TeachingBooks Virtual Book Tour

The TeachingBooks Virtual Book Tour is your opportunity to learn from and build personal connections with extraordinary book creators and their brand-new titles. Included in all Virtual Book Tour posts are original interviews with authors and illustrators, lesson plans, an activity designed for young people, and much more!

Welcome Frances O'Roark Dowell

Frances O’Roark Dowell on How to Build a Story…Or, the Big What If

In this post, we feature Frances O’Roark Dowell, whose popular books for young readers include the titles in the Phineas L. MacGuire series. You can hear her speak about the inspiration for her book, How to Build a Story . . . Or the Big What If, and try her fun “invitation to imagine” activity. You’ll also find other resources to explore. Thanks for joining us, and let us know what you think in the comments below!


Author Frances O'Roark Dowell and the cover of her new writing guide for young people How to Build a Story . . . Or, the Big What If.

How to Build a Story . . . Or, the Big What If

  • Written by Frances O’Roark Dowell and illustrated by Stacy Ebert
  • Published by Athenuem/Caitlyn Dlouhy Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
  • Release date: July 28, 2020

For over a decade, bestselling author Frances O’Roark Dowell has taught writing workshops for kids. Drawing on those experiences with young writers, Dowell offers this funny, reassuring guide, which breaks down the storytelling process into simple, easy-to-understand steps. Young readers and writers will learn how to develop their great ideas all the way through to a satisfying ending, and cartoon drawings add even more insight and fun. Whether kids are experienced writers or just starting out, they’ll learn something from these supportive pages. Ready, set, write!

Chapter One:

So how do we get this story started? Where do we begin? How do we fill up allllllllll those blank pages?

Simple! We start with a question. It’s called the Big What If.

Read a longer excerpt of How to Build a Story . . . Or, the Big What If, written by Frances O’Roark Dowell.


Explore How to Build a Story . . . Or, the Big What If

Listen to Frances O’Roark Dowell talking with TeachingBooks about creating How to Build a Story . . . Or, the Big What If. You can click the player below or experience the recording on TeachingBooks, where you can read along as you listen, and also translate the text to another language.


Invitation to Imagine

TeachingBooks asks each author or illustrator on our Virtual Book Tour to share a writing prompt, a drawing exercise, or just an interesting question to spark curiosity and creativity. Enjoy the following activity contributed by Frances O’Roark Dowell.

Imagination Activity with Frances O’Roark Dowell

One of the easiest ways to kick-start a story is to ask yourself a series of what-if questions. What if the tree outside of my window started talking to me at night? What if I found out my parents were secret agents and everything I knew about them was wrong? What if I went to school one day, and no one could understand a word I said? Let your imagination run wild! When you’ve got a list of ten questions, pick one, and flip it. What if the tree outside my window started talking to me at night? becomes The tree outside my window started talking to me one night. With that, you’ve got the beginning of a story. Keep going!


Finish This Sentence . . . with Frances O’Roark Dowell

As part of our Virtual Book Tour, TeachingBooks asks authors and illustrators to complete short sentence prompts. Enjoy Frances O’Roark Dowell’s responses.

“A weird topic that I’ve had to research while writing a book is . . .”

 A weird topic that I had to research for one of my books was mold! When I was writing Phineas L. MacGuire . . . Gets Slimed! I had to learn all sorts of things about mildew, mold, and slime. I was prepared to be grossed out—and I definitely was—but I also discovered that a lot of mold is beautiful, and that fungi in general live pretty interesting lives.

“I hope that my book encourages kids to think about . . .”

I hope that my book encourages kids to think about the fact that no one writes a perfect story in one try. It often takes three or four drafts to write a story that really works. So if you don’t like your first draft, don’t worry! Your second draft will be better, and your third draft might just be great.


Thank you!

To wrap up this Virtual Book Tour, we thank Frances O’Roark Dowell for signing a book for all of us!

Image of a copy of How to Build a Story... Or the Big What If, signed by the author Frances O'Roark Dowell.

More Connections to How to Build a Story . . . Or, the Big What If and Frances O’Roark Dowell


Explore all of the titles featured in the TeachingBooks Virtual Book Tour: one link with author interviews, lesson plans, activities, and more!

All text and images are courtesy of Frances O’Roark Dowell and Simon & Schuster and may not be used without expressed written consent.

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