Category Archives: Children’s Book Critique Group Blog

Science Lit

On this eve of Earth Day, 2017, with marches for science scheduled tomorrow in cities around the US, I got to thinking about science books for kids, and what they’ve meant to me.

It’s important for children to see real worlds as well as imaginary ones. They can be equally wondrous. Children love stories. Science is the narrative of the universe.

Looking through my science books as a child, I dreamed of seeing cardinals, and fireflies, and the Northern Lights. A bright red bird, a bug that lights up, colors in the sky – they seemed like magical things, in spite of being real.

I still have some of my childhood science books, and I’ve added a few more. I continue to use them as reference for my work.

Even though I spent a lot of time making things and drawing pictures when I was growing up, I also loved reading about insects and dinosaurs and rocks (I lean towards biology and geology). My family and I went on rock hunting expeditions in the California desert. When asked when I was five what I wanted to be when I grew up, I said An Archaeologist. I did eventually go on to get a degree in anthropology (as well as art).

This is my parents’ fossil book that I poured over as a kid. Fossil hunting continues to be my idea of Big Fun.

There are wonderful books on scientific topics being published every year. My daughters both loved Cactus Hotel and Spoonbill Swamp, by Brenda Guiberson, illustrated by Megan Lloyd.

Douglas Florian writes and illustrates quirky poems about areas of science. I especially enjoy his Comets, Stars, The Moon, and Mars.

The Minor Planets

Sometimes known as asteroids.
Sometimes called the planetoids.
They always help to fill the void.
Tween Jupiter and Mars.

Named for sweethearts, daughters, sons.
Some are small as breakfast buns.
Others larger, weighing tons,
But none as grand as stars

Florian knows how to be both funny and informative without either getting in the way of the other.

Several years ago I bought a book on the work of Charlie Harper. When I first saw the book I felt a pang of nostalgia. He was an illustrator in the later half of the twentieth century and created the images for The Giant Golden Book of Biology. I must have read that book at some point, because looking at his work gave me flashbacks of being in grade school.

You may recognize Harper’s work from recently produced coffee mugs and calendars. I have bought fabric with his birds on it. He is having a posthumous revival of sorts. But some of his most beautiful and innovative images are his illustrations about science.

Science is a varied and expansive topic. That is good, as there is something to spark interest in just about anyone. I applaud all authors, illustrators, teachers and parents who find inspiring and creative ways to introduce young people to the wonders of science. Let’s make sure students  continue to have access to a wide range of scientific ideas, exploration and knowledge in the future.

A Few Thoughts about Competition

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Sometimes I wonder if I’m missing a piece, personality-wise. Well, I’m sure it’s many pieces, given how many go into any given personality and how often I wonder. If you put the metaphorical pieces end to end, would they stretch from here to the metaphorical moon?

But one piece in particular (better said, the lack of it) puzzles me, and that’s the piece governing competitiveness. I look deep, but I can’t find it. What happened to it? It must have snuck off in the night some time back. And I’m not bragging about this — it’s not like I’m so zen-blessed or Buddha-like that competition is beneath me.  It’s more like I don’t really care anymore about being the fastest, the best, the most. I can’t think of anything I would be driven to win at.

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When I was a kid it was different. On the playground I wanted to be the best at everything. If my friends and I ran around pretending we were wild horses, I wanted to be the fastest and the wildest horse. Playing tetherball or dodge ball, I wanted to beat everyone who challenged me – not just beat them, but crush them, and I did crush them.  Many kids thought I was mean.  I practiced yo-yo tricks so much it hurt, because I wanted to be the Yo-Yo Champion of the World. If I couldn’t master something (like the strategy behind games of chess) and knew I couldn’t win,  I simply didn’t engage in it.

How things change as you age, no? If I do something well now (write a good poem, for example) I’m happy, but I’m just as happy to have a friend write a better one. Nothing eats away at me if I’m not The Best – I don’t curse and tell myself I’ll win next time.

So, I’m really curious: Do most of you reading this feel that competition is healthy? That it shows energy and self-confidence? Even in an adult? My lack of competitiveness –  rather than representing a state of blissful Nirvana, does it only represent inertia? Even worse, does it suggest a lack of confidence and/or depression? On the other hand (lots of hands waiting for their turn) could a lack of competitiveness, seen by some as a problem, mean I’m ready for sainthood?

 

THE STORY OF LITTLE WOLF

Every book has its origin story. For Little Wolf’s First Howling, which launches April 11, that story begins and ends with collaboration and play.

In November 2014 John and I found out we were going to be grandparents. We bought a wolf puppet for the expected baby and were goofing around with it on the drive home when Little Wolf started howling with an Ella Fitzgerald-inspired vibe. We cracked each other up, so I tried working some of our play into a picture book text. John and the puppet were my first collaborators on Little Wolf.

But it is my sister Kate Harvey McGee whose name is beside mine on the cover. Kate gave the illustrations their luminous color. So I thought I’d give over my blog post today to some thoughts about what made our collaboration so much fun.

First, we have history. Kate and I are the third and fourth children in a family of five kids: four girls and (finally) a boy. We shared a bedroom most of our childhoods and spent lots of time coloring together, redecorating our room, making up stories with our stuffed animals and getting in trouble for laughing when we should have been going to sleep.

In the year I was a senior and she a freshman at Sonora High School, we worked together every week before home football games painting a huge Wildcat head that was leaned up against the goal posts for the football team to burst through as they took the field. That’s the last time we made art together.

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Until September 2015 when she agreed to provide the color for Little Wolf.

To backtrack a little — Candlewick Press editor Katie Cunningham and art director Heather McGee offered to publish Little Wolf in July 2015. Heather talked to me about the challenges of printing a book that takes place at night; a book with so much black. She explained that instead of the usual CYMK four plate process, this book would be printed CYMKK, two black plates. In other words, I would need to provide the black and the colors on two separate layers.

Since the artwork had to be in two layers, I knew just who I wished would do the color. About ten years ago my sister Kate turned her talents from landscape architecture to plein air painting with pastels.

I love her work, especially her sense of color and composition.

Little Wolf takes place at night in the wilds of Yellowstone, I could imagine how Kate would paint that light and beauty.

We made samples to show Katie and Heather what we had in mind. In November 2015 they welcomed my sister Kate on board.

One more hurdle: Kate and I would both have to learn Photoshop to make this work. (Much thanks to Kevan Atteberry for helping me with this.)

Five months of intense artmaking began. I created the black layer a conventional way, painting with white paint and black ink in gouache resist technique. This I scanned and adjusted in Photoshop, then emailed to Kate who lives near Corvallis, OR.

Also working in Photoshop, Kate created a pastel palette and “painted” the colors in layers under the black layer.

Every time she sent back a spread, I would open the file with bated breath. Every time it was a revelation.

Collaborating with Kate was fun because we trust what each of us brings to the table. We share a similar aesthetic. It was fun to be making something together and good to have each other’s advice to figure out when a piece was done.

Mostly we worked each in our own studios, but twice we met to work side by side. Once for a magical weekend at Arch Cape on the Oregon coast, where the nights were starry and the days sunlit. And once in Seattle as we wrapped up the project. We turned in the interior art April 2016.

Then began the design for the cover. Color proofs one and two. ARCs. Gratifying reviews (three stars!).

This story that began while playing with a wolf puppet grew to carry the truth about the importance of singing your own song – as well as the joy of singing with one you love.

YOU ARE INVITED

The launch of Little Wolf’s First Howling, Tuesday April 11, 7 pm at Secret Garden Bookshop in Ballard, 2214 NW Market St., Seattle. Come help us wolf down refreshments and howl along with family and friends to string bass accompaniment. Feel welcome to bring your pack.

Also – Special Storytime April 12 at 11 am. at University Bookstore, 4326 University Way NE, kids department.

p.s. One more collaborator — As part of my ongoing effort to include Izzi in as many blogposts as possible, here she is posing for reference for Big Wolf on the cover.

Pysanky

Pysaty is the Ukrainian verb for writing. Pysanky are decorated eggs: the decorations are written with beeswax which resists the layers of dye.

My family has dyed pysanky for years. My sister Jan and her husband Greg host an annual neighborhood egg decorating party. I was inspired by the party and the eggs to write a book about an eccentric hen (P. Zonka) who lays beautiful eggs. Here is a link to an earlier post about that.

Last spring I went to eastern Europe with my friend Ingrid. Her friend Vova took us many places, including a surprise visit to the Museum of  Decorated Eggs in the Carpathian mountains.

It was egg-mazing, egg-zilerating, egg-xactly the place to see pysanky: old, new, simple, intricate, subtle, colorful, masterful, plentiful.

Pysanky are rich in beauty and symbolism. To the sun worshippers, eggs were magical objects representing the rebirth of the earth. The colors and the patterns of the decorations all have symbolic meaning. For example: the spiral, or snake, is a strong talisman of protection. If an evil spirit enters the house it will get trapped in the spiral.

The Huzkuls of the Carpathian mountains believed that the fate of the world depended on decorating eggs. If not enough pysanky were made each year  a horrible monster named Pekun would break free from his chains and destroy the world.  So please do your part and decorate some eggs! Here is a link to a youtube video that shows how. Have fun (and save the world).

P.S.: Here is a  glossary of mouth pleasing egg words for those of you that are more interested in pysaty than pysanky.
Malyovanky: Painted eggs
Krapanky: Dot eggs
Dryapanky: Scratched eggs revealing white shell
Krashanky: Eggs dyed a single color
Nakleyanky: Decorations glued on
Travlenky: Etched eggs
Biserky: Beads embedded in the beeswax.

The Art of Pochoir

I bought a new book recently.

Pochoir is a technique for hand stenciling. I have been experimenting a lot with stenciling in my own work lately, but I had never heard the term Pochoir until a friend mentioned it a few months ago (thank you Jennifer).

Pochoir was used in the 1910s – 1920s in France as a way to colorize fashion plates in women’s magazines. By using rounded brushes, layers of watercolor or gouache paints are applied by hand through stencils, gradually building of layers of soft color. Usually the plates were printed with line art first.

I haven’t read much of the book yet, but I’ve spent plenty of time looking at the pictures.

The women all seem to be swooning or lounging.

Or smelling flowers.

Or in bad weather.

Their bodies are all long lines and arcs.

Many have very long necks.

They like birds.

Some are exotic.

Some possess mystery.

They have whimsy.

And a sly sense of humor.

What a wonderful era of illustration to peruse. Ooh la la.

Lady Curiosity

Well, I thought I would be posting today about the Boston Public Library. In my opinion, public libraries are the best thing about America – they are egalitarian, they encourage intellectual curiosity on a budget, they are the perfect institution for a democracy- it’s clear to me that “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” need a public library.  I spend a lot of time in libraries; I take the library system into consideration whenever I look at a community and think about whether it would be a great place to live. Libraries are a big part of my life, and the Boston Public Library is gorgeous.

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Golden marble everywhere, big lion statues in the stairwell, painted murals twenty feet high, absolutely awe-inspiring. My husband and I visited it last week, during Boston’s mid-winter 60-degree weather (67 degrees in February? In Boston? Impossible!!) when we flew out from Seattle to visit our daughter and her family. I knew posting about the library would be perfect – our readers share my love of books and the buildings they are housed in. So, a post about the library….But then we went to Salem and visited the Peabody Essex Museum and its featured exhibition, The World of Wearable Art.

There was no way not to post about it.

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When I walked through it, I could just hear a voice in my head saying, “This is what happens when you think outside the box. This is what creativity is all about.” The wearable pieces on exhibit were all submitted as part of a world-wide competition, open to both professionals and amateurs.

My daughter asked us to choose one we would walk down the streets of Salem, Massachusetts, in.  My grandson liked the one you see (above) and took a photo of it (below):

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My husband liked the one made of wood (below) which was created for the competition by a carpenter. Not that my husband would walk down the streets of Salem in it!

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And my daughter chose the one you can see just behind it, made of wool flannel and silk. Up close, you can almost feel the heat of it because it seems to be on fire. Here’s a better shot of it:

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We all agreed that this lobster oufit was spectacular….

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…and that the one below, made entirely of leather, was unnerving – not sure why. Imagine the lobster or the horse walking toward you down the sidewalk.

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This one, also on the scary-beautiful spectrum, felt melancholy to me, as if it were moaning:

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The dress pictured below was my favorite, probably because in the back of it (as part of the bustle) it had a “curiosity cabinet” of strange items on display in glass jars.

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Designer Fifi Colston of New Zealand submitted it to the competition and titled it “Lady Curiosity.” You can read more about Colston’s work here.

One last favorite, part of the bras-only competition, was this one:

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The iguana is wrapped behind the wearer’s neck; under the animal’s clawed hands are the bra cups.

So I guess the tie-in with writing is this: It never hurts to think outside the box, push yourself, come up with something completely new. Put aside the traditional. Go for the innovative. Go for the jaw-dropping. Understand that being a carpenter can involve building a dress. Combine words, ideas and genres the way people in this competition combined textures and materials – a wooden dress, a horse’s head, a jar-filled bustle. Think flames, fables, lobsters, iguanas. Don’t be afraid to be different. When you write, be Lady (or Lord) Curiosity.

Audience Research: Peril, Action, Plot and Parasites

This one’s for you, middle-grade/YA writers. Straight from the horse’s mouth – well, actually, straight from my 13-year old grandnephews’ mouths between bites of pizza.

Jake, Max and Benn are all avid readers. I decided to pick their brains during a dinner at Eviva’s Pizza in Edmonds: What books have they enjoyed most lately? And – helpful to us writers – why? Admittedly this is a small survey sample, but I think you’ll find the results interesting.

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Jake, who is oldest by two minutes, said the kid version of Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand is his favorite book of late. He liked learning about World War II and “really rooted for the guy to get through camp.”

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All three boys play many sports and are avid sportsfans. (Last year their Christmas gift exchange had a Seahawks theme.) Jake says that explains why he likes the Mike Lupica books. “They are easy to relate to.”

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Next up is Max.

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Max’s top title of late is The Supernaturalist by Eoin Colfer, “the Artemis Fowl guy.” Max likes the action and adventure and the compelling push of this story that pits four kids against a parasite in order to save the world.

John Green’s Papertowns is another of Max’s favorites, which he found “funny and intriguing.” Papertowns is a mystery with a boy/girl relationship at the center.

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Benn, too, recommends Unbroken and The Supernaturalist. And Benn, too, likes action in his reading. He gobbles books at a rate about two a week and noted the Supernaturalist is the kind of story that keeps him up late reading. It’s hard to put down. Benn likes a good plot – so mysteries have big appeal, especially mysteries with kid detectives.

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Benn also likes serieses, i.e. Harry Potter (of course). And he put in a word for the Stick Dog series, “even though it’s for younger kids,” and comic books, with their action appeal.

Also anything by Brian Selznik (The Invention of Hugo Cabret and The Marvels are his favorites) and “all the sports books by Tim Green.”

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Nancy Pearl, the only librarian I know who has an action figure, says that she thinks readers can be divided into those who read for character and those who read for plot. Jake, Max and Benn definitely come down on the plot side. Most of the titles they mentioned have lots of suspense and action, as well as kid protagonists they can relate to. I guess it makes sense that these active boys would want action in their books.

Thanks Jake, Max and Benn for sharing your favorite books. And happy writing to the rest of you.

p.s. Eviva’s Woodfired Pizza was voted Seattle’s best pizza, even though it is located ten miles north in Edmonds. Worth the drive!

Wordless Letters, part two

Last week Margaret wrote about our wordless correspondence while she lived in London. This week I am posting some of the letters that she sent to me.

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When we hatched our plan we decided that we would each send a wordless letter every Friday. We stuck with that deadline although Friday sometimes became Saturday. Having a deadline made us actually follow through on our intentions.

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I loved getting something in the mail every week and I never knew what it would be.

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This one comforted me when our dog Lily died.

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Some explored new tools such as a pen nib.

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Here is the other side of the teapot conversation –

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and the squiggle

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Some were three dimensional, or collaged from scraps of labels, or made of fabric.

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I enjoyed the exchange as it happened. But yesterday when I gathered everything  to photograph, the accumulation of letters and images amazed and moved me. Our small idea grew into something bigger – a record and testament of our friendship and of time passing. Giving and getting were both gifts.

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Wordless Letters

J Paskchis wordless letter

This post is about my correspondence with Julie Paschkis while I was in London. Apparently, February is International Correspondence Writing Month (InCoWriMo), so this will be especially appropriate.

After I had gotten myself settled in and had recovered from the initial shock of moving to another country, I still felt a bit untethered. Printmaking, my artistic comfort zone, had begun to feel tedious and boring, so I intentionally left my printmaking presses behind in Seattle. Now I had a new environment to explore and no reason not to experiment and be inspired.

But sometimes, having so many options becomes overwhelming. Where to start?

I told Julie how I was feeling. She said that when she isn’t sure where to start creatively, she finds it helpful to make something with someone particular in mind, as if she is making a gift for them. I liked that idea. Julie suggested we both send each other a “wordless letter” every week.

This turned out to be a wonderful solution, in so many ways. I found the challenge of describing what I was doing and expressing what I was feeling, without words, to be a very productive means to mine my experiences.

Julie and I have been friends for nearly thirty years. She knows my art. She knows my insecurities and foibles. She is my dear friend. I knew that whatever I sent her would be received openly and without judgement. That was important to me at a time when I was trying new things that I wasn’t necessarily good at. Some weeks I felt more inspired than others. Some weeks I had less time than others. It was all okay.

The practice kept me being creative, even when distractions and excuses not to stay in my workspace were everywhere, and it disciplined me to do so on a regular basis. During the week, I would keep my eyes open for bits and bobs of ephemera to use in my next missive. Often, what I would make for Julie would lead me to create other pieces in a similar vein.

It also kept me in touch with Julie in a different way than texts or FaceTime or even written letters would have done. It was like a conversation of imagery.

All that, and the joy of receiving something in kind every week. A letter is a gift. We don’t get or give them often enough.

These letters are some of my most treasured relics from my two years in London. All in all, I have nearly fifty wordless letters from Julie. The envelopes were also works of art. I have picked some of my favorites to show you here.

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J Paschkis - wordless letter

J Paschkis - wordless letter

J Paschkis - wordless letterJulie sent me this after I told her about a missing teapot from my parents’ home.

J Paschkis - wordless letter

J Paschkis - wordless letter

J Paschkis - wordless letterArrows were a common theme for me. Julie responded in kind.

J Paschkis - wordless letterJulie and I exchanged squiggles at one point, and then colored them in and sent them back.

J Paschkis - wordless letterSome of the letters were 3-D.

J Paschkis - wordless letterOthers had movable parts!

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J Paschkis - wordless letterRose colored glasses to induce optimism.

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J Paschkis - wordless letter

J Paschkis - wordless letter

J Paschkis - wordless letter

J Paschkis - wordless letter

J Paschkis - wordless letter

J Paschkis - wordless letterThis was a Thank You note from Julie after she and her husband Joe visited us and we took a trip to Amsterdam.

J Paschkis - wordless letterJulie sent me this after I met her in New York for a visit.

J Paschkis - wordless letter A letter for a new year.

J Paschkis - wordless letterAnd this was one of the last letters Julie sent me. It is me, returning to Seattle (the handle on the suitcase goes up and down and the flaps open).

Next week, Julie will share her side of our exchange.

Concept book, concept book. What do you see?

Some of the simplest picture books are concept books. Books about sound, color, shapes, seasons… ways that we categorize the world that will be new to a toddler. Concept books might often seem like just random lists, but the good ones have an underlying structure that takes more planning than it seems.

A lot has to do with the order in which information is presented. It can be an order is natural to the concept itself such as the passage of seasons or the sequence of the colors in a rainbow, but often the author has to work to impose order. A lot of the pleasure of a concept book is to see how an author and illustrator do this.

A great example is the picture book Buzz by Janet Wong, illustrated by my blog-mate Margaret Chodos-Irving. It’s a book I’ve used in my writing classes long before I knew Janet or Margaret, because what could be a simpler idea than different things that buzz? But it’s far from a random collection of buzzes.

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In this case, author and illustrator explore the different buzzing sounds a boy hears as his household wakes up.

It starts with the single word: “Buzz.” as a boy sleepily looks out his window. Then a page turn.

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“Outside my window a bee eats breakfast in a big red flower.”

It then moves through the boy’s morning. The buzz of the alarm clock in his parent’s room. Dad shaving. The sound of the gardener mowing across the street. There’s one “buzz” sound per page. And they are relatively peaceful, everyday buzzes. The language is mostly simple declarative sentences.

Then comes breakfast and something interesting happens. The activity level picks up and the language gets more complex:

Mommy grinds coffee Buzzzzzzzzzzz while I fly my airplane Buzzzzzzzzz over the oatmeal Buzzzzzzz and past the apple juice Buzzzzzzz—OH NO!

All this activity happens on one page quickening the pace of the story.

On the next page, there are no buzz sounds—just mild chaos. Airplane lands in juice, cup spills, mom runs to catch cup, toast pops up, clothes are tumbling in dryer and then the BUZZZZ of the dryer gets buzzing back into the story, but now with more urgency. Mom is on the move getting ready to go to work. Buzz goes her hairdryer. Grandma buzzes the doorbell to come baby-sit. Boy kisses Mom goodbye…

“so she can fly BUZZ outside”

(page turn and we see Mom hurrying off to work)

“like a busy bee.”

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There’s plenty of structure here. The sequence of the buzzes matches the natural order of a morning’s activities. The pace and urgency of the story gradually escalate into mild chaos in the kitchen and Mom suddenly needs to rush to get out the door—this is the top of the story arc. Then the pace slows somewhat—not as leisurely as the beginning, but down off the peak and gradually we come in for a landing, with the closing image of the bee that perfectly rounds out the story at the same place we came in.

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A consistent pattern or rhyming scheme is another way to add structure to a simple book. I wrote a  concept book Tickly Prickly, illustrated by Shari Halpern (now out of print) about how things feel to the touch. It begins with:

Did you ever have a ladybug crawl across your finger?

How did it feel?

Tickly, prickly. Fly away quickly.

Every stanza that follows asks a question about how it feels to touch a familiar animal and answers that question within a consistent rhyming scheme.

Did you ever have a fish wriggle in your hands?

How did it feel?

Slippery, slickery. Turny and twistery.

Ending with:

Did you ever have a puppy cuddle in your arms?

How did it feel?

Velvety snug. A hugful of love.

Like Wong, I had to find an narrow focus for my book. I picked the feel of  animals—not the feel of a bedtime blanket or a snowball. And I picked familiar animals—bunnies, chicks, a cat’s paw—not a hippo hide or the beak of a stork. But I could have gone in those other directions. The main thing is to have a direction, a reason for the choices.

chick-tickly-prickly(By the way, the symbols at the top of this illustration are from an iTunes app that’s available for this book.)

There’s almost no build to the march of animals in Tickly Prickly, but the middle does feature perhaps the more interesting animals that might be in an average child’s world—a horse, a lake fish, a toad. And, it very deliberately ends with the coziest emotion, snuggling with a dog.

Ending with the coziest emotions is my favorite go-to for most concept books, but there are other ways to make sure you end in a satisfying place, including the ending of a day (a built-in cozy moment with a goodnight tuck-in or hug), the reward or result of that activity (the baked cake) or going full circle.

Taro Gomi’s, Spring Is Here is a perfect example of the circular ending.

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Spring Is Here is so deceptively simple. The prose couldn’t be more straightforward. It begins:

Spring is here.

The snow melts.

The earth is fresh.

The grass sprouts.

Each line is a new, two-page spread.

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But not only is there a lovely trick he plays with the illustrations (you’re going to have to get this one to see what he does. It’s worth it.) he, too, creates a build as we move from flowers blooming and grass growing to a little drama in the middle:

The wind blows.

The storms rage.

And then back down into the quiet harvest, falling snow and a hushed world. Before returning to:

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For more concept books to check out, I like this list compiled by the Contra Costa County Library (plus it’s fun to say all those C-words.)

http://guides.ccclib.org/c.php?g=43934&p=1046403

The Seattle Public Library also has this list:

https://seattle.bibliocommons.com/list/show/73413760__seattle_kids_librarians/85218609_seattle_picks_-_concept_books

And here’s this from Goodreads:

https://www.goodreads.com/shelf/show/concept-books