Author Archives: laurakvasnosky

Holiday Favorites for Reading Aloud

Now’s the time of year to dig into holiday picture books. And who better to suggest titles than my fellow grandmother, Judy Luiten? Judy has spent the last 35 years teaching pre-schoolers, which includes lots and lots of reading to them. Her list of Christmas books features tried and true favorites as well as a new title she recently ordered for her students.

Judy notes these books are all good read-alouds. The list includes a wide variety because she believes in exposing kids to lots of kinds of books.

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The Christmas Wreath by James Hoffman, illustrated by Jack Stockman, School Ground Publishing Co., 1993. A polar bear gets a Christmas wreath caught on his neck and eventually saves Santa’s own Christmas experience. Magical.

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Mr. Wallaby’s Christmas Tree by Robert Barry, Doubleday, 2000. Mr. Wallaby’s tree is too tall for the parlour. What to do? Rhyming text. Delightful.

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The Puppy Who Wanted a Boy by Jane Thayer, re-illustrated by Lisa McCue, Harper Collins, 2005; original illustrations by Seymour Fleishman for Morrow, 1958. Most boys want puppies for Christmas. This puppy wants a boy. Judy can’t read this one without crying.

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Merry Christmas Big Hungry Bear by Don and Audrey Woods, Childs Play, 2004. Little Mouse worries who will bring a present to Big Hungry Bear who lives on the top of the hill. These are the same characters who first appeared in the beloved The Little Mouse, The Red Strawberry and the Big Hungry Bear, 1984.

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Judy has ordered Jan Brett’s latest Christmas book, The Animals’ Santa, Putnam, 2014, based on how kids respond to Brett’s tried and true story, The Mitten. She says her students love to predict the next animal to appear in Brett’s books by looking carefully at the illustrations.

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The Santa Mouse by Michael Brown, illustrated by Elfrieda DeWitt, Barnes and Nobles, 1996; reprinted from the original Grosset and Dunlap, 1966. A cute classic in which a mouse gets to go along with Santa on his deliveries.

Thanks to Judy for these wonderful suggestions. It is so fun to be grandmas together and also to share our love of picture books.

Happy holidays to you all!






I came to love picture books when our kids were little. Every week we’d visit the library and haul home a big bag of books. So I first met Vera B. Williams between the pages of her books.

Sadly, Vera B. died October 16. Happily, we have her wonderful books for comfort.

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If I had to point to the one book that made me want to be a picture book maker, I would point to Vera B. Williams’ Three Days on the River in a Red Canoe.

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Three Days was Williams’ third book, published in 1981 when she was 54. It was the first of her books to gain popularity, winning the Parents Choice award. The story’s in the guise of a young girl’s journal during a family canoe trip, illustrated in colored pencil. Like all of Williams’ books, it has a big generous heart. That’s the part that grabs me.

But Vera B. Williams was not just a children’s author and illustrator. The same year Three Days was published, she spent a month at Alderson Federal Prison Camp following arrest at a women’s peaceful blockade of the Pentagon.

As she wrote, “At various times I have helped start a cooperative housing community, an alternative school, a peace center, and a bakery where young people could work. I have worked to end nuclear power and weapons, and for women’s rights. I have demonstrated and been jailed. I have produced posters, leaflets, magazine covers, drawings, paintings, short stories, and poem, as well as books.” To which I would add she was also a school teacher and the mother of three.

Bookwise, she went on to write and illustrate the Caldecott honor book, More, More, More Said the Baby, inspired by her first grandchild.

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And the Rosa trilogy, including Caldecott-winning A Chair for My Mother.

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My favorite of the Rosa books is Music, Music for Everyone  in which Rosa and her friends form a band to raise money for her grandmother’s medical care. Here’s my favorite (wordless) spread, at the climax.


As you can see, decades before the call went out for more diversity in picture books, Vera B. Williams’ stories were inclusive across all racial and economic lines. I love that.

• • • • •

Like Vera Williams, I was in my early forties when I started trying to make picture books. To figure it out, I studied the books my kids and I had loved the most. I made  thumbnail grids of Vera B. Williams’ books to teach myself about pacing and page turns. I pored over her illustrations noting point of view, character depiction, color, flow.

Early on, I attended a workshop that brought together teachers and authors. That’s when I first met Ms. Williams in person. She was an intense little person, already in her 60s. I had a minute to talk to her while she signed a book and I quickly told her how she’d inspired me to try to publish a book. She endured my gushing with equanimity.

I sent her copies of my first board books when they came out in 1994. She sent back an encouraging note.

• • • • •

I am a total fan of Vera B. Williams’ books. But she did not write them for me. Luckily, I got to see how her books impact young readers the year I volunteered as a writing coach in Lilly Rainwater’s fourth/fifth grade split at Hawthorne Elementary.

The kids I worked with at Hawthorne came from all walks of life and many ethnic backgrounds. When we were working on personal narratives, I brought in Williams’ last book, published in 2001, Amber Was Brave, Essie Was Smart.

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It is a story for older kids, told in poems and pictures. It recounts what happens to two girls whose father goes to prison and then returns.

For months, each week when I returned to the classroom, that book would be in another student’s desk. It made the rounds. These kids had relatives and friends who were in prison. They had had to be brave and smart. The book resonated.

Which, in the end, is what all Vera B. Williams’ books do. Whether it’s a grandma sweeping up a baby to love in More, More, More, or little girl saving up money for A Chair for My Mother, Williams’ stories give us the best of what it is to be human.

Though I wish there were more, more, more Vera B. Williams’ books, I am forever grateful that she showed us all a picture book can be.

Now that’s a life well-lived.


“Unpredictability is important to film. Know the objective of the scene, and then surprise yourself.” Veteran actor Stacy Keach shared that insight with an audience of theatre-goers at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, OR last Saturday. While never quite sitting down on a high stool, he recounted highlights from his over-50 years in the acting biz, and offered advice he gives students when he teaches at George Mason University.



Keach said an actor can use unpredictability to amp up the vigor of a character. I flashed back two years to a performance of My Fair Lady at OSF. Ken Robinson, the actor who played Freddy, and sang “On the Street Where You Live,” was wildly unpredictable. He began the song typically, the opening notes delivered in a resonant tenor as he strolled the sidewalk in front of Professor Henry Higgins’ house, where Eliza Doolittle had taken up residence. But things diverged as the song progressed. Freddy sprawled on the street, hugging the pavement. By the end he was lying on one side and bicycling his legs in a circle, still singing full voice his love for the “street where you live.” The traditionally poignant song soared with this fresh and hilarious and unforgettable delivery.

We were hooked. We couldn’t wait until Freddy came on stage again, just to see what he’d do. We’ve seen many fabulous performances in the seven years we’ve been going to OSF. This performance stands out.

Unpredictability is something I appreciate in books, too, as a reader and also as a writer. What can be better than discovering the unexpected bits your characters offer as you write your way through a scene?

So here’s some advice from Stacy Keach, transposed for writers: Next time you get bogged down, try injecting some unpredictability. Commit to the intent of a scene, then let something unpredictable happen: write in an unanticipated character, an unexpected action, a less-obvious reaction. Or play around with the mechanics in an unpredictable way: point of view, verb tense, chronology, word choice, sentence structure.

Surprise yourself and discover a more compelling story.


This is a story about a search for the right word, and another search, too.

At our last critique meeting, I read my latest version of LITTLE WOLF’S FIRST HOWLING. Bonny suggested I find a new word for “twinkle” in the sentence, “They watched as the stars twinkled on and a full moon peeked over the mountain.”

I have consulted friends and Google, too, of course: blinked, winked, flickered, appeared. What is the word for that moment when a star becomes visible? Maybe blossomed? (No, a friend pointed out, that mixes the plant world and the moon’s anthropomorphic action of peeking.)

I was thinking of this “twinkled” challenge Wednesday night. All summer I have looked forward to the Perseid Meteor Showers, billed as this year’s biggest star event. Wednesday night, August 12, was supposed to be the best for viewing. The new moon would set early and the skies would be very dark. We could expect 80 to 100 shooting stars per hour. Talk about twinkling.

I imagined John and me watching this all from a mountain meadow, far away from the Seattle’s city lights. We’d be ensconced in our butterfly chairs that fold out into chaise lounges. Refreshing drinks would rest in the special cup holders that are built into the chairs’ arms. Our sweet spaniel, Izzi, would rest at our feet. It might be romantic.

So Wednesday afternoon we headed for the Cascades. Just as we cleared the tangle of city traffic, we realized we’d forgotten the special chairs. And the cooler.

At least we remembered the dog.

More challenges were, literally, on the horizon. Low clouds hung along the hills and a haze of smoke blew in from forest fires. After all this effort, would we be able to see stars at all?

• • • • •

Smoky winds sliced through the sliding doors as we stepped out on the balcony of our room in Suncadia Lodge. A smoky haze persisted after sundown but we headed out to find a dark spot away from the Lodge. We chose a driveway apron to a vacant lot and lay down on hard new asphalt to stargaze. Right away, I realized I could see the stars better without my new glasses, so I stuck them in my coat pocket. Several meteors streaked across the sky, but I was sure we’d see even more if we could find a darker spot. I talked John into walking another half mile down the barely lit road and following a string of bistro lights through the forest to the parking lot.

The skies cleared a little as we drove around looking for a dark cul de sac in the unbuilt part of the resort. We found the perfect spot, the kind of place young lovers seek on a warm summer night. Only it was on Rocking Chair Lane. We positioned the car so it blocked the one small streetlight and spread the dog’s old sleeping bag on the still-warm pavement. I folded my coat into a pillow and we lay down with Izzi between us to look at the now fully twinkling skies.


Despite the sky not being completely black, we counted 24 shooting stars over the next hour and a half. Then a local drove by to see what we were doing and we felt self-conscious lying out there in the deserted cul-de-sac on the dog’s old sleeping bag. We packed up. That’s when I realized my new glasses were missing.

Backtrack, Backtrack. Backtrack. Every place we’d been. We combed the dark roads and trails with our cell phone flashlights. No luck. We were bummed as we went to bed, the wind still whistling through the open sliding door. Then at 3 am an alarm on the room’s refrigerator started beeping. Which was annoying until we looked outside. All was calm. The night was perfectly black, the sky sugared with so many stars that it was hard to pick out the constellations. Those stars dazzled and danced. They sparkled and salsa-ed. They even twinkled.

The next morning before I got up, John went out with Izzi. He walked back to that first driveway apron and met a man working on the gate there.

“Did you happen to see some glasses?”

“As a matter of fact, I have them right here in my truck,” he said. “Lucky I didn’t drive over ‘em.”

Maybe now that I have my new glasses back I will see stars in a new way and find that right word. Or maybe twinkled is enough.


John and Izzi and the hazy Cascades.


We’re suffering here in Seattle – a record 15 days of temperatures over 80 degrees. I know this might be laughable to people in other, hotter, parts of the country, including our California cousins who don’t even break a sweat until it’s over 100.

In Sonora CA where I grew up, most summers had a week or even two over 110. We did not have air conditioning, so on those hot summer nights we’d pull rollaway beds out on the deck and sleep under the huge humming wheel of the Milky Way.


We’d count falling stars as we fell to sleep. Mom promised that if we could say “Money, money, money,” before a star burned out, we’d be millionaires. But this effort was quickly eclipsed by the sheer wonder of the night skies. Those skies taught me Wonder, one of my favorite emotions.

As Sara Teasdale put it: “…And children’s faces looking up,/ Holding wonder like a cup.” (from Barter)


To escape the Seattle heat yesterday, we slipped into an air conditioned theatre to see INSIDE OUT, Pixar’s brilliant new film. It combines a hero’s journey with an animated construct of how the brain functions. The outer story: eleven-year old Riley has to leave her beloved Minnesota life, including her hockey team, to move to San Francisco with her mom and dad. The ingenious inner story: through animation we to see inside Riley’s mind where the console is run by five emotions: Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger and Disgust. We watch as these emotions govern her stream of consciousness and impact behavior. It is fascinating.

insideoutcharctrsWhy did the writers choose these five emotions from the vast possibilities? I expect they settled on Joy, Sadness, Fear, and Anger because these are the core emotions of many more subtle feelings. Disgust I think they chose for comic relief. She’s a green Mean Girl, voiced by Mindy Kaling, who peppers the dialogue with a cynical uppity point of view.

Perhaps you are familiar with the Wheel of Emotions from the Writers’ Circle? The writers of INSIDE OUT employed five of the six core emotions from this wheel, leaving out Surprise. It is interesting to see so many of the human emotions organized on this wheel — but they leave out wonder.


Perhaps I’ll have to start a campaign. “WONDER — the emotion that sings, even on a hot sweaty day in Seattle.” I know. I know. I’ll need to come up with something snappier.

But this could be my first campaign vid: NASA’s images of the Andromeda galaxy taken by the Hubbell telescope last January. Watch it for an instant Wonder hit.

Or check out this photo of the new moon over San Francisco on the night of our grandson’s birth. To me it is just as wondrous — and speaks of wonders to come.


p.s. Wondering if the science behind INSIDE OUT is accurate? Click here. The short answer is yes.


Short messages – say 140 characters or less – launched via bird. Sound like Twitter? Well, something like that.

I grew up in Sonora, a small town tucked into the California foothills. My friend Boots Oller raised pigeons. Some were rollers, trained to soar upward until Boots clapped sharply and they fell from the sky, tumbling over and over, only righting themselves at the last moment to land atop their lofts. Spectacular.


Boots also raised homing pigeons that competed in long-distance contests. His favorite homer, Jack, had won a 200-mile race. Boots was always looking for opportunities to stretch the homers’ distances. When he heard I was heading to college in Los Angeles, 350 miles down California’s Central valley and over the Tehachapies, he asked if I’d help.


I packed my old VW bug for the trip, cramming in clothes, cowboy boots, psychedelic posters, guitar, flute, and a box of dried prom corsages. I left the back seat clear for the slatted wooden pigeon cage I picked up at Boots’ on my way out of town. It was filled with six of his finest homers, including Jack. My instructions were to stop every 50 miles or so and set one free.

Between launchings, I composed an ongoing story for the pigeons to carry. At each stop, I wrote the latest snippet with my spidery Rapidograph .000 pen onto a slip of paper the size of the fortune in a fortune cookie, then rolled it into a small capsule that attached to a bird’s leg. I already fancied myself a writer and my notes comprised a story of leaving home, traveling, and the birds themselves.

Following Boots’ instructions, I launched Jack last, setting him free along I-5 south of Bakersfield, about 250 miles from home.


When I got settled in my new dorm at Occidental College, I called Boots to see if the birds had made it. All had arrived except Jack. He’s still out there someplace with that last piece of my story.

How many words does it take to tell a story? The six small “chapters” that flew via homing pigeon back to Boots suggest one answer. Ernest Hemingway had another. He was said to have won a bar bet by writing a whole novel with only six words: “For sale: baby shoes. Never worn.”


There is a novel’s worth of meaning when you line those words up in that order. More recently, these six words launched a fad of six-word memoirs, but that’s a longer story.

Compression is what we’re going for when we write picture books. In the early 1990’s, we writers were advised to keep picture book manuscripts to less than 1,000 words. These days, it’s 500 words, edging down to 400. We strive to say the most we can with the fewest words. (I remember the flood of joy when I first turned from picture book writing to a middle grade novel project and realized I could use all the words I wanted.)

Less is more is what I’m thinking about today, stories whose meanings shine between the lines, stories where every word pulls its weight.

I think my shortest published story is one I wrote for the University Bookstore’s 100th anniversary book of 100-word stories, a tale that also involves birds:



“Someday,” declared Jane. “Someday I will cross the road.”
“Why?” said Mavis. “We have everything we need right here.”

“I heard the nests are softer over there,” said Jane.
“But the pavement is hot,” said Mavis. “You could burn your feet.”

“And grubs are tastier.”
“Remember Norman Stottlemyer? He never returned.”

“And dustbaths utterly splendid.”
“Go,” said Mavis. “Just go.”

“Okay,” said Jane. “See? I’m putting a foot on the pavement.”

“Why’d you stop?” said Mavis.
“The other side’s so far away,” said Jane.

“Oh, all right then,” said Mavis. “I’ll come with you.”
“Thanks,” said Jane.

Mavis nodded. “Did you really think I’d let you go alone?”


Recently our daughter gave birth to our first grandchild, Emmett. I would include his photo here but our daughter hopes to keep his internet exposure to a minimum. Suffice it to say he is the most adorable baby ever.

For the past three weeks John and I have been in San Francisco to help out. It has been a special time and we know it. Everyday Emmett wakes up a little more to the world; his beautiful blue eyes look so intently at us. Already he smiles and responds to music.

One of our jobs was to set up new shelves in the nursery. That gave me a chance to look at the small library of board books that friends and relatives have sent to the baby. Seemed like a good excuse to check in with the board book world. I realize this sample is very non-scientific, but it does provide a nice introduction.


patthebunnyI was glad to see Emmett has Pat the Bunny on his new shelf, first published in 1940 and recognized as one of the first books in this genre. He also has the classic Good Night Moon, repurposed from its initial issue as a picture book.


New to me are board books with roots in adult fiction. Emmett’s library includes babylit: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and Sherlock Holmes, by Jennifer Adams with art by Alison Oliver.

huckfinnHuck is subtitled “A Camping Primer.”  The text plucks single words from its forebear, followed by a phrase from the original. For example “RIVER,” followed by “I’d go down the river about fifty mile and camp.”

 Sherlock is billed as “A Sounds Primer.” The illustrations are dark and a little scary. The text may raise goosling bumps on the baby: “Hounds howl, Thunder rumbles, Gates screech…Doorbells ring.”

hungrycaterpilMany of Emmett’s books were first published as children’s picture books. Some seem even better in this format, like Eric Carle’s Hungry Caterpillar, whose die-cut holes of the caterpillar munching through the pages will hold up much better in cardboard than they do paper.

areyoumymomOthers, like P.D. Eastman’s classic early reader, Are You My Mother? make me think, what’s the hurry? It is such a perfect book for learning to read. Though maybe reading it as an infant will make it more accessible later?

littlebluetruckThe Little Blue Truck, with rhyming text by Alice Schertle, illustrated by Jill McElmurry, is a board book that first appeared as a picture book. With 15 spreads, it has the most pages of the books on Emmett’s shelf but when his attention span expands, it will be a great introduction to the basic shape of a story. The LBT says hello to lots of animals, (fun animal sounds followed by “Beep, Beep”), then meets a big challenge which is resolved with help of the animals, especially the littlest frog.


prbBoard books do a good job introducing concepts to our tiniest readers. As Emmett devours his little library, he will learn about colors, animals and numbers, in Pink, Red, Blue, What are You? and One, Two, Three, Play with Me. These were my very first published books and I can’t wait to share them with my own little grandson.

sleepylittlealphaHe also was given The Sleepy Little Alphabet, written by Judy Sierra and illustrated by Melissa Sweet, in which a reluctant group of 26 lower case letters are finally tucked into bed by their capital letter parents. Last spread: “Who’s that snoring Z z z’s?”

123peasAnd Keith Baker’s wonderful 1 – 2 – 3 peas, which is animated by a cast of 100 peas in the most amusing ways.


Then there is the bunch of books that will introduce Emmett to his world. This includes the board book that was my daughter’s favorite when she was a baby, All Together, as well as the inimitable Lucy Cousins’ Garden Animals, Country Animals and Farm Animals. I am intrigued by one that is illustrated with photos of babies, Global Babies, put out by the Global Fund for Children.



goodnightconstructI’m especially looking forward to sharing Goodnight, Goodnight, Construction Site, by Sherri Duskey Rinker and Tom Lichtenheld. While I read Emmett the simple text, he will be prompted by icons to push one of five buttons that provide the sounds of the big machines settling down to sleep. No wonder it’s been on the New York Times best selling list for over 80 weeks.

peekazooAnd I know we’ll have a great time peeking our way through Nina Laden’s Peek-a Zoo, and lifting the flaps in Rod Campbell’s Dear Zoo.

presshereThe low tech of Hervé Tullet’s Press Here has lots of simple appeal. As the title suggests, each spread invites the reader to “press here,” the result being a turn of the page to find what the pressing caused. This, too, has sat for months on the New York Times best selling list. Seems we like that return to the wonder of the page turn.


oxenburyThese books from Helen Oxenbury are especially suited for reading to babies. They each have four spreads, their format is larger, (8 x 8”), and the illustrations of babies are big and bold. Emmett’s two-year old friend Darwin noted: Dear Emmett, My favorite part is the ‘All Fall Down’.” And (on Tickle, Tickle) “Dear Emmett, This one is funny.” Nice to have recommendations from the toddler set.

yummyyukyLeslie Patricelli made her name as author/illustrator with her first board books in 2003. Emmett’s going to love BIG Little, Quiet LOUD, and Yummy YUCKY and the funny big-headed baby who stars in each book.

moobaalaLast but not least are titles by the amazing Sandra Boynton, queen of the humorous, rhyming board book: Snuggle Puppy and Belly Button Book! I will be sure to read him my favorite of hers, Moo, Baa, La la la, as well. Each Boynton book is full of love and good funny rhymes.


I was forty when I turned toward becoming a children’s book creator. My kids were about grown, the oldest heading off to college.

Partly what attracted me was a desire to have my work be part of that circle of reading to a child again: to sit in the big chair in the lamplight, the kids fresh from their baths, their heads damp against my chest; the quiet of the neighborhood settling around us, the warmth of their small selves as we open the cover of a book and enter a story together.

This little shelf is where the newly-expanded family will begin reading together. They’ll share board books that offer snippets of story, or the simple naming of things in our world, or concepts like colors and numbers, and – always – warm humor.

We overheard Emmett’s parents reading to him in the nursery as we left last night. I love that our wee grandson already knows the circle of love with his parents and a book.


Ah, Spring. Everywhere I look it’s the force that through the green fuse drives the flower. Nature has sensed the void she’s said to abhor and is filling her incompleteness with trilliums and trout lilies, spidery maple leaves and daphne odora variegata. Bare branches fizzle with chartreuse fuzzies and soft blossoms.


It seems a feeling of incompleteness is part of the human condition, as well. And like Nature, we attempt to fill this void. We fall in love, create children’s books, play with a dog, watch a sunset. All these solutions work to some degree. Other times we try to fill the inner void with music or religion, or running, or drugs, alcohol, sex, or chocolate. Stories even. Yet the void persists.

The open palm of desire wants everything. It wants everything.
It wants soil as soft as summer and the strength to push like spring.

– Paul Simon, ‘Further to Fly’

I think it’s this incompleteness that beloved writer Norma Fox Mazer pointed to as a main character’s necessary “deprivation.” As sure as Velcro hooks grab Velcro fuzz, characters hook readers through their incompleteness. Because we feel a lack in ourselves, we have a ready place to hold a character’s longings and out-of-balancedness. “Deprivation” has many guises. For example, the children in Sarah Plain and Tall’s yearning for a mother, or Peter Rabbit’s need to get into the vegetable patch, or even Olivia’s out-sized dream to be the Queen of the Trampoline – all incompleteness and desire.

I’ve heard it said that 90% of children’s literature is about belonging or searching for home. Maybe that’s what our own incompleteness is about, too.

What a ramble. But it’s spring and the garden calls. And if I may paraphrase what Rene Zellweger said to Tom Cruise in the movie Jerry Maguire, the garden completes me. At least for awhile.

p.s. Here’s the Dylan Thomas poem referred to above:

The force that through the green fuse drives the flower

The force that through the green fuse drives the flower
Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees
Is my destroyer.
And I am dumb to tell the crooked rose
My youth is bent by the same wintry fever.

The force that drives the water through the rocks
Drives my red blood; that dries the mouthing streams
Turns mine to wax.
And I am dumb to mouth unto my veins
How at the mountain spring the same mouth sucks.

The hand that whirls the water in the pool
Stirs the quicksand; that ropes the blowing wind
Hauls my shroud sail.
And I am dumb to tell the hanging man
How of my clay is made the hangman’s lime.

The lips of time leech to the fountain head;
Love drips and gathers, but the fallen blood
Shall calm her sores.
And I am dumb to tell a weather’s wind
How time has ticked a heaven round the stars.

And I am dumb to tell the lover’s tomb
How at my sheet goes the same crooked worm.


Like Mark Twain, I am a sucker for the right word. Twain’s the one who famously noted the difference between the right word and the almost-right word is akin to the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.

For instance, I was immediately won over by my sister Susan Britton’s novel-in-progress which begins:

Jara, the lightest of sleepers, heard the noise first—the snick of a key in the lock, the creak of the door, the scuff of boots on the concrete floor of the main room below her. No light leaked up the ladder opening into the attic where she lay in bed. The Takers had a rule about no light. Immediately, Jara’s whole self went crazy with fear except for a small important part of her that knew exactly what to do. She had been practicing for this moment since she was twelve years old. Now she was fifteen.

She had me at “snick.”

Our very youngest readers deserve a rich vocabulary in their books even more. They are acquiring language, and the picture book has a big role in introducing a wide vocabulary. It can present ”the right word” in a context that reveals specific, nuanced meaning.

PZonka-Interior-WorkingA spectacular use of “spectacular” in Julie Paschkis’ new book, P. Zonka Lays an Egg, just out from Peachtree. “Spectacular” describes the title chicken’s first creative output.

Last month in the New Yorker, I read about a program in Providence, RI called Providence Talks that encourages low-income parents to talk more frequently with their kids. This effort is based on the word-counting studies done in the 1980s that determined the number of words children hear in their early years correlates with academic success, better health, and higher income later in life. (These studies also inspired Geoffrey Canada’s amazing Harlem Children’s Zone project).

The word-counting scientists found that wealthy parents talked more with their kids. As recounted in The New Yorker, “Among the professional families, the average number of words that children heard in an hour was twenty-one hundred and fifty; among the working-class families, it was twelve hundred and fifty; among the welfare families, it was six hundred and twenty. Over time, these daily differences had major consequences. Researchers concluded that with few exceptions, the more parents talked to their children, the faster the children’s vocabularies were growing and the higher the children’s I.Q. test scores at age 3 and later.”

SWOOPMore perfect words: from Owl Babies by Martin Waddell, illustrated by Patrick Benson (Candlewick). The “swoop” makes me swoon.

The White House took on this issue, too, in a conference last October on “bridging the word gap.” Their conclusion had a different emphasis: “Among 2-year olds from low-income families, quality interactions involving words — the use of shared symbols (“Look, a dog!); rituals (Want a bottle after your bath?”; and conversational fluency (Yes, that is a bus!”) were even a better predictor of language skills at age 3 than any other factor, including the quantity of words a child heard.”

Certainly being read to provides quality interactions involving words, as a letter the New Yorker’s Mail section noted a few weeks after the article about Providence Talks. The letter writer extolled the importance of the quality of words young children hear, and noted researchers at UC Santa Cruz found: “Picture books were three times as likely as child-directed speech to use a word that isn’t among the most common English words; a result found regardless of parents’ social class.”

That’s our job as picture book writers: to serve up quality words that exactly serve the story. The right word in context broadens vocabulary and fits like the snick of a key in a lock.

luluOne last example, from Harry and Lulu by Arthur Yorinks, illustrated by Martin Matje (Hyperion). The text reads:

Harry jumped up on the bed and licked Lulu’s face from top to bottom. Lulu was delirious. Then she remembered.

“Wait a minute,” she said to Harry. “You’re not a dog. You’re just a stupid stuffed animal and maybe I should throw you out the window or kick you down the sewer or something!!” Lulu went to grab him.

Harry thought of yelping for help, but instead he decided to speak English.

“Delirious.” A quality word.

Could Boredom Become a Guilty Pleasure?

We once went to a Guilty Pleasures holiday party. My husband wrapped up a pack of Q-Tips for the gift exchange. Another guy brought one of those Safeway roasted chickens in the tinfoil pack. My favorite was a pair of giant underpants that had four leg openings. The guy who unwrapped it said, “Guess I’ll be carpooling home tonight.”

My guilty pleasures are simple: relaxing in a hot bath while watching an episode of Friday Night Lights on my iPad, or listening to an audio book on my iPhone while gardening away a Saturday, or even just playing WordsWithFriends and checking email on my phone while waiting at a traffic signal.

I know it’s wasting time, but I didn’t realize there was a bigger cost to my technology-filled approach to downtime. That’s because I didn’t know about the correlation between boredom and creativity.

I learned about it Monday on NPR. In a segment called Bored and Brilliant – the Lost Art of Spacing Out, New Tech City’s Manoush Zomorodi reported on “studies that suggest we get our most original ideas when we stop the constant stimulation and let ourselves get bored.” In fact, one study showed that subjects who were assigned the most boring task – reading the phone book – came up with the most novel ideas.

Manoush spoke with cognitive neuro-scientist Dr. Jonathan Smallwood who studies the relationship between mind wandering and creativity. “There is a close link between originality, creativity and novelty on the one hand and the spontaneous thoughts we generate when our minds are resting,” he said. In short, he said creativity is dependent on daydreams which are dependent on boredom, the default resting state of the brain.

When you turn to your phone to avoid boredom, you also miss out on the creativity that bubbles up from your resting brain. Further, Smallwood said, when we use cell phones to fill every moment of spare time, we don’t have a chance to “see and learn where we are in terms of our goals,” what scientists term “autobigraphical planning,” a form of positive, constructive daydreaming. Without sufficient autobiographical planning, people get stuck in a rut.

The New Tech City podcast is aimed at cell phones, perhaps the most harmful interrupter of boredom. Who is not familiar with what Smallwood calls the “easy, lazy junk food diet of the phone?” I’d include its hussy big sister, the iPad, so seductive with NetFlix and audio books and games. I realize I often scroll and swipe to fill the silence in the nooks and crannies of time that used to be prime for daydreaming. There was a time when it was pleasure enough to take a hot bath, or weed and spread compost, or drive along the coast without connecting to the internet. Was I more creative then?

Luckily, the folks at New Tech City are leading a program to help people decrease cellphone use and thus rediscover the art of spacing out. I am curious to see how it might impact my creative life, so I signed up.

And I made a resolution for 2015: Get bored more. I think I’ll start with a hot bath…

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You might like to listen yourself: Bored and Brilliant – the Lost Art of Spacing Out.