Category Archives: Writing Children’s Books

Getting Bear to the Library

Those who have followed the adventures of Mouse and Bear may have noticed that Bear has never left his cozy Tudor cottage. He’s barely set even a claw out that front door.

The trouble with Bear is he’s a recluse.

DC_2506977_Page_04He likes his peace and quiet. He likes his privacy and he likes his cottage and pretty much sees no reason to leave it.

The dynamic is much the same in each book. Bear is a grouchy loner who is reluctantly drawn into life and its various celebrations by exuberant Mouse.

The latest book, A LIBRARY BOOK FOR BEAR is the fifth book in the Mouse and Bear series. The trouble with writing sequels about a character who’s a recluse is how to get your character out and about and into different adventures.

I wanted to talk a little in this blog about how I got Bear into the bigger world and about the challenge of writing sequels.

In some ways sequels are easy:

You know your characters and for a picture book it’s easy to follow a fairly similar story arc once you’ve set one up. The young reader is looking for the familiar and so is the editor. So it’s tempting to deliver the same story over and over with minor variations.

Writing each book is, in some ways, as simple as asking myself “what fresh hell can I create for Bear.”

Fortunately I’ve never had any trouble figuring out different ways to bug Bear. I grew up with five siblings, which pretty much makes one an expert on bugging people.

So I’ve had Bear have to deal with this mouse who won’t go away and with the horror of having a birthday party and with a first ever sleep-over with a guest who isn’t as quiet as Bear requires. Bear gets sick and has to deal with the much too cheerful ministrations of Mouse.

But how do you keep the familiar from turning into a formula? How do you keep it fresh, not only for your readers, but for yourself. I didn’t want Bear to simply be bugged and to respond the same way time after time. I hope to move his relationship with Mouse forward bit by bit through the series. And for Bear to change just a little.

So for this sequel I went through a number of scenarios—Mouse and Bear bake a pie together; Mouse and Bear go on a picnic and Bear can’t settle until he finds the perfect spot. Or they could go fishing. I wasn’t sure yet what would bug Bear about fishing but I know enough about fishing to know there’d be plenty of frustration.

But these all felt like I would cover pretty familiar territory. I did get Bear out of the house in a few of these ideas, but it was still just him and Mouse interacting. I wanted to turn things on their head a bit.

Then I remembered one of Bear’s main characteristics. In every story, he is inevitably driven to bellow out his frustration, rather like Donald Duck working up into one of his tantrums.

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And that inevitable process gave me an idea. What if Bear were in a situation where quiet was required. A church, some solemn occasion… I was half-tempted to try out Bear at a funeral. I would love to see him bellowing mid-funeral (ideally about some annoyance he had with the corpse.)

But really what better quiet place than a library? And a library would get Bear out of his house and interacting with at least a few other animals

There was a problem with that idea, however, because I love libraries and books. What could Bear possible be grouchy about?

I grew up in a household with hundreds and hundreds of books. There were bookshelves in virtually every room. One room was a library with shelves from floor to ceiling. Even with all of that, we went to the library once a week and I would walk out with books up to my chin.

Libraries have always had a special place in my life. I still remember being the school library aide when I was in the fourth grade. How I loved to turn the numbers on the rubber date stamp to the correct date and decisively stamp the checkout cards.

My mother was on the Wenatchee, WA library board. My siblings and I even created our own library at home taking all the kids books we had and numbering and labeling them and creating library check out card for each.

So how could Bear not be interested in the library!? Fortunately, Bear is so persnickety and stubborn that he was convinced he already had all the books he needed right at home: he had three about honeybees, three about kings and queens and one about pickles. Who could ask for more?

Of course, Mouse knew you could ask for a whole lot more. He just needs to convince Bear of that. Eventually he does (with the help of a friendly librarian and pickles) and Bear goes home with seven new books. And I’m sure with more visits to the library in his future.

I’m glad I got Bear to go to the library. The book is already in its third printing. (It came out in July.) It’s been reviewed in the Wall St. Journal and Huffington Post, along with the usual children’s book review sources.  It received a starred review from the School Library Journal and was selected as an autumn must-read by Scholastic’s Instructor Magazine.

It will be on the cover of American Booksellers Children’s book holiday catalog. Some 275,000 copies will be printed and distributed to independent bookstores nationwide.

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What’s next for Mouse and Bear? Having gotten Bear into the frying pan, I’m putting him into the fire next time with A HALLOWEEN FOR BEAR. Imagine how much he’s going to love having all kinds of animals come to his house demanding candy!

 

 

Editing

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“Boldly and bluntly simplify the subject so as to reveal its true essence.”
– Kiyoshi Saito, (1907-1971)

I have spent the last three months preparing to move from Seattle – where my husband and I have lived since 1986 – to London, England. I fly out at the end of the month. These last few weeks have been a lesson in letting go.

I have been going through everything we own to clear the house for incoming renters. I have picked up every object, pondered it, and decided whether to ship, store, or discard it.

This has gotten me thinking about the process of editing.

Editing your life is like editing your own personal narrative. I am an accumulator by nature, but not a collector, nor a hoarder. The difference is that I enjoy getting rid of stuff, if only to clear the clutter to let the better bits shine.

When I am writing I follow the same process. I have less confidence in my words than my imagery, so I don’t mind keeping my words to a minimum. If I can prove to myself that every word has a reason to be there, I feel I have created the cleanest, least cluttered prose possible. It’s less risky that way. Clear the knick-knacks off your literary shelf.

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In my artwork I am constantly editing and revising. I strive to follow the words quoted above. Kiyoshi Saito is a contemporary Japanese woodblock artist and a master of selective visual editing in his imagery. Choosing what details to include and what to leave out reveals the aspects most elemental to an idea.

Get rid of the lesser bits. Pack them away or let them go. Only set your choicest pieces out for display.

My next post will be written from the UK. Just think of me as the Books Around The Table foreign correspondent for the foreseeable future. I look forward to exploring new territory and sending back the best bits to share with all of you!

And now, back to packing!

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Days o’ The Week

Days o the week pattern

Routines don’t seem to be part of my genetic coding. My brain must be lacking the necessary programing that makes repetition easy and comfortable. I can do it, but it doesn’t come naturally.

Unlike my husband, who gets up in the morning and proceeds with his usual, ordered, getting-ready-for-work tasks, I get up, and invariably think, What now? Should I take a shower first, or go get some breakfast? Or maybe I could read a bit more in that book I started last night before I get up… There are so many possibilities.

Maybe being self-employed and able to set my own schedule is responsible for this deficiency, or maybe my inability to naturally settle into a routine is why I’m self-employed.

It’s different when I am working on a book contract or illustration job (when I know exactly what I need to do each day – work till the project is done), but right now I don’t have any deadlines pending, so when I get to my workspace, I often can’t decide what to do first. I should probably work on that story idea I’ve been playing with, but working on that print I started last week is so much more fun than writing, but I also want to decorate this box I have with cuttings from old cookie tins… Sometimes I feel like I flit around my studio like a butterfly in a rose garden.

This is not something I am proud of, or even particularly happy about. I envy people who don’t have to think so hard about how to proceed with their day.

For example, consider the early American settlers (well, the women anyway) who followed the prescribed adage that divided their existence into seven tasks, one for each day of the week:

 

Monday = Wash

Tuesday = Iron

Wednesday = Sew

Thursday = Market

Friday = Clean

Saturday = Bake

Sunday = Rest

 

Iowa State historical society

Granted, that was a time when doing the wash took from dawn till dusk, and this arduously tedious life was probably not terribly fun, but can you imagine having only seven things to worry about accomplishing each week? No emails to answer, no dance lessons or soccer practice to take your kids to, no meetings to prepare for and attend. And a whole day set aside just to relax, without your needing to feel guilty that you aren’t being more productive.

I’ve been thinking about this idea – having one chore for each day of the week – but instead of household duties, I wonder if I could organize it to be a more work-related guideline for someone like me, who has a lot of creative things I want to do, and even more that I should be doing, but who has difficulty making decisions and getting into a regular routine.

So, how about a week that looks like this?

 

Monday = Write

Tuesday = Draw

Wednesday = Design

Thursday = Make

Friday = Sell

Saturday = Read

Sunday = Rest

 

Only one task per day, like a pioneer woman who has to sweat away at drafting her designs before sunset. I will still have to figure out how to still get all my emails answered and errands run and meetings attended, plus the other twenty-three items on my to-do list – not to mention housework! – but maybe I’ll try this new schedule out, at least during my usual working hours.

Simplify. Concentrate. Limitations can be useful. Narrow walls make it easier to focus straight ahead.

Is this idea even possible in our modern, hectic world? Am I crazy to attempt such a strict regimen considering the lack of imposed structure I am used to?

We’ll see. I’m not going to start embroidering it on any tea towels quite yet…

Sunday dishtowel detail

CALLING THE MUSE

Seattle hosted the national AWP (Assn. for Writers and Writing Programs) conference for four days last week. My fellow BATT-blogger Julie Larios and I were on a panel entitled, “Calling Your Muse,” along with authors Zu Vincent and Debby Dahl Edwardson who we know from Vermont College of Fine Arts.

For my part, I hoped to leave our listeners with an easy-to-follow, How to Call Your Muse list.

In our audience were over 100 writers. Surely these people had some ideas how to call a muse. If I’d known anything about crowd-sourcing, I could have crowd-sourced a good list.

Or I could have based my list on my experiences over the past 20 years, creating 17 picture books and a middle grade novel.

But I felt more research was needed.

So I imagined hiring George Clooney to lead an investigation. Yes, he looks hot in a lab coat, but this would be strictly scientific. He’d film me writing, then do a frame-by-frame analysis. Maybe the Muse would even be caught on camera?

moose

mousse

George’s research would reveal exactly how I do it: Eight Easy Ways to Call the Muse

    • Snuggle your dog
    • Nibble dark chocolate
    • Look out the window and squint
    • Tap out a few words.
    • Check your email
    • Sip tea
    • Google something, possibly related to the project
    • Scratch your ear
desk

On location for George Clooney film.

That’s it: snuggle, nibble, squint, tap, check, sip, google, scratch.

But the more I thought about it, I realized what’s actually happening when I SNSTCSGS is not only calling the Muse, but also answering the Muse’s call. Or maybe – more exactly – conversing with the Muse. It’s a two-way street. I gather the storybits and tools that call her. In turn, she calls to me, urges me to use all this stuff. That’s how the Muse works.

The 12,000+ writers who attended AWP have gone home but I’ve continued to muse on this muse thing. I’ve decided there must be more than one muse, that it takes a village –  well, at least a Swiss army knife of muses –  to get the work done. For starters:

THE ILLUMINATOR MUSE – How else to explain why a writer’s attention is drawn to stuff that is charged with story? She shines her light on ideas, objects, memories, experiences, words themselves, art materials, research, juicy bits of overheard dialogue. The list goes on and on. For instance, my attention is drawn to my #4 watercolor brush and naples yellow gouache and I want to paint something. It will be sunny. Oh, already a story starts to gather.

Making stories depends on assembling material and tools, on gathering quirky facts and notions, on laying seemingly disparate things side by side, on comparing, contrasting, connecting. Sometimes the Illuminator Muse carries a candle like Wee Willie Winkie, and other times she holds a Klieg light high above her head. “Pay attention,” she says, “And report back.”

GESTAPO MUSE – This one has a big glue pot and keeps me in my chair. I almost wish she’d carry a cattle prod, too, and deliver a jolt when my attention wanders.

MARSHALL McLUHAN MUSE – The Marshall McLuhan Muse calls with the seductive nature of the creative zone itself. The medium is the message. Work comes out of work. Or, as Julie Paschkis puts it, “Put in the drudgery and the alchemy happens.”

CRAFT MUSE – A practical gal, the Craft Muse inspires with conferences like AWP, classes, SCBWI talks, and, of course, through other people’s writing. I’m especially inspired to create books that become part of the circle of parent and child reading together, a circle I loved dearly.

I am sure a muse team assembles for each writer, offering skills as needed. For instance, a journalist friend reminded me about the Deadline Muse. How could I forget this muse that calls me every month when it’s time to post here?

What we were really talking about at our AWP panel was twofold: where do ideas come from and how do you sustain motivation?

Muse-assisted or not, my ideas come from paying attention, a habit of mulling, and from savoring stuff that amuses me. (Ah, “muse” is hidden there.) And why write? Writing’s how I figure out what I think. It makes sense of my world.

So I’ll stick with my snuggle, nibble, squint, tap, check, sip, google, and scratch.

But I wonder. Maybe we could sort of crowd-source with our BooksAroundThe Table readers. How do YOU call the Muse?

More Magic

If you played along with my post about drawing your way into a story by sketching animal characters, (http://booksaroundthetable.wordpress.com/2014/01/11/magic-formula-how-to-write-illustrate-a-picture-book/), you have a couple of likely suspects ready and waiting in the wings for the action to begin. I bet your characters are already making suggestions and you have some ideas about where this story’s going.

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A character ready for center stage.

Next step is to focus on your characters’ “out-of-balanced-ness,” the aspect of the character(s) that the story will grapple with and depend upon. Norma Fox Mazer, who I was lucky to teach with at Vermont College of Fine Arts, called this out-of-balanced-ness the character’s “deprivation.” I like her term because it points to a need or void in the character that the story will address.

So think about it. What do your characters need? This could be anywhere on Maslow’s pyramid: basic needs like food, water, and sleep; safety needs; need to belong; need for esteem, and/or self actualization needs like morality, creativity and justice.  Be as specific as you can. Then craft a story situation that puts this deprivation front and center.

You already have clues in your character sketches. Keep drawing as you think about what your characters need. It helps to give them names and special objects. For instance in Zelda and Ivy, Zelda’s baton is important to both Zelda and the story. It becomes the symbol of power.

Z&I"2Let'splaycircus."447

“You can be the fabulous fox on the flying trapeze,” says Zelda. “I will announce your tricks.” From Zelda and Ivy.

You can summon more pieces of your story by drawing your characters in their surroundings, or by collecting photos of the place the story will take place. For instance, for Frank and Izzy Set Sail, I collected photos of Lake Magiore in Italy.

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From Frank and Izzy Set Sail.

At the same time, make notes about how they might talk to each other, keying in on points of contention and agreement. Can you put this in dialogue?

The machinations of story do not require you to know the whole when you begin. As you keep gathering images, and drawing, and writing snippets that you think might belong, eventually you realize you have enough on the page for the story to begin to speak.

Then all you have to do is listen. It really is kind of magic.

Magic Formula: How to Create a Picture Book

This time up, I considered writing an advice column about what to do when you’re waiting for an editor’s response. But then I decided it’s more interesting to look at the work itself: making books. Over my next few blogposts, I plan to lay out a process for creating a picture book, using examples from my published and as-yet unpublished work.

PART ONE: CHARACTER.  Let’s start with character. Good stories need intriguing characters, characters that sparkle with their very own inward and outward expressions of self: looks, mannerisms, substance, personality quirks and out-of-balanced-ness.

franksketches

Rough sketches for Frank of “Frank and Izzy Set Sail,” exploring gesture.

My characters are usually an amalgam of people I know, their traits exaggerated and edited for maximum dramatic impact. I am especially interested in duos, for the interaction and conflict possibilities. Also, I think it’s easier to draw animals than people.

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Thumbnail sketch of Frank and Izzy.

So, Dear Reader, if you want to play along, start by drawing a favorite animal. You can anthropomorphize a little or a lot. Look through family movies and photos for lively gestures and expressions and try to transfer what you see to your animal. Notice how other illustrators do this. (Paul Schmid, Arnold Lobel, James Marshall to name a few.) Hilary Knight’s Eloise illustrations are great inspiration for childsize action gestures. Another strategy is to google photos of famous duos, (i.e. Lucy and Ethel, George and Gracie Burns, Sonny and Cher…), and try to capture their interaction in your characters.

lucy.ethelmice660

Rough sketches for future characters based on Ethel and Lucy.

I like to do these sketches on tracing paper. It’s easy to erase and rework. Once I have several pages, I hang them on the wall to consider. I think about proportions. Heads to bodies to legs and arms. Do this and pretty soon you’ll have a rough, generalized look for your characters.

Z&Iproportion

Rough sketches of Zelda and Ivy, finding proportions.

It’s impossible to draw pages of the same characters without starting to sense story bubbling up. Sometimes these ideas come out of “mistakes” in the drawing. For example, maybe the line you’ve drawn for a smile gives the character a devious look. Go with it. Think about what that character is up to. Your mind will start spinning story.

Meanwhile, life goes on. Pay attention. Note overheard conversations that sound like your characters. Keep track of situations that provoke an emotional response in your own life, the funny, scary, sad, annoying, angering stuff. Write down anything that seems made for these little characters you are brewing.

My next turn to blog here will be Feb. 7. Using these preliminary drawings and notes, we’ll move toward constructing the story.

Fairy Tales

Gordon Laite-Snow White-Rose RedSnow White-Rose Red – Gordon Laite

Yesterday, my youngest daughter and I were driving in the car, listening to the latest news on the radio about baby Prince George, when she asked me, “Why are we so obsessed with the British Royal Family?”

After pondering the question for a bit, I told her I didn’t think it was their fame or wealth that fascinates us, it’s the narrative that goes with it. We all like a good story.

And that got me to thinking about fairy tales, and my obsession with them when I was younger. Obsession is probably too strong a word, but I read more fairy tales (and folk tales) than any other fiction from age nine to about age twelve, at which point I moved on to works by C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Lloyd Alexander – essentially fairy novels. I still have most of my old fairy tale books, and I’ve added to the collection since then; evidence of their importance to me (or the difficulty I share with Julie Larios in clearing off my shelves).

My favorite book was Hans Andersen’s Fairy Tales, A Selection published by Oxford University Press in 1959. Andersen’s tales are more complex emotionally than the average fairy tale, and they don’t always end happily ever after. I also enjoyed Andrew Lang’s Fairy Books (The Blue Fairy Book, The Crimson Fairy Book, The Olive Fairy Book, The Grey Fairy Book…) but I pretty much read everything in this genre that I could get my hands on.

The influence of fairy tales on my pubescent psyche was profound. I think I still live by rules that came largely from the moral lessons sprinkled throughout my fairy tale books:

Don’t trust appearances.

Sendak-The Frog KingThe Frog King – Maurice Sendak

Have faith and persevere.

The Wild SwansThe Wild Swans – Vilhelm Pedersen

Don’t be lazy, selfish, greedy or vain.

Gordon Laite-Cinderella
 Cinderella – Gordon Laite

True love is worth the necessary sacrifices.

Adrienne Segur-The Sleeping Beauty
The Sleeping Beauty – Adrienne Segur

Usually.

Edmund Dulac-The Little Mermaid
 The Little Mermaid – Edmund Dulac

Keep your wits about you.

Kanako Tanabe-Blue-Beard
 Blue-Beard – Kanako Tanabe

Be careful what you wish for.

The Fisherman And His Wife-HJ FordThe Fisherman and His Wife – H. J. Ford

Be nice to old hags, animals in need, and dead people, just in case.

H J Ford-Lovely IlonkaLovely Ilonka – H.J. Ford

Do we follow the stories of real Princes and Princesses because of the fairy tales we heard in childhood, or did Princes and Princesses show up so often in fairy tales because of what they represent to us in the larger picture of the human narrative?

Bruno Bettleheim‘s The Uses of Enchantment  (I made my parents buy that one for me too and yes I still have my original copy) attempts to explain why fairy tales make such “great and positive psychological contributions to the child’s inner growth.” They give children stories that they can stretch their newly formed emotional muscles on, and they do it through colorful, imaginative storytelling. “The fairy tale could not have its psychological impact on the child were it not first and foremost a work of art.”

But nowadays we must suffice with William and Kate, Jay-Z and Beyonce, Kanye and Kim. For the sake of the children, I hope they can all live happily ever after, at least most of the time.

But that wouldn’t make for a very interesting story, would it?…

Julie Paschkis-sisters Glass Slipper Gold SandalJulie Paschkis – Glass Slipper, Gold Sandal

Abundance

When I was almost 7, my family moved from the Seattle area down to the Santa Clara Valley, about an hour south of San Francisco. Before it became “Silicon Valley,”  it looked like this:

Old Photo Postcard of Santa Clara Valley's Cherry Orchards

Old Photo Postcard of Santa Clara Valley’s Cherry Orchards

It actually did look like that – it’s not just nostalgia playing tricks with my mind. It was so beautiful, such a generous landscape. Of course, we moved into a house that was part of a development that was one of dozens of developments that would eventually wipe out the orchards and pave over the farmland and replace it with freeways and suburbs.  But my family got there before too much had been destroyed – 1956 – there were still great fields of garlic and artichokes to the south of us, with cherries orchards surrounding my neighborhood

Each spring, walking home, we watched the cherries ripen. Mustard plants grew at the base of the trees in late spring, and if you wandered far enough into the orchard, you could look in every direction and not see anything but mustard blooms and fruit trees.

Mustard and Cherry Trees in San Jose

Mustard and Cherry Trees in San Jose

Then, in June, the cherries were ready.  I picked them every day – we all did, everyone who headed home that way,  and we ate them until we couldn’t eat any more.  I like to think the farmer knew that the school kids would eat all the cherries from the row of trees nearest the road. We felt like there was enough for everyone, and then some.

Even a decade later there were still enough orchards in the valley that high school kids could make their summer money in the canneries. The heady smell of hot tomatoes and ripe fruit would drift out all summer from the Contadina and Del Monte canneries in the Bay Area.

Reading Laura’s post from last week, about the weddings of her son and her daughter, and the lovely poem by Li-Young Lee about peaches, I started thinking about those cherry trees, and the Santa Clara Valley. I thought about orchards and summer, and about happiness and abundance.

Rainier cherries from east of the mountains have gone on sale in the farmers markets, and I have been buying a lot of them. The person selling them lets you try one or two first:

Rainier Cherries - The Absolute Best Cherries in the World

Rainier Cherries – The Absolute Best Cherries in the World

So you buy some, but only a handful, because they cost a lot:

A Handful of Delicious Cherries

A Handful of Delicious Cherries

But before you go home you decide a handful is not nearly enough, and you wander back to buy more:

Yummers

A bowlful….

and the next day, when you can already see the bottom of the bowl, you go back for more:

...and a basketful.

…and a basketful.

What I’m really trying to do, of course, when I eat those cherries is to conjure up that delicious abundance I once experienced in the Santa Clara Valley. Not just conjure it up, but take it into me, cherry by cherry.

Northrop Frye once described the genres of literature according to the seasons. Fall, according to Frye, is tragedy – fatalism, the hero pushed toward ultimate failure. Winter is irony and satire – the final absurdity. Spring is comedy – new beginnings and light-hearted endings. But summer is romance – the season when belief is in full bloom. Summer is abundance.  No wonder that in the summertime, I want to write something wholehearted, something unrestrained. Not a sample-cherry story, not a handful-of-cherries story, not a bowlful-or-a-basketful-of-cherries story, but an orchardful-of-cherries story. A story that measures up to this:

Abundance, Summer, Belief, Cherries

Abundance, Summer, Belief, Cherries

So when it’s cherry season, I think about the Santa Clara Valley. If I’m in a writer-ish mood, I think of Frye. I strive to write something worthy of summer, something from the heart, full of belief.

If I’m feeling more like a teenager than a writer, I think (unbelievably) of George Carlin singing “Cherry…cherry pie…cherry…cherry pie….” Click here to listen to Carlin on YouTube. Less literary, but sweet, glorious and openly sensual. Like those fields of mustard, with the trees rising up out of them.

And since I’m talking cherries, and since I’m going for abundance, check out this George Gershwin song – Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries – sung by Dean Martin and Gisele MacKenzie. A little cherry to put on top of the sundae. Enjoy.

On Goldilocks, John McPhee and Cows

goldilocks

I feel a little foolish this week, complaining about the weather in Seattle. “Too hot,” I whined on Wednesday when it reached 83 degrees (87 at the airport!) and we took to the shade. Last week I was putting on wool socks and whining the other direction – “Too cold.”  Weren’t we just looking out the windows at the rain and feeling sorry for ourselves?

Yesterday, my husband got out the garden hose and watered the clematis vines running along the rail fence: “Too dry!” he explained. Last week, my aunt and I were both talking about Seattle gardens looking like jungles this spring, with dandelions growing as high as the peonies: “Too wet!” we said, shaking our heads.

Death Valley: Too Hot. [photographer unknown]

Death Valley: Too Dry. [photographer unknown]

Too Wet: The Hoh Rain Forest (Photo by Kevin Muckenthaler)

The Hoh Rain Forest: Too Wet (Photo by Kevin Muckenthaler)

Have you ever heard of the Goldilocks Principle?

Don’t laugh. This is a term that psychologists, biologists, astronomers, engineers and economists (hot = inflation, cold = recession) use to describe an ideal state where “something falls within certain margins as opposed to reaching extremes.” In September of 2010, astronomers said they had discovered a “Goldilocks planet” circling a star in the constellation Libra, at a distance “just right” for the presence of water and possibility of sustaining life.  In our solar system, Venus is too hot and Mars is too cold. Earth is just right.  Earth is the eatable bowl of porridge.

What Planets Need In Order to Be Contented - That Middle Star

What Planets Need In Order to Be Contented – That Middle Star

Babies, according to some cognitive scientists, provide examples of the Goldilocks Principle, too, paying most attention to activity that is neither too complex nor too simple, but somewhere between the extremes, somewhere “just right.”

Even bloggers are asking people to leave effective “Goldilocks Comments” – not hot and bothered, not prim or abstract.  Instead, “just right.”

“Just right.”  It sounds like a term from a fairy tale – aha, it is a term from a fairy tale!  Like that other condition that eludes us called “happily ever after”?

How does anyone ever reach that cool center, that point of equilibrium? Maybe reaching the fairy-tale’s “just right” is about zoning out.   Maybe it’s a zen thing.  And maybe it’s no coincidence that Carnation Milk, which started in Carnation, Washington, first came up with the advertising phrase, “Milk from Contented Cows.”

Carnation Milk's Contented Cows

Carnation Milk’s Contented Cows

See in the background, behind those cows? That’s Mt. Rainier on a perfect day. No wonder they are calm and contented, those cows. No wonder they aren’t wondering or obsessing about anything, just slowly munching the grass. The day is just right.

But I find myself wondering: Is the Goldilocks Effect something artists subconsciously avoid, since contentment might be counter-productive when it comes to producing good work (or producing any work at all)? Are we most energetic when something is just slightly – not horribly, just slightly – off? When something bothers us – like the porridge being too hot, the bed too soft? When we sit down on baby bear’s chair, when people are too complicated or not complicated enough, and the chair breaks and we fall to the ground. Too big, too little – is that where we get our stories?

John McPhee suggests in his recent article in the April 29th issue of The New Yorker that revision is the way to produce good writing. You revise when you are dissatisfied. There are ways to work hard, and then harder, to make the writing perfect. McPhee’s own writing is all about revision and perfection, not about writing in a way which falls between “certain margins” of acceptability.

John McPhee - Hot, Cold and Just Right

John McPhee – Hot, Cold and Just Right

I wonder if he is a calm man? He doesn’t look obsessive. He looks calm and kind. How can that be? How can a perfectionist be anything but a nervous wreck? If you read the article, Mr. McPhee sounds like a nice guy, a sweet dad, but also like someone who has learned to strive toward perfection. Does he ever say, “This is good enough?” I doubt it.  But I wonder what he thinks about the maxim of “all things in moderation” – nothing too anything? I would like to hear John McPhee talk about the Goldilocks Principle.

I like the possibility that a life-sustaining element exists in me as it does in a planet that is “just right” in relation to the star it orbits. But I have the feeling I’m hurtling through space a little too hot or – sometimes – a little too cold. I whine a lot. Does discontent inspire me? Do I strive for perfection? That’s what I’m wondering on this hot day in Seattle.  One thing for sure: I wouldn’t be satisfied living in a barn in Carnation, coming out in the morning, chewing the green grass and going back into the barn at night.

Cows - Everything Is Good

Cows – Everything Is Good

Of course, something about that little scenario does sound sweet and appealingly simple. But no. Zoning out is not my thing. I failed at my first and only official attempt – a meditation class at UC Berkeley in 1968. I couldn’t keep out the metaphorical and literal noise of people protesting in the streets. Berkeley in the 60’s – talk about  a hot planet. Since then, I have not tried to meditate.

So – another hot day today.   If you have a logical mind, you’ll see that I’m contradicting myself, because I long for the weather to be just right. Shouldn’t I be loving the extremes? Shouldn’t I want heat so hot it makes me write a poem? Rain so wet I write the great American novel?

Oh, contradictions, schmontradictions. When it gets above 80 in Seattle, I sit in the shade and fail to make sense. I hear cows mooing from 50 miles off.  I fall asleep and dream that I am calm and kind.

Too Hot in Seattle

Too Hot in Seattle

A Tale of Two Foxes

My fox sisters celebrated a new edition in May and it seems like a good time to tell their story.

The first, eponymous, Zelda and Ivy book was published by Candlewick Press in 1998: three short stories about two fox sisters in one picture book format. Both the text and illustrations seemed to drop into my lap: gifts. But with further thought, I realized this material had been trying to become a book for a long time.

We all experience moments when life is larger than usual, moments full of emotion and humor that we recognize as the stuff of story. I gathered a critical mass of such times from childhood home movies and conversations with my sibs. I wanted to make a picture book that carried our growing-up experience: our neighborhood parades, and fairy dust and, maybe most importantly, our relationships. I am the middle of five children. I know what it is to be a bossy, imaginative big sister and an adoring, gullible little sister. I was pretty sure sibling rivalry could fuel the drama.

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I first worked with this material in a project called Summer Shorts. Here’s the dummy.

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It included four short stories about a family with five human children. It made the rounds at publishers and was roundly rejected. Years passed while I sold other projects and got started in the picture book world.

Meanwhile, Pierr Morgan, a NW illustrator, showed me this cool medium called gouache resist (directions: http://www.lmkbooks.com/fun/gouache.php). I liked how the reds popped. Why not revisit that sibling rivalry material – only with fox characters? I simplified, reducing the cast to two.

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From their debut at critique group, these characters seemed to have the juice. When Zelda and Ivy was published,  it received lots of starred reviews and SCBWI’s Golden Kite honors in illustration and text.

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I was invited to do a sequel. Then a third.

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When the fourth book, Zelda and Ivy The Runaways, came out in 2007, it had a leaner look. Candlewick’s marketing department had advised these stories belong in the early reader canon – thus we downsized to the standard 6 x 9-inch ledger size. That year ALA chose it for the Geisel Award. It was the same year my friend Kirby Larson won the Newbery for Hattie Big Sky. We were both in the ballroom in downtown Seattle when our awards were announced. Pretty exciting.

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Two more Zelda and Ivy titles have followed, and the earlier ones were reformatted from picture book to ledger.

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By the time I got to the sixth book, I knew Zelda and Ivy’s world as well as my own.

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As of May, all titles six are officially part of Candlewick’s Sparks series for early readers; each published as a slim paperback that fits easily into the backpack of a young reader.

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