Ten writers for children. All with something to say.
In my early days of writing, I worked in solitude by trial and error—writing, rewriting, and only reluctantly sharing the results with a few others. Then I tried collaborating with another writer, which involved a constant process of sharing, editing, and plugging away at an ultimately successful two books. My next stage of writing involved moving ahead on my own and enrolling in a MFA program. This was a huge step forward for me, as I went into the program with the intention of learning everything I could and soaking up ideas and advice from all my mentors and fellow students.
During the process, I discovered another love—that of teaching the craft of writing. But I also discovered that beyond the basics of good grammar, spelling, punctuation, and proper sentence structure and format, there is no true right or wrong way of writing. Everyone’s approach, experience, and voice is different. The workshops that I now teach at Misty Hill Lodge are not lectures or “lessons” as such. My goal is to offer opportunities for writers to explore ideas, expand their knowledge of the craft of writing, engage in lively discussions with other writers, and, above all, to WRITE. Over the past five years of teaching, I have learned every bit as much from my “students” as they have from me. There’s nothing like preparing a lesson plan to force yourself into studying a topic and pushing yourself to a deeper level of understanding in order to get the idea across to others. Often just one comment from a student adds another depth of meaning to the topic. My own level of writing has grown by leaps and bounds since I began teaching, and I hope I never stop learning and improving!
Two months ago I began mentoring a young 12-year-old writer, who plans to apply to the Literary Arts program at the Barbara Ingram High School for the Fine Arts. How I wish I had had this same opportunity when I was 12 years old! I can’t help but wonder how that would have changed (or sped up) my own writing career. One day I hope Kimberly will look back on a long career and remember a mentor who helped her get started. Maybe she will then do the same for some other aspiring writer.
Oh, the wide-reaching effects of teaching!
Once I had my first book published, I thought I knew it all. Why should I take writing classes or go to workshops? Those things were for folks who couldn't get published. What a mistaken attitude I had...and one that slowed my writing career by years.
One of the smartest things I ever did was to sign up for a children's writing class taught by Judy Delton at the Loft Literary Center. This was years after my first book was published, and boy did I discover that I didn't "know it all" like I had thought. Judy's class was good for me for many reasons. She gave me honest, sometimes painfully blunt, feedback on my work, which helped me grow considerably as a writer. She taught me the value of regularly producing new work. And she brought me in contact with a community of other writers who have become good friends. Without Judy's encouragement, I would have never had my first novel, Absolutely, Positively Not, published, and I'm proud I was able to dedicate the book to her.
This past year I was asked to be the teacher for a master picture book writing class hosted by the Loft, the same writing center where I first met Judy. Although I've taught writing to children for many years, my initial reaction to this offer was "No way! What could I possibly teach other adults?" But as I get older I'm getting braver at stretching myself, so reluctantly I agreed. The experience was wonderful. Just like Stephanie said in her previous post, I learned so much as I read and critiqued the work of the participants in this class. And to my pleasure, I discovered that I did have plenty of things to say to adult writers, many of them things I learned from my mentor, Judy. I think she would have been happy with this circle.
I'm always learning more about writing. With each novel I write, I learn more and more about the process, as I hopefully get better at it. Honestly, to me, writing isn't like other subjects. I used to teach high school social studies and that is a subject where you can know all the answers. In subjects like history or economics or psychology, either something is a fact or it isn't. Writing isn't so black and white. I feel I will never know all the answers, and teaching is one way to keep learning...
Happy holiday wishes to all.
Defensive player of the year
Defensive end for South Pointe, Rock Hill, S.C.
Height: 6-5; Weight: 235.
Why him:Considered the top recruit in the 2011 class, he combines rare speed (4.5 in the 40) with strength and size. Had five touchdowns on defense, 162 tackles, 29 sacks, 29 tackles for loss, 11 caused fumbles and six fumbles recoveries. On offense, he had 20 carries for 274 yards and nine touchdowns. His team was 38-6 in the last three years. Showed he won't have trouble adjusting to next level by dominating talented athletes in the Shrine Bowl in Spartanburg, S.C., drawing five holding calls while making five tackles for loss, including three sacks in the game. He's undecided in his college choice.
Favorite musician: (Atlanta rapper) TI
Best book you've read recently:Box Out (By John Coy)
Little-known fact:"I am an extremely sore loser...I hate to lose at anything."
High school highlight:"Winning the 2008 State Championship in football vs. Northwestern ... They are our crosstown rival ... We actually beat them twice that year. But beating them in the title game was awesome."
Favorite teacher:"Mr. Joe Koon ... My English 4 teacher. He is the smartest man I know. He is a great guy that enjoys helping kids learn."
Football start:"It's a family tradition."
Funniest recruiting story:"People (coaches) always telling me what they can do for me and they really don't even know me."
After football, I'll:"Go fishing with my granddad and spend time with family and friends."
I love the holiday season -- stringing lights and decorations, listening to seasonal music, inhaling the warm smell of cookies and pies baking in the oven, snuggling under a comforter to watch old holiday movies, even shopping!! Until I entered an early "retirement" a couple years ago and became a full-time stay-at-home dad, I worked with kids at a middle school and so I was able to also enjoy the yearly rite of a two-week Christmas vacation -- definitely a way to keep the "kid" inside me excited about the holiday season!
WARM GREETINGS FROM SNOWY MINNESOTA
This was ten days ago when we got seventeen inches, but we've had more since and are on our way to our snowiest December ever. Solstice marks a nice time to think about lessening or letting go of some things and increasing others in the new year as the days increase with light. Happy holidays to each of you.
Until contemplating the topic for this round of posts, I had not necessarily thought of our family Christmas rituals as traditions, but I like the word "tradition" and from now on, that's the way I'll think of them.
Each year we (just my husband and I now that our children are grown) go out to cut our own Christmas tree, and for the last 15 years or more we've gone to the same small tree farm in the Catoctin Mountains of Maryland, not far from the presidential Camp David. Some years the selection is better than others, but I inevitably lose my sense of "room size" when out in the woods and we come home with a tree so large it's difficult to carry inside, set up in a tree stand, and then decorate, even with a ladder. Fortunately our log cabin has a vaulted ceiling and open beams, but my husband's back can no longer tolerate these oversized trees. Now I am held to a 10 to 12 foot limit.
Another tradition began with our son's first Christmas (when he was just one week old)--the gift of a Christmas tree ornament for each child's stocking in keeping with their personalities and interests. By the time our children left home and started their own families, they had quite an assorted collection of ornaments to take with them. Now we continue the same tradition by choosing special ornaments for each of our grandchildren's stockings.
And finally another tradition--baking. I do bake some Christmas cookies, but the older I get, the less patience I have for decorating them and the more I try to avoid consuming them. However, I do love baking bread, especially our old family recipe for shredded wheat and molasses bread. I start several days before Christmas and try to deliver to special friends and neighbors while the loaves are still hot from the oven. Of course I do save a few loaves for our own family. Feel free to enjoy the recipe below:
Shredded Wheat and Molasses Bread
3 shredded wheat biscuits (the large ones)
3 cups boiling water
1/2 cup molasses
2 TBSP oil
2 tsp salt
1 pkg. dry yeast, soaked in 1/2 cup tepid water
Around 10 cups of flour (enough to make a good dough)
Pour boiling water over broken wheat biscuits; when cool, add yeast which has been soaked in 1/2 cup warm water in meantime. Add molasses, oil, salt. Mix in enough flour to make a good dough; knead, let rise in greased bowl until double in size (about 2 hours). Then punch down and knead again, divide in two and place in greased loaf pans to rise for about 1 hour more. Cover lightly with a towel while rising both times. Bake at 375 degrees for 15 minutes; then reduce to 350 degrees for about 45 minutes more. Makes 3 medium or 2 large loaves.
Enjoy warm from the oven, toasted, or for sandwiches!
1/4 cup of dark Karo syrup
1 can (14 oz) coconut milk
1 can (14 oz) evaporated milk
1 can (14 oz) condensed milk
1 teaspoon vanilla
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Pour the Karo syrup into a 1 quart, ovenproof, round mold. Roll the mold to coat the sides with the syrup.
In a blender, mix in the three milks, vanilla, and eggs.
Add water to a larger pan to come halfway up the sides of the mold.
Place the mold with the custard on the pan with water, as in a double boiler.
Bake for 1 hour or until the knife inserted in the center comes out clean.
Cool to room temperature.
Refrigerate for 3 hours.
Unmold the flan onto a deep platter.
¡Feliz Año Nuevo!
The game consists of a three-foot wheel, a large puzzle board, and of course "valuable prizes" to be won (lottery tickets and gift certificates). I get to play the parts of both Pat and Vanna. It's a great way to pass the time while waiting for dinner, and it's something we all look forward to doing together. It also proves that you can start a holiday tradition whenever you want.
Part of the pleasure of tradition is experiencing the renewed hope cycles bring. I celebrate by creating calendars. I started years ago using handset letterpress type accompanied by single color linoleum cuts. I got a little fancy and added rainbow rolls for my linocuts. Eventually I began printing from my computer—sometimes black and white, sometimes full color on my snazzy Epson. This year my calendar features scenic details from my book The East-West House. I've created different versions in varied sizes. My mini-ones fit in a business envelope and will also serve as promo.
SPUDS, send me your address at firstname.lastname@example.org and I'll mail you a mini!
One thing I think has not been mentioned on this theme is the value of connecting with kids, our audience. As one who is not in demand for author school visits (since, you know, I haven't published a book yet!) I have satisfied this desire by volunteering at my son's school. Whether I assist during reading time, help lead a writing assignment, or just chaperon a field trip, hanging out with a gaggle of third-graders always sends me home with fresh perspectives and new ideas. I also find their energy contagious and their joy in life an inspiration, and though I return home exhausted and definitely ready for some personal space after each visit, these interactions are some of the most satisfying social events in my life -- not to mention what an hour or two in a classroom will do for your appreciation of teachers!!
Everyone came supplied with enough snacks and bottles of wine to keep us going far into the night. Our organic meals will be delivered by the owner of the retreat house, so no excuses for not getting any work done! After traveling for several weeks, I have hopes of finally getting back to my work-in-progress and making some in-roads over the course of the weekend.
And on the home front, where it is becoming increasingly difficult to separate my various roles, my husband is planning the "writing cabin" he will build me in the woods behind our house--small enough to be comfortable for one, rustic enough to give me an escape from the ever-present cyber world, and near enough for me to walk home for some company and a cup of tea.
Now, on to my retreat...
I have a wonderful writing group: Ellen Howard, David Gifaldi, Pamela Smith Hill, Susan Fletcher, Nancy Coffelt, Eric Kimmel, Winifred Morris. Unlike other people, I take rough drafts to them. What they have to say guides me--even though at first, my mind growls. It takes me a few days to digest their comments and Voilá! I finally get it. I wouldn't be published today if I had belong to writing groups. Objective readers can catch issues that I don't.
All of my editors I have met at conferences. I was ignorant enough to follow Robert Warren (Harper & Row--please don't count the years) at a Willamette Writers conference in Portland, Oregon. He had to smoke, and we were outside when I told him the first story of my Juan Bobo. He asked me if I could write it as an I Can Read. I said yes, but I had no idea what and easy-to-read was. At home I studied Frog and Toad, Amelia Bedelia, you name it, and Robert bought the manuscript.
I met Harold Underdown and Margery Cuyler at Oregon SCBWI retreats. Harold had a group critique. My manuscript was on top. Still, when he said, "She even researched the photos!" I took it as saying "How she dared when this book is so far from ready." When the session was over, I told him that I had received an SCBWI grant to go to Puerto Rico, and while I was there I took advantage to find photos. He looked at me and said, "I want to buy this book." That was my first biography. Little did I know that I was going to write six more with Margery Cuyler at Marshall Cavendish Book for Children.
So, I recommend solitude to write, writing groups to revise, and conferences to be published.
And while I greatly appreciate the community of other creators that I find in my critique groups, I also agree with Christy that I don't feel lonely at all when I am creating. Sometimes I'm frustrated, and sometimes I'm discouraged, but I never feel lonely. And when the writing or illustrating is going well, then I feel simply joyous...and very content.
For the past year, I have battled with the balance. I found myself on two "supportive" web boards for writers. But I found, more often than not, that I was becoming consumed and obsessed by them. And each time, I logged off feeling more and more unsupported, and less and less confident of my skills as a writer.
I swore off both sites about 45 days ago. ( Yes, I'm counting.) They were like an unhealthy addiction, nothing more than a distraction to the work I'm trying to accomplish. Does my finger still automatically want to click on the Favorites? Not so much with each passing day, and the urge becomes less and less every day I stay off those sites.
Do we need outside support as we sit at home and work? Yes. But it is all about finding the appropriate kind that nourishes our creative soul, rather than extinguishes it... and I'm grateful to have the Spuds, who do that for me every day:)
The “loneliness” of writers and artists is a lot of hooey. I do not feel lonely when I am alone. Years ago I read The Shape of Content by painter Ben Shahn, a series of lectures he delivered at Harvard. Shahn discusses the act of painting as a dialogue between creator and creation. The work takes on its own life. This rings true! When I am creating I am deep in conversation. Most creators would agree that few dialogues are as satisfying
I do willingly attend two daytime monthly critique groups. I’ve been a member of a local writers group for several years. Most members are focused on middle grade, YA and even adult works. This group has astute, thoughtful writers with good ears and great advice. Last month I added a second daytime critique group in San Francisco. All the members are picture book authors AND illustrators. The new group skews more toward illustration critiques and is so delightful that I’ve even agreed to meet on Mondays. I am lucky for this wealth of support.
A critique venue is essential for creators. Regularly scheduled meetings serve as deadlines to motivate writing and sketching. “Crits” were my favorite part of art school. They helped me learn to distance myself from my work. Now in writers groups, reading aloud to others makes me hear my work in a new way. It is quickly evident whether the work is met with confusion, boredom, or enthusiasm. Suggestions often unlock problem areas. Affirmations and guidance can make the difference of whether or not a work-in-progress is brought to completion.
For those looking to connect with other writers, consider enrolling in a writing class. Class workshops have helped me develop manuscripts that were subsequently acquired. I’ve known class groups to continue meeting after the class has officially ended. The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) has chapters all over the world now. There are newsletters and lists that help members connect with others looking to form critique groups. Even meeting with one other committed author is valuable. I have a couple friends in the field with whom I meet for this kind of exchange.
Authors now need to be marketers. Social networking, attending conferences, speaking engagements and presentations connect the creator to their public. I have not figured out the balance between being the private creator and the public promoter. Each role seems to demand more and more time. Something tells me that I will wrestle with this until I’m horizontal for good.
This month I was invited to attend a conference in Washington, DC called The Emergence and Legacy of African American Basketball. The organizers contacted me because I've done workshops on basketball and poetry in conjunction with the picture book STRONG TO THE HOOP. I was interested but unsure what to expect. The conference was fantastic. The first day, William Rhoden of the New York Times had a fascinating discussion with Mayor Dave Bing of Detroit and Earl Lloyd (pictured above), the first African-American to play in the NBA. I sat and listened and absorbed as much as I could.
Saturday, the events took place at Howard University and one interesting speaker after another presented to the group. I led a workshop on basketball and poetry and was thrilled to be among people who were even more passionate about the game and its legacy than I was. I came back from the conference energized and full of ideas, which is always the sign of a successful conference.
ALAN started on Monday and I spoke on Tuesday to this audience:
I was so fortunate that Macmillan had me at a luncheon where I "hosted" a table of educators and they each got a copy of The Gardener. I also did a dinner this way with authors Alyson Noel and George O'Connor, and we switched tables after each course so we got to spend time with everyone. Here are George, Alyson, and myself with our fabulous Macmillan crew, after watching the Disney fireworks show from the 15th floor catwalk of the Contemporary Resort Hotel.
This was my first trip to NCTE/ALAN and I truly hope it won't be my last.
First, I’m always looking to work on my craft. Many conferences offer sessions that meet this need, whether it be discussions of character or plot or even the nuts and bolts of the narrative craft.
Second, conferences never fail to inspire me. Gathering with others to talk about literature and writing always renews my drive to continue pursuing my own artistic dreams.
Third, I need to network more with agents, editors, and other writers. By their very definition, conferences always provide plenty of opportunities for confabbing and schmoozing – the only obstacle has been overcoming my own reticence to reach out and socialize with others. To help with this, I always remember the “ice-breaker” I learned at my first conference, when others introduced themselves and then invariably asked, “What are you working on?” For a socially-challenged person such as myself, learning that one line was worth the price of the conference!
Probably my favorite and most productive conference that I attended was during the summer of 2006 when I submitted 10 pages of my manuscript in progress for a 15 minute one-on-one critique with an editor. That 15 minutes with Michelle Poploff, VP and Executive Editor of Delacorte Press, eventually led to the contract for my middle grade novel, ROAD TO TATER HILL. And at a conference during the summer of 2010, Michelle Poploff and I gave a joint presentation on our author/editor revision process.
Attending conferences is expensive during these difficult economic times. I suggest first researching topics and speakers and looking for some "hands-on" craft-oriented sessions, before registering. Go to the conference with an open mind, not expecting a miracle, but definitely expecting to make new connections with other writers and illustrators, to gain some practical advice, and to go home inspired to persevere. If you're lucky, you may even have one of those "aha" moments that will provide a breakthrough in your career!
Yet, the kindling world recent broke through my clear attachment to the traditional book form. I was at lunch with a friend sitting at a marble oyster bar and next to me was an almost elderly gentleman, enjoying his po-boy with an electronic book set up on a stand. It displayed two pages at at a time, and he could eat and read rather effortlessly. I became interested and we shared a conversation. He still loves books, real books, books with pages and covers that hold that paper and ink scent, yet, especially when he travels, the electronic book becomes a friend.
I get this, and may eventually get one, but find my thoughts meandering back to ancient words found on salt tablets and papyrus, the printing press, and how the future filled with words always presses on expressing as our technologies evolve.
In France I visited most of the place where he lived near the Mediterranean: From Cadaqués (very much the same as he painted it) to Nimes (Roman bullfight ring), to Nice where my husband and I stayed a few days, driving every day to towns such as Antibes (where he learned to do ceramics) and Mougins where he died. On our way back we drove to Aix-Provence where he and his second wife, Jacqueline, are buried, then through the gorgeous Pyrenees to visit Gósol where he spent a summer. He chose his places well!
In Barcelona we visited Picasso's museum and we have photos of the places he lived and worked. We ate a couple of times at Els Quatre Gats where he often got together with friends.
Málaga is the city that celebrates him the most. His natal house is a museum and there is a museum with his childhood paintings and paintings that his first wife Olga kept. The day of his birthday, October 25, my husband accidentally--luckily--took an alleyway. The media was there and who comes out but Bernard Ruiz-Picasso. I got to shake hands with Pablo Picasso's grandson!
Back home--not quite but in Connecticut--I visited Yale's Bierneke Library and had in my hands original letters and postcards written by Picasso!
I'm sure you can feel how pleased I am!
My comments on picture books: Because of the pictures, they are a form that English learners can understand and learn the language. If they don't get the written word, they look at the pictures to get it. For that reason and many others picture books must live!
My comments on e-books: They are another way to read. Some people read better on paper, others don't. And it is easier to travel with a Kindle than to travel with many books.
Am I covering everything I've missed? Who knows? But for those of you who don't like to read long posts, this is enough.
Pardon me for posting off-topic, but I wanted to share the wonderful experience I had in Kansas City, Missouri last week. Last spring I was contacted by the Paul Mesner Puppet Theater who was interested in producing my picture book The Best Pet of All for their November production. My publisher was able to work out all the legal formalities, and last week I flew down to watch the opening night premiere.
It was wonderful! In the morning I saw two performances, one sitting with an audience of 200 preschool-second graders who roared with laughter, and one sitting behind the scenes watching two puppeteers scurrying about as they worked their magic. In the evening I watched a performance attended mainly by adult donors then signed books afterwards.
I was especially curious as to how they would take my 500-word story (which takes about five minutes to read) and turn it into a 50-minute production. They did so by paying close attention to the illustrator Hanako Wakiyama's artwork and turning small details into full scenes. For example on the first page of the book the boy asks his mom for a dog and she says, "No, dogs are too messy." Hanako painted the mom working out to a television exercise show. The puppeteers picked up on this detail and created an entire scene where the mom is working out to a TV show called Davy Jones' Fitness Locker: "Alright Ladies, it's time to do those Capt'n Crunches!" It was hilarious. They fleshed out other scenes in a similar way.
I was amazed at all the clever tricks the puppeteers had up their sleeves, from using a real fire extinguisher to make the dragon look like he was roasting hot dogs in the living room, to using different versions of the same puppet for different scenes (there is one dragon puppet for when he is eating spaghetti in the bathtub, and a completely different dragon puppet for when he is dancing to music).
It was exciting to see my story come to life in this new way and I'm very grateful for everyone at Paul Mesner Puppets for the care they took with my book. Once again I'm reminded of how our books have a life of their own.
I was recently in Texas, doing some school visits. The library coordinator there was so smart. So Smart. And she had a couple terms I'd never heard before. Digital Natives and Digital Immigrants.
We potatoes are all Digital Immigrants. We have migrated to the digital age, the age of computers and ebooks, after living several decades on the Earth with nothing even close to computers. I remember how cool VCR's were, and who the first family was in my town to get one.
On the other hand, my children are Digital Natives. My youngest was two when we first brought a computer into the house. Does she remember life without a computer? Doubtful. Her life has consisted of one technological revolution after another.
As a Digital Immigrant, I still fight it sometimes. I like buying pens and writing in a notebook. Notebooks are a lot harder to lose than digital files. I like curling up with a hot drink and my library book, eating my sandwich and getting crumbs all over it, which I quickly wipe away. I'm a messy reader, I admit. I'm not sure ebooks would be as forgiving to this Digital Immigrant as the real ones have been...
Our topic for this round of posts was to be "the e-book and how it might affect us, both as readers and as writers." Judging from the lack of responses from our spuds thus far, it appears we may not yet know how it will affect us. I personally don't think I will ever want to give up the traditional bound book (either paperback or hardcover), but I have to say I am pleasantly surprised by the Kindle and how easy it is to use.
Random House simultaneously published my book, ROAD TO TATER HILL, in hardcover and e-book formats. My latest statement shows that not many e-books have sold yet (only 24 as of June 30th), but I am happy to have it available for those who choose to read in that format.
Not long ago I was given an Amazon gift card, and I decided to use it to purchase a Kindle. Of course, the first book I had to buy was ROAD TO TATER HILL! I wanted to see exactly how my book would appear in that format. Here are a few pros and cons for e-books as I see it.
1. Less expensive to buy individual books.
2. The e-book arrives almost instantly if you're within internet access.
3. The Kindle is easy to carry or pack when traveling.
4. You can take any number of books with you without taking up any more space.
5. The pages don't get worn or torn.
6. The page (at least of the Kindle) has no glare.
7. When you take a break from reading and turn your Kindle off, it reopens to the page you were last reading. No need for a bookmark!
8. The print/font size can be enlarged as needed.
1. You may not find the books you want in e-book format.
2. It's almost too easy to order a book! By accident I ordered one I didn't want, just by pushing the wrong button, and I had to go through canceling the sale.
3. You can't buy an "autographed" copy if you happen to know the author.
4. It's difficult to lend. I just finished reading THE RED KAYAK by Priscilla Cummings and immediately recommended it to my husband. However, if I want him to read it, I have to give up my Kindle for however long it takes him to finish the book.
5. I have yet to learn how to go back to the beginning of the book or find a specific page without continuously pushing the "back" button until I get there. (There's probably a simple answer to this that I haven't yet found.)
6. The initial cost of the Kindle is rather expensive, at least by my standards. I bought mine for $139, and paid extra for the nice leather protective cover. I would not have bought it if not for the gift card.
I think the e-book is here to stay. I, as an author and reader, will embrace it as a new form, but will not give up my love for and collection of traditional books!
Now it's time to catch my breath and look at a new month. As Stephanie reminded us, November is National Novel Writing Month. Cheers and good wishes to all who are taking up this challenge. But for those of you who wish to try a shorter writing form, November is also Picture Book Idea Month, or PiBoIdMo.
For the second year in a row, Tara Lazar has assembled a collection of children's authors and illustrators who are providing inspiration and encouragement on writing picture books. Readers of Tara's blog are encouraged to take the PiBoIdMo Challenge: come up with one new idea for a picture book each day throughout the month of November. And for all those who follow through, she is offering some fabulous prizes (oh, I do love contests!), including free books, original artwork, manuscript critiques from published authors, and personal consultation from established agents. Best of all, after 30 days you'll have 30 (or more) ideas for a new book.
It's not too late to take part. You have until November 7th to take the PiBoIdMo pledge to qualify for prizes. And even if you don't sign up for the challenge, you can read the ongoing list of inspirational ideas to get motivated for your next picture book (I was the guest blogger for November 2).
Whether your interest lies in novels or a picture books, here's to a new month of celebrating successful writing!
As a very young child, my grandmother gave me the Peter Rabbit books, which I loved. She also gave me tiny books with great pieces of artwork in them from Monet, Degas, and Cezanne. I don't have them anymore, just the memory of a painting of a little girl that looked kind of like me on the cover of one.
As I grew, the books' content grew too, but it's funny that I only remember my first ones. I still have the Polar Express with her handwritten note inside the cover, and I've saved the books she gave my son. My grandma was the perfect grandma, and her books reminded me, and remind me today that I was, and am, loved by a very special person.
I love going to the library, something that started when I was just a kid. Our town didn't have a library, so every Saturday we drove 6 miles to Merrillan, Wisconsin, population 636, where they had a tiny library, open only on Saturdays. My grandparents' insurance agency was just up the street, so we usually parked there and walked down.
This was the early 70's, and I doubt any book in that library had been published after 1965. So my check-outs consisted of oldies, like the The Wizard of Oz series and The Five Little Pepper series, both of which I now collect. ( Most of my Pepper books are first editions, with publication dates between 1890-1910. Oldies, indeed...) But they were new to me, so their age didn't matter.
But I think my absolute favorites were Dare Wright's books about Edith, The Lonely Doll. The library had big hardbacks of them, dressed in noisy, crinkly plastic covers. I'm not sure what it was about them that fascinated me, but one has to wonder the depth of the impression, given my first picture book was about a doll... I have searched on ebay for first editions of these, to no avail, but happily they came out as reprints a few years ago and I picked a couple up. There is something absolutely reassuring about having copies of these books and the Oz books and the Pepper books on my shelves. It's like I have my childhood there, just waiting for me to open the covers and go back to those days when I walked into that little library, eager to take stories home.
I was also a girl who loved horses, saved my allowance for horseback riding lessons, collected china horse figurines, and spent hours galloping around on my imaginary horse, Salute. So, it's no surprise that THE LITTLE FELLOW (The John Winston Company) written by Marguerite Henry and illustrated by Diana Thorne was another favorite. Of course I went on to enjoy all of Marguerite Henry's books.
A new bedtime favorite of my grandchildren's (and mine) is ONE WOLF HOWLS (Sylvan Dell Publishing) written by Scotti Cohn and illustrated by my good friend, Susan Detwiler. It's a wonderful concept book for not only learning about wolves and their habitats, but also counting and learning the seasons and months of the year. A favorite page for finding and counting all the wolves is for September:
"Nine wolves hide on September hilltops-
shy ones, sly ones, no one sees.
Nine wolves hide on September hilltops
deep in the woods in the falling leaves."
I read a lot growing up, but mostly on my own. I do, however, remember reading Fox in Socks together with my father. He had been working out in the garage that evening, but when he came inside, we began taking turns reading the silly nonsense tongue twisters. "When Tweedle Beetles fight, it's a tweedle beetle battle..." As we stumbled through the rhymes, we laughed harder and harder until we both had tears running down our faces. It is a great book, no doubt about it, but part of what makes it so great in my memory is that I shared it with my father. That's the priceless magic of reading picture books together; it creates a bond between the reader and listener.
Fast forward thirty-five years and you'd see me sharing another picture book, this time with my friend Gary. Mo Willems' Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! is so ridiculous, and so hilariously accurate with regards to children's (and yes, adults') emotions. Gary bought the book for me as a birthday gift that year, and we still crack each other up by quoting favorite lines. True story. Who says you ever get too old to share a picture book?
…riding around the range. Suddenly Bad-Nose Bill comes up behind you with a gun. He says, "Would you like me to shoot a hole in your head?"
What do you say, dear?
Early Sendak tickles me. The pages are graphic, open, and perfectly composed. Characters strike just the right emotional chord, yet nothing is labored. The economy of line makes the drawings fresh—like they were dashed off. Figures move with whimsy. This text, by Sesyle Joslin, is wonderfully absurd.
Give me any early Sendak book (don't care for the fussy later ones). These books all shaped my sense of what a picture book or early chapter book should be.
I still have the hand-written manuscript tucked away somewhere for posterity…
About a week after I wrote the story, all the 5th and 6th graders (a couple hundred) were assembled in the auditorium, waiting for a program that was delayed for some reason. I guess the teachers were frantically trying to come up with things to kill time because the next thing I knew, my teacher was speaking into the microphone, announcing that Edith Morris would read her short story aloud. I remember my shocked walk from my seat in the auditorium up to the stage more clearly than I remember actually reading, but it makes me proud all these years later that she chose my story. I wish I still had the picture that sparked it!
When I began to color in coloring books, my sister said, "You don't color people's faces."
I ignored her. I colored pink faces pink, brown faces, black faces , purple faces. People are not all white, nor all black. We are all people of color.
In second grade my teacher asked my class to paint landscapes.
At home we had a painting by Tía Marta. It was of a river in the night, the moon reflecting on it. I decided to paint my version. Hadn't Picasso imitated other artists such as Matisse and Velazquez successfully? Why not me.
My river zigzagged down, like black cloth cut with pinking shears. The moon had ripped the river in half, its pale-yellow rays zigzagging, too.
"What's that?" my classmates asked horrified.
I tried to explain.
"It's ugly!" they said.
Wasn't that what Pablo Picasso's friends said of Les Demoiselles d'Avignon?
I should have kept my landscape.
My dad was a welder, a tree trimmer, a mechanic, and a brave and adventuresome spirit. And although he wasn't an artist, he always encouraged me to pursue whatever interested me, whether it was drawing, writing, or teaching school.
When I was in first grade, the PTA held an art contest for Father's Night (back in the 60's there had to be a special night set aside in order to get the fathers to attend PTA). All the students drew pictures of our dads. I remember working hard on my drawing (it was a contest after all!) and even annoying my teacher with repeated requests for a forest green (not regular green) crayon so I could get my dad's eyes just right.
My dad wasn't big on PTA meetings but he knew this was important to me, so he dressed up in his one and only suit and headed to school. When the first grade fathers lined up with their portraits, my drawing was chosen as the winner (it must have been that forest green crayon or the accurate portrayal of my dad's wrinkled forehead). When he came home late that night, my dad woke me up to show me the prizes we had won: a pen and pencil set for him, the Bumper Book of Poetry for me.
It's a very happy memory.
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In this class picture I sit next to the teacher. My best friend/writing partner, Leslie, is directly behind me in the top row. Everyday after school we wrote stories together. Our creations ran parallel themes. I particularly recall chapter books along the theme of the TV show Lost. Leslie wrote about a group of kids stranded on a deserted island. My characters wandered in the woods. At the end of each session we read aloud to one another and had new inspiration for the following day.
After a cleaning binge, my mother passed off a box of my creative writing from junior high. Schlock! Among these gems were also mimeographed sheets describing different writing genre (many on various forms of poetry), as well as peer critiques. I was clearly given tools and support, but needed more compelling writing prompts.
My mother did not keep my old artwork—small house, four kids—can’t blame her. I have one child and resolved I would preserve her writing and artwork. I began making books of Kate's work in her early years. Before she could write I had her dictate descriptions and stories associated with her artwork. This prompted Kate to draw, paint and write more and more. Encouragement matters! Pictured is my budding author/illustrator and her works at ages 3, 5 and 8.