Tag Archives: writing for children

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

 

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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!

 

 

 

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.

Community, Connection, Creativity

The floweristas convene in a big workroom at the back of Orcas Center on the morning of the concert. Fresh from their gardens, they bring magenta hollyhocks, bright blue hydrangeas, fat white roses, squiggly branches and phlox. The workroom buzzes as they create huge arrangements to grace the sides of the stage and the lobby.

2015-08-14 11.22.21

Planning up to a year ahead, volunteers plant their gardens with an eye toward creating flower arrangements inspired by each of the concert programs. 

In the nearby kitchen, other volunteers plate cheeses and appetizers for the post-concert reception. Still others prepare the post-reception dinner for the performers. And in the lobby, volunteers settle ticket sales, having already set up an art show of local work.

It is all in anticipation of the 19th annual Orcas Island Chamber Music Festival, and it truly takes a village.

We were there for the opening last month, in the island’s 200-seat community theatre. Framed by vats of hydrangeas, a trio named Time for Three – two violinists and a bassist – took the stage. They did not look like classical musicians, rather mid-thirties-aged hipsters dressed in dark t-shirts and torn jeans, like in their student days at Curtis Institute.

Screen Shot 2016-09-01 at 7.48.44 PM

Time for Three: Nikki Chooi, Nick Kendall and Ranaan Meyer

They took us by storm: with dazzling violin runs in exact duet, with bowing so fierce the horsehairs hung ragged on Nick Kendall’s bow. They offered up a whirlwind called Ecuador composed by bassist Ranaan Meyer, and a mash up of Purcell and Stairway to Heaven complete with guitar solo ripped from Kendall’s violin. Then, sweet and pure, violinist Nikki Chooi introduced the melody of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah. They passed it back and forth, layering the harmonies, as tears welled in my eyes.

Time for Three impressed not just by their virtuosity, but by their joy in the music. Could it get any better?

The next morning we were part of one of the festival’s three “hamlet” concerts. For these, the musicians travel to outlying communities on Orcas. My friend Betsy, a head flowerista, did the flowers for this one, and I got to assist. We helped set up early at the Olga Energetics Club in what is essentially a large living room, pushing the old couches to the walls and lining up mismatched chairs. A spot was saved for a neighbor who is unsteady on her feet, with extra space for her service dog.

Then the audience began to arrive. Each carried a covered dish, sweets and savories for the after-concert reception: veggie spreads, crab in pate choux, butter cookies. One neighbor provides champagne each year. Another brings her famous apple cake.

We filled up the straight chairs and the folding chairs. Three generations of the Friedmann family squeezed into a couch along the wall: Aloysia Friedmann, violist, the artistic director of the festival; Aloysia’s father Martin, a violinist who played with the Seattle Symphony for 25 years; her mother Laila Storch, oboeist, who taught at UW, and her daughter Sophie.

And the music started.

It had been stunning to hear Time for Three play in the theatre, but was even better in this simple room where we were 10 feet from the musicians. They played without amplification. Raw, pure stuff. Heaven should sound so good.

Then they had a little Q and A.

Someone asked, “What inspires you?”

Bassist Ranaan turned to the Friedmanns on the couch, then reached toward Laila Storch, matriarch of the family, who had studied oboe at Curtis at least 40 years before the trio members.

You inspire me,” he told her, “I see how music sustains a life.”

So what does all this have to do with creating picture books? Maybe it’s more about the general idea of creating. Maybe all those Orcas islanders: the ladies growing and arranging the flowers, the volunteers selling tickets and passing out programs and setting up chairs and bringing covered dishes; maybe those musicians, too, that Time for Three trio, putting their bright and brilliant music out into the fresh Orcas morning, maybe as they participate in the thing they are creating they get the same feeling I get when I work on a picture book. That feeling of how good it is to be alive.

It sustains me.

betsy,laura,flowers

With Betsy, my friend of 40-plus years. Betsy and and her husband John retired to Orcas ten years ago and invite us up each summer for the chamber music festival. 

 

 

With explanation kind…

J.R.R. Tolkien was a staunch defender of the appropriateness of fairy tales and fantasy for both children and adults but in his seminal essay “On Fairy-Stories,” he acknowledged that some stories need to be “sized” for children. “…children may hope to get fairy-stories fit for them to read and yet within their measure; as they may hope to get suitable introductions to poetry, history and the sciences…Their books like their clothes should allow for growth…”

“Sizing” your story and your writing is a common issue for children’s writers. A few writers, like Maurice Sendak, claim they don’t consider their audience at all,* but I have to believe it’s the rare children’s writer who doesn’t pause over a word concerned about its accessibility for the child reader or who isn’t modulating the level of violence and gore in their story.

It gets trickier with the notion of what adult worries and fears kids can absorb. Death, in particular, is a tough one. Oh, there are any number of dead parents littered through children’s lit, and certainly some tragic deaths like Beth’s in Little Woman or Old Yeller, and many near escapes and dangerous situations, but rarely is a child’s own death confronted head on.

Recently, I checked out two versions of a picture book by Russell Hoban, Jim’s Lion, because I was so struck by the very different sizing done by the two different illustrators. **

Hoban’s story is about a young boy, Jim, who is ill and worried about dying.

“People who have what I have, mostly they die, don’t they?” Jim says to his nurse and he worries that he won’t come back from where the doctors send him during his operation.

Jim’s nurse tells him that in his head is everything he’s ever seen or thought about, including all kinds of animals.

“One of those animals is the finder who can bring you back from wherever the doctors send you,” she says.

The rest of the story is about Jim finding and befriending his finder animal, who turns out to be a lion and who does indeed bring him back from his operation

But although the story is exactly the same, look how differently the two illustrators handled it.

Illustrator Ian Andrew’s lion is warm, wise and comforting.

andrew cover

Alexis Deacon’s lion not so much.

deacon cover

In Deacon’s version, Jim meets the lion even before the story begins in a surreal comic book type sequence that foreshadows Jim’s fears.

lion's first appearance

Contrast that with the first encounter in Andrew’s version:

first encounter

In the story, the lion (gentle or otherwise) isn’t immediately tamed and Jim has to first overcome his fear of the lion who greets him with a roar. Here’s Andrew’s roar:

roar andrews

Here’s Deacon’s roar:

roar

But isn’t just in style that the two illustrators vary. Through illustrated sequences, Deacon expands considerably on Hoban’s story taking it into a very dark vein (yes, pun intended). Deacon’s illustrations are bloody, indeed.

blood from box

lion fights bloody animals

 bloodyhands

The operation sequence in the Deacon book takes up 26 pages taking Jim through many changes from the nightmare of the operating room:

operating lights

To a turnabout where the lion is the sick one:

lion sick

And Jim protects him:

jim fights phantoms

The operating sequence in Andrew’s version closely follows the text, which simply notes of the operation that Jim closes his eyes, sees the lion and says, “Okay, let’s do it.” Then he “walked down the long curve of the beach into the dark and lion followed.

operation

The story then immediately jumps to Christmas morning, where Jim is at home: happy and well.

The Deacon version ends in the same place, but what a different journey he takes us on.

Are they appropriately sized for kids? Andrew’s version is aimed at a younger child than Deacon’s. At least based on the boy in the illustrations.  I can see a child taking comfort in this protective, powerful lion.

Even for an older child, the Deacon version is dark,  surreal and unsettling. (It reminds me of David Small’s Stitches.) The lion is not easily won over and Jim’s fight to survive the operation is clearly painful and hard. It seems perhaps YA in its bloodiness and menace, but it is shelved in the children’s section in the Seattle Public Library.

But the reality Jim faces is bloody and menacing. He will be cut open and he may die. Hoban’s story doesn’t shy away from that. And Deacon’s illustrations certainly don’t. I can imagine an older child faced with a hard reality like this could appreciate Deacon’s unflinching take on how frightening and difficult this is.

And I can see other children, not sick or facing anything like death, being intrigued and challenged by the Deacon version, as I was intrigued by the odd and sometimes horrifying art I saw in art history books when I was a kid at home.

It’s an interesting and risky way to illustrate this story. I applaud Deacon and his editors for taking the chance. Perhaps Deacon was aware of another thing that Sendak said in his Tate Modern interview. According to Sendak, “Herman Melville said that artists have to take a dive and either you hit your head on a rock and you split your skull and you die … or that blow to the head is so inspiring that you come back and do the best work that you ever did.”***

* I do not believe that I have ever written a children’s book,” Sendak said in a taped interview for the Tate Modern. And on The Colbert Report he said, “I don’t write for children. I write and somebody says, ‘That’s for children!’” My apologies to the late, great Mr. Sendak, but I don’t believe him.

**Interestingly, both U.S. versions were published by Candlewick Press. I’m guessing both were originally published by Candlewick’s parent company, Walker, in the U.K. The Andrew version was published in 2001, the same year as the copyright for the text. The Deacon version was published in 2014.

***It must be pick-on-Maurice-Sendak day, because I haven’t been able to find a quote like this from Melville. But of course, I’m just googling around. Sendak probably actually read Melville.

Every syllable spelled out a spark

The Young Reader by Miguel Mackinlay

The Young Reader by Miguel Mackinlay

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

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

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

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

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

reading is sharing.1

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

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

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

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

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

Pawel Kuczynski

Pawel Kuczynski

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

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

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

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

Kuniyoshi

Kuniyoshi

ALL ON BOARD

Recently our daughter gave birth to our first grandchild, Emmett. I would include his photo here but our daughter hopes to keep his internet exposure to a minimum. Suffice it to say he is the most adorable baby ever.

For the past three weeks John and I have been in San Francisco to help out. It has been a special time and we know it. Everyday Emmett wakes up a little more to the world; his beautiful blue eyes look so intently at us. Already he smiles and responds to music.

One of our jobs was to set up new shelves in the nursery. That gave me a chance to look at the small library of board books that friends and relatives have sent to the baby. Seemed like a good excuse to check in with the board book world. I realize this sample is very non-scientific, but it does provide a nice introduction.

CLASSICS and REPURPOSED

patthebunnyI was glad to see Emmett has Pat the Bunny on his new shelf, first published in 1940 and recognized as one of the first books in this genre. He also has the classic Good Night Moon, repurposed from its initial issue as a picture book.

goodnightmoon

New to me are board books with roots in adult fiction. Emmett’s library includes babylit: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and Sherlock Holmes, by Jennifer Adams with art by Alison Oliver.

huckfinnHuck is subtitled “A Camping Primer.”  The text plucks single words from its forebear, followed by a phrase from the original. For example “RIVER,” followed by “I’d go down the river about fifty mile and camp.”

 Sherlock is billed as “A Sounds Primer.” The illustrations are dark and a little scary. The text may raise goosling bumps on the baby: “Hounds howl, Thunder rumbles, Gates screech…Doorbells ring.”

hungrycaterpilMany of Emmett’s books were first published as children’s picture books. Some seem even better in this format, like Eric Carle’s Hungry Caterpillar, whose die-cut holes of the caterpillar munching through the pages will hold up much better in cardboard than they do paper.

areyoumymomOthers, like P.D. Eastman’s classic early reader, Are You My Mother? make me think, what’s the hurry? It is such a perfect book for learning to read. Though maybe reading it as an infant will make it more accessible later?

littlebluetruckThe Little Blue Truck, with rhyming text by Alice Schertle, illustrated by Jill McElmurry, is a board book that first appeared as a picture book. With 15 spreads, it has the most pages of the books on Emmett’s shelf but when his attention span expands, it will be a great introduction to the basic shape of a story. The LBT says hello to lots of animals, (fun animal sounds followed by “Beep, Beep”), then meets a big challenge which is resolved with help of the animals, especially the littlest frog.

CONCEPT BOOKS

prbBoard books do a good job introducing concepts to our tiniest readers. As Emmett devours his little library, he will learn about colors, animals and numbers, in Pink, Red, Blue, What are You? and One, Two, Three, Play with Me. These were my very first published books and I can’t wait to share them with my own little grandson.

sleepylittlealphaHe also was given The Sleepy Little Alphabet, written by Judy Sierra and illustrated by Melissa Sweet, in which a reluctant group of 26 lower case letters are finally tucked into bed by their capital letter parents. Last spread: “Who’s that snoring Z z z’s?”

123peasAnd Keith Baker’s wonderful 1 – 2 – 3 peas, which is animated by a cast of 100 peas in the most amusing ways.

HELLO WORLD

Then there is the bunch of books that will introduce Emmett to his world. This includes the board book that was my daughter’s favorite when she was a baby, All Together, as well as the inimitable Lucy Cousins’ Garden Animals, Country Animals and Farm Animals. I am intrigued by one that is illustrated with photos of babies, Global Babies, put out by the Global Fund for Children.

globalbabies

INTERACTIVE BOARD BOOKS

goodnightconstructI’m especially looking forward to sharing Goodnight, Goodnight, Construction Site, by Sherri Duskey Rinker and Tom Lichtenheld. While I read Emmett the simple text, he will be prompted by icons to push one of five buttons that provide the sounds of the big machines settling down to sleep. No wonder it’s been on the New York Times best selling list for over 80 weeks.

peekazooAnd I know we’ll have a great time peeking our way through Nina Laden’s Peek-a Zoo, and lifting the flaps in Rod Campbell’s Dear Zoo.

presshereThe low tech of Hervé Tullet’s Press Here has lots of simple appeal. As the title suggests, each spread invites the reader to “press here,” the result being a turn of the page to find what the pressing caused. This, too, has sat for months on the New York Times best selling list. Seems we like that return to the wonder of the page turn.

STAND OUT SERIESES

oxenburyThese books from Helen Oxenbury are especially suited for reading to babies. They each have four spreads, their format is larger, (8 x 8”), and the illustrations of babies are big and bold. Emmett’s two-year old friend Darwin noted: Dear Emmett, My favorite part is the ‘All Fall Down’.” And (on Tickle, Tickle) “Dear Emmett, This one is funny.” Nice to have recommendations from the toddler set.

yummyyukyLeslie Patricelli made her name as author/illustrator with her first board books in 2003. Emmett’s going to love BIG Little, Quiet LOUD, and Yummy YUCKY and the funny big-headed baby who stars in each book.

moobaalaLast but not least are titles by the amazing Sandra Boynton, queen of the humorous, rhyming board book: Snuggle Puppy and Belly Button Book! I will be sure to read him my favorite of hers, Moo, Baa, La la la, as well. Each Boynton book is full of love and good funny rhymes.

••••

I was forty when I turned toward becoming a children’s book creator. My kids were about grown, the oldest heading off to college.

Partly what attracted me was a desire to have my work be part of that circle of reading to a child again: to sit in the big chair in the lamplight, the kids fresh from their baths, their heads damp against my chest; the quiet of the neighborhood settling around us, the warmth of their small selves as we open the cover of a book and enter a story together.

This little shelf is where the newly-expanded family will begin reading together. They’ll share board books that offer snippets of story, or the simple naming of things in our world, or concepts like colors and numbers, and – always – warm humor.

We overheard Emmett’s parents reading to him in the nursery as we left last night. I love that our wee grandson already knows the circle of love with his parents and a book.

QUALITY WORDS

Like Mark Twain, I am a sucker for the right word. Twain’s the one who famously noted the difference between the right word and the almost-right word is akin to the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.

For instance, I was immediately won over by my sister Susan Britton’s novel-in-progress which begins:

Jara, the lightest of sleepers, heard the noise first—the snick of a key in the lock, the creak of the door, the scuff of boots on the concrete floor of the main room below her. No light leaked up the ladder opening into the attic where she lay in bed. The Takers had a rule about no light. Immediately, Jara’s whole self went crazy with fear except for a small important part of her that knew exactly what to do. She had been practicing for this moment since she was twelve years old. Now she was fifteen.

She had me at “snick.”

Our very youngest readers deserve a rich vocabulary in their books even more. They are acquiring language, and the picture book has a big role in introducing a wide vocabulary. It can present ”the right word” in a context that reveals specific, nuanced meaning.

PZonka-Interior-WorkingA spectacular use of “spectacular” in Julie Paschkis’ new book, P. Zonka Lays an Egg, just out from Peachtree. “Spectacular” describes the title chicken’s first creative output.

Last month in the New Yorker, I read about a program in Providence, RI called Providence Talks that encourages low-income parents to talk more frequently with their kids. This effort is based on the word-counting studies done in the 1980s that determined the number of words children hear in their early years correlates with academic success, better health, and higher income later in life. (These studies also inspired Geoffrey Canada’s amazing Harlem Children’s Zone project).

The word-counting scientists found that wealthy parents talked more with their kids. As recounted in The New Yorker, “Among the professional families, the average number of words that children heard in an hour was twenty-one hundred and fifty; among the working-class families, it was twelve hundred and fifty; among the welfare families, it was six hundred and twenty. Over time, these daily differences had major consequences. Researchers concluded that with few exceptions, the more parents talked to their children, the faster the children’s vocabularies were growing and the higher the children’s I.Q. test scores at age 3 and later.”

SWOOPMore perfect words: from Owl Babies by Martin Waddell, illustrated by Patrick Benson (Candlewick). The “swoop” makes me swoon.

The White House took on this issue, too, in a conference last October on “bridging the word gap.” Their conclusion had a different emphasis: “Among 2-year olds from low-income families, quality interactions involving words — the use of shared symbols (“Look, a dog!); rituals (Want a bottle after your bath?”; and conversational fluency (Yes, that is a bus!”) were even a better predictor of language skills at age 3 than any other factor, including the quantity of words a child heard.”

Certainly being read to provides quality interactions involving words, as a letter the New Yorker’s Mail section noted a few weeks after the article about Providence Talks. The letter writer extolled the importance of the quality of words young children hear, and noted researchers at UC Santa Cruz found: “Picture books were three times as likely as child-directed speech to use a word that isn’t among the most common English words; a result found regardless of parents’ social class.”

That’s our job as picture book writers: to serve up quality words that exactly serve the story. The right word in context broadens vocabulary and fits like the snick of a key in a lock.

luluOne last example, from Harry and Lulu by Arthur Yorinks, illustrated by Martin Matje (Hyperion). The text reads:

Harry jumped up on the bed and licked Lulu’s face from top to bottom. Lulu was delirious. Then she remembered.

“Wait a minute,” she said to Harry. “You’re not a dog. You’re just a stupid stuffed animal and maybe I should throw you out the window or kick you down the sewer or something!!” Lulu went to grab him.

Harry thought of yelping for help, but instead he decided to speak English.

“Delirious.” A quality word.

Women and Reading

As a writer and lover of books, I collect images of books in art. I have perhaps 500 images and without a doubt the dominant image is of a woman reading–alone. There are whole books about it.

The New Yorker ran an  interesting article about the history of women reading a few years ago.  It’s a history of taboos and strictures, but ever growing literacy for women.

But I find myself drawn to these images aside from their political or social implications. The women in the art come from all walks of life. They are at different ages and stages:

Illustration by Caitlin Shearer.

Art by Caitlin Shearer

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Artist Thomas Hart Benton

Art by Thomas Hart Benton

 

 

 

 

 

 

       They are from different cultures:

Illustration by Jillian Ditner

Illustration by Jillian Ditner

 

Illustration by LaShun Beal

Art by LaShun Beal

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

They come from different stations in life:

Illustrator C. Cole Phillips

Art by C. Cole Phillips

Oil painting by Hillary Coddington Lewis

Art by Hillary Coddington Lewis

 

 

 

From a different knowing about life:

Art by Georgy Kurasov

Art by Georgy Kurasov

Art by Gwen John

Art by Gwen John

They are strong:

Art by Kenton Nelson

Art by Kenton Nelson

 

 

 

And they are trapped:

Art by AJ Frena

Art by AJ Frena

 

 

But they all share their engrossment, their engagement, their interiority. What are they reading? Where has the story taken them? What life experiences and what questions do they bring to the book? Will they find the answers?

The result is as unknowable and mysterious as the content of their books.

Art by Leonid Balaklav

Art by Leonid Balaklav

 

 

Getting Bear to the Library

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

The trouble with Bear is he’s a recluse.

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

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

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

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

In some ways sequels are easy:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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