Tag Archives: children’s book writers

A Christmas for Bear: Writing a Holiday Book

The sixth book in the Mouse and Bear series, A Christmas for Bear, came out this September.

Holidays are a sure fire subject for a kid’s picture book. These days there’s a book for just about any special day you can name: Arbor Day, Halloween, Easter, Passover, Kwanzaa, Fourth of July… in fact, if you’re looking for a book idea, go through the calendar, pick a marked day, and write. There’s probably an editor looking for one of those.

Christmas is, of course, the granddaddy of all the holidays in the U.S. My Amazon search for “picture books Christmas” netted 6,782 results.

I’ve written two holiday books, both about Christmas. My first was A Christmas Crocodile illustrated by David Small, reissued last fall by Two Lions Press. My latest just came out, A Christmas for Bear, the sixth book in my Mouse and Bear series. It’s getting great reviews, including a star from Kirkus!

As with any familiar topic–bedtime stories, first day of school, a new sibling, a major holiday–part of the trick to getting published is finding a fresh way to talk about it.

With my first Christmas book, The Christmas Crocodile, the idea simply came to me–a crocodile who eats up Christmas. It took years to work it into its published form, but I was pretty confident that there weren’t many books out there featuring crocodiles and Christmas.

My latest, A Christmas for Bear, also had an easy genesis. Christmas was, of course, a natural topic for this very Western-culture-based book series that featured a joyous, celebratory Mouse and an always reluctant Bear. My bigger challenge was how to ring up something new about Mouse and Bear themselves.

Sharp-eyed readers might notice a hint that maybe Bear has presents after all.

I decided to flip things on their head a bit. I wanted Bear to be the one offering celebration. I felt that Bear should be the party guy this time around, so he’s eager to throw his first Christmas party ever. But not being very well versed in  holidays, Bear decides Christmas is all about food, mostly pickles, and a nice Christmas poem (The Night Before Christmas, of course). No presents necessary.

Mouse, naturally, finds the “no presents allowed” idea not so great. And the story centers on Mouse’s attempts to find the present he is sure must be there.

Mouse searches for a present all over Bear’s house.

In today’s world, it’s not that common for commercial picture books to work with the true meaning of Christmas, the birth of Christ. So if you’re not going to celebrate the religious significance of the festival, you substitute other things: love, togetherness, friendship, family, bounty, kindness. Christmas stories are almost always sentimental in one way or another—in fact, it’s one of the few times you can pretty shamelessly lay on the sweet if you want. But I’ve always wanted to avoid getting too saccharine. So for me, humor is the way out. But, even so, I want to say something.

What I remember most about Christmas as a child was how safe I would feel. I didn’t put it that way in my mind. But I knew I would eat well, I would laugh a lot, I would feel close to my family, I would nap in front of the living room fireplace, my father would read The Night Before Christmas, I would have trouble falling asleep. I would get at least one thing the next day that was unexpected and special.

Even though I’m not Christian, I was raised as one. And it’s a little sad to me that we don’t have some shared sense of the numinous, a shared acknowledgment of wonder and awe. But I, and most people I know, are not that comfortable with an established creed. So we really have nothing that calls us collectively to the deep and the mysterious.

So what could I do to evoke some of the values this holiday was supposed to celebrate?

I thought about what the two friends could give each other. Bear gives Mouse a telescope. In my mind, it was a way to evoke that “big thing” that was there in the original meaning of Christmas. For Mouse and Bear (and for me, too) that something big and mysterious can be found under the night sky.

Mouse gives Bear a shiny, red sled. A call to adventure and fun and a time to acknowledge where this series has been going all along—the deep friendship of these two very different characters. This is the real gift of Bear’s Christmas. But I did want to get actual presents in! Good luck making the child reader happy with a pious lesson instead of presents on Christmas morning!

 

 

 

 

 

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The Top Four Lists of Writing Tips

 

Okay, I lied. These are great tips, but not necessarily the top four, but numbered lists are pretty irresistible. For some reason we love them—Top Six Beauty Tips, the Ten Best Eats in Portland, Eight New Looks for You, 13 Reasons Why.

Maybe we like the promise of something simple, definitive, brief—condensed wisdom. The other day I started browsing through a compilation of writing advice put together by the amazing Maria Popova, who writes the blog Brain Pickings. It’s a guide to 117 columns she’s written over the years on authors and their advice to other writers.

It’s well worth checking out all 117 essays for inspiration and entertainment, but I focused on the ones that promised to be simple lists, like Henry Miller’s 11 Commandments of Writing or Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing.

And then I rather randomly picked four that I liked because it was fun to see them all together. It’s interesting how practical most of the tips are. Writers, it seems, do not want to talk high-faluting artsy stuff when it comes to advice to other writers. Even Henry Miller’s list was surprising mundane, mostly counsel to himself bordering on “don’t forget to buy milk.”

I suspect as writers we know that we only hope to catch lightning in a bottle—it’s not something we have much control over. So the best we can offer is “here’s my bottle.”

KURT VONNEGUT

Kurt Vonnegut

  1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
  2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
  3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
  4. Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.
  5. Start as close to the end as possible.
  6. Be a Sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them-in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
  7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
  8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

JOHN STEINBECK

John Steinbeck

  1. Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish. Lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page for each day, it helps. Then when it gets finished, you are always surprised.
  2. Write freely and as rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing on paper. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down. Rewrite in process is usually found to be an excuse for not going on. It also interferes with flow and rhythm which can only come from a kind of unconscious association with the material.
  3. Forget your generalized audience. In the first place, the nameless, faceless audience will scare you to death and in the second place, unlike the theater, it doesn’t exist. In writing, your audience is one single reader. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person—a real person you know, or an imagined person and write to that one.
  4. If a scene or a section gets the better of you and you still think you want it—bypass it and go on. When you have finished the whole you can come back to it and then you may find that the reason it gave trouble is because it didn’t belong there.
  5. Beware of a scene that becomes too dear to you, dearer than the rest. It will usually be found that it is out of drawing.
  6. If you are using dialogue—say it aloud as you write it. Only then will it have the sound of speech.

MARGARET ATWOOD

Margaret Atwood

  1. Take a pencil to write with on aeroplanes. Pens leak. But if the pencil breaks, you can’t sharpen it on the plane, because you can’t take knives with you. Therefore: take two pencils.
  2. If both pencils break, you can do a rough sharpening job with a nail file of the metal or glass type.
  3. Take something to write on. Paper is good. In a pinch, pieces of wood or your arm will do.
  4. If you’re using a computer, always safeguard new text with a ­memory stick.
  5. Do back exercises. Pain is distracting.
  6. Hold the reader’s attention. (This is likely to work better if you can hold your own.) But you don’t know who the reader is, so it’s like shooting fish with a slingshot in the dark. What ­fascinates A will bore the pants off B.
  7. You most likely need a thesaurus, a rudimentary grammar book, and a grip on reality. This latter means: there’s no free lunch. Writing is work. It’s also gambling. You don’t get a pension plan. Other people can help you a bit, but ­essentially you’re on your own. ­Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don’t whine.
  8. You can never read your own book with the innocent anticipation that comes with that first delicious page of a new book, because you wrote the thing. You’ve been backstage. You’ve seen how the rabbits were smuggled into the hat. Therefore ask a reading friend or two to look at it before you give it to anyone in the publishing business. This friend should not be someone with whom you have a ­romantic relationship, unless you want to break up.
  9. Don’t sit down in the middle of the woods. If you’re lost in the plot or blocked, retrace your steps to where you went wrong. Then take the other road. And/or change the person. Change the tense. Change the opening page.
  10. Prayer might work. Or reading ­something else. Or a constant visual­ization of the holy grail that is the finished, published version of your resplendent book.

JOYCE CAROL OATES

Joyce Carol Oates

  1. Write your heart out.
  2. The first sentence can be written only after the last sentence has been written. FIRST DRAFTS ARE HELL. FINAL DRAFTS, PARADISE.
  3. You are writing for your contemporaries — not for Posterity. If you are lucky, your contemporaries will become Posterity.
  4. Keep in mind Oscar Wilde: “A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal.”
  5. When in doubt how to end a chapter, bring in a man with a gun. (This is Raymond Chandler’s advice, not mine. I would not try this.)
  6. Unless you are experimenting with form — gnarled, snarled & obscure — be alert for possibilities of paragraphing.
  7. Be your own editor/critic. Sympathetic but merciless!
  8. Don’t try to anticipate an ideal reader — or any reader. He/she might exist — but is reading someone else.
  9. Read, observe, listen intensely! — as if your life depended upon it.
  10. Write your heart out.

I was thinking, as I wrote this, that I might comment on some of the advice—maybe something from my own experience or somesuch. But as I looked over the lists, I realized the other thing that maybe we like about lists–they don’t offer a lot of context. Instead, you, the reader, bring the context. You fill in the blanks with your own experience and decide if it rings true for you or not.

I’d love to know: did any of these tips strike you?

 

 

 

What Kind of Animal Fantasy Are You Writing?

Original illustration for Charlotte’s Web by Garth Williams

For reasons, I’m not quite sure about; virtually all of my books involve animals, either as protagonists or catalysts. There’s my six Mouse and Bear picture books; I have picture books about a Christmas Crocodile and an ant who takes a day off, and a middle grade novel about a lizard who wants to be an artist and another about a magical school teacher with miniature animals living in the classroom supply closet. The book I’m currently working on features a heroic rat.

I seem to have a thing for animal fantasies. Like all fantasy, the fantasy world has to have consistent rules, and once upon a time, to help me figure out what I was doing, I developed a list of books featuring animals and broke them up into categories as I saw them. I discovered that animal fantasy books seemed to fall into five main types. I thought it would be fun and maybe helpful to share for those of you who also find yourself writing animal fantasy.

MUTUAL WORLD

From A Wind in the Willows, illustration by E.H. Shepard

Animals and humans live side by side in a mutually perceived world. Animals have human cultural artifacts and interact in a human-like way with humans. Some examples:

-The Wind in the Willows—a blend of human culture and animal realism, i.e. they live in burrows, but burrows furnished with fireplaces and easy chairs.
-Stuart Little—milieu is a human culture with Stuart living in it as if he were a boy. But he has some mouse-like qualities. Interestingly, I think Margalo the bird he loves acts as a purely natural bird
Dr. Doolittle—Certainly Dr. Doolittle and people close to him share a mutual world with the animals, other humans see animals as merely animals
Freddy the Detective books—the setting is naturalistic i.e. the farm animals live in the barn, but they use a few human artifacts and a few people know the animals are intelligent. They talk to the animals, although the animals don’t actually talk back to them.

ANIMAL UNDERWORLD

From Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIHM, illustration by Zena Bernstein

Animals often have a human-like culture, especially the ability to talk, and sometimes their world includes tools, clothing and other artifacts. But the animals are perceived by humans as animals in a natural world. The animals are often threatened by the human world. No communication between animals and humans other than what would seem normal to the humans. Some examples:

-Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH
Babe
Holbrook, A Lizard’s Tale
Charlotte’s Web–actually, Fern, alone among the humans hears them talk, but we never see her in conversation with them. She merely observes their world—privy to it because she can see into their world by virtue of her innocence. As she gets older and interested in a boy, she loses this.
-A Rat’s Tale–human artifacts adapted to animals’ use, but humans never realize this. Much like the Borrowers
A Cricket in Times Square
The Mouse and His Child–features toy characters, as well as animal characters, who are mostly perceived by humans as regular toys and animals

ALTERNATE UNIVERSE

From Bread and Jam for Frances, illustration by Lillian Hoban

A world only inhabited by animal characters, but their world operates like the human world. Animals in clothes, driving cars, etc. Some examples:

-Abel’s Island
Beatrix Potter books–animals live in cottages, wear clothes, etc. No humans in most of them. Peter Rabbit is an exception and would fit under the Animal Underworld category
Time Stops for No Mouse
Piggins books
Redwall series
Doctor DeSoto
-The Frances books

There something of a subset in this category that shows up a lot in picture books which is the animal world as a kind of Arcadia, a timeless pre-industrial world:

-A Visitor for Bear
Frog and Toad

ALLEGORICAL WORLD

From Watership Down, illustration by Aldo Galli

Animals live in a natural environment, but deal with issues relevant to human culture. The constraints of the naturalistic setting often enhance thrust of the social commentary. For example:

A Hive for the Honeybee
Watership Down
Animal Farm

A SECRET INNER LIFE

Behavior and cultural issues true to natural animal life, but animals think, feel and communicate among themselves. For example:

-Bambi
Black Beauty

Like all efforts to categorize things, some of these books blend in bits of other categories. For example Watership Down has some intrusion by an unknowing human world, making it also an Animal Underworld.

And there are books like Curious George which despite its very human-like little monkey I wouldn’t call an animal fantasy. Maybe there should be a category called HUMANS MADE TO LOOK LIKE ANIMALS. We could fit the Berenstain Bears under there as well.

Even though they are stuffed animals, I think the Winnie-the-Pooh books would fit under the Animal Underworld category with only one human, a child, as in Charlotte’s Web aware of their sentience.

And then there are books like The Mouse of Amherst that I can’t quite fit into any category. The mouse lives in an Animal Underworld, but she communicates through poems with Emily Dickinson, as if they perhaps live in a Mutual World. And there’s a cat who seems to be merely a cat. So, maybe anything goes as long as you know how your world works.

From The Mouse of Amherst, illustration by Claire A Nivola

 

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!

 

 

 

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

No credit found

No credit found

 

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

 

 

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.

cover-buzz

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.

buzz_morning-ws

“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.”

01Bee.tif

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:

img_2433

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

 

 

 

 

 

Noise to Avoid

img_2264

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.

new-crocodile-cover

 

 

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.

Magical Middle Grade

suzanneselforsBest-selling children’s author Suzanne Selfors remembers the question well.

“Why are all your characters so miserable?” asked the grade-schooler.

She’d never been asked that, but it was a good question because she does like to open her books on kids in less-than-happy situations. And she quickly had her answer, “I like to make my characters as miserable as possible because it’s so much fun to make them happy again.”

I’m on Whidbey Island teaching for the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts and Suzanne is one of our guest speakers. (Just to brag a bit, our summer residency featured two Newbery authors–Gary Schmidt and the just-announced medal winner, Matt de la Pena.)

But back to Suzanne–she’s an expert on popular middle grade novels. She has three different series going including the Imaginary Veterinary series, Smells Like Dog series and Ever After High series. She’s also the author of books for teens and adults, but middle grade is her sweet spot. She sold eight middle grades last year with more in the works.

smells like dog

Middle grade is currently hot” in children’s literature. It used to be YA, but middle grade is in even more demand right now. Some of Suzanne’s insights include:

Middle grade is aimed at 8 to 12-year-olds but 4th graders are considered the core readers of the middle grade genre.

Overwhelmingly middle grade deals with a theme or issue of displacement. The main character is often transported to a new location—they move from one world to another. To a new school, to summer camp, arrive for a visit with grandparents. It makes sense. Not only do you get troublesome parents out of the way, but your kid hero is in a natural situation to discover new things and to be tried and tested.

Speaking of troublesome parents, they, along with other adults, are few and far between in middle grade stories. And, really, who wants them around giving advice, solving problems, soothing hurts and, in general, interfering with this process of growing up.

Even if the basic setting is new much of the action will happen at home or at school, Suzanne says. As an author, she particularly likes conjuring up her main character’s bedroom, because this is such an important space for a child; the one place in the home that is theirs.

many middle grades

Middle grade heroes are doers. No mini-Hamlets here. They are going to jump up and rush in where wise men fear to tread.

Middle grade books are clean. No swearing and no sex. If you get into boy/girl dynamics, your character might have a mild crush, but mostly it will be a friendship. If the kid reader wants something grittier or more romantic at 11 or 12, they are going to read up and find books like the Twilight series.

Make ‘em laugh. Humor is huge. Just consider The Diary of Wimpy Kid series. Author Jeff Kinney is the top-selling children’s author in the U.S., probably in the world, with hundreds of millions of his books sold. As Susanne noted, when it comes to awards, humor doesn’t win, but when it comes to sales and kid-appeal, it definitely does.

Magic is big. Of course, there’s realistic fiction but many, many middle grade books contain magic. Not just in their plot, but in their appeal. Ask people about their favorite books and so often, you’ll get a far away look and a smile as they remember a book they read before they were 12. They are the heart of the childhood reading experience from Charlotte’s Web to Pippi Longstockings to Harry Potter to Percy Jackson.

engrossed reader

Which is one reason they are my favorite genre to write. You can have humor, magic, complex characters, dramatic plots, moments of quiet beauty, and a depth that can hit kids at a level they will remember all their lives.