Tag Archives: Children’s books

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?

 

 

 

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

 

 

Noise to Avoid

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

new-crocodile-cover

 

 

A long, winding book road

croccover

It began as a ditty in my head over 25 years ago:

There once was a Christmas crocodile

A crocka-a-crocka-a-crocodile

Who said with a wicked and cunning smile

“I shall eat the Christmas tree

unless, you see,

I get exactly what I want.”

Seven years later it had morphed into a prose story about a crocodile who eats up Christmas and begins: The Christmas Crocodile didn’t mean to be bad, not really. Alice Jayne found him on Christmas Eve under the tree. He wore a red bow around his neck. It was lovely. Except he ate it.

A few years later Simon & Schuster bought it. Caldecott-winning artist David Small miraculously agreed to illustrate it and in the fall of 1998 it was published. It got a big glowing review by Judith Viorst in the New York Times; it was read on NPR by Daniel Pinkwater and on the QVC t.v. shopping channel; and it sold out that Christmas season.

Unfortunately, it was also orphaned. My editor, Stephanie Lurie, left Simon & Schuster. And without an in-house champion, The Christmas Crocodile was out of print by 2004.

And that seemed to be that.

banished-crocodile

But I kept hearing from people how much they loved the book. That it was a Christmas favorite, a Christmas tradition at their house. I just knew it was a good book. It was illustrated by David Small, for heaven’s sake. It shouldn’t have died so soon.

So I tried numerous times over the years to get a publisher interested in a re-issue, but it’s an almost impossible goal. Publishers generally don’t like to re-issue some other publisher’s book. If that publisher couldn’t make a go of it, how could they? is the reasoning. For a while, Simon & Schuster even considered reissuing it themselves.

But it seemed like good old Croc was doomed to out-of-print status until I happened to be chatting with Nancy Pearl at an event[i] and she mentioned that she had a new line of “rediscovered” books coming out.

Nancy is probably the best-known librarian in the world. She regularly comments on books on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition. She has written a number of best-selling books, including Book Lust and Book Crush, recommending books she loves. Perhaps her most fun claim to fame is as the model for the Shushing Librarian action figure.

shushing-librarian

She also finds out-of-print books for Amazon that she thinks deserve to be re-issued. A few years ago she set her sights on out-of-print kids books. You can imagine how eager I was to tell her about The Christmas Crocodile. Nancy asked to see a copy; she loved it and it went from there.

So my crocodile lives again re-printed by Two Lions Press, a division of Amazon. The team there, headed by editor Marilyn Brigham, did a beautiful job of it. With David Small’s approval, they developed a new cover for it, and it features a couple pages of introduction by Nancy. But otherwise it’s exactly like the original.

new-crocodile-cover

It just came out this September and here’s hoping the book finds a second life!

By the way, if you have an out-of-print kid’s book and don’t have a chance of running into Nancy Pearl anytime soon, there is one press that specializes in re-issues of out-of-print kids books, Purple House Press.

Also, if you buy the book and would like a signed book plate, just let me know who you’d like me to sign it to and where to send it. You can contact me by leaving a comment here or by messaging me on Facebook.

[i] So this is a pitch for seemingly thankless tasks. Nancy and I were volunteer judges for the University of Washington Bookstore’s annual bookmark contest where kids design a bookmark. We judges pick the winners out of many hundreds of entries and these are printed up by the bookstore to hand out over the year. It’s fun, but one of those things that you don’t expect to further your career.

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.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

In the beginning is the word

When I teach classes on writing picture books, I tell my students that their first reader is going to be an editor and to craft their stories with that in mind. One tip I say is to get something special into the text early. A small word play, a particular truth, a fresh description, just the right rhythm–see if you can work something like that into your first few paragraphs.

Even though it may seem like editors are looking for reasons to say “no,” actually they’re dying to find something wonderful. I know because I’ve read hundreds and hundreds of picture book manuscripts, myself. Your heart leaps just a bit when you feel like maybe here’s something exceptional.

That said, they are looking for reasons to stop reading and get on to the next story in the stack still on the hunt for that special one. So your job is to give them hope.

In my class, I use a few tried and true examples. One of my favorites is the opening to Millions of Cats by Wanda Gag.

Once upon a time there was a very old man and a very old woman. They lived in a nice clean house which had flowers all around it, except where the door was. But they couldn’t be happy because they were so very lonely.

What I love is that completely unnecessary phrase, “except where the door was.” It’s so literal and childlike and would give me hope as an editor that this author sees the world with fresh, whimsical eyes.

But recently I wondered how true my truism was, so I began to pull picture books from my shelves. Not every book fit, of course, but the best did and it was clear why the editor went on reading.

Would your heart lift just a bit with these? (I’ve posted the titles and covers in order, below.)

On a grubby little hill,
in a dreary little funk,
Mrs. Biddlebox rolled over
on the wrong side of her bunk

The birds gave her a headache.
There were creakies in her chair.
A breeze blew dank and dreary
and mussied up her hair.

What’s not to like? The perfect pacing and rhythm, and “grubby” and “dreary” and “dank” but most especially those lovelies: “creakies” and mussied.” I’d be praying that the rest of the text lived up to this start. (It does.)

It was late one winter night, long past my bedtime, when Pa and I went owling.There was no wind. The trees stood still as giant statues. And the moon was so bright the sky seemed to shine. Somewhere behind us a train whistle blew, long and low, like a sad, sad song.

Owling? That sounds intriguing, but what would grab me even more is the perfect sketch here of setting—that cold, bright, still, lonely night. Notice the pacing. The alliteration. The buried rhymes like moon and blew and long and song. I would know I was in the hands of a consummate wordsmith.

It is almost Friday night. Outside, the dark is getting darker and the cold is getting colder. Inside, lights are coming on in houses and apartment buildings. And here and there, uptown and downtown and across the bridges of the city, one hundred and five people are getting dressed to go to work.

The dark getting darker and the cold getting colder. Right away I’m interested because she’s saying things with just a bit of flair. And then, of course that very odd specific detail—105 people getting dressed to go to work. And then you remember that it’s nighttime and smile realizing that’s why the author made such a point of the darkening dark.

Harvey Potter was a very strange fellow indeed. He was a farmer, but he didn’t farm like my daddy did. He farmed a genuine, U.S. Government Inspected Balloon Farm.

No one knew exactly how he did it. Some folks say that it wasn’t real—that it was magic. But I know what I saw, and those were real, actual balloons growing out of the plain ole ground!

Okay, a balloon farm is way cool. But look at the immediate voice. “Fellow,” “daddy,” “genuine” “folks” and that wonderful U.S. Government Inspected Balloon Farm. Every word capitalized because this, after all, is real thing, right?

Oliver was a cat of middle-age, gray with tabby markings. He was a bachelor without wife or kittens and lived in an apartment in Manhattan. A housekeeper, Miss Tilly, who had been with him since kittenhood, looked after the place and prepared his meals.

A perfect description of a certain privileged type, but especially that word “bachelor” for a cat. It makes me think how you can make your character particular with just the right words. You could probably take the most mundane story and make it sing through character alone.

Rock, stone, pebble, sand
Body, shoulder, arm, hand
A moat to dig,
a shell to keep
All the world is wide and deep.

Imagine getting this as plain text? It’s not even completely clear what’s going on—what’s body, shoulder, arm, hand have to do with rock, stone, pebble, sand? And yet your heart rises because there is something so perfect about the rhythm and so deep and resonant about how that last line works.

You’ve probably guessed the title of many of these books. But here they are. And hats off to the editors whose hearts responded and turned such words into completed visions.

 

biddlebox coverMrs. Biddlebox, Her Bad Day and What She Did About It! by Linda Smith, illustrated by Marla Frazee, HarperCollins, 2002

owl moon coverOwl Moon by Jane Yolen, illustrated by John Schoenherr, Philomel Books, 1987

philharmonic coverThe Philharmonic Gets Dressed by Karla Kuskin, illustrations by Marc Simont, Harper and Row, 1982

potters balloon farm coverHarvey Potter’s Balloon Farm, by Jerdine Nolen, illustrated by Mark Buehner, Lothrop, Lee & Shepard Books, 1994

marshmallow coverMarshmallow, written and illustrated by Clare Turlay Newberry, Harper and Row, 1942

all the world coverAll the World, by Liz Garton Scanlon, illustrated by Marla Frazee, Beach Lane Books, 2009

 

 

 

 

REMEMBERING VERA B. WILLIAMS

I came to love picture books when our kids were little. Every week we’d visit the library and haul home a big bag of books. So I first met Vera B. Williams between the pages of her books.

Sadly, Vera B. died October 16. Happily, we have her wonderful books for comfort.

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If I had to point to the one book that made me want to be a picture book maker, I would point to Vera B. Williams’ Three Days on the River in a Red Canoe.

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Three Days was Williams’ third book, published in 1981 when she was 54. It was the first of her books to gain popularity, winning the Parents Choice award. The story’s in the guise of a young girl’s journal during a family canoe trip, illustrated in colored pencil. Like all of Williams’ books, it has a big generous heart. That’s the part that grabs me.

But Vera B. Williams was not just a children’s author and illustrator. The same year Three Days was published, she spent a month at Alderson Federal Prison Camp following arrest at a women’s peaceful blockade of the Pentagon.

As she wrote, “At various times I have helped start a cooperative housing community, an alternative school, a peace center, and a bakery where young people could work. I have worked to end nuclear power and weapons, and for women’s rights. I have demonstrated and been jailed. I have produced posters, leaflets, magazine covers, drawings, paintings, short stories, and poem, as well as books.” To which I would add she was also a school teacher and the mother of three.

Bookwise, she went on to write and illustrate the Caldecott honor book, More, More, More Said the Baby, inspired by her first grandchild.

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And the Rosa trilogy, including Caldecott-winning A Chair for My Mother.

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My favorite of the Rosa books is Music, Music for Everyone  in which Rosa and her friends form a band to raise money for her grandmother’s medical care. Here’s my favorite (wordless) spread, at the climax.

DANCE

As you can see, decades before the call went out for more diversity in picture books, Vera B. Williams’ stories were inclusive across all racial and economic lines. I love that.

• • • • •

Like Vera Williams, I was in my early forties when I started trying to make picture books. To figure it out, I studied the books my kids and I had loved the most. I made  thumbnail grids of Vera B. Williams’ books to teach myself about pacing and page turns. I pored over her illustrations noting point of view, character depiction, color, flow.

Early on, I attended a workshop that brought together teachers and authors. That’s when I first met Ms. Williams in person. She was an intense little person, already in her 60s. I had a minute to talk to her while she signed a book and I quickly told her how she’d inspired me to try to publish a book. She endured my gushing with equanimity.

I sent her copies of my first board books when they came out in 1994. She sent back an encouraging note.

• • • • •

I am a total fan of Vera B. Williams’ books. But she did not write them for me. Luckily, I got to see how her books impact young readers the year I volunteered as a writing coach in Lilly Rainwater’s fourth/fifth grade split at Hawthorne Elementary.

The kids I worked with at Hawthorne came from all walks of life and many ethnic backgrounds. When we were working on personal narratives, I brought in Williams’ last book, published in 2001, Amber Was Brave, Essie Was Smart.

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It is a story for older kids, told in poems and pictures. It recounts what happens to two girls whose father goes to prison and then returns.

For months, each week when I returned to the classroom, that book would be in another student’s desk. It made the rounds. These kids had relatives and friends who were in prison. They had had to be brave and smart. The book resonated.

Which, in the end, is what all Vera B. Williams’ books do. Whether it’s a grandma sweeping up a baby to love in More, More, More, or little girl saving up money for A Chair for My Mother, Williams’ stories give us the best of what it is to be human.

Though I wish there were more, more, more Vera B. Williams’ books, I am forever grateful that she showed us all a picture book can be.

Now that’s a life well-lived.