family’s story in such a way that draws you in, with delicate strength and dignity. I had a hard time putting it down. Even though the topic is difficult to digest, it is one of the best books I have ever had the opportunity to read. She introduces her family, including her father-in-law, and his relationship with his son, Jeremy, and, all of his extended family with so much love, kindness and unity, even with the tragic events that led up to writing this book. There is so much family division in this world, and the sweet way that Marcy shares the Pusey’s story is evident that forgiveness and restoration is possible, even in the worst situation. I would recommend While We Slept because, while it is a documentary on the events in the Pusey family’s life, it is also written in the way of great storytellers and keep the reader involved and wanting more."
"This Should Be A Movie! I was skeptical when someone told me about this book. I love true crime and memoirs...but I was doubtful the forgiveness part of this story would seem believable. I was wrong! Great story and once you read it, you will totally see how real and honest they are about how they could forgive. It all makes sense. I think a studio should make the whole thing into a movie!"

New Picture Book Self Publishing Opportunity!

You’re standing at a fork in the road of life… and one direction holds a beaten down, familiar path. The other direction is full of wild jungle, unknown and terrifying.

That’s where I stood just a month ago, at a fork between comfortable and crazy, known and nature’s black hole of nothingness. The options were

  1. Carry on with life as usual: writing, publishing, consulting, coaching, and speaking for free (except for book sales and paying to publish), pouring time and energy and value into building many, many bridges half way. Pulled into every opportunity as it came because “I should.”


2. Own that while I’m really good at all of those things, I can’t excel at any of them all at once and to value my expertise in writing and publishing, to narrow down who I can help and to do it masterfully. To face the monsters of fear and mediocrity and shoot down their lies that I’m inadequate, limited, too mediocre, or too scared to ever accomplish anything for any good.

Why is grabbing hold of confidence and knowing our value so terrifyingly hard?

Ironically, at the same time, opportunities crossed my path that pointed toward the “crazy” lane.

Like picture book authors who asked me to charge them for my critiques, my advice, and consultation. Even when I said it was free. I realized that what I offer is so valuable that people don’t feel right just taking it. This was eye-opening about the value of what I was sheepishly giving away.

The Book Building Business Intensive with Self Publishing School CEO and Staff

Or being accepted as one of ten people invited to the Book Building Business Intensive in San Diego with the CEO (Chandler Bolt) of Self Publishing School and his very talented staff for their first ever live event.

Or the sweet 6 year-old girl who said to me recently, “Your picture books are perfect.

These small examples all grabbed their neon signs and pointed down the path of terror. Shouting that I have something of value to offer the world. Of believing that I am incredible at what I do. And of receiving the affirmations that keep pouring in.

As for your own gifts, strengths and talents – I will say this: you are fearless! And generous! And you clearly care about, not only the message, but how the message is received and that it is done so in an uplifting way. People will follow such a leader!

-Business Mentor


I feel very strongly that you are meant to do great things for yourself, your family and many others that you have not even met yet.

-Business Mentor


Thank you for loving me from the very beginning and teaching me what it looks like to be a faithful friend. You are an extraordinarily gifted writer, communicator, connector, adventurer, listener, empathizer and the ultimate FUN creator! Thanks for inviting me into your world.

-A friend

So, after prayerful consideration, coaching and mentoring from thoughtful business leaders in self publishing, and feedback from my family and friends, and spiritual mentors, I’ve decided “Path Crazy.”

I’ve launched my very own Picture Book Self Publishing Coaching program!

I’m SO excited to finally have one bridge to focus on building and to do it superbly. My goal is to help people publish their picture books as quality as possible in 90 days or less.

I’m building the program together with my clients and my decade of experience in traditional publishing and last few years in self publishing as an Amazon best-selling author. You can learn more about it HERE.

If you know ANYONE who has dreamed of publishing their picture book, send them my way! If they sign up, I’ll send you $50! (Make sure they write your name in the “referral” section of the form.

I’m accepting applications for the limited spots I’m offering until Sunday, November 12th!  There is NO commitment when filling in the application other than to a free clarity call with ME to find the best path to fulfilling your picture book publishing dreams!

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I’m excited to start this new adventure! I know lives will change (my own included!) Join me!