Category Archives: Children’s Book Critique Groups

Persevere

Sorry. No pictures this time. Just a little story:

There was once this girl.

She had many strengths and quite a few weaknesses.
She was shy, emotional, stubborn. She could draw and she liked to make things.
It turned out her weaknesses were also her strengths and vice versa,
but she wouldn’t learn that until she was much, much older.

Not the end.

I recently had to put together a curriculum vitae, or CV, of my work. As a freelance illustrator I don’t have the need to do this very often. Thank heavens.

I have a problem. When I have to list everything I have done that someone might want to know about professionally, my head freezes up. It’s like when someone asks you what your favorite song is, and all you can think of is the tune you liked best in 7th grade.

If you are confident in yourself, with never any doubts about your abilities or self-worth, then you can stop reading at this point and go do something else today. I don’t want to bore you.

But if you have difficulty putting yourself forward because of what you haven’t done, then I counsel you to stop, and look instead at what you have accomplished.

If you think all of us who have published books, received awards and recognition, and generally produced some very cool work, don’t shake in our boots when we look at the next level of expectations we have set for ourselves, you are wrong. Every potential success is also a potential failure. And rejection hurts. Yes it does.

Take me, for example: I tend to focus on my failures; my inadequacies; the thing I want to do before I die, but haven’t managed yet. I don’t also see my accomplishments and what I am capable of. Sometimes I have to be reminded by someone who is not myself.

A number of years ago I went to a book-signing event for David Small and his wife and collaborator Sarah Stewart. I had published two children’s books of my own at that point, and was trying to figure out how to write my next book. I spoke with David and Sarah about the insecurity I felt about writing. Before she left, Sarah gave me a card on which she had written “persevere,” along with a sprig of rosemary from her garden.

I have kept that card with its now brittle, little sprig. It reminds me that stubbornness can be a good thing. When you grow up it can become determination. And being emotional can provide you with the empathy necessary to tell good stories and work well with others. Being shy, well, being shy won’t stop you from writing a blog or even giving a speech, and maybe it will keep you from boring others by going on and on about yourself. Maybe.

Unless you are in preschool and have yet to learn to tie your shoes, then you must have done something that took determination and effort. Think about it. What are you proud of having done, and why? Now remember those achievements. Put them into your CV notes before you forget again. When it is time to move forward to the next opportunity, hold your head up, even if you are nervous. Rejection hurts but you move on. You have faced down challenges before and done some impressive things. I am here to remind you.

And this too: Persevere.

Rosemary sprig

ALL ON BOARD

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.

CLASSICS and REPURPOSED

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.

goodnightmoon

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.

CONCEPT BOOKS

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.

HELLO WORLD

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.

globalbabies

INTERACTIVE BOARD BOOKS

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.

STAND OUT SERIESES

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.

Having Fun

Clark One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish - Theodore Geisel

Clark
One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish – Theodore Geisel

As I have been working on the illustrations for BOOM BOOM, I have been thinking about humor in children’s book illustrations – what amused me when I was a child and what I find funny now. I’m sure there is a common thread from one to the other, but I’m not going to delve too deeply. As E. B. White said, “Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.”

Sometimes the images act as punch lines to the text, while in others the joke is delivered on a separate plate from the words. Many are visual puns. What I see as a constant is the amount of fun the illustrator appears to be having. In the best comedy for children, I believe joy, humor and art are a trio act, with joy having the leading role. Have you ever tried to illustrate a children’s book when you are not in a good mood? Unless you are drawing trolls or  gargoyles, cheer up or take a break.

To demonstrate, I’ve put together a small collection of some of my favorites, old and new. I have no idea if the artists were grumbling or grinning when they worked on these books, but they must have been giggling at least a little by the time they were done.

Scrambled Eggs Super detail-Dr Seuss-Random 1953

The Ziffs on the cliffs and the Zuffs on the Bluffs
Scrambled Eggs Super – Theodore Geisel

Dr. Seuss tops the list. In my early reading years, the library my parents and I went to shelved their Seuss books on two conveniently low shelves. Scrambled Eggs Super was one that I picked up whenever it was available, regardless of how many times I’d checked it out already, and One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish made learning to read worth the effort.

Eloise

Here is what I have to do every French morning…
Eloise in Paris – Hilary knight

Eloise In Paris 2-Hilary Knight Kay Thompson-1957

I am all over the Etoile…
Eloise in Paris – Hilary Knight

When I was about eight I discovered Eloise on a family road trip visiting friends of my mother’s in Vancouver, Canada. I slept in their daughter’s room. She was at least fifteen years older than I and long out of the house, but her collection of Eloise books by Kay Thompson, illustrated by Hilary Knight, were still there. I poured over Knight’s exuberant illustrations for hours. Eloise is truly all over the Etoile and all over the page. Her gestures and body language are as much choreographed as drawn.

The Story of Ferdinand bull butt-Robert Lawson Munro Leaf-1936

He didn’t look where he was sitting…
The Story of Ferdinand – Robert Lawson

The Story of Ferdinand, the sensitive bull. While beautifully composed and exquisitely drafted, Robert Lawson‘s illustrations for Munro Leaf’s text are also wonderfully fun to look at.

The Bedside MAD-William M Gaines-52-59

The Outer Sanctum
The Bedside MAD – William M Gaines

The Bedside MAD 2-William M Gaines-52-59

The Outer Sanctum second spread
The Bedside MAD – William M Gaines

At about age nine, my taste in humor took a sidestep when I purchased some old MAD Magazine paperbacks. These books compiled early issues that featured artists like William M Gaines (also the magazine’s founder). He specialized in spoofing popular radio dramas from my father’s era such as “Inner Sanctum” with goofy yet surgical expertise. I think their intended audience probably wasn’t me, but take a close look at the details and you will see why I liked them so much as a nine-year-old.

I Know an Old Lady-Abner Graboff Rose Bonne-Rand McNally 1961

I know an old lady who swallowed a bird
I Know an Old Lady-Abner Graboff

I didn’t discover the work of Abner Graboff until I found a copy of I Know An Old Lady by Rose Bonne at a school library sale a few years ago, but I wish I had found him sooner. Thank you, Abner, for breaking all the rules.

And lest you have the impression that I only look at children’s books published before 1960, here are a few more contemporary works that make me laugh.

Arnie the Doughnut-Laurie Keller-Holt 2003

Arnie looked around and saw all sorts of doughnuts…
Arnie the Doughnut – Laurie Keller

Laurie Keller is funny, in both text and imagery (And in person too. I was lucky enough to meet her). She could make a stand-up comic out of a golf ball.

Polka Bats and Octopus Slacks Ed-Calef Brown-HM1998

Ed
Polka Bats and Octopus Slacks – Calef Brown

This image by Calef Brown is wonderful even without the poem that accompanies it (sorry, you will have to go get the book yourself and read it). Which came first, the image or the words? Who cares. I’m glad for both.

Insectlopedia The Walking Stick-Douglas Florian-1998

The Walking Stick
Insectlopedia – Douglas Florian

Douglas Florian is a poet who is also an artist. Or maybe he is an artist who is also a poet. Either way, he creates books with a graceful blend of sophistication and whimsy (sorry, you are going to have to go get this book too). His humor is subtle and precise and beautifully rendered.

Glasses Who needs em-Lane Smith-Viking 1991

…potatoes however…
Glasses, Who Needs ‘Em? – Lane Smith

And Lane Smith. Smith has made numerous hilarious books, but I think I like this image from Glasses, Who Needs ‘Em? best of all. Do you see what I mean?…

I hope this small sampling has made you laugh, tickled your funny bone, or at least improved your mood. If you are going to be illustrating children’s books, you might as well be smiling, right?

An Inspiration Grows Up

Fifteen years ago, I bought a dress for my two-year-old daughter. I thought it was the perfect little toddler dress – a red jumper that had a bit of a bell-shaped swing. I even paid full price for it, counter to my usual shopping philosophy.

My daughter however, was not enthusiastic about my taste in clothing. When I put the dress on her, she sat down on her wee diapered tush and cried, “I don’t like this dress Mommy. Take it off! Take it OFF!”

There are some battles worth fighting for. There are others where it’s best if you just write about them. This mother-daughter impasse was the inspiration for Ella Sarah Gets Dressed; the first children’s book I both wrote and illustrated, which won a Caldecott Honor award, way back in 2004.

Now my Ella Sarah picks out her own clothing, and pays for it too. She has defined her own style and has modeled and blogged for a local shoe store for the past three years. I even find myself consulting her on many of my wardrobe concoctions. I dare not wear an outfit that raises an eyebrow from her!

I am bringing this up now because I have been thinking a lot about this child I’ve known for nearly eighteen years. And I’ve been thinking about her because she is about to leave me. She will be going to college in New York in the Fall.

I would be waxing sentimental at this point whether I had written a book about Ella or not, but having preserved that moment in our lives in print perhaps makes it feel more poignant. Or sappy. Or both.

Ella has been a willing model for many of my illustrations over the years. There is nothing like having a kid handy when you are working on a children’s book. She outgrew my picture book needs quite a few years ago, to be replaced by her sister, who in turn has been replaced by younger neighborhood children, but I’ve done many images that owe their accuracy to Ella’s cooperative posing.

So maybe what I am feeling as we all prepare for her flight east – along with the joy and pride and sadness and worry  and hope – is gratitude. She gave me a enormous gift in being the inspiration for a story that became a book – a book that added my name to a venerable list of illustrators in addition to making me a published author. I never expected such a payoff when I boarded this motherhood boat.

Ella plans to major in Graphic Design and Communications. She says she wants to work in publishing some day. She may even study illustration for a while. Perhaps I have returned the favor and inspired her a just a bit?

Whatever she does, may she find as supportive a community of people with whom to work as I have. Go with grace, little bird!

Bowling for Dinosaurs

A question I often get asked is, Do I use photos to draw from when I illustrate?

The answer is Yes and No. I try to draw from my imagination as much as possible, but there are times when a photo captures more details than my imagination can conjure up.

For example, when I was working on Dinosaur Thunder by Marion Dane Bauer last year, I drew many of the kid images without photo reference.

Children are my favorite drawing subjects. I love the expressive way they move.

But Dinosaur Thunder has a scene that involves bowling angels. If it was dancing angels or sleeping angels, I could probably have managed it, but bowling is not really my thing.

So I invited my friend Todd, a former bowling team member, and his kids to join me and mine at to our local bowling alley. I was able to get some valuable shots that day. It’s the little details that make all the difference.

Todd. My bowling angel.

And the shoes. I had to get reference for the shoes. My eldest daughter modeled these stylish gems for me.

This is how the image turned out.

Thanks to good friends, cooperative children and a decent camera, I was able to get details necessary to embellish upon my imagination. Sometimes you just have to go out in the field and do some serious research.

I have more dinosaur tales to tell, so stay tuned for future installments…

My Book Bag

From time to time, I want to share books from my own book bag with you here –  “around the table.”  This is what I have in my book bag today:

FAVORITE POETRY BOOKS FOR CHILDREN – 2011

 

I’ve read so many “Best Books of 2011″ lists since January – and discovered so many titles I might otherwise have missed – that I’d like to share my list of nine favorite poetry books for children in 2011.  I chose them based on the craftsmanship behind the poems themselves, the beauty and delight of their illustrations, and the kid appeal (or, sometimes, teacher appeal – though hopefully both) of the whole package. Above are cover images – just click on those for larger images.  And click on titles in the list below to read more about them at Goodreads.com – I hope you enjoy them as much as I have.

If you’re interested in these books – either as a reader or a writer –  be sure to follow Sylvia Vardell’s wonderful blog, Poetry for Children as well as Librarians’ Choices, the blog project headed up by Ms. Vardell, where you’ll find a Master List of worthy poetry titles for kids, put together by librarians around the country. And visit blogs of people who participate in Poetry Friday from week to week – you’ll find a list of people who host the Poetry Friday Round-Up through June over at A Year of Reading.

Illustration by Mark A. Hicks

Horns, Magic, Metaphors, and Me at the Gate

19th Century Austrian Postillon

By way of introducing myself here at BOOKS AROUND THE TABLE, I’m going to share this image of a postillon horn. Never heard of it? Me, either, until I went looking for something to serve as a metaphor for “beginnings” or “openings.” As a poet, I like metaphorical thinking and the sneaky way it makes its point via indirection, in the same way a magician performs sleight-of-hand, making people look at one hand while the other does the actual trick. Look, a dove!

Instinct usually tells me to go with a poem or an image, since one or the other of those will be sufficient. I generally leave explanation to the people who write fiction or non-fiction. But prose is the method of choice for blogs, so let me explain my thinking.

The horn pictured above resides in the Postal Museum in Prague. Postal carriers in the 19th century used it to “give different signals for having the town gate opened, warning the other drivers on the road to give way, calling for help in distress, announcing the post arrival and departure, changing horses, etc.” Note the horn hanging from the neck of the unabashedly jubilant postillon below. Looks like some of those letters aren’t going to make it to their destinations. I hope the news in the telegram was good news – maybe a prodigal son returning? A lost fortune regained? – and not news of cher Mama’s death. That image requires champagne after reading, no?

I don’t expect to toot my horn to warn the other drivers on this blog (Laura, Julie P. and Margaret) to “give way” – I rarely go above the speed limit, metaphorically speaking (Look, another dove!) Nor do I anticipate changing horses very often, though I’ve been known to do it, even mid-stream. But I do like the idea of a high clear note that asks for the gates of the city to open – after all, this blog is about sharing and building community among writers for children, and I hope to hear the hinges creaking, the doors opening and our voices mingling.

At the Gate- Porta Maggiore - Rome

From time to time I might blow the horn as “a signal of distress.” Writing is a strange business, and for many of us it is both exhilarating and exhausting.  There might be an occasional blast on the horn when I’m trying to figure out what keeps postal carriers – I mean writers – going when they’re bone tired. The Frenchman at the Cafe du Postillon pictured below doesn’t appear to be in a Pony Express mood. Maybe he’s a burned out writer. Some of you, I feel sure, have been there yourselves, leaning against that very door jamb.

Cafe du Postillon - Photograph by Aart Klein

Right now, I’m feeling energetic, and I’m here at the town gate with my trusty horn. Hope I’ve got some lovely bit of mail for you from time to time. I wish I could deliver it right to your door, and we’d have tea and talk about books around the table. But I’ll be satisfied with delivering the Books Around the Table part of that scene to your computer screen, 21st-century-style.

Postillon - Neckartailfingen, Germany

Story Light

When our critique group sits around the table, the discussion sometimes diverges from our storymaking undertaking, but usually finds its way back, as does my first entry in our blog.

Lately, I am thinking about sunlight. It is a rare commodity in the Northwest this time of year and I know I am not alone in my yearning for it. In fact, light yearning has long been a human preoccupation. Case in point: New Grange in Ireland, built over 5000 years ago. Its huge stones were aligned to allow sunlight to penetrate the inner passage and chamber exactly at sunrise around the Winter Solstice – an awesome engineering feat for Stone Age people – all for the wonder of a focused beam of light on the shortest days of the year.

I am thinking about the enlivening power of light, how each year the sun brings my garden to life. I am not talking about photosynthesis. I am talking about how sunlight shines through the garden: illuminating, dazzling; shadow and bright. The late afternoon slanting light is my favorite.

So how do these thoughts about sunlight transfer to writing? Like the Stone Age guys, we must set up all the elements of the story so that light penetrates the inner passage at the darkest moment. We craft our constructions from the stones of character and plot and language etc., and nudge our readers along to that moment of enlightenment. Light is about contrast, so of course dark is part of what we work with. But what exactly provides light, the enlivening element, in a story? What shines through, transcending the words on the page?

Or maybe it’s not the author but the reader who brings light to the work? Hmm. More thinking needed.

This is the kind of conversation I love to have with our critique group. Here, through our blog, we invite you to join the discussion.

A Place at the Table…

Tea Party from ELLA SARAH GETS DRESSED

I am honored to be the first to write a post for our group blog, and I have chosen to begin by saying a bit about our group and its history.

This critique group originally grew out of a Children’s Book class taught at the Seattle School of Visual Concepts in 1994. Meg Lippert was also in the group at that point, but Julie Larios left in 2000, and I was then asked to join. Since that time there have been quite a few celebratory events around the table; Julie Paschkis has made it onto the New York Times Best Illustrated Books list a few times, Laura Kvasnosky has won a Geisel Award, and I have received a Caldecott Honor. Meg left us in 2010 to follow other pursuits and we miss her dearly. Julie Larios has rejoined the group and we are moving on.

We meet once a month, taking turns hosting. We start by laying out or reading whatever current project we are working on, and follow with updates on any back-burner items. All items are open for comments and input.

We have an implicit understanding that it’s okay to say we don’t like something as long as we articulate why. After all, one shouldn’t join a critique group expecting to avoid criticism. And, it’s okay to like something too, as long as we articulate why. We have lengthy discussions about writing and picture-making. Then we break for lunch.

To be in a monthly critique group is a good way to discipline yourself to keep your nose to the Kid-Lit grindstone. To be part of a group that knows your strengths and your weaknesses, and that those two categories are often interchangeable, is invaluable. To be working with people whom you admire, respect and trust, is something I am eternally grateful for. The fact that we all are good cooks is just darned good luck.

Here’s to beautiful and satisfying books and food–and sharing them around the table!

–Margaret Chodos-Irvine