Category Archives: Writing Children’s Books

Is There a Pattern Here?

Rob Gonsalves

Rob Gonsalves

Art is the imposing of a pattern on experience, and our aesthetic enjoyment is recognition of the pattern.
Alfred North Whitehead

I collect images of books in art. And, just as philosopher Alfred North Whitehead noted, I love to find patterns and motifs among them. I imagine that’s the pleasure of most collections.

Recently I was looking at some of my images and noticed a type of illustration that is relatively unusual. I think of it as the surreal image.

There are tons of images focused on books and reading that are fanciful and unreal. They might be charming:

Illustration by Beatrix Potter

Illustration by Beatrix Potter

Or metaphorical:

Illustration by Rafal Olbinski

Illustration by Rafal Olbinski

Or startling.

Illustration by Jacek Yerka

Illustration by Jacek Yerka

But they don’t quite have the quality I’m talking about. I can’t put my finger on it. Maybe the word is “unsettling.”

Perhaps the forest is a little too encroaching, a little too dark.

Rob Gonsalves

Illustration by Rob Gonsalves

Or the vines too silently creeping.

Illustration by Chris Van Allsburg

Illustration by Chris Van Allsburg

Illustration by Nom Kinnear King

Illustration by Nom Kinnear King

With this one, I keep finding myself waiting uneasily for those eyes to open.

Illustration by Frances Cochiacchio

Illustration by Frances Cochiacchio

Although not all that is out of place is ominous.

Illustration by Michael Sowa

Illustration by Michael Sowa

The  most classically surreal image I have (echoes of Magritte for sure) is mostly just amusing.

Illustration by Patrick Desmet

Illustration by Patrick Desmet

Maybe what’s holding these together for me is the thing unnoticed. Something’s odd. Something’s off, but it’s only we, the observers, who are noticing.

Illustration by Rob Gonsalves

Illustration by Rob Gonsalves

In fantasy literature, there’s a type of story that fantasy writer and academic Farah Mendelsohn calls liminal. It’s a type of fantasy that’s a little hard to define, but basically it involves a protagonist who doesn’t quite cross through the portal into fantasy, but stays on the border between the real world and the world of the fantastic. Perhaps these images aren’t so much surreal, as “liminal.”

To pull this post back into the world of writing children’s books, I’ll just add a couple links here. One of the questions that almost invariably comes up when I teach classes in writing fantasy and science fiction is where someone’s story “fits.” Like most of children’s literature, there are defined categories in fantasy that are good to at least be familiar with. As a writer you may choose to match those characteristics or violate them, but it’s good to know what rules you’re breaking.

Here’s a list of 10 good terms to be familiar with if you read or write fantasy. And the other is a link to a little information about Mendelsohn and her books. She’s good to know about if you’re going to go deeply into fantasy writing.

In the meantime, don’t turn too quickly to find out about the rustling from that bookshelf behind you. Perhaps it’s best not to know.

Into the Woods With Jung

the egg

Why does Harry Potter battle spiders? And Wilbur, the pig, befriend one? Why does Odysseus sail the sea and that girl go down in the basement in every horror film?

There are lots of reasons for these creative choices, but I think chief among them is the fact that these are all “charged” symbols, characters and events. They carry more than their literal weight when it comes to creating emotional and psychological effects in the reader or viewer. And as a creator it’s worth your while to learn more about deep symbolism.

Carl Jung is a great place to start. The early-20th century psychologist was one of the first people to explore the human unconscious to try to codify the powerful symbols and images that arise from there.

Recently I checked out Jung’s The Red Book from the public library. It’s Jung’s fascinating exploration of his own unconscious through symbolic writing and his own illustrations. (All the illustrations in this post are from “The Red Book.”)

The writing can be hard to work through. Some is reasonably accessible:

Christmas has come. The God is in the egg.

I have prepared a rug for my Lord, an expensive red rug from the land

Of morning…

I am the mother, the simple maiden who gave birth and did not

Know how.

I am the careful father, who protected the maiden.

I am the shepherd who received his message as he guarded his herd at

Night on the dark fields.

Some of the writing not so much:

However, I am not ready, since I have still not accepted that which chokes my heart. That fearful thing is the enclosing of the God in the egg. I am happy that the great endeavor has been successful, but my fear made me forget the hazards involved. I love and admire the powerful. No one is greater than he with the bull’s horns, and yet I lamed, carried, and made him smaller with ease.

But his paintings are powerful and evocative. It’s hard to say exactly how. I don’t know why I keep coming back to study this dragon slayer, but I do.

dragon

Of course, most of his paintings are deliberately symbolic and as, Jung notes, a symbol has “a wider ‘unconscious’ aspect that is never precisely defined or fully explained. Nor can one hope to define or explain it. As the mind explores the symbol, it is led to ideas that lie beyond the grasp of reason.”

Jung goes on to say: “Because there are innumerable things beyond the range of human understanding, we constantly use symbolic terms to represent concepts that we cannot define or fully comprehend.”

In The Red Book, Jung was exploring his own mind, but he believed that many of our symbols (or archetypes, as he called them) were universal coming from the “collective unconscious” of humanity.

One of my writing friends is very aware of Jungian archetypes and other mythic materials such as Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey. And she consciously works these ideas into her stories. The result is often images or characters or events that are supercharged. Somehow they are more evocative or disturbing than their obvious elements would suggest.

mosaic face

But even if you aren’t that conscious of universal symbols, there’s a good chance you’ll hit on them if you let your thoughts and emotions go deep. What scares you more than it seems it should? What naturally comes to mind as you take your character on an adventure? Does she end up in a cave? Does he travel by water? Meet a monster? Climb mountains? Explore attics and basements?

boatWater is often a symbol of the unconscious. And it’s not simply by chance that heroes on a quest for self-knowledge will often cross something watery. We see it in some of our most powerful fiction from The Odyssey to Moby Dick to Ursula LeGuin’s A Wizard of Earthsea. Monsters are constantly rising up from water–the serpent thing in the trash masher in “Star Wars”, the Loch Ness monster, the Swamp Thing.

For some reason there seems to be an almost universal fear of spiders (why do we find the swastika so creepy? Is it just contemporary cultural association or does it go deeper.) Yet, EB White makes Wilbur’s friend a spider. White says  that’s because he became interested in spiders after watching them on his farm. But it’s hard to believe Charlotte’s Web would have the power it does if Wilbur had befriended a less symbolically charged creature. And I suspect EB White was deliberately playing against type and stirring unconscious emotions with this choice of hero.

Jung believed houses and other buildings are symbolic of our own psyches. Tower rooms may represent our conscious intellect. Dark basement our subconscious and every maker of horror films knows that nothing is more frightening than the idea of going down into the dark unknown that lingers there.

I’m betting most of these creators–from JK Rowling to John Carpenter to Ursula LeGuin–were well aware of the symbolic charge of their choices. And you can be to. If you’re interested in exploring archetypes and symbols more, some good books include Man and his Symbols, a book featuring an essay by Jung and then commentary by others on his ideas. There’s Joseph Campbell’s A Hero with a Thousand Faces, Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey and Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment and authors like Clarissa Pinkola Estés who writes extensively about women and their particular symbolic needs and expressions.

red sun

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mixed Grades for Big Name Author Picture Books

Recently two big name authors of books for adults have forayed into picture books: Pulitzer Prize winner Jane Smiley and National Book Award winner Sherman Alexie.

cover thunder boy

IMG_1930

So how’d they do? I’m giving Alexie a B+ and Smiley a C. Perhaps I’m being harsh, but adult novels aren’t the only works that deserve some serious critical attention.

Of the two, I started out inclined toward Alexie. Mainly because in an article in the New York Times, he said, “It’s maybe the hardest thing I’ve ever written.” And he says the book Thunder Boy Jr. took about 70 drafts.

Jane Smiley didn’t seem find it so hard. Other than learning to let the images speak for themselves and cutting down a descriptive prose, apparently, for her the story was “a breeze” (although to be fair, those words are those of the New York Times reporter). Perhaps because as Smiley noted, “It doesn’t have a plot.”

If true, I’m afraid the difference in effort shows.

Alexie did a great job coming up with an idea and an execution that spoke to a univeral kid issue and, yet, was uniquely Native American, too. Thunder Boy Jr. was named by his father, Thunder Boy Sr. It’s not a normal name like Sam and Thunder Boy Jr. hates it.

hate my name

Little Thunder, as he’s called, wants his own name one that celebrates something cool that he’s done. He imagines all kinds of names for himself from Not Afraid of Ten Thousand Teeth (after he touched a wild orca) to Mud in His Ears for his love of playing in the dirt.

ten thousand teeth

The names are fun and imaginative. And kids will love this part and I have no doubt will be coming up with a lot of great names for themselves, and, undoubtedly, less than flattering names for their siblings. (I’m betting Poop and Fart make frequent appearances.)

At any rate, Thunder Boy Jr. doesn’t want to be a small version of his dad. He doesn’t want to be exactly like him. He wants to be mostly himself. But he’s worried about how he can tell his dad because he loves him very much.

Not to worry, Dad suddenly announces that it’s time to give Thunder Boy Jr. a new name. It will be Lightning! And Little Thunder happily concludes that together he and his dad will light up the sky.

dad and son

The language is clear and graceful with a nice rhythm and pacing to it. The names identify this boy with both contemporary life and his Native American heritage. And, as mentioned, the basic idea of picking a name for yourself has a lot of kid appeal.

But I would have liked a more organic ending. Alexie does the classic no-no in children’s books, which is to have an adult solve the problem for the kid. Not only does Dad spontaneously offer to change Thunder Boy Jr.’s name, he is the one to bestow the new name. And, arriving at the name Lightning could have been more clearly developed. The litany of possible new names that Little Thunder runs through show an energetic little boy. He loves drums and being chased by his dog and old toys from garage sales, but this list doesn’t really make the case that Lightning is the name he should have or would have chosen for himself.

I don’t think any of this will make a difference to the success of the book. It’s already been named an Honor Book for the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards. And I think kids and parents will genuinely enjoy sharing it. It has a great, well-realized premise, and Alexie shows a respect for and an awareness of the particular demands of the picture book form.

Because Smiley seemed to find writing Twenty Yawns fairly easy, I have to admit I was less ready to like it. She’s right. There isn’t really much of a story here and what is there is pretty pedestrian.

dad in sand

Oddly, although the story is basically a bedtime story, it starts with a rather mundanely described day at the beach. Lucy covers her dad with sand and they “laughed and laughed.” Later, Lucy “rolled and rolled’ down a soft warm dune. Okay, I admit I have a visceral reaction to this particular wording in kids writing. Describing people who laugh and laugh, and animals who sit down and think and think, and kids who run and run just feels lazy to me.

The point of the day at the beach seems to be to establish that this has been a long, busy day, so tonight will be an early bedtime. So perhaps Lucy will struggle to sleep? There is a teeny bit of that. And for me the story starts about 12 pages in with this lovely arresting moment: The moon shone through the window, a silver veil that fell across the floor. Everything looked mysterious, even Lucy’s own hands on the bedspread. Suddenly, Lucy was wide awake.

IMG_1933 (1)

It even gets a little surreal or creepy: She looked around. Everyone in the pictures seemed to be watching her—Grandma, Grandpa, Aunt Elizabeth, Mom, and Dad.

So maybe the story will be about how Lucy deals with her unease? Lucy slips out of bed to get her bear, Molasses, but as she carries him back to her bed, the other toy animals are looking at her and seem lonely. So she takes them all to bed, snuggles down with them and everyone proceeds to yawn including the people in her drawings. And Lucy goes to sleep. That’s it.

IMG_1937

Smiley seems to think it’s okay that this is a book without a plot. And certainly there are picture books that don’t really have a story: board books, concept books, some of the more impressionistic books (like All the World). But there’s a difference between not having a story and not having a point.

Smiley doesn’t even really deliver on the promise of the title. There are indeed 20 yawns in the book, but there is no point to the yawns. Nothing is developed like perhaps number concepts or the different yawns different people or animals might make or a promise that no one can make 20 yawns without falling asleep. Surely something could have given this story some drive.

Bottom line: even if Thunder Boy Jr. was submitted by Anonymous Boy Jr., I think it would have been snapped up. If Twenty Yawns was the work of J. Frownly, I suspect it would have received those familiar words of rejection many of us know only too well—too slight.

And it was just right… The Rule of Three.

three little pigs

Three blind mice. Three little pigs. Three wishes. Most of us have figured out that three is a magic number in western culture. One theory has it that three is magic to us because that’s the triumvirate of family. That most basic mystery of man and woman equals child.

So we get three coins in a fountain. The three-act play. Three guesses. One-two-three go! Somehow, for whatever the reason,  three feels just right to us.

And it’s a number that you should take full advantage of as a writer, particularly if you write picture books. You can use three to make something feel completed and satisfying. Or you can break the “rule of three” to make something feel snappy or to make something feel prolonged. It creates rhythm in your language and in how your story unfolds.

Let’s look at some examples.

Here are the first few pages of “Lily’s Purple Plastic Purse” by Kevin Henkes. He works with three and variations of three to give his prose just the right rhythms.

lilly

LILLY loved school.

(page turn)

 She loved pointy pencils.

She loved the squeaky chalk.

And she loved the way her boots went clickety-clickety-click down the long, shiny hallways.

 Lilly loved the privacy of her very own desk.

 She loved fish sticks and chocolate milk every Friday in the lunchroom.

 And most of all, she loved her teacher, Mr. Slinger.

(page turn)

 Mr. Slinger was sharp as a tack.

He wore artistic shirts.

He wore glasses on a chain around his neck.

And he wore a different colored tie for each day of the week.

 “Wow,” said Lilly. That was just about all she could say. “Wow.”

 Instead of “Greetings, students” or “Good morning, pupils,” Mr. Slinger winked and said, “Howdy!”

 He thought that desks in a rows were old-fashioned and boring. “Do you rodents think you can handle a semicircle?”

 And he always provided the most tasty snacks—things that were curly and crunch and cheesy.

 “I want to be a teacher when I grow up,” said Lilly.

“Me, too!” said her friends Chester and Wilson and Victor.

 Henkes is all over the Rule of Three here.

His first line is singular and definite. Lilly loved school.

Henke is using the power of one. One subject, one verb, one object. One sentence on the page. And then page turn.

Now he’s going to convince us of that singular declaration. So no paltry two or three examples. He lists six things that Lilly loves about school, ending with the most important: Mr. Slinger. Lilly really, really loves school!

And just how cool is Mr. Slinger. He’s not two or three kinds of cool. First he’s four kinds of cool. Before Henke’s breaks his pattern. At which point, all Lilly can say is “Wow.”

sharp as a tack

Then he’s three distinct kinds of cool. He’s cool in how he says “hi” in the morning. And notice that Henke gives three ways of saying “hi.” Then he goes into a different kind of sentence construction because he’s been playing with numbers a lot and we just get a straightforward declaration about how Mr. Slinger likes his room set up.

But then it’s back to numbers. His snacks are the best in three distinct ways. And Lilly doesn’t have one friend or two friends, but three.

 

It’s important to be aware of the moments in which you break from a pattern. Let’s go back to those pages about how cool Mr. Slinger is. First we get four quick examples. What if Henkes had gone on to five or six quick examples in a row. Maybe it would work, but there’s a good chance it would have gotten tedious and you, the reader, would have stopped absorbing the information.

So he takes a breath. (“Wow,” said Lilly.)

And now he goes into three more examples. Why not two or four here? Because he’s about to end this sequence, this line of thought, and he wants it to feel “just right.”

mr. slinger

You can work with the Rule of Three, not only in how you structure the rhythm of your prose, but in the structure of your story, as well.

I was very aware of the rule of three in my book “A Visitor for Bear” where Bear doesn’t want visitors, but a pesky mouse keeps showing up, pleading to be allowed to stay and join Bear for tea and cheese.

mouse in cupboard

I wanted Bear to really feel the pressure of this persistent Mouse. So, of course, I didn’t have Mouse pop up three times before Bear changes his mind. I didn’t want this to feel “just right.” I wanted it to feel extreme, so I had him show up one way or another five times in a row before Bear cracks.

Why not push it? How about six times? Actually I did have Mouse show up six times in my original draft, but the editor, rightly, felt it was too much. That one extra incident took the story from funny to starting to feel repetitive and tedious.

Many, many picture books or other simple stories (particularly folk and fairy tales) will have the hero (one of three brothers, of course) try to win the princess’s hand or discover Grandma’s true identity three times, before the plot turn. The fourth try being the one that works or that reveals the secret.

If your story is for the particularly young child, the third time might be the charm. Three tries with the third one being the successful one.

three walnut shellsHow exactly to play the numbers game is ultimately a matter of instinct, trial and error, and style. But you have a head start if you work your prose and your story line knowing the magic of three.

 

 

P.S. I’m conducting a picture book workshop, The Secret to Writing Great Picture Books, in Spokane on April 22, 2016 through the local SCBWI. It should be a blast and I think you’ll come away with a great start on your own picture book. Find out more about it here: https://inlandnw.scbwi.org/events/how-to-write-a-successful-picture-book/

Creating a Character? Keep it Simple.

Picture books writers, generally, aren’t doing elaborate character sketches and questionnaires about what secret object their character keeps in the sock drawer, his favorite breakfast food or what her grandfather did for a living. There isn’t going to be time to develop or to even hint at much nuance.

But like most characters, your main character needs to start in one place and end in a different place emotionally. And that not only comes from a change in situation but a change in their character.

So how do you set up a character quickly? I tell my students to think in terms of a core trait. One clear thing you can say about this character after just a few lines.

How would you describe these picture book characters?

visitor for bear “No one ever came to Bear’s house. It had always been that way, and Bear was quite sure he didn’t like visitors. He even had a sign: No Visitors Allowed”   (A Visitor for Bear, Bonny Becker)

Even if I didn’t know this character (but of course I do since I wrote it!) I’d say grouchy and reclusive. There’s a lot I didn’t know about Bear until Kady MacDonald Denton did her illustrations. For example, I didn’t know that Bear was such a fastidious homebody with his ever-present apron, big fat bottom and delicate paws. Although a lot of character is suggested in the text–Bear is very deliberate about fixing his breakfast, he’s the sort to make tea and he has cozy fires- think the reader has a strong sense of his most important trait from the first few lines.

What about this puppy? What’s his core trait.

last puppy“I was the last of Momma’s nine puppies.

The last to eat from Momma, the last to open my eyes.

The last to learn to drink milk from a saucer,

The last one into the dog house at night.”       (The Last Puppy, Frank Asch)

Well, Asch makes it clear across 8 story pages that if this puppy is anything—it’s last! And he has good reason for beating that point home. I won’t give it away, but it sets up one of the best final twists ever in a picture book.

What can you say about Corduroy from the opening lines?

corduroy“Corduroy is a bear who once lived in the toy department of a big store. Day after day he waited with all the other animals and dolls for somebody to come along and take him home.

The store was always filled with shoppers buying all sorts of things but no one ever seemed to want a small bear in green overalls.”    (Corduroy, Don Freeman)

Easily overlooked, like so many children? I know that we quickly care for this little bear and want him to get picked. Later in the story, Corduroy is made even more pitiful because his overall strap has broken making him even less desirable and neglected, but that’s just icing on the cake. Right from the start Freeman has tapped into a universal quality. Who hasn’t felt left on the shelf at one time or another.

The thing about a truly outstanding trait is that it carries the story direction and resolution within it. You just know that the last puppy isn’t always going to be last and Corduroy isn’t always going to be overlooked.

What do you know about Lilly from these opening lines?

lilly“Lilly loved school! She loved the pointy pencils. She loved the squeaky chalk. And she loved the way her boots went clickety-clickety-click down the long, shiny hallways.”      (Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse, Kevin Henkes)

One word fits Lilly perfectly: exuberant. And, as with all good stories, it’s this very trait that causes her problems. She gets over-exuberant about her purple plastic purse and this causes problems with her teacher. Henke’s book has the longest set-up I’ve ever seen in a picture book. A whopping 500 or so words of what looks to be about a 1,300 to 1,400 word book. It really heightens the emotional trauma of her turning on her beloved teacher. But, really, we get Lilly after just a few words, especially the “clickety-clickety-click” of her boots.

And then there’s Daisy.

Daisy“You must stay close, Daisy,” said Mama Duck.

“I’ll try,” said Daisy.

But Daisy didn’t. “Come along Daisy!” called Mama Duck.

But Daisy was watching the fish.”       (Come Along Daisy, Jane Simmons)

Everyone knows a Daisy. She’s an easily distracted child. But notice how much those few words “I’ll try” do for this story. It makes Daisy a likable character. She’s not willfully disobedient, but she’s not able to promise for sure, either. And she won’t lie about it. Take out the “I’ll try.” And you have a different Daisy.

How about this classic opening? In some ways it doesn’t look like much:

babar“In the great forest a little elephant is born. His name is Babar. His mother loves him very much. She rocks him to sleep with her trunk while singing softly to him.

Babar has grown bigger. He now plays with the other little elephants. He is a very good little elephant. See him digging in the sand with his shell.”   (The Story of Babar, Jean de Brunhoff)

Well, here’s an opening that would probably land this book in the editor’s trash today. Look at that clumsy jump in time. “Babar has grown bigger.” Boom! That’s it? And where the heck is this story going anyway. But it doesn’t matter because in the next two lines Babar’s mother is shot dead and he’s launched into a completely different story. De Brunhoff spends little time getting Babar on his way, but even so we learn several critical things about Babar. He’s happy and he’s good but the key trait is that he is loved. This is why the reader feels for him as he goes away from his home and then comes back.

So, do your characters have a key trait? It’s not that you can’t get some nuance and depth in, but what can be said about your character after the first two paragraphs?

Just for fun, to see the power of a core trait, you might try an exercise. Take a few rather bland lines. For example:

Cat went to the forest. It was dark. Cat walked into the forest.

Now add a trait:

Scaredy Cat went to the forest. It was dark. Scaredy Cat walked into the forest.

Brave Cat went to the forest. It was dark. Brave Cat walked into the forest.

Hungry Cat went to the forest. It was dark. Hungry Cat walked into the forest.

Just one word  suggests a different character and a different story line. And, if I’m really doing my job, that trait starts to drive all my word choices.

Scaredy Cat went to the forest. It was so dark. Scaredy Cat shivered and slunk into the forest.

Brave Cat went to the forest. It was dark. So what? Brave Cat sauntered into the forest.

Hungry Cat went to the forest. It was dark. Just right. Hungry Cat crept into the forest.

And the story starts to unfold. That’s the power of finding a simple trait for your character.

 

 

 

LISTEN

I spent a lot of time playing the ukulele in 2015, including ukulele camp at Fort Worden where one of my teachers was Aaron Keim. Aaron and his wife Nicole form the duo The Quiet American, picking and singing their way through the folk Americana songbook. He’s a gifted teacher, too. While leading us through his transcription of John Fahey’s Sunflower River Blues, he advised: “By the time you start working on a piece, you should listen to it so much that it is already living in you.”

Screen Shot 2016-01-01 at 12.31.06 PM

The duo called The Quiet American: Nicole and Aaron Keim of Hood River, OR

I like that idea: listen until it is living in you. I know how that feels for a song and also for a story. In fact, I think songs and stories dwell in the same heartful place.

It is a mysterious process, bringing a story into the world. You head out with a few phrases, a character maybe, a situation. You tell yourself your story, imagine it into the world scene by scene. Pretty soon, if you listen closely, that story you are making begins to make itself, you meet anew the story that has been living in you.

I know I am not alone in this way of looking at the writing process. Back in the early 2000s when I was teaching at Vermont College of Fine Arts, Katherine Paterson often came by. She told us that after a certain point in drafting a novel, she feels her attention switch from generating characters and plot etc. to listening to the story that is already on the page, and shaping the book as that material dictates.

My sister Kate McGee, who is a pastel painter in Philomath, OR, is collaborating with me on illustrations for LITTLE WOLF’S FIRST HOWLING. I ran this listening idea by her. She said she comes to a point in every painting where, if she pays attention, it starts bossing her around in its effort to become what it is meant to be.

We talked about this while looking at the black and white layer I’d just painted for one of the spreads. We were both listening and paying attention to what the piece still needs. I will make the changes digitally, then email that layer to Kate so she can add the color. We are new to using Photoshop for our artwork and are swimming upstream – but how fun to work together on a project!

And it’s great to have another pair of ears to listen as we find our way through the woods.

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Final spread for Little Wolf’s First Howling, due out from Candlewick Press in 2017.

(to hear The Quiet American play Sunflower River blues on the ukulele click here)

 

 

 

 

 

Every syllable spelled out a spark

The Young Reader by Miguel Mackinlay

The Young Reader by Miguel Mackinlay

Judy Blume was in town last week and I, along with a group of children’s writer buddies, went to hear her speak. She talked about her books, her writing process and a little about growing up in the 1950s, but one thing that stuck in my mind is what she said about reading.

“My parents gave me a great gift. The idea that reading is great. They were proud that I was a good reader.”

It had never hit to me quite so clearly that such an attitude was not universal. I grew up knowing that, of course, being a good reader was a good thing. Of course, you learned to read and to read well. I mean, yes, some kids struggled to read, but surely reading was a valued thing.

But then I remembered homes that oddly didn’t seem to have books in them.  Parents who I never saw reading. Families who didn’t go the library every week. Friends who marveled that our father read aloud to us every Sunday.

I think I was a bit like Harper Lee who said, “Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.”

reading is sharing.1

Until Blume made her comment, it never occurred to me that to have people around you who valued reading wasn’t simply a given. Or to put it better, it hadn’t occurred to me that to have such people around you was a gift in itself.

Do you remember when you learned to read? I remember the exact moment.

I’m sitting in the first grade. It’s probably the second or third week of school and we’re learning the alphabet. On the wall is a picture of a clown holding balloons. He has a red balloon, a blue balloon, a green balloon and a yellow one. There are letters of the alphabet on the balloons. And suddenly I realize something amazing. The letters on the red balloon, R-E-D, meant “red.” They are the same thing—the color I’m seeing with my eyes and the letters are telling my brain the same thing.

It was a code and my mind raced with the realization. All the things in the room had a code that meant it—desk, pencil, teacher, floor. What an incredible thing.

“To learn to read is to light a fire; every syllable that is spelled out is a spark,” said Victor Hugo

Pawel Kuczynski

Pawel Kuczynski

After that, reading came quickly for me. Of course, I was motivated to learn this magic thing. You didn’t need an apple for someone to tell you: apple. You didn’t have to be in the same room or live in the same town or the same country or the same century for someone to tell you, “apple.” For someone to tell you anything.

As George R.R. Martin has one of his character’s say, “A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one.”

And I wanted to live every life, real and imagined, that I could get my hands on. At that stage, I wasn’t thinking about what I could tell others with my magic code. I just wanted to know what was out there; what others knew; what they could tell me.

Later I began to dream about telling my own stories, casting my own spell with this magic code. But like Blume, I belatedly realize that it began with what I took for granted: being surrounded and supported by those who honored reading.

Kuniyoshi

Kuniyoshi

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.

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Getting Bear to the Library

Those who have followed the adventures of Mouse and Bear may have noticed that Bear has never left his cozy Tudor cottage. He’s barely set even a claw out that front door.

The trouble with Bear is he’s a recluse.

He likes his peace and quiet. He likes his privacy and he likes his cottage and pretty much sees no reason to leave it.

The dynamic is much the same in each book. Bear is a grouchy loner who is reluctantly drawn into life and its various celebrations by exuberant Mouse.

The latest book, A LIBRARY BOOK FOR BEAR is the fifth book in the Mouse and Bear series. The trouble with writing sequels about a character who’s a recluse is how to get your character out and about and into different adventures.

I wanted to talk a little in this blog about how I got Bear into the bigger world and about the challenge of writing sequels.

In some ways sequels are easy:

You know your characters and for a picture book it’s easy to follow a fairly similar story arc once you’ve set one up. The young reader is looking for the familiar and so is the editor. So it’s tempting to deliver the same story over and over with minor variations.

Writing each book is, in some ways, as simple as asking myself “what fresh hell can I create for Bear.”

Fortunately I’ve never had any trouble figuring out different ways to bug Bear. I grew up with five siblings, which pretty much makes one an expert on bugging people.

So I’ve had Bear have to deal with this mouse who won’t go away and with the horror of having a birthday party and with a first ever sleep-over with a guest who isn’t as quiet as Bear requires. Bear gets sick and has to deal with the much too cheerful ministrations of Mouse.

But how do you keep the familiar from turning into a formula? How do you keep it fresh, not only for your readers, but for yourself. I didn’t want Bear to simply be bugged and to respond the same way time after time. I hope to move his relationship with Mouse forward bit by bit through the series. And for Bear to change just a little.

So for this sequel I went through a number of scenarios—Mouse and Bear bake a pie together; Mouse and Bear go on a picnic and Bear can’t settle until he finds the perfect spot. Or they could go fishing. I wasn’t sure yet what would bug Bear about fishing but I know enough about fishing to know there’d be plenty of frustration.

But these all felt like I would cover pretty familiar territory. I did get Bear out of the house in a few of these ideas, but it was still just him and Mouse interacting. I wanted to turn things on their head a bit.

Then I remembered one of Bear’s main characteristics. In every story, he is inevitably driven to bellow out his frustration, rather like Donald Duck working up into one of his tantrums.

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And that inevitable process gave me an idea. What if Bear were in a situation where quiet was required. A church, some solemn occasion… I was half-tempted to try out Bear at a funeral. I would love to see him bellowing mid-funeral (ideally about some annoyance he had with the corpse.)

But really what better quiet place than a library? And a library would get Bear out of his house and interacting with at least a few other animals

There was a problem with that idea, however, because I love libraries and books. What could Bear possible be grouchy about?

I grew up in a household with hundreds and hundreds of books. There were bookshelves in virtually every room. One room was a library with shelves from floor to ceiling. Even with all of that, we went to the library once a week and I would walk out with books up to my chin.

Libraries have always had a special place in my life. I still remember being the school library aide when I was in the fourth grade. How I loved to turn the numbers on the rubber date stamp to the correct date and decisively stamp the checkout cards.

My mother was on the Wenatchee, WA library board. My siblings and I even created our own library at home taking all the kids books we had and numbering and labeling them and creating library check out card for each.

So how could Bear not be interested in the library!? Fortunately, Bear is so persnickety and stubborn that he was convinced he already had all the books he needed right at home: he had three about honeybees, three about kings and queens and one about pickles. Who could ask for more?

Of course, Mouse knew you could ask for a whole lot more. He just needs to convince Bear of that. Eventually he does (with the help of a friendly librarian and pickles) and Bear goes home with seven new books. And I’m sure with more visits to the library in his future.

I’m glad I got Bear to go to the library. The book is already in its third printing. (It came out in July.) It’s been reviewed in the Wall St. Journal and Huffington Post, along with the usual children’s book review sources.  It received a starred review from the School Library Journal and was selected as an autumn must-read by Scholastic’s Instructor Magazine.

It will be on the cover of American Booksellers Children’s book holiday catalog. Some 275,000 copies will be printed and distributed to independent bookstores nationwide.

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What’s next for Mouse and Bear? Having gotten Bear into the frying pan, I’m putting him into the fire next time with A HALLOWEEN FOR BEAR. Imagine how much he’s going to love having all kinds of animals come to his house demanding candy!

 

 

Editing

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“Boldly and bluntly simplify the subject so as to reveal its true essence.”
– Kiyoshi Saito, (1907-1971)

I have spent the last three months preparing to move from Seattle – where my husband and I have lived since 1986 – to London, England. I fly out at the end of the month. These last few weeks have been a lesson in letting go.

I have been going through everything we own to clear the house for incoming renters. I have picked up every object, pondered it, and decided whether to ship, store, or discard it.

This has gotten me thinking about the process of editing.

Editing your life is like editing your own personal narrative. I am an accumulator by nature, but not a collector, nor a hoarder. The difference is that I enjoy getting rid of stuff, if only to clear the clutter to let the better bits shine.

When I am writing I follow the same process. I have less confidence in my words than my imagery, so I don’t mind keeping my words to a minimum. If I can prove to myself that every word has a reason to be there, I feel I have created the cleanest, least cluttered prose possible. It’s less risky that way. Clear the knick-knacks off your literary shelf.

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In my artwork I am constantly editing and revising. I strive to follow the words quoted above. Kiyoshi Saito is a contemporary Japanese woodblock artist and a master of selective visual editing in his imagery. Choosing what details to include and what to leave out reveals the aspects most elemental to an idea.

Get rid of the lesser bits. Pack them away or let them go. Only set your choicest pieces out for display.

My next post will be written from the UK. Just think of me as the Books Around The Table foreign correspondent for the foreseeable future. I look forward to exploring new territory and sending back the best bits to share with all of you!

And now, back to packing!

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