Category Archives: Children’s Books

A Tale of Two Izzies

1. First, a game. We have been gardening up a storm here in preparation for the Mazza Institute visit to my studio and wherever I work in the garden, Izzi makes herself a fort. See if you can spot the spaniel.

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2. Second, mucking about in murky morals.

“I might have lied,” said Izzy. “But let’s not get bogged down in the facts.”

Does that sound like a clip from a recent White House statement? Perhaps something Kellyanne ‘alternative facts’ Conway might say?

Nope. It’s from my book Frank and Izzy Set Sail, published in 2004 by Candlewick Press. Lately, my grandson has taken to this book. (Like Izzy, he loves ukuleles.) My daughter, who has been reading it several times a day, pointed out the connection between Izzy’s relationship to the truth and the present administration’s.

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Which led us to wonder what other children’s books espouse less-than-honorable behavior.

In my book, Izzy’s lying has a bad influence on Frank – later in the story he says, “Could be my grandma was a pirate, too.” He’s trying out lying. My intention is humor, not to encourage kid-readers to lie. I expect kids will be in on the joke. But it gives me pause in light of present events.

Does it matter – when you think about how stories shape the character of our small readers – if immoral behavior is not addressed? There are consequences when Peter Rabbit steals from Farmer MacGregor. He is sent to bed without supper. Whereas Max in Where the Wild Things Are returns to a warm supper. Hmm. Perhaps this reflects a softening of parental attitudes between 1902 and 1963? (Kellyanne Conway was born in 1967 so we can assume she was read Wild Things when she was a peerie lass.)

What other characters in children’s books come to mind? Any other liars, thieves, tantrum-throwers? Or sexist, bigoted, disrespectful, ignorant narcissists? What is the cost of immoral behavior in picture books? Does it matter?

 

 

 

When Your Mind is Blank

Kelly Barnhill, author of this year’s Newbery winner, The Girl Who Drank the Moon, says her book began with a vision that literally stopped her in her tracks:

I was out for a run, and I had this image appear in my head, unbidden, that was so shocking to me that I had to stop in my tracks. It was of this four-armed swamp monster with a huge tail, and extremely wide-spaced eyes…and these big, damp jaws and it was holding a daisy in one hand and was reciting a poem…

That’s one way ideas come. A gift from the universe. And there are the good times when they seem to come crowding into your mind. But sometimes they don’t come at all. That’s what I want to write about today–what do you do when the ideas aren’t popping.

First, let’s get in the right frame of mind.

There are two types of brain waves associated with generating creative ideas, especially the kind that seem to come from nowhere. The ones that just rise up into your conscious mind. They are alpha and theta waves.

Alpha waves are a function of deep relaxation. In alpha, we begin to access the creativity that lies just below our conscious awareness. It is the gateway, the entry-point that leads into deeper states of consciousness. And they often rise into consciousness on that walk, in the bath, on a car ride.

A deeper state of consciousness is signaled by theta waves. It is also known as the twilight state–which we normally only experience fleetingly as we rise up out of sleep, or drift off to sleep. Probably most of us have been jolted occasionally by a sudden idea or solution or vision in these moments.

But how can we get into these creative states?

Artists through the ages have tried! They’ve called on the gods, made deals with the devil, called on love, passion, nature, drugs, alcohol and madness.

But actually those alpha and theta waves? They like certain conditions, especially alpha.

Your brain waves will tend to fall in with a dominant rhythm in your environment: a drumbeat, a heartbeat, the fall of your footsteps—they call it entrainment. So the creative muse loves rhythmic activity: music, walking, chopping vegetables, riding along in a vehicle.

Mozart said, “When I am traveling in a carriage, or walking after a good meal, or during the night when I cannot sleep; it is on such occasions that ideas flow best and most abundantly.”

It’s no coincidence that Barnhill’s vision of the swamp monster came to her during a run.

But let’s say, you’ve walked your feet off, bathed till your skin is a prune, chopped broccoli for hours, and you still got nothin’. There are also more deliberate ways to generate ideas. Let’s start with this simple formula for a story:

A (character) who (core trait) wants (goal plus hidden need).

The core trait is a simple, quick way to give your character a personality. It’s a good way to think about picture book characters who need to be developed quickly and simply.

So the formula for my book A Visitor for Bear might be: a bear who is grumpy wants to be left alone (but the truth is he needs a friend.) The formula for Wanda Gag’s Millions of Cats might be: a couple who are old want a cat (but the true need is companionship or something to care for.)

Of course, these formulas are for books that have already been worked out, and A Visitor for Bear actually was one of those “just popped into my head” ideas, but let’s say you really are at a loss for an idea. So let’s look around and just grab something.

“A cat who is ugly wants to catch a mouse (and I don’t know the true need yet.)”

Okay, I truly did just grab this out of my head. Let’s see what happens if we work with it. I especially like to play with the core trait, because how a character is challenged or changed is what makes the story interesting.

1.Make the core trait conflict with the goal/need.

For example, in Millions of Cats most couples might look to have a child to meet that need to have companionship or something to care for—but their core trait is that they are old. Not only does this heighten their loneliness, it means having a child is not possible. It ups the stakes and means there will be obstacles to overcome in order to not be lonely in their old age.

2. Work with an unusual trait:

Rather than creating a character who is easily scared (a familiar trait), how about someone who loves to scare others?

Rather than someone who’s nice, create a character who’s grouchy (That’s my bear in A Visitor for Bear.) Rather than a child who is scared about the first day of school, a child who can’t wait! Rather than a child who won’t eat his vegetables, a child who is a vege fiend!

3. Combine disparate traits:

A gentle giant. A kind witch. A pacifist bull. A mighty ant.

4. Put two characters with conflicting traits together:

A cheerful mouse and a grumpy bear

You can also work with plot.

5. Set up an unlikely or improbable goal:

A cow who wants to be a ballerina. A horse who wants to drive a car. Your character can be fairly ordinary but there will be story conflict and reader interest because of the improbable goal.

So let’s start messing around with that idea about an ugly cat wanting to catch a mouse. Notice it’s a mundane familiar goal. Picture books have to be simple so if I combined an odd core trait with an unlikely goal it can get complicated. An ugly cat who wants to go to the moon. It might work, but it becomes unclear what’s the real issue of the story.

So I’ll stick with “ugly cat wants to catch a mouse” and start to play with the options. An ugly cat: well, that’s a bit unusual. We don’t often deal with an ugly character in a picture book. But the story immediately suggests humor and the character is not human, so we can have fun with it.

Does his core trait (ugly) conflict with the cat’s desire to catch a mouse? Maybe. Maybe he’s so ugly he scares away mice before he can even get close. Okay that seems funny to me. So I can go with that.

Since he’s always scaring away his intended prey, what does he do? Put on a mask? Put a bag over his head? Try to creep up on mice backward? Now I’m starting to see the obstacles that will make up my plot.

Can I take advantage of two unlikely characters together? Cats and mice aren’t known to be friends. Cats are the predators. Mice, the prey. Cats big, dangerous, brave, graceful. Mice, small, scared, hiding, weak. I could maybe play off those stereotypes or start flipping them in some way. A big mouse. A tiny cat. But I need to ground my story in that core trait. What the one thing I know for sure about my particular cat. He’s uncommonly ugly.

Is my mouse perhaps uncommonly handsome? Or is he the world’s ugliest mouse? Do they have that in common?

Since this is child’s picture book, I know I want to drive it to a happy ending (although if the tone is exactly right, you could perhaps have a more macabre ending like I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen. But that is a rare exception.) So now I’m liking the idea of the having the world’s ugliest mouse because I can see friendship there. That’s probably my cat’s true need—friendship or acceptance.

To really develop this story would take a lot more time and thinking. And, more often than not, you might find your story idea ultimately doesn’t work or doesn’t really hold your interest. But generating a story idea in this very deliberate way might get the story making machine inside your mind turning over again.

So grab a random character, a trait and a need and start walking!

 

 

 

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.

Are You the One for Me

Author Elizabeth Gilbert believes that ideas are “entities” that circulate out in the universe looking for someone to bring them to life. To Gilbert this isn’t a metaphor or a way to describe the collective unconscious or a shared cultural milieu. Here’s how she puts it in her book “Big Magic.”

“I believe that our planet is inhabited not only by animals and plants and bacteria and viruses, but also by ideas. Ideas are disembodied, energetic life-forms…Ideas are driven by a single impulse: to be made manifest. And the only way an idea can be made manifest in our world is through collaboration with a human partner.”

I heard Gilbert speak a few weeks ago to a packed theater in Seattle. She’s a funny, entertaining and insightful speaker. Best known for the book Eat Pray Love, I was there to hear more about Big Magic, her book about nurturing creativity.

According to Gilbert, ideas are so eager to manifest that if you don’t take them up on the offer they’ll find someone else.

But even though, it’s a privilege for an idea tap on your door, you, as the one committing to a lot of hard work, have the right and, indeed, obligation to interview ideas to see if you and the idea are the right fit. As Gilbert says, “I have many times been approached by ideas that I know are not right for me, and I’ve politely said to them, ‘I’m honored by your invitation, but I’m not your girl.’”

What she said about interviewing ideas struck a chord for me. Like many writers, I often have more ideas than I know what to do with. But, especially when I was beginning, I really had a hard time figuring out which ideas were worth the effort and which weren’t. And there were some ideas that I beat to death, so sure was I that I could turn it into something, even though the truth is it had come to the wrong door.

The way I eventually put it to myself was that certain ideas had “energy.” Certain story ideas somehow seemed to demand my attention and effort again and again. It was more intuitive than formalized. I just gradually began to recognize the ideas that were right for me.

I’d never thought to more actively interrogate the idea as Gilbert suggests, but it could be a fun and useful way to find the idea that’s right for you. And I thought about some of the questions I would ask:

 

 

 

Why do you think you’re the right idea for me?

What’s in your heart? Do you have depth or are you just a pretty face?

Do you have breadth? Is there room to move around in this situation or notion?

Do you have any surprises in store? (I want surprises.)

Can I do justice to this idea? Sure, I can research and travel and work hard and probably learn about just about anything, but am I the right writer for a spy novel set in Istanbul? What would it take to learn about international espionage and learn Turkish customs and culture and idioms and geography and so much more?

But even more important than that is the question: is this story “me”? Can I really see the world like Graham Greene or, another way to put it, is my understanding of the world genuinely expressed through a spy novel or will it feel fake in the end?

If a picture book idea comes to my door, I already have some questions that I like to ask:

Do you have a plot? In other words, are you a story or a concept book?

If you’re a concept book, do you have a different or new way to talk about colors or sounds or feelings or trucks? How much “concept” (as in high concept) is there to you so you can stand out?

If you’re an alphabet book do you have a word for Q?

If you’re a rhyming book, why are you a rhyming book? Do you have a good reason to be or do you just think that makes you cute and what one does in kids books?

Are you simple enough to be a picture book, but profound enough to be interesting to me and a reader?

I don’t overwork the question: will you sell? But I let it brush across my mind. How saturated is the market with stories about schools for kids with supernatural skills? Can you, Ms. Idea, or I bring anything new to the table?

Still in the end, probably the most important question for any idea is: Do you excite me? Do I want to do you?

When I mentioned I was writing about interviewing ideas, fellow blogger Julie Paschkis reminded me how fragile ideas are and that you can over-interrogate them. She shared this poem with me.

Shallow Poem

I’ve thought of a poem.
I carry it carefully,
nervously, in my head,
like a saucer of milk;
in case I should spill some lines
before I put them down.

Gerda Mayer

So don’t grill your idea till it’s sweating under the lights, or to really stretch a metaphor, till the milk curdles. But a few gentle questions could allow you to say “No thanks,” with no regrets. Or, “Yes, let’s do it!” more confident that this is an idea that deserves your love and hard work and that will, in turn, work hard for you.

 

Butterflies and Books

Illustrations depicting books and reading tend to feature certain animals over and over. Cats, cats and more cats is one motif. Birds show up quite a bit. And, I’ve noticed in my collection of images about books and reading, although insects are a rare element, there’s one insect that is clearly the favorite.

Winged, fanciful and echoing the shape of a book, it’s easy to see why artists choose the butterfly.

This week, I wanted to share some of the images I like. Most are simply pretty:

Illustration by Duy Huhnh

 

Illustration by Marco Palena

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But some have a little more to say:

Illustration by Linda Apple

 

And after all that pretty, I like the vigor of my friend and co-blogger Julie Paschkis’s reading acrobat and his butterfly friend.

Illustration by Julie Paschkis

 

This one is intriguing to me because the butterflies are so flat. Were they flattened in the book and now are set free? Are they dead or artificial ideas even if they can fly off the page? Or just the play of thoughts for this absorbed reader?

Illustration by Jannike Vive

 

There’s one illustration I have to include. I say dragonflies are close enough and perhaps, as even their name suggests, they subvert the sweetness of the butterfly imagery. I love the mischief in this young reader’s eyes.

Illustration by Noemi Villamuza

 

 

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.

jake

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.

benn

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!

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.

tickly-cover

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.

spring-cover

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.

the-flowers-bloom

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

 

 

 

 

 

Kay Nielsen: An Appreciation

k-nielsen-poltarnees-coverWhen I was cleaning off my parents’ bookshelves, I came across a book, Kay Nielsen: An Appreciation, by Welleran Poltarnees. It was stashed between two larger art books. It must have been my mother’s, although I don’t remember her buying it. It was in a clear plastic bag with her name on it. Was my mother a fan of Nielsen’s work? She must have been. Like mother, like daughter.

I’ve been enamored of Kay Nielsen’s illustrations since I discovered them in my teens at my local bookshop. It was Kay Nielsen, edited by David Larkin (I bought it then and still have it). This was in the 70s, when illustrations of his were being re-popularized along with others of the “Golden Age of Illustration” such as Arthur Rackham and Edmund Dulac.

k-nielsen-poltarnees-frontispiece

Kay Nielsen: An Appreciation was issued by The Green Tiger Press in 1976. It is bound in hand-marbled paper. The interior is printed on heavy stock, with full color images tipped in. Along with both full and single color illustrations, there is commentary on the illustrations by Poltarnees, an autobiographical statement from 1939 and a 1945 interview by Jasmine Britton, the supervising librarian for the Los Angeles school system at that time.

k-nielsen-poltarnees-22-23

It is clearly a labor of love. I understand why my mother kept it sealed in a plastic cover.

Although I loved Nielsen’s work, I never bothered to learn more about who he was. In fact, for many years I assumed Kay was a woman. Of course, now such research is simple to do if you have a computer and a blogpost to write.

Kay Nielsen was born in Copenhagen in 1886. He attended art schools in Paris, then moved to London in 1911. He became celebrated and successful for his wondrous, dramatic paintings in books such as Powder and Crinoline and Hansel and Gretel.

k-nielsen-in-powder-and-crinoline-rosanie-or-the-inconstant-prince

k-nielsen-in-powder-and-crinoline-felicia-or-the-pot-of-pinks

kay-nielsen-hansel-and-gretel

k-nielsen-hansel-and-gretel

My favorite book of his is East of the Sun West of the Moon,

k-nielsen-east-of-the-sun-west-of-the-moon-the-lassie-and-her-godmother

k-nielsen-east-of-the-sun-west-of-the-moon-the-three-princesses-of-whiteland

particularly the image below, which resonated with my angsty teenage soul.

k-nielsen-east-of-the-sun-west-of-the-moon-the-three-princesses-in-the-blue-mountain

It surprised me to learn now that the illustrations I so admired were all produced between 1912 and 1925. He published one book in 1930. He moved twice to the United States, first in 1936, and again in the 50s after returning to Denmark. He worked for Disney for a few years, contributing to the “Ave Maria” and “Night on the Bald Mountain” sequences in “Fantasia”, where his influence is clear.

k-nielsen-sketch-for-night-on-bald-mountain

night-on-bald-mountain

But his style fell out of favor after the second world war and there were long dry spells where he and his wife had to rely on assistance from friends.

Jasmine Britton arranged to have Nielsen paint a mural for the library of the Los Angeles Central Junior High School in 1941.

k-nielsen-the-first-spring-mural

He painted another for the Wong Chapel in the First Congregational Church of Los Angeles. His final work was a mural for Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington.

He died in poverty and obscurity in 1957 at the age of 71. Services were held at the Wong Chapel. His wife died little over a year later.

Tastes change. Thank heavens that tastes change back again, and that the work of artists who were once considered out of fashion can be brought back for new viewers to appreciate. I found several sites with information about Kay Nielsen. If you want to learn more and see more wondrous images, I recommend this piece by Terry Windling.

Our Nation’s Library

The Library of Congress is one of those things that you feel you know—because you’ve said the words all your life—but then you realize you don’t really know that much about it.

One of my sisters recently sent me a link that I want to share, but first a bit about the library gleaned from the web. It’s the largest library in the world. According to its website “its collections are universal, not limited by subject, format, or national boundary, and include research materials from all parts of the world and in more than 450 languages. Two-thirds of the books it acquires each year are in languages other than English.”

Officially, it’s the research library for the United States Congress and it’s the oldest federal cultural institution in the U.S. It includes the Center for the Book which supports the Young Readers Center and the Poetry and Literature Center, which promote books, reading and libraries.

And it does lots of amazing things including scanning and posting this wonderful collection of classic children’s books: http://read.gov/books

Most of the books are from the mid to late 1800s and early 1900s. It’s fun to see how kids books have changed.

I love this one–The Children’s Object Book published in the 1880s.

objects-kitchen

objects-winter

I instantly thought of Richard Scarry books.

scarry-townscarry-mealtime

The objects have changed, the art style has changed, the sheer volume of stuff has changed—but kids still like to look at and identify the objects of their world.

The book collection is heavy on fairy tale and folk tale collections, Mother Goose and lots of rhyming. Some of it pretty tortured.

the-rocket-text the-rocket-1

rocket-dog-and-cat-textrocket-dog-and-cat

rocket-train-set-text

rocket-train-set

But it’s fun to see “concept” books like The Rocket Book by Peter Newell, 1912, being played around with early on in children’s publishing. Another concept book, Gobolinks, or Shadow-Pictures for Young and Old, published in 1896, encourages kids to use their imaginations with inkblots.

gobolink-1

Of course, it instantly brings to mind the Rorschach test. So out of curiousity I googled it to see how the dates matched up. The Rorschach test wasn’t developed until the 1960s, but interpreting blobs of ink started much earlier. According to Wikipedia, “Justinus Kerner invented this technique when he started accidentally dropping blots of ink onto paper due to failing eyesight. Instead of throwing them away, he found that intriguing shapes appeared if he unfolded the papers. He elaborated these shapes into intricate cartoons and used them to illustrate his poems.” This was in the 1850s.

The collections features work from some big name illustrators like Arthur Rackham:

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Sleeping Beauty, 1920

And N.C. Wyeth

Robin Hood, 1957

Robin Hood, 1957

And W.W. Denslow:

Denslow's Three Bears, 1901

Denslow’s Three Bears, 1901

There are also early versions of what I would call “franchise” books (like Disney’s Winnie the Pooh books.) There’s a long chapter book about Peter Rabbit called Mrs. Peter Rabbit from 1919. They don’t claim this is Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit, but still the name serves its purpose.

In this case, Peter Rabbit, after many adventures finds his true love, gets married and has kids.

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Part of what I love about this on-line collection is the clarity of the reproductions. The pages show the wear and tear of the years and the hands they passed through.

marked-up-peter-rabbitmother-goose

It reminds me of the books I read from my family bookshelves as a kid. Many of them dating back to the turn of the century. I remember the tattered covers, the soft, yellowed pages and their musty smell; the occasional colored illustration on it’s own page of slicker, whiter paper. Sometimes there was onion paper between the illustration page and the next page of text. All of this shows up in the Library of Congress’s collection. So the experience of these books will be saved for generations to come.

If you want to check out the Library itself and all it has to offer you can here: https://www.loc.gov

 

 

Noise to Avoid

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With the recent re-issue of my book “The Christmas Crocodile,” I’ve been doing a few readings and suddenly I’m having to deal again with a big scream that happens in the middle of the book.

I remembered a little essay I wrote at the time, which I submitted to the SCBWI national newsletter. It didn’t get accepted, but I thought it would be fun to put here:

As writers, we spend so much time figuring out how to get published, it’s easy to forget that someday you may actually have a book. You may actually have to read it to others, not once, not twice but potentially hundreds of times.

Having put a loud scream into my picture book The Christmas Crocodile, illustrated by David Small, I learned a few things the hard way. Here’s my handy-dandy list of what not to put in your story if you want to ensure read-aloud ease:

– Do not put in weird sounds you really don’t want to make in front of 100 people such as loud, drawn out screams. (see above.)

– Do not put in alliterative names that are used each time you mention that character.  Rodney the Rickety Rabbit gets real tiresome about the twentieth time you have to say it in full.

– A corollary is to avoid overly elaborate, difficult to pronounce character names. Oonaqaurklypomadorio is going to be a source of regret.

– Do not put in word choices that are tongue twisters.  Beware. These are not always obvious.  One line in The Christmas Crocodile reads:  “He waved his tail farewell.” “Tail farewell” does not trip off the tongue and one quickly wishes they’d written “waved goodbye.”

– Avoid big long sentences with numerous dependent clauses, descriptive phrases, qualifiers and just plain meanderings that looked so good on paper and made you feel literary, but make your eyes bulge and have you gasping for breath when read out loud.

– Be sparing with repetition. Repetition is the spice of children’s books and sometimes you just have to write some variant of the “House that Jack Built.” But you will find yourself beginning to sound like a radio ad disclaimer as you try to speed read through the ever-growing, ever more tedious list. “’This is the mouse that swallowed the house that ate the pig that sat on the rat…’ Oh, hell, boys and girls, you know the rest!”

– If you’re picking a selection to read from a novel, try for at least one readable scene/section that does not require a longer explanation than the reading itself.

– Be sparing with foreign phrases you actually don’t know how to pronounce or dialog requiring accents you can’t do—unless, of course, you want to sound like Pepe LePue.

– Beware of jokes, unless you are an expert in comic timing. Sometimes the audience doesn’t laugh. Sometimes there is dead silence. Sometimes you start to really sweat.

And that’s when you wish you’d written a nice little bedtime book, instead of this one about who can fart the loudest.

P.S. The way I solved the big, long, loud scream I didn’t really want to do was to realize (brilliantly, if belatedly) that I could prompt the kids to do it. They love it, especially within the hushed halls of schools and libraries.

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