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Category Archives: Writing Children’s Books
The first box arrived Thursday. Inside were seven picture books. I’ve been told to expect about 175 more before the January 15 deadline, from which my fellow judges and I will select the 2019 winners of the Margaret Wise Brown Prize, and an honor award.
I’ve never judged a picture book contest before, but by virtue of having won the Margaret Wise Brown honor this year with Little Wolf’s First Howling, I was asked to help choose next year’s winners.
My fellow judges are Elaine Magliaro, who authored this year’s prize winner, Things to Do, and E.B. Lewis, a five-time Coretta Scott King award-winning illustrator of 70-plus books for children. Over the next months we will read and note our responses to the submitted books and figure out how to work with each other as we wend our way to a decision.
Presented annually by Hollins University in Roanoke, VA, the Margaret Wise Brown Prize recognizes the author of the best text for a picture book published during the previous year. The award is a tribute to one of Hollins’ best-known alumnae and one of America’s most beloved children’s authors. Winners are given a $1,000 cash prize, which comes from an endowed fund created by James Rockefeller, Brown’s fiancé at the time of her death. It makes sense that the award is for text, since Margaret herself was the author of all those wonderful classics, not the illustrator.
This focus on text contrasts with the ALA’s Caldecott which is “awarded annually to the artist of the most distinguished American picture book for children published by an American publisher in the United States in English during the preceding year.” (from ALA site, emphasis mine)
I will have as hard a time considering text without illustrations as I would considering illustrations without text. I think these two ways of telling must work together to serve the story in a picture book. It will be interesting to see how my thinking about this progresses. In fact, I am eager for the education this experience will offer.
I look forward to reading the 2018 crop of picture books — and to sharing my favorites with friends and family.
Do you know the feeling? The dread of sitting down at the computer or going to the drawing board? Bored of your own story? It’s pulling teeth! It’s torture! Creating is hell!
I’ve felt it, especially with my most recent work, a middle-grade novel that I’ve been struggling with for a number of years. So I was intrigued by Eliza Wheeler’s talk at the SCBWI Annual Summer Conference this August. Wheeler is an author-illustrator of Miss Maple’s Seeds which debuted on the New York Times bestseller list. She’s illustrated many other picture books, was a Sendak Fellowship Recipient in 2017 and won the SCBWI National Grand Prize Award for best portfolio in 2011.
Somewhere in there Eliza realized she wasn’t always enjoying her work and she eventually figured out what to do about it. Lisa outlined a 7 1/2 step process for keeping herself inspired and energized. It makes sense to me. (I like the 1/2 step best of all.)
The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity. Dorothy Parker
1. First you dig. Go to that well that we pull ideas and inspiration from. Childhood passions, current interests, life experiences. Explore that inner landscape to feel what you connect with on a deep level and let that be the source of your next project.
2. Inspire yourself. Gather similar works. Study the masters of what you want to do. And create a bulletin board of inspiration and interests. When research starts to feel like a slog move on.
3. Collage. Wheeler is a big believer in hands-on inspiration. She creates literal collages of bits of inspiration, sketches and ideas shuffling things about to see what might connect. This is the stage to feel safe to openly fail. To not be afraid of laying out what turns out to be a false start or an idea that goes no where. There is no editor at this point. Just lay it out. Turn off the analyzing brain, instead give yourself free reign. You’re playing. Don’t judge, don’t think and, most importantly, don’t skip this phase thinking you need to get to the actual work.
Chance favors the prepared mind. Louis Pasteur
4. Simmer. Now step back. Take a break, put down your work and let your subconscious take over. This is the stage where I often take a walk, run errands, dither around on social media. The thing is you’ve fed your mind the fuel it needs—ideas, models, research—now let the subconscious do its thing.
5. Ignite. Be ready for those flashes of inspiration, be ready to capture a few moments or a few hours of inspired work.
Create with the heart; build with the mind. Criss Jami
6. Refine. Finally, it’s time to bring out the analytical mind, to organize, hone and edit. Wheeler biggest caution here: don’t refine too soon. Don’t shortchange the process where the fire and fun comes from.
7. Assess what you’ve done. You have a “finished” product, so step back and take a clear look at it. Be objective. Get feedback. Now it’s time for your critique groups and your internal editor to join in. We all know it’s going to take many drafts to finally get there.
1/2. What’s the half step? It’s a step you take at every stage of the process. Ask yourself how are you feeling? If the process is feeling sloggy, if you feel you’re pushing to do the work, you are trying to refine too soon. Are you bored? Then you’re judging too soon.
Wheeler say to take time every day to ask yourself what’s your level of enjoyment and inspiration. If it’s low, if boredom and dread are slipping in, then slow down. Let things simmer more, do more writing, do more sketching, mull, muse. Go back to the well.
The truth is on most days we’re probably doing versions of all these steps–maybe some research, trolling the web for an image that sparks something, jotting down an idea, writing something, letting things simmer. But even so, it’s easy to cut short the musing, stewing, noodling, “I’m just wasting time!” phase all throughout the process.
So it seems like a good idea to ask yourself often how inspired you are; how much fun you’re having? Sure, not every day is great, but if the project has become a slog, maybe it’s time to recognize that, slow down, go back to the well and remind yourself why you care.
The world always seems brighter when you’ve just made something that wasn’t there before. Neil Gaiman
THE ILLUSTRATIONS for SQUEAK! are delivered to Philomel for publication next spring. So it is time to scratch around for a new project. How to begin?
BEGIN as a cobbler – laying out all the pieces of the story on the bench. It’s going to be a shoe, but what sort of shoe? Bright buckles? Strong arch support? High heeled, strappy, patent leather?
Begin with an overheard line: “As long as you’re home in time for wormcakes,” or “You’re just a baby. A baby, baby, baby,” or “I remember he was missing a few fingers.”
Begin with a character and the stakes: a child in jeopardy, a badger or weasel or mouse with unquenched desire. Yearning is not enough, begin with clear need.
Begin with a sequence: days of the week, or the five senses, cities along a highway. Sequence can open up a writing experience. Begin there
or with place. Begin with a place that holds memories of the life lived there: the janitor’s hideout in the school basement, a dresser drawer that served as a cradle, a sun-parched hillside.
FREEDOM flows when I approach the blank page. In some ways a new beginning feels like the first time I tried to write anything. In other ways, I lean on 27 years of making picture books.
I think of Seahawks football coach Pete Carroll, talking about the freedom that players gain when they master their skills. He said: “Think of a dancer. Dancers work and they work and they work and they master their skill – or singers – they master their skills so far that improvisation just comes flowing out of them. Their natural expression of the best they can possibly be comes out of them because there is no boundary to hold them back.”
I hope for such intuitive leaps, but am aware of my shortcomings, too, and appreciate encouragement from Leonard Cohen’s Anthem:
Ring the bells that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering. / There is a crack in everything – that’s how the light gets in.
BEGIN. Let the world fall away and follow the path into the story – as long as you’re home in time for wormcakes.
A couple blog posts ago, I talked about how important is to create an emotional experience for your reader. Donald Maass lays out some strategies for how you can do that in his book The Emotional Craft of Fiction. Maass says the reader is the one creating the emotional experience. We writers are giving them the triggers: “(Readers) don’t so much read as respond,” says Maass
There are three main paths to creating an emotional response. Outer Mode: showing. (see my earlier post on that one.) Inner Mode: telling. And something Maass calls Other Mode: a combination of showing and telling and other techniques to create something that is emotionally “chewable” for the reader.
Let’s take a look at Inner Mode and that forbidden art of telling.
Here’s an example that Maass uses from Daphne Du Maurier’s My Cousin Rachel. It’s about a young man named Philip Ashley who’s been raised by his older cousin Ambrose. Ambrose leaves on a trip and Philip is miserable without him. Then he gets a letter from Ambrose announcing his marriage to a woman named Rachel.
The letter came about half-past five, just after I had dined. Luckily, I was alone. Seecombe had brought in the post-bag, and left it with me. I put the letter in my pocket and walked out across the fields down to the sea. Seecombe’s nephew, who had the mill cottage on the beach, said good-day to me. He had his nets spread on the stone wall, drying in the last of the sun. I barely answered him, and he must have thought me curt. I climbed over the rocks to a narrow ledge, jutting into the little bay, where I used to swim in summer. Ambrose would anchor some fifty yards out in his boat, and I would swim to him. I sat down, and taking the letter from my pocket read it again. If I could have felt one spark of sympathy, of gladness, one single ray of warmth towards those two who were sharing happiness together down in Naples, it would have eased my conscience. Ashamed of myself, bitterly angry at my selfishness, I could raise no feeling in my heart at all. I sat there, numb with misery, staring at the flat calm, sea. I had just turned twenty-three, and yet I felt as lonely and as lost as I had done years before, sitting on a bench in Fourth Form, at Harrow, with no one to befriend me, and nothing before me, only a new world of strange experience that I did not want.
Du Maurier is doing several things here. First of all, she makes you, the reader, wait to learn what’s in that letter. You know the news isn’t good (Luckily, I was alone.) And, the wait builds up your own sense of dread. And, even if she isn’t showing Philip’s reaction through describing him, she is putting you through the character’s experience as he focuses on the mundane details of his walk to the beach. Isn’t that what we all do when we’re in something of emotional shock. We narrow our focus; we delay the feelings until we’re somewhere where we can deal with them.
And, as Maass notes, once we get to the place were Philip can unpack his feelings, she uses the setting, alone on a rocky shore, as a metaphor for his inner state. She also juxtaposes his earlier, trusting time with Ambrose learning to swim with this current feeling of separation.
Maass also likes that she runs the reader through the emotions that Philip believes he should be feeling versus what he actually feels. Maass calls this getting down to third level feelings. Getting past the obvious, immediate feelings that a character might be expected to have and surprising the reader with what is actually going on inside.
He offers an exercise for how to create scenes like this in your own writing.
– Select a moment from your story when your main character feels strongly. Identify the feeling and ask your character: “What else are you feeling at this moment?” Write that down and ask again. Get to the third-level of feeling for this moment.
– Now examine that third-level feeling is four ways. 1) Create an analogy for it. 2) Make a moral judgement about it. Is it good or bad to feel this way? 3) Create an alternative: What would a better person be feeling instead? 4) Justify this feeling. Why is it appropriate for your character to feel this way?
– Look around your scene and setting. What is your character seeing that might be unique here. Add this one detail to the list you’re making.
– Now write as new scene for this moment using the third-level emotion.
According to Maass, if you plunge right into the third-level feelings—spite, envy, bitterness—underneath something like good news for a friend, your character will be unappealing. So have your character give a nod to their own failure to be generous. And then, let them be complexly human like all the rest of us.
My daughter and grandson have been visiting this week from the East Coast just outside Boston. I worried about whether my grandson would have enough to do while visiting, but – as you see – kids find other kids and off they go. Five hours yesterday in the blistering heat at Birch Bay Water Slides (“Where the Sun Always Shines”) —what’s not to love?
Why am I posting this photo? Just wanted to remind myself of who I write for. I can get isolated at my desk while I write; it’s refreshing to be with kids when I’m stuck for a story or when I run out of juice – it’s good to be where I can hear them laugh, or where I can listen to the stories they tell me.
Some of us write for the boy with an undercurrent of shyness, some for the kid with 60’s hair and a wild flag swim suit. Sometimes we write for the kid with a summer buzz-cut who is willing to pause for a photo for his grandmother when he’s dying to get back to the slides.
We write for the kid who is shivering. The kid laughing. We write for kids of every imaginable shape and size. Kids at summer camp who miss home. Kids for whom summer camp is only a dream. Kids having chocolate-vanilla swirl ice cream cones melting too fast to keep them from dripping all down their arms. Kids visitng libraries and signing up for summer reading programs. Kids with pals…and kids without. Kids who remind us of ourselves. Sometimes for kids whose troubles make our hearts ache. Other times for kids who make us believe in the world again.
Spend a summer day with kids and have a ball. Laugh a little with them. Listen. Think about the energy they have. We write for kids. How lucky is that?