APRIL 7 UPDATE: The original May 4 launch date launch has been changed to May 18.
A year before we all retreated to our houses, our family spent an idyllic week at a little resort on Maui’s Napili coast. Our visit coincided with that of a group of retirees from Canada and the US who had met there on previous trips and now regularly return the first week of February. One of them is a singer/guitarist who has a one-man show in Las Vegas. Their tradition is to circle the lounge chairs on the lawn above the beach one night for a sing along. They invited us to join in. He played all the best love songs. We sang. We danced. We rocked our grandchildren on our laps as the sun went down and a crescent moon rose.
That’s when the first lines of OCEAN LULLABY came to me. Song floats up, moon smiles down while we rock to ocean sounds. Shhh, hush. Shhh, hush. The ocean’s soothing song. Shhh, hush. Shhh, hush. We can sing along.
Then I looked out across the surf and started wondering. What do ocean creatures do as night falls? Do they sleep? Do they dream?
That’s how the story progresses.
I learned that adult whales buoy their calves so the calves can continue to breathe while they rest.
After grouping turtles and jellyfish on the same spread, I found out turtles eat jellyfish, so I quickly erected a coral structure to keep them apart.
A diver at the Maui Aquarium told me that resting octopusses (his preferred plural) have a brain pattern similar to humans when they are dreaming.
The monk seals are my favorite spread. As soon as I saw a reference photo with the little guy waving, I wanted to include them.
On May 18 this year – over two years after our trip to Napili beach – OCEAN LULLABY will be published by Philomel. It is the third book my sister Kate Harvey McGee and I have illustrated together. I paint the black lines with a gouache resist technique, doozy them up in Photoshop and email them to Kate who lives near Philomath, OR. She’s a retired landscape architect, now pastel plein air painter, who colors our illustrations in Photoshop. I am so lucky to collaborate with her. I love the way she paints light.
One of the reasons I like to make picture books is because I love my work to be part of a remembered magical circle: those times with my kids, snuggled in the big chair, the neighborhood settling quiet around us, the warmth of their small selves on my lap as we enter a story together. OCEAN LULLABY was crafted for that circle. It ends:
You my sweet, my sleepy child, rest here in my arms awhile. As the new moon rides the sky, dream the ocean lullaby.Shhh, hush. Shhh, hush. Shhhhh…
We hope to set up a zoom event for an official launch soon. Meanwhile, OCEAN LULLABY will be available for sale at all the usual places after May 18. It offers a window to the big world that’s waiting for us out there when the Covid days are over: a world full of dozing whales, dreaming octopuses, snoring monk seals, family and friends.
There comes a time in most creative lives when the joy gets lost. The doing of your art—your poetry, your books, your drawings, your cooking, your sewing, your teaching—becomes a chore.
I’ve gone through this cycle a number of times—the loss and the rediscovery of the spark that set me on my journey to be a writer. In a recent Zoom presentation for SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators), author Laurel Snyder had some great observations about this same process for her.
She discovered that as the publishing of her work became easier, the writing became harder. As an eight-year-old, she had loved to create stories for no other reason than it was fun; it was exciting. It was play. I remember feeling like that, too, at eight and nine and ten. I loved inhabiting my imaginary world; I loved playing with it; I loved changing things to my exact desires.
But, as I did, Snyder found she lost the joyful need to tell a story somewhere in developing her ability to crank out a book.
“I needed to find the play again,” she said.
For the first step, she suggested a really difficult thing:
Step Away from Rewards
“We do the things we’re good at which are typically some version of the things we’ve been good at for a long time because we will gain respect or appreciation, because we get a boost when somebody compliments us.”
Often that thing we get good at, becomes the thing we need to do to make a living “otherwise they come and take away the house or the car or there’s no food in the fridge.”
Bottom line is we end up avoiding activities that don’t seem to advance the thing we’ve learned to do well and that we now need to do to make a living.
To get back to play, “you need to step away from the idea of utility and you need to step away from the idea of external appreciation, compliments and rewards”.
She acknowledged that this was the hardest thing we can do. “It’s a gigantic emotional leap.” But without it we won’t really get into true play.
“You aren’t going to do [these] things…because they will help your book…you’re going to do them because they feel good. And it will be awesome if your book improves…but you [want to] find a way to enjoy them so much that it doesn’t matter what happens to the book.”
“Learning to disconnect from rewards won’t get your book written, but it will help you make a better book and keep you writing for life.”
Notice that important qualifier at the end—keep you writing for life. Because if you can’t keep the joy, if what once was play is now a chore, you’ll stall out. Maybe you can slog along if there’s a sure paycheck or retirement account at the end, but that’s rarely the case with your creative outlet.
So if you want to keep doing that thing you love, how do you get back to that feeling of joy and fun?
Turn off the lights
Not to sleep but to daydream, to muse, to imagine, to dwell in the world you’re building in your book (or painting or poem or classroom). What Snyder started doing was to go into her room, turn out the lights and daydream about her book world for about an hour.
Mostly, she said, she moved around inside the world she was creating and imagined the details. You’re not going to record any of this, Snyder said. You’re not going to write it down or add it to your notes on your phone. But a lot of the things you imagine will probably make it into your book and your story world will come alive.
I remember so well how I did exactly this as a child. How much I simply adored lying there and pretending that I was in whatever magical land I wanted to be in. I remember how I lovingly crafted the details–going over and over exactly how my princess bedroom would be furnished, how that dragonfly carriage looked, exactly what my flower petal fairy dress looked like. Usually the plot of the story I was imagining wouldn’t advance one mote, but I knew in my heart what the dungeon looked like.
I don’t think I can do this for an hour, but I’d like to try 15-20 minutes where I simply daydream and allow myself to explore what my world looks like and feels like. I want to enjoy the sheer imagining of the beauty or the devastation I’m creating.
Develop the other side of your brain
For those of us who are primarily writers that means drawing, painting, sketching our story world.
“It’s been without question the most successful tool for my own purposes and yet it took me decades to discover, largely because I was stuck, as most of us are, in a grown-up mindset.”
Since she wasn’t any good at drawing, Snyder started with something that didn’t require a lot of skill. A map. In this case it was a map of an island she was imagining—an island where only orphaned children lived—which became the basis of her book, Orphan Island–A National Book Award Longlist title, recipient of starred reviews and, now, a future movie.
Of course, it’s rather ironic to mention that success up against the dictum to step away from rewards. But regardless of any external success allowing yourself to play creatively should give you a better book. You will have given your world the love and attention it deserves to truly come alive for you and the reader.
For those who already use the right (drawing) side of the brain (supposedly, since it’s turning out it’s not really as simple as that), maybe you could discover some way to play more with words that expand your story world for you: poems about your world, rhymes, skip-rope songs, bits of dialog, bits of dialect. Even if they won’t end up in the work, you will know better how that character moves, looks, expresses themselves.
What else might spark you that you rarely do now that you’re a mature creator. Dance out a character, a scene? Make up a song? Play with your kids stuffed animals or action toys? Make a paper mâché model of something in your book?
It doesn’t have to be any good!
What you do doesn’t have to be presentable at all. No one is grading you, no one is looking over your shoulder, no one ever has to see it. No one expects you to be any good. You’re a kid. You’re only playing.
In all, Snyder offered 8 different steps that helped her get back to play. I’ll list a few more of them in a future blog.
Laurel Snyder is the author of six novels for children, “Orphan Island,” “Bigger than a Bread Box,” “Penny Dreadful,” “Any Which Wall,” “Up and Down the Scratchy Mountains OR The Search for a Suitable Princess,” and “Seven Stories Up.” She has also written many picture books, including “Charlie and Mouse,” “The Forever Garden,” “The King of Too Many Things,” “Swan, the Life and Dance of Anna Pavlova,” “Inside the Slidy Diner,” Good night, laila tov,” “Nosh, Schlep, Schluff,” “The Longest Night,” “Camp Wonderful Wild,” and “Baxter, the Pig Who Wanted to Be Kosher.”
Snyder has published work in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, the Utne Reader, the Chicago Sun-Times, the Revealer, Salon, The Iowa Review, American Letters and Commentary, and elsewhere. She is an occasional commentator for NPR’s All Things Considered, and she teaches in the MFAC program at Hamline University, and also in the creative writing department at Emory University.
Books Around The Table is the blog of Margaret Chodos-Irvine, Laura Kvasnosky, Julie Larios, Julie Paschkis and Bonny Becker. We are a critique group of children's book authors and illustrators who have been meeting monthly since 1994 to talk about books we are working on, books we have read, our art and our lives. We invite you to sit down with us around the table and join the conversation.