Ten writers for children. All with something to say.


Count Your Blessings

For me, the holiday season means catching up with friends and family, taking a few more days off from writing than usual, and passing on traditions to our son. Thankfully our home suffers none of the dysfunctional antics and blowouts that make the holidays such a stressful time for many children . . .

My first job out of college was working at a residential treatment center (kind of like a group home) for kids aged 2 – 20. Because the center had a “no rejection” policy we housed the toughest kids from Washington, Idaho, and Oregon. I had been working only a month or two when Thanksgiving rolled around and I witnessed, firsthand, the struggles that abused and neglected children face at the holiday season. The innumerable timeouts and restraints that filled the “big day” culminated in the turkey being thrown across the dining room by one of the residents, just as I was about to carve it. Once the mayhem subsided, we saved what we could and made turkey sandwiches...

And then came Christmas. Having the least seniority of the center’s staff, I was one of those assigned to work the day shift from 8 to 4, which included taking all the children to a local restaurant for Christmas dinner. Suffice it to say that the antics of Thanksgiving were a fond memory in comparison to Christmas morning, but by early afternoon we had managed to load up the kids in the van without anyone (staff or residents) requiring medical attention.

At the restaurant, I told the kids what my boss had told me: “Order whatever you want, regardless of the price.”

One young man, in particular, had spent most of the day either in timeouts or being restrained to keep from hurting himself or others. He had destroyed his room and had called me (and the other staff) every name in the book but was now tuckered out, and calm. He asked me what I going to order.

“I’m leaning toward the roast duck with orange glaze,” I told him. “I’ve never eaten duck.”

“Me neither,” he said. “Can I order it, too?”


“But what if I don’t like it?”

“Then we’ll just have to let someone else eat it, and order something else.”

The kid grew solemn – not the reaction I expected. Then he said, “Mark? I’m sorry I hit you and called you a -------.”

“That’s all right,” I told him. “It’s been a tough day for all of us.”

Immediately, his mood brightened, as though a weight had been lifted from his young shoulders. He had been worried, no doubt, that his earlier unruly behavior would be held against him. But with all forgiven, he led the group in playing “I spy” and making up “knock-knock” jokes till the food arrived.

And the duck? It was delicious!


Christmas is over and I feel like a grinch for packing the decorations away so quickly, but as I read the blogs from my fellow potatoes, I am reminded that Christmas is more than just stuff. It is David's mom's love for (and pride in) him, that she expressed so beautifully while she was here on earth. It is Edie's homesick soldiers and their silent thoughts. It is the grass and water under the bed at Carmen's house. It is Christy's sharing of Christmas in The Little House on the Prairie. It is in all of us when we take time to remember and to share those memories with others.

So... here is my memory.

I was ten and the only thing I wanted for Christmas was a Baby Tender Love doll (well someone in this group has to be shallow). Mom and dad said she was too expensive (I believe she cost $12), so I braced myself for "disappointment." When all the presents were open, though, my mean old big brother, Bob, brought out one more. It was the Baby Tender Love doll, and as I ripped open the package I was happier than I'd ever been. But it wasn't because of the doll (okay, maybe partly/mostly because of the doll), it was because of the person who gave it to me. I was a pain in the neck little sister, still am, yet he bought me that wonderful little pink doll that drank a bottle and wet her pants.

While Baby Tender Love now resides in a landfill, my gratitude for Bob's generosity is still with me. In the 38 years since, no one has surprised me as much as he. And no one has taught me more about giving from the heart.


A Civil War Christmas wish from Edie Hemingway

Although I don't have a favorite holiday story, books were always favorite Christmas gifts throughout my childhood--and still are.  A great aunt of mine was a librarian in Evanston, Illinois, and for each Christmas and birthday, she sent me the latest Caldecott or Newbery award-winning books, so I had quite a collection to pass on to my own children and, now, grandchildren.  As long as I had a book to read, I was never bored or alone.  Story characters make good friends you can count on.
To add a bit of holiday spirit to this post, I will end with a Civil War Christmas scene from my co-authored middle-grade novel, Broken Drum (AKA Drums of War in the Scholastic edition).  I imagine the emotions of the Civil War soldiers are still the same fears, hopes, and longings of today's soldiers far from home and wishing for peace.

As midnight approached, the camp was ablaze with Christmas bonfires.  The men gathered near enough to be warmed by the flames.  Shadows and light fell across the faces of all, from the young boys of the drum corps to the older men with gray beards.  They talked of home and family and wondered aloud if the Christmas of 1861 would be their last.
One of the old timers, Jacob Adams, the bearded man who had talked to Charley the first day about seeing an elephant, brought out his fiddle.  He played familiar melody after melody, both cheery and mournful.  Some of the men joined in with harmonicas, and when Patrick brought out his fife, Sergeant O'Toole was coaxed into dancing an Irish jig.  He seemed to grow wings on his feet.  O'Toole, with his broad frame, leapt and stamped the ground in perfect rhythm.  His shadow, now looming large, now becoming small, fell across the amazed boys of the drum corps.  Their sergeant twirled and stamped in time with the lilting, mystical music of the fife and fiddle in a timeless dance.
At midnight the camps burst into celebration.  Men shot guns into the sky, and buglers and drummers heralded the arrival of Christmas Day.  After much cheering, handshaking, and back slapping, the camp grew more silent.  Jacob Adams in his baritone began to sing "Silent night, holy night."  The others joined in, "All is calm, all is bright..." Charley could hear another camp singing a few bars behind, almost like a round.  Camp after camp took up the song until the whole night was filled with the reverent sound of men's voices.  Vibrating the very ground beneath their feet, voices rose with the sparks from the fires into the night air, reverberating across the fields and woods into the town, so that people came out of their houses to listen.  "Sleep in heavenly peace, Sleep in heavenly peace."
When the last notes faded, it truly became a silent night.  Each man sat with his own thoughts.  Charley was aware of a muffled sob coming from the shadows behind him.  In the dim light he saw Frank Simpson, huddled alone, wipe his hand across his eyes.



Feliz navidad--tatata--feliz navidad--tatata!

I hope everyone in the world is having a peaceful day.

When I was growing up in Puerto Rico, on Christmas Eve we went to Misa de Gallo, midnight Mass. On Christmas Day, our gifts were mainly clothes and shoes, and maybe a pencil box. We had to wait until January 6th for toys. The night before we placed under our beds grass and water for the camels of the Three Kings. We woke up way too early the next morning to find the toys that the Three Wise Men had left us for being soooo good.

I tried to follow that tradition in Portland, Oregon. It didn't work. By January 6th school had started and my children couldn't talk about the toys Santa had left them. So, I let Santa bring his Christmas toys, but I also made up a Three Kings Day party that usually took place the weekend before or after January 6th. During the party, my children and their friends ate flan, sang "Feliz navidad--tatata," and played guiros, guitarras, y maracas. I read them Tomie de Paola's Three Kings. Then the children went outside to collect grass. Each child placed bowls of grass and water under the Christmas tree, and went into a bedroom to pretend to sleep. When they were "woken up" they found the grass mostly gone (the messy camels had dropped some on the floor). On the empty bowls of water, the children found tiny toys!

My children and their friends grew...but, like my daughter Juliana, they are now having babies like my Conor Richard. Pretty soon we will be celebrating my Three Kings Day party again.


A Christmas Memory

Twenty years ago my first book was published, A Christmas Guest. It's the story of a little boy and his mother who welcome an old woman into their house on Christmas Eve, only to discover later that she was an angel. After she has gone, the boy finds a small wooden box containing a tiny gold angel, left behind by their guest.

I was very excited about having a book published, but my mother was ten times more excited than I was. She carried a copy of the book around in her purse and showed it to everyone, including strangers. She would introduce herself as "the mother of the author." Sometimes it was embarrassing, but the embarrassment was worth hearing the pride in her voice.

The year that the book was published I was at her house helping her decorate her tree. I turned around and discovered a small wooden box on the floor.

"Where did this come from?" I asked.

My mother pretended not to know.

I bent down and opened the box. Inside was a tiny golden angel, similar to the one found by the boy in my book. It radiated my mother's love.

Fourteen years ago this week my mother died, at the age of 57. She never lived to see many of my other books published, books that I never could have written without her love and encouragement that made me feel like I could do anything in the world.

I don't put up many Christmas decorations in my apartment, but I always have a special place next to my favorite photo of my mother for this tiny golden angel. It still radiates her love.

"Now every year at Christmastime, when winter winds blow cold,
I place high on my Christmas tree that angel made of gold,
I sip a mug of cocoa as I gaze up at the tree,
And think about the angel who spent Christmas Eve with me."

Merry Christmas, Mom.


less IS more

I have worked in children’s book publishing since the mid-80s. As a result my daughter has enjoyed the benefit of her own holiday library of illustrated books with intricate wood engravings, luminous paintings, bright cartoon styles, pull tabs, and pop-ups. From my childhood I cannot remember any holiday picture books, though I do remember hearing the poem, "The Night Before Christmas" so many times I know it by heart and with each hearing or recitation vivid images appeared in my mind. When I was in second grade my mother read me a book that is not specifically a holiday story, and definitely not a picture book, nonetheless the writing speaks to the heart of this season. Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women opens with the four March sisters commiserating.

“Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.

“It’s so dreadful to be poor!” sighed Meg, looking down at her old dress.

“I don’t think it’s fair for some girls to have plenty of pretty things, and other girls nothing at all,” added little Amy, with an injured sniff.

“We’ve got Father and Mother, and each other,” said Beth contentedly from her corner.

The four young faces on which the firelight shone brightened at the cheerful words, but darkened again as Jo said sadly, “We haven’t got Father, and shall not have him for a long time.” She didn’t say “perhaps never,” but each silently added it, thinking of Father far away, where the fighting was.

Nobody spoke for a minute; then Meg said in an altered tone, “You know the reason Mother proposed not having any presents this Christmas was because it is going to be a hard winter for everyone; and she thinks we ought not to spend money for pleasure, when our men are suffering so in the army. We can’t do much, but we can make our little sacrifices, and ought to do it gladly. But I am afraid I don’t.” And Meg shook her head, as she thought regretfully of all the pretty things she wanted.

One by one each sister reveals the gift she has longed for that Christmas. As the afternoon progresses toward evening their thoughts turn to their mother who will be home soon. They scheme to use their meager funds to shower their mother with Christmas gifts and their spirits lift as they switch from a wanting mode to a giving one.

Each March sister struggles with individual character flaws, yet they delight in each other’s company and always create a sense of celebration out of little but their imaginations. They have inspired me for years.

You can (re) read the first two chapters of Little Women and share in their Christmas at this site: http://www.allthingschristmas.com/stories/LittleWomen.html


Cook's Choice Today

Stephanie started us out this round with the fun story of Cook's Choice at her elementary school, and as usual, we were able to wander far and wide. To wrap up this round, I'm returning to lunch.

At W. R. Manz Elementary School, nobody ate lunch at school. At 12:00 we all put on our coats and walked home. And every day in the winter, cook's choice and my choice were the same–a bowl of soup and a sandwich.

My mom was the cook who would make the sandwich and heat up the soup, but my dad was the cook who made the soup. Anytime we had chicken, turkey, or ham, Dad would put all the bones in a pot and make a soup stock. Beyond that, he didn't do much cooking, but a strong memory of my childhood is the smell of fresh soup. After he had added noodles and vegetables and seasonings and let the soup cook and cool, he would ladle it into jars.

One of my favorite parts of the day is still lunch. I often give myself a task such as a certain number of pages to write or a project to complete. And then I have my lunch and listen to the radio. And since I'm the cook now and I'm choosing, one of my favorite things to have is soup.

Blah Humblog

Blah Humblog

This week I’ve given four freshman classes writing exams, and a class of seniors a journalism-writing exam. I am learning to become a diplomat writer-in-residence/educator in secondary education. The semester deadline for my MTSU Writer’s Loft students has arrived in synchronicity, as has a request for the title and a synopsis of a January lecture at MTSU (Unveiling the Narrative: Meta Code for Metaphor. --I think).

Yet a moment of joy arrives, truly; the homecoming of my sons from college was also this week. Boy-men, their dogs, their duffel bags and contents from college all landed in my two-bedroom cottage. We are a cozy tribe, the boys and I. Everything is as it should be and I am grateful; oh, filled with the light of celebration.

Then, Scout, my youngest son’s youthful black lab decides to go on a wingding with my dear Gracie in tow. Scout swims across Bayou Liberty to play with chickens, a neighbor’s experiment for their young children: Chickens who live in a coop, an Acadian coop that resembles the owner’s home, with a door that Scout learned to unlatch.

My son Michael’s dog played. She played and played with several chickens until the poor birds stopped playing. A few escaped death by roosting in the eaves of my across-the- bayou neighbor’s home. Gracie lay in my neighbor's driveway swaggering, welcoming them with her wagging tail. Scout pounced on the last chicken available and jumped in the bayou. The phone vibrated in the middle of a freshman exam.

This afternoon I am trying hard to become inspired to offer a word or two that might hold some meaning. But I’m afraid that anything I might conjure would feel untrue. I am tired and I am a grump. The truth for me is that the Chef’s Choice today would be to have someone cook especially for me.

Time passes . . . this evening I am going to an old abbey to listen and watch the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra perform Handel’s Messiah: between dogs and chickens and boy-men and me. Here I blend into the harmonics and find the one life I recognize. Home, now, renewing, I think: wonderful chaos. There might even be a story in the chicken chasing dog.


My Kitchen Counter

When I first met my husband in Manhatten we were invited to dinner at his cousin's apartment. She was a chef at the Union Square Cafe, a hotspot in the restaurant world of the mid-80s. We sat in her kitchen as she prepared our spontaneous gourmet meal. I say spontaneous because she surrounded herself with all of the ingredients and intuitively chopped and sauteed, stirred and whisked the dinner together before our very eyes. She used her fingers and hands for measuring and mixing. It was a very sensuous affair, all the time tweaking with a little bit of color-- by this I mean adding more herbs, more spices, more butter, or whatever made itself known to her. There were no recipes, only her imagination and her wits. As artists, both my husband and I remarked how it felt like painting-- being present at the canvas, noticing where a bit more naples yellow is needed or a little less cadmium red light, and relying on imagination, wits, and experience.

I have no doubt that the chef's process of working intuitively through an experience of trial and error is very much like the process I go through in my studio. I prefer not to have clear sketches and color studies in front of me like a recipe. I prefer to see what happens on the page, allowing the colors to settle and stand out as if speaking to me. Luckily I have worked with the same editor who has faith that the tiny chicken scratches I send her will turn into something beautiful and bold. When I was working on "Our Family Tree" after showing the small sketchy book dummy to her new assistant, the assistant asked "Why did you choose this artist for this book?" My editor replied, "Patience. Just wait and see." 

My palette, like the countertop in the kitchen gives me plenty of preparation space for mixing the colors and laying out the right brushes, flow enhancers, and spatulas. The author's story or my own is completely committed to memory and the words float like a mantra through my head-- perhaps like the name of a recipe. "Chicken soup, chicken soup", may run through the mind of a chef, while the ingredients make themselves known while using all of the senses. I too, use all of my senses to open to the possibilities of color and shape while holding the particular text of the spread I am working on securely in my mind. The words: "Patience. Just wait and see." also flicker through my consciousness. It is not always successful. I have been know to throw out an entire batch of illustrations and start over. No wonder it takes me a year or more to paint a book! But with imagination, wits, and experience I don my apron and begin anew. 


A Writer's Kitchen

Every great cook I know values the utensils and space in which they practice their craft. The same applies to writers and illustrators. Though it’s true that inspiration and the act of creating can take place anywhere – sometimes in the most unlikely places – having a regular space in which to work, for me, has always provided a sanctuary from the greater world.

Currently, I work in an 8 X 12 foot “writer’s shack” that I built on our acreage in the forested hills west of Olympia, Washington. The largest window, in front of my desk, faces south and allows in sunlight, a precious commodity in these days approaching winter solstice. I look out upon Rock Candy Mountain (so named though I don’t believe Wallace Stegner ever hung out around these parts) and watch the weather whenever I’m waiting for the next scene to percolate from my subconscious.

At our last house, I converted an old “pig barn” into my shack. It was a little smaller than my current writing area, but that was no matter. Instead of being in the woods, where my visitors include deer and an occasional owl sighting, the old shack faced a duck pond and a field that we left natural to encourage visitation from critters. Whether it was a family of quails ambling past, a pheasant showing off for his mate, a hawk dive-bombing a snake, or a coyote trying to sneak up on the neighbor’s chickens, there always seemed to be something happening outside my window, even if it was just the moon rising from behind the trees beyond the field. It was a peaceful place except in springtime when frogs inundated the pond, filling the air with their throaty voices, all talking at once. Of course I didn’t begrudge their presence – after all, it was their pond, too, and really they were just another source of inspiration.

Naturally I would write even without a shack. I’ve done it before. Spare rooms in apartments, at the kitchen table, in a boat – anywhere will suffice, when the work beckons. One of my fondest memories remains the summer, twenty years ago, when as a financially-strapped college graduate I had a garage sale (“Everything must go, even my books – well, most of them”) and then used the proceeds to spend two months living on a small 18-foot sailboat in the San Juan Islands, eating lots of hot dogs and Top Ramen while tap-tap-tapping out my stories on an old manual typewriter. It was a cramped and sometimes undulating space, subject to the vagaries of tide and weather, but it was my “kitchen” and I loved it.


A borrowed recipe

Okay, cooking. Hmmm. Peanut butter and jelly is a fine meal for me, as long as it's accompanied by a good book. And one of my favorite books happens to be a recipe for peace, or rather a prayer for peace. (See how I gracefully sequed out of the cooking topic?)

It's called Prayer for the twenty-first century, and it's by John Marsden (wish I could say that I wrote it!). The pictures make the poem sing, but the words shine nicely on their own.

"May the road be free for the journey,
may it lead where it promised it would,
may the stars that gave ancient bearings
be seen, still be understood.
May every aircraft fly safely,
may every traveller by found,
may sailors in crossing the ocean
not hear the cries of the drowned.
May gardens be wild, like jungles,
may nature never be tamed,
may dangers create of us heroes,
may fears always have names.
May the mountains stand to remind us
of what it means to be young,
may we be outlived by our daughters,
may be be outlived by our sons.
May the bombs rust away in the bunkers,
and the doomsday clock not be rewound,
may the solitary scientists, working,
remember the holes in the ground.
May the knife remain in the holder,
may the bullet stay in the gun,
may those who live in the shadows
be seen by those in the sun.

Amen, and happy cooking.


Cook's Choice for Edie Hemingway

My husband is the cook in our house.  He's the one who experiments with new recipes, grills or stews over the open campfire, is delighted with kitchen gadget gifts, and subscribes to Cook's Illustrated magazine.  Don't get me wrong.  I can and do cook, but for me it's a chore--that is until it comes to baking bread.  My one and only specialty that draws the entire family to my table is "Shredded Wheat and Molasses Bread."  No bread machine for me!  There's something therapeutic about the measuring, mixing, kneading, and waiting that soothes my nerves, raises my spirits, gives me a sense of accomplishment, and fills the house with a delicious aroma and anticipation.  But it wasn't until I sat down to write this week's blog topic on "Cook's Choice" that I thought to liken bread baking to writing:
  1.  Both require a time commitment.
  2. Both involve mixing ingredients.
  3. Both require patience.
  4. Both require a leavening agent--"an addition that causes general change or modification."
  5. Both require kneading--"mixing and working into a uniform mass."
  6. Both require a time to rise (or resonate).
  7. Both require revision--punching down, mixing again--sometimes more than once.  A rising and falling of action.
  8. Both require baking--a time to harden or solidify through heat (or patience).
  9. Both may be presented to eager hands.
  10. And, finally, both are devoured by hungry appetites.
So, next time you can't decide what to cook or what to write, try baking bread.  Dive into the dough, get your hands messy, knead it until it's smooth.  Be patient and persistent.  Savor the taste.  The result is worth it.


I Don't Know How to Cook

You have touched a delicate issue. I cook for my husband, and he likes my meals. But when I cook for company, I always ruin something. It's so bad that a friend asked me no to invite anybody to my house to eat.
I, however, know how to write recipes. To your right is one inpsired by Frida Kahlo's recipe book. It's published in my book Frida: Viva la Vida! Long Live Life.

I challenge you to write a recipe for Peace.

A spot of cheer in bleak times

Cardinal In A Tree
by Christy Hale

New for 2008. 8 cards and red envelopes.
Greeting: "Season's Greetings."
Size: 5 x 7"
Item# 69861
$17.95/$14.36 Members

The award-winning MoMA holiday card program has been in existence for more than a half century. Initially, the Museum invited artists whose work was represented in the collection to create original designs, including Alexander Calder, Henri Matisse, and Andy Warhol. We have expanded the program over the years to include images from MoMA's permanent collection as well as new designs by talented contemporary graphic artists, illustrators, and designers.



Top Ten Questions Asked During School Visits

I have been doing a lot of school visits this fall. As a former elementary teacher, I love having the opportunity to work with students again. During my visits I get asked many questions, frequently along the lines of "Where do you get your ideas?" and "Is it hard being an author?" but here are some of the more memorable questions I've been asked over the years:

#1 "May I touch your hair?"

Yes, if you are gentle.

#2 "What kind of underwear do you have on?"

That's kind of a private question. Does anyone have a less private question?

#3 "Why aren't you married?"

I haven't found the right person yet.

#4 "I got a puppy last night!"

Congratulations! How very exciting!

#5 "My cousin got a puppy two weeks ago!"

That's exciting too.

#6 "My cousin had a puppy that ate an entire box of chocolate covered peanuts and then got sick and threw up all over his bed and then my cousin got sick and threw up too!"

Wow. Does anyone have an asking question about writing or illustrating instead of a telling story?

#7 "How do you write the words so neatly at the bottom of each page of the book?"

Actually, I don't write the words at the bottom of each page. A machine prints the words in the books for me. (When the students discover that I haven't actually hand-written all my books, their admiration for me drops considerably).

#8 "Did you write Harry Potter?"

(When students discover that I haven't written Harry Potter, the Garfield comic strip, or the No, David! books, my esteem plummets further).

#9 "Can you touch the ceiling?"

( I'm 6 feet 5 inches tall. Frequently I can touch the ceiling. Once again, my status rises).

#10 "Are you rich?"

I'm doing what I love. I have a job where I get to use my imagination and be creative. I get to meet fun, appreciative, enthusiastic kids who tell me they love my books.

Am I rich?

You bet.


What’s Cooking? by Christy

I have always fanaticized that if I won the lottery I would hire a cook. I don’t play the lottery, so guess I’m stuck in the kitchen trying to figure out varied dishes with interesting flavors while managing to coordinate the different times needed for preparing each. Balance, timing--a life long quest. Food preparation should be fun and creative, right? Let someone else do it! I’d rather be cooking up my ideas for writing and illustrating. I have too many pots fighting for front burners on my stove and back burner ideas piling higher each minute.

What’s cooking today? I need to finish designing Nutcracker programs for two different casts (barter for my daughter’s dance classes); finish two complex educational illustrations (rare jobs from my agent so I can’t turn them down); conference call to discuss an artist’s revised sketches then draft follow-up letter with comments (my Lee & Low art director hat); write to a different artist regarding art delivery (same hat); finish book designs and upload print PDFs to NorthSouth ftp site (freelance design gig); write photo archivist from Noguchi Museum regarding backmatter for my upcoming Noguchi title with Lee & Low Books; finish art for the interior of this book, sketch cover ideas; return overdue books to the library; order Christmas presents; get our holiday tree and decorate. That’s my menu du jour. Oh, and how could I forget? I’ll also cook dinner.

Today this blog is my writing.


Cook's Choice

When I was a kid, everyone ate school lunch. Maybe it was the rural area, and the fact that a lot of kids got free lunch, but for whatever reason, we all ate school lunch which made the daily menu a crucial part of our day. And once in a while, that day's square would contain the mysterious words: Cook's Choice. What was that? Just what it sounds like, whatever the cook wanted to make that day. ( I always crossed my fingers that the cook would choose to make sub sandwiches and not pea soup) So our blogging topic this go-round is just that: Blogger's Choice.
I'm in the midst of a move. In the past 18 months, I have left our home in Washington State, moved to West Africa, moved to Wisconsin, and now to eastern Oregon, where we are ensconced in two hotel rooms, waiting to find out when and if we get to move into the house we are trying to buy. So how does this affect my writing?
Fairly adversely. I like routine, to sit down in the same spot every day and write. Having my "spot" changed so frequently isn't easy. And for the first 3 weeks in this hotel room, I've had a rough time. But I've realized it isn't the physical spot that counts, it's the mental one. So last week I finally sat down with my editorial revisions for my novel, spread them out on the bed that isn't mine, plopped down, and jumped back in.
Do I hope to have a more permanent "spot" soon? Of course. But until then, this temporary one will have to do...


Unexpected Gifts

One of my favorite aspects of conducting research is the unexpected gifts that arise. Over the years people have been so generous when I have asked for help, and when a book is finished I see it as a collaborative effort of all the people who have contributed ideas, suggestions, or words to the project.

For research on my YA novel CRACKBACK I returned to my high school in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, and asked my former economics teacher who was now an assistant coach if I could observe football practice. He said he thought so, but he'd check with the head coach.

The head coach said I could watch practice, attend film sessions, talk with players, stand on the field at games, anything I needed. He put in one request: "Just don't get hurt."

I learned so much from these players and coaches about how much high school football had changed since I had played and also about what was the same. I had not spent time around high school football in decades, but being on the sidelines with these players made me want to be back on the field smashing into someone. I felt what Miles Manning, the main character of CRACKBACK, was feeling and concentrated on sounds and smells and dialogue.

And then one Friday night standing on the sideline at an away, an unexpected gift arose. Players were invited out on the field at the end of the game to pray with the opponents. These were two public high schools and we'd never done such a thing when I played. I watched as all but three players went out to join the prayers. I wondered what was going through the minds of those players to break with their teammates. I wondered why they were taking such a stand.

As I drove home, I kept thinking about it and decided I needed to write about it. That scene became the basis for my next YA novel BOX OUT.

Sometimes research doesn't provide the answers we expect. Sometimes it provides much more.


Research is a time machine of translation by Betsy Woods

Research is a sensual experience. I absorb the world I am learning, let it linger and melt into the subconscious pathways that build story. In light of a sensual translation, primary research seems the most efficient, but then, isn’t all life experience research for the writer. In the process of research I find that I become the translator. Initially I don’t concentrate on factoids as much as I try exploring them. I build the world that research suggests in my imagination. The story begins to brew, research seasoning the plot and contributing to the flavor. I liken this to following a rather cryptic map. I try to not get in the way of the exploration.

Granted, as I am writing this blog, I am aware that this sounds rather ethereal. Maybe this is because it is experiential. I find that connecting research with a sensual understanding imbibes life and authenticity into my story. It allows me to crawl further into my character’s skin and think how they might. Coming to understand their world, with its tethers and redemptions, introduces me to their specifics set in time and space: time travel of a sort. My characters, my story, begin to own the research and carve themselves and tell their story. It’s a form of synthesis where I become the translator of research, character, and narration that allows a story to breathe on its own.

I went back and read every potato blog on research thus far (They were stellar!) and put together a compilation of our thoughts:

Potatoes Ponder Research

1. Life is research.
2. Show research in action.
3. Connect the dots
4. Double check/Triple Check
5. Verisimilitude; latin-veri similis “truth-like”
6. Hunting and Gathering
7. Research is a time machine of translation.
8. . . . ?


Hunting and Gathering

Whenever I begin a new book whether illustrating or writing, I let my friends and family know I am in my "hunting and gathering" phase. It is a time when I remind myself of the phrase: "All who wander are not lost." It is truly a time of wandering, whether physically taking a walk or a visit to libraries and museums or mentally allowing my thoughts to meander where they will with no judgement nor directives. My studio becomes a nest at this time, piled high with all the books and images I have gathered to feed my imagination. I carry the text of the story with me everywhere, allowing it to catch on objects or scenes I may never have considered when I initially visualized it.  It is both a dreamy time and a time of initiative. 

I love illustrating the stories of others because it takes me to places I probably never would have gone on my own. The perfect example of this is when I accepted the manuscript for Fold Me A Poem, by Kristine O'Connell George. I loved the poems but I hated origami. It seemed so stiff and had far too many straight lines. But George's poems captured my imagination, so off I went to the library to check out every book on origami and paper-folding available; both adult and children's books. For six months I taught myself to fold. I folded all of the 40-some animals in the story, not just once, but many times in order to find the right diagram for the right animal. There is more than one way to fold a frog! By the end, I had fallen in love with origami. I still fold to this day, just to focus my mind. 

Our Family Tree, written by Lisa Westberg Peters, was the book I had to be the most thorough with my research. The subject of evolution is not to be haphazard with. My editor kept stressing that I must be willing to have every image checked for accuracy-- yet somehow keep it artful. When I asked Lisa to be more specific with each stage of evolutionary development-- which animal was she thinking of she said she was not going to be pinned down. Meanwhile, as the illustrator I had to be "pinned down". I had to be able to swim through primordial seas with trilobites and the first fish, then step onto land with the first plants and know what they looked like and understand what encouraged our first breathing ancestors to follow and just how many toes they had. The Science Museum in St. Paul as well as the library were excellent sources, but also the Minneapolis Institute of Art. There I sat in the galleries sketching the movement of land and water in Chinese scrolls and the thrusting movement of tree and land in the paintings of Marsden Hartley. When illustrating evolutionary change over a period of 4 1/2 billion years, it made sense to add drama to the page with swirls and thrusts. At one point in my gathering of information and images, there was no more room in my studio, so I was forced to take down the family photos on the second floor of my house and hang a twenty foot timeline that went down the hall and half-way down the stairs, just so I could keep track of evolutionary events. I realized early on that I would not be able to add a plant or flower for color and composition-sake if they had not evolved yet! 

Sometimes I wish I could stay in a perpetual state of hunting and gathering, however there always comes a time when it all must come together and become a book. At this transition I often experience a sense of panic, even despair. I wonder if I can really put all I have learned and found into anything of creative interest. I have been known to even consider returning the contract! After fourteen years of this process though, I have learned that even the despair is necessary to for the completion of the book. 


The Quest for Verisimilitude

For me, research provides an opportunity to expand my frame of reference while learning the facts necessary to lend a story verisimilitude. It’s fun because I like to learn, but it can also be helpful in other ways: if I’m stuck on a particular scene, for example, I can take a break and do more research, so it doesn’t feel like I’m wasting my day waiting for inspiration to strike.

Because of the Internet, over the years my research habits have definitely changed. In the “old days” (meaning more than ten years ago) I used to visit one of the University of Washington libraries, and before that, the city library in Fairbanks, on a weekly basis. This meant lots of time at the Reference Desk and the copy machine. Nowadays, 99% of this type of research can be done online while I sit in my writing shack.

The Internet has also altered the search for primary and secondary sources. Instead of being limited to my local library or bookstore’s inventory, nowadays I can order a book from practically anywhere in the world – a convenience that has significantly inflated my book-purchasing budget!

On the other hand, the process for “hands-on” research hasn’t really changed too much: I pack my bags and either jump in the pickup or catch a plane, depending on where I need to go. Whether it’s spending time with the ghosts of the California Gold Rush country, or studying the habits and environment of pikas and marmots in Mount Rainier National Park, this type of research provides a break from my routine and also gives me some much needed exercise! (One of my pika buddies posed for the picture accompanying this post.)

For my next story, however, I face a different challenge. It’s a fantasy set in an alternate world, so where can I travel to do research? The “facts” and “details” of the story will have to come from my own imagination. So instead of traveling I will spend a lot of quiet time brainstorming ideas and letting them marinate while I outline my story. Of course when I get stuck, or if I just need a break, I can always go visit the pikas again . . . .



Research is necessary for even the simplest of stories, or else one ends up with an "Oops!," as I did. I was illustrating the story of a tiny little Salt Marsh Harvest Mouse who was looking for a home, when I came upon a few characters that I knew nothing about. One was a white-tailed kite. I looked it up on-line, bought a National Geographic bird book, went to the library, and never realized that birds of prey attack with their feet (Duh!). Pretty obvious stuff here, but not to me. So when I turned in my illustration, the editor kindly returned it and asked me to do it right. I was, and still am embarrassed about that gaff. But it did teach me a good lesson - when you think you're done researching, do some more. I'm sure there are more mistakes to come, but at least I will make more educated ones this time! Happy writing - and illustrating!!


The Eager Researcher by Edie Hemingway

Maybe it's my lifelong interest in history and historical fiction, or maybe it's the relentless snooper in me, but I love the research part of writing--so much so that I run the risk of just researching and not getting to the writing!

I think of writing historical fiction as a connect-the-dot picture.  The dots are the facts I am building my story around.  The lines connecting the dots are the fictional characters, scenes, and events I create to make my story come alive.  I know I must begin with research and finding more facts than I'll ever need for the story. Then I must verify the facts for accuracy and consistency, knowing that even one small mistake* makes me lose credibility as a writer.  (*Several years after Broken Drum (aka Drums of War) was published, I went up in a hot air balloon and realized a fundamental mistake my co-author and I had made about Charley King's adventure in the observation balloon.  Can you find it?)

The two faded photographs above (Charley King, a 12-year-old Union drummer boy in the Pennsylvania 49th Volunteers, and Nancy Hart, a 16-year-old Confederate spy and rebel raider) were the inspiration for the two Civil War middle grade novels I co-authored with my friend Jacqueline Shields.  We were fortunate to live in Maryland, an area steeped in Civil War history and within easy driving distance of Gettysburg, Antietam, Harpers Ferry, as well as countless other Civil War battlefields and museums.

We began by reading background books on the Civil War to get the big picture, overall facts and strategies. But we concentrated on the daily lives of the common soldiers.  How did they fill the long hours of boredom?  What did they eat?  Where did they sleep? What did they wear and carry on their backs?  We looked for diaries, letters, and first hand accounts.  Above all, we were inspired by the eloquence of the common soldier.  We also went to re-enactments and talked to the re-enactors, listened to the music, the cadence of the drums, tried on the clothes.  Can you imagine wearing the same itchy, wool uniform summer and winter and having no change of clothing?  Can you imagine running in the long skirts and petticoats the women wore or riding a horse in such a dress?  No wonder Nancy Hart preferred men's britches.

We also traveled to every place our characters traveled, studied the lay of the land (mountainous, flat, swampy), looked at the trees and vegetation of the area, walked the length of the battlefields, and even lay down in the redoubts (trenches).  In the midst of writing Rebel Hart, we ran into a lack of information about the rebel raiders during the winter months of the war.  I decided to go back to central West Virginia in January.  After looking at the rugged mountains with their humps and dips and spiny ridges, clearly defined by the white of the snow and the starkness of the bare trees, I realized no one, not man nor animal, could travel undetected in the wintertime.  No wonder the raiders went into hiding.

The biggest reward for our research came from our readers.  After finding Rebel Hart in the Harpers Ferry bookstore, the great great grandson of Nancy Hart contacted us and invited us to lunch so we could fill him in on information he never knew about his great great grandmother.  Broken Drum triggered such interest in Charley King that a boy scout, with the help of a regiment of re-enactors from Charley's hometown of West Chester, PA decided to dedicate a memorial stone to Charley as his Eagle Scout project.  We were invited to speak at the formal dedication ceremony.

For my first "solo" middle grade novel, Road to Tater Hill (forthcoming from Delacorte Press in September 2009), set in the more modern 1960s, I spent hours researching the craft of weaving and learning to play the mountain dulcimer.

As for my current research--my novel-in-progress is set on the Island of Vinalhaven, off the coast of Maine. If you can't find me at home in Maryland, I may be sifting through the books and old photographs in the Vinalhaven Historical Society, interviewing the 7th and 8th graders in the island school, or kayaking the basin, hoping to catch sight of the harbor seals lounging atop the rocks at high tide.


Carmen T's Papas Calientes--Research

To your right are Alicia Alonso's bloody, toe shoes and her Giselle costume. On my trip I learned that her mother made the dress.

Unlike David I love to research. There are dangers to that. You don't write because you want to keep reseaching and, you show your research in your writing . That's a no-no. I show my research among the action. The rest I put in the back notes.

As David pointed out, research is not just for non-fiction. When I was writing In the Shade of the Nispero Tree, I went back to Ponce, Puerto Rico to eat nisperos, and remember streets and buildings.

I find myself researching twice.

Before and while I write the first draft:
  1. I read children's books because they are short and usually have good bibliographies. Then I read the adult books listed in the bibliographies.
  2. Search the web, but because so many people write there, I make sure the sources are accurate.
  3. Read poetry, old newspapers and magazines, and ballet critiques.

  4. Watch movies realted to my topic.

  5. Listen to the music related to my topic.

  6. Eat at restaurants from the culture.

  7. Talk to farmworkers to listen to the way they speak.

  8. Go to plays and ballets.

  9. I go to talks. When Diego's daughter came to Portland, I followed her everywhere.
  10. E-mail anybody who can help me.
After I have written the first draft I do on-site research because I need to see, smell, touch, and hear the place. (I have already tasted the food and now I am fat!)

  1. I have visited cemeteries to verify that Munoz's first wife was buried in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and that she wasn't cremated.

  2. I didn't go to California to visit farmworkers but I went to Hood River, Oregon.
  3. I visited the Farmworker Union headquarters.

  4. I went to Mexico City and visited Frida Kahlo's Blue House, the San Angel studios (this helped firgured out how Diego Rivera's pink studio was separated from Frida's blue studio), and I climbed the Sun Pyramid because she climbed it with Leon Trostky.
  5. I have visited many museums and galleries in Mexcio and Cuba.

  6. I have watched murals in the making.

  7. I went to Guanajuato, Mexico to learn more about Diego's childhood.

  8. I went to Havana, Cuba and interviewed ballet dancers, historians, choreographers, costume designers, Alicia Alonso's first husband, Alicia's second husband, and Alicia.

  9. I watched ballet rehearsals and have gone to many ballets, here and in Cuba.

  10. I made sure that I have the contacts for the historians, and have asked them to check my manuscripts for accuracy.

Now I need to write without showing my research.

A quick Snow Report

Just a quick announcement! The children's book site, Just One More Book has created a lovely little podcast about my new book SNOW. Enjoy!


The Reluctant Researcher by David LaRochelle

I don't really like research. That's one reason why I enjoy writing fiction; I can simply "make up" whatever I want. When I started writing my young adult novel Absolutely, Positively Not, I chose a topic I knew plenty about already (a teenage boy struggling with his sexuality) and was confident I could skip the messy, cumbersome element of research.

I couldn't have been more wrong.

As the book progressed, I realized that if I didn't want to sound like a complete idiot, I'd need to check facts that I had blissfully "made up" as I went along. This fact-checking took me down such diverse paths as:
  • Calling bait shops to determine a reasonable weight for a winning fish in an ice derby contest (Six pounds. I had originally written twenty-four).
  • Sending emails to coaches across the state asking about specifics of high school hockey schedules (I paid no attention to sports when I was in school).
  • Attending meetings of a square dance club to verify details of my main character's hobby (Square dancers are without a doubt some of the warmest, friendliest people you'll ever meet).
Then, being inspired my friend John Coy's thorough research for his young adult books, I decided I would return to my high school to get an accurate portrait of what teenagers are like today.

It was a disaster.

The moment I walked through the door, all my high school fears came flooding back to me. I imagined every student I passed thinking "faggot" and "homo" as they saw me. I was just as clueless to their tastes as when I was in school (when I was a teenager I listened to the "elevator music" station and wore whatever my mom bought for me at J.C. Penney's).

I left the school feeling like a research failure. Discouraged, I decided I'd forgo working current language and styles into my story. Instead, I'd focus on the feelings I remembered experiencing when I was a teenager and hoped that they would still be relevant today.

And they were. The fear of not being accepted, the struggle to be authentically yourself, and the confusion of finding your place in the world are issues that young (and old) people continue to grapple with. And though I had been reluctant to do so, I had done plenty of this research when I was growing up.


Collaborative Research by Christy

I have a passion for travel. Fortunately, I’ve had several opportunities to illustrate stories set in other cultures. Unfortunately, each time my lack of mula kept me at home. Hmmm… isn’t reading all about experiencing the world vicariously?

When I first began illustrating I lived in Brooklyn. The world wide web was unknown. No problem! I had resources everywhere I turned: museums with art and artifacts from around the world; botanical gardens with vegetation from every climate; an amazing public library system, including the New York Public Library Picture Collection (my home away from home); and daily I rubbed shoulders with people from each part of the earth. Yes, I do miss NYC.

My first book, Juan Bobo and the Pig by Felix Pitre was set in Puerto Rico. I bought a book of Caribbean interior design to inspire my palette. I listened to salsa to keep things loose and fun. The creative process opened up further when I invited others to help. My husband acted out many of Juan Bobo’s gestures. He suggested adding chickens, which I have since tried to include in my books whenever possible. I spoke with Jorge, my hairstylist from Puerto Rico. He helped with costuming and setting. In Paco and the Witch, my second collaboration with Felix Pitre, Felix sent me a beautiful g├╝iro (gourd instrument) for reference. Sharing is fun!

When I began visual research for Elizabeti’s Doll (set in Tanzania) I again had insufficient resources to travel, so I visited the Library Picture Collection, the Schomburg Center in Harlem, and the Robert Goldwater Library at the Met (dedicated to documentation of visual arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas). I made a list of items I needed to include in each scene. Finally, never finding precisely what I needed, I asked my editor if I could speak with the author. Authors and illustrators usually have no communication while the illustrations are being created. I have worked as an art director for many years and feel protective of artists. They need to have space to tell the visual story without someone breathing over their shoulders with preconceived ideas. On the other hand, I knew it was my job to create culturally authentic illustrations. I wanted direct access to the most informed resource. Enter Stephanie.

I still have the list of questions I scribbled for my first conversation with Stephanie. She told me what kind of bathtub would be used for babies. She described their diapers, the chores a young Tanzanian girl might do, and the animals found around the yard (yippee—chickens!). She provided me with many, many helpful bits of information. Over the course of the three-book Elizabeti series, Stephanie sent numerous color photocopies from her stay in Tanzania, a video made by colleagues in the Peace Corp, and Stephanie’s husband even drew a picture to explain how corn is ground! I had been struggling to create visual interest. Elizabeti lived in a mud hut in an area of open plains. Who wanted to look at a book of mud and dirt? Stephanie unlocked the problem when she sent me a brightly colored kanga (African cloth). I decided to use colorful patterns papers in collage to simulate African textiles.

I am grateful for Stephanie’s wonderful stories and helpful resources. Collaboration can allow projects to grow bigger and better. It’s tricky work though. Stephanie never pushed a vision of how she wanted things to be. She always gave me space and support.


The Accidental Researcher by Stephanie

Research of some kind is a given when you are a writer. Whether it simply be figuring out who was President in 1911 ( William Taft) or if there was color television in 1959 ( yes), I find myself always looking up something. But sometimes I discover that the research has already been done, without me realizing that's what I was doing at the time.

In 1989, my husband and I joined the Peace Corps and went to Tanzania. While there, I spent some time living with a Tanzanian family. The one pictured above. And yes, that is their house behind them. Made of mud and sticks, the house was surprisingly sturdy. There was no electricity, so as soon as it got dark, everyone went to bed. There was no plumbing, so the bathroom was a hole in the ground out behind the house, surrounded on three sides by a ramshackle fence made of cornstalks and sticks. The gaps in said fence allowed me a great view of Mt. Kilimanjaro. Alas, the gaps allowed anyone on the nearby road to also have a great view. Not just of Kilimanjaro.

My stay there was hard. There was a language barrier, with them speaking no English, and me speaking some fairly lousy Swahili. The smallest child was terrified of me. The poverty was overwhelming, as was my helplessness to do anything about it. The rats under my bed didn't help either, and I wasn't that sorry to see my time there end.

About five years after my stay in this Tanzanian home, I decided to start writing stories. And this little house came to mind. And I wrote Elizabeti's Doll, which is about a Tanzanian girl with a rock for a doll. There are details in there about Tanzanian life, the kind of details I usually have to research for a story. But I didn't need to. That part had already been done. And now, I look back on my stay in that Tanzanian home as a blessing, an experience I'm very happy to have had.

Potato in the Press

Collectively, we've decided to reserve the right to give a shout-out to members of the blog when needed. This last Thursday, Lauren Stringer's work was featured in the PW Children's Bookshelf. Check it out: www.publishersweekly.com/enewsletter/CA6616362/2788.html


Needing to Write by John Coy

When I was in my twenties and trying to figure out who I was and what I was going to do, I remember someone saying, "You shouldn't be a writer unless you can't live without writing every day." Maybe I take things too literally, but I knew I could live without writing every day. I had lots of interests and without that burning need to put pen to paper every day, I decided I wasn't cut out for a writing life. (And the rejection didn't sound much fun either.)

But I continued to read and to have agreements and arguments with the writers I read. When I became a dad, I returned to the world of picture books and was amazed how much the words and pictures had changed since I was a kid. What was being done with art was amazing and I was surprised by some of the text. Baseball Saved Us, a Lee and Low book, was set in the world of Japanese internment camps. There was no way this topic would have been a picture book in my youth.

As I was reading picture books, I was also surprised by a number of books. Surprised at how bad they were. How had this book been published? Could I write something better? So I took a class at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis taught by the excellent writer, Lisa Westberg Peters. She told us we were each going to write a story. I had not written a story since I was boy and didn't know what to write about.

But there is nothing like a deadline, and the week before I was to present, I wrote a story about my favorite memory of being a kid: long drives west at night in August. This was my story, Night Driving--the one I had been waiting to tell. When I read it in class, people liked it and Lisa told me, "This is something you need to take seriously."

I took her advice. I took writing seriously and still do. I write to express myself, to make sense of the world, and to provide the books I would have liked to read as a boy. I write because books provide me a ticket to places I would never go and people I would never meet. I write because I love the feeling of having written.

Now I also use a much broader definition of writing. Writing includes thinking about a story, letting my unconscious mind go to work on a character or situation. Some of this writing I do swimming  in the pool, walking by the river, or shooting hoops on the court.

Do I need to write everyday? Now I do.


Why Write? The Word. by Betsy Woods

Writers Ellie Bryant and Betsy Woods at a Writer's Conference in New Orleans

#1. I write because of the word.

#2. I write because the word is the beginning of story.

#3. I write because story tells the tale of being.

#4. I write because I breathe.

#5. I write because I am learning my own tale of being.

#6. I write because it feels fully authentic in me.

#7. I write because I believe that the Creative expresses through metaphor.

#8. Wisteria Drive is where I first learned why I write. My childhood home was on the shore of Lake Pontchartrain. There was space to daydream story, buoyed by waves, applauded by cattails. I was one of seven children and always shared a room. But, at the end of the hallway there was a coat closet. I wrote inside with the help of a flashlight.

#9. Here in this remembering I found a poem: it was waiting for me to share.

#10. Water Bodies

Time floats; lilybuds lick the sway and bloom, are crucified: Humming, I
didn’t know then
the lake
that laps the shore
that nourishes
Soil; was a Breast : who whispered: you, me and You, the suckling
that lifted my home
was a book
I was invited to read.
And web: in linen, scorched my light: word.
That is all I have to say.
. . . body – that water body spoke.
said, waves roll, bring growth: you are my bride.
I said yes. And scribbled story.


Carmen Bernier-Grand and Prima Ballerina Assoluta Alicia Alonso
who at a very young age got nearly blind but kept on dancing.

I'm going to call my blogs Papas Caliente (Hot Potatoes).

I write because writing is a learning experience:

Papa caliente #1. I learn to write each book. As Eloise Jarvis McGraw used to say after she finished each book: "I know how to write that book. Now I need to learn how to write the next book."

Papa cailente #2. I learn to write in English my second language. Yes, I write my books in English. If my publisher decides to have a Spanish edition, as it did with Cesar: Si, se puede! Yes, We Can!, I translate the book.

Papa caliente #3. When I am writing a biography, I immerse myself in my subject's culture. I am writing a book on nearly blind Prima Ballerina Alicia Alonso, so I went to Cuba to meet her. I interviewed her, her first husband Fernando Alonso, her second husband Pedro Simon, and her historian Miguel Cabrera. I talked to many dancers--from little dancers to principal dancers. I went to rehearsals and to the ballet every night. I talked to coreographers, costume designers,orchestra players, and danseurs who had danced with Alicia. I visited the Museum and saw Alicia's bloody slippers. Now I can write with the certantity that I know what I am saying.

Papa caliente #4. I learn to revise and revise and revise from my editor, Margery Cuyler at Marshall Cavendish who has the patience of angels.

Papa caliente #5. I learn from my writing group who are always generous with their time and smartness.

Papa caliente #6. I learn that if I'm not writing I get grouchy because I have something to say and I am not saying it.

Papa caliente #7. I learn to be funny from my writer friends on this blog.

Papa caliente #8. I learn to be young. When I'm writing I am ten!

Papa caliente #9. I learn from the books I read. They inspire me. When I can't start writing, I read poetry.

Papa caliente #10. I learn that this life is about learning. We even have to learn to die.

I write because I enjoy every learning moment.

Collage created for my editor for her farewell party!

I have had the great fortune of working with the same editor for fourteen years. Recently there was a huge upheaval at my publisher when it was bought out by a larger company. My editor, known as the "Heart and Soul" of Children's Books was laid off in the downsizing. Needless to say it was an incredibly emotional time for all involved. She was picked up by S&S within a week and given her own imprint, but after 24 years with one publisher, the good news of a new imprint was both something to celebrate and something to dread. Change is hard.

If not for my editor and her belief in me as well as her courage to take a risk with the complete unknown that I was, I would not be a children's book illustrator, nor an author. 14 years ago she saw some slides of my sculptures and sent me a manuscript titled "Mud". I loved it! It was a poem/story about the earth and seasons changing that I could love long enough to make pictures for. My editor's faith held strong through thousands of tiny sketches and color studies. When the author asked if she could see how the pictures were coming along, my editor asked for her patience. She admitted she was too confused, but was certain all would come round. And it did! There have been many, many circumstances along the way of working together where she had every reason to throw up her arms and say "Enough!" As an artist, I can be a very needy-- especially time. I need a lot of time to make a book. But my editor has always been there, listening, understanding, encouraging, and ready for the next book! Truly, if not for her, I would not be a Potato.


What Keeps an Unpublished Novelist Writing?

In no particular order:

*Wondering what will happen each day when I walk down to my writing shack, turn on the computer, and pick up the story where I left off last night.

*The desire to fulfill a dream I have held since childhood.

*As someone else on this blog has already mentioned, the thrill of creating something new, something that did not exist in the world until I typed it.

*Knowing I have picked a “job” (if it hasn’t in fact “picked” me) that will challenge and frustrate me for my entire life, but that also offers rewards beyond measure.

*My son asking, “What’s your story about, Dad?”

*My wife saying, “Don’t worry, honey, you’ll do it. I believe in you.”

*My friends saying, “Dude, you ever going to get a book published?”

*I’m too old to start a new rock-n-roll band.

*What else would I do with all the voices in my head?

*The acceptance letters for stories/essays that have come just often enough to keep me walking back down to my writing shack each evening.


Why I Write

Right now my agent is sending me rejection after rejection on my latest story and I am wondering why it is I keep writing. It is a tough business and I am not a tough person. Yet I keep writing, because...
1. I love being a part of something that's so great for kids.
2. Writing helps me understand myself a little better.
3. It feels good when ideas and words pop into place, like a puzzle.
4. It is something that I'm good at sometimes.
5. I like being in the trenches with other writers.
6 - 10 - I'll have to get back to you on those once I've had a good walk and a hershey bar or two!


What keeps me (Edie Hemingway) writing is...

  1. my insatiable curiosity.  I'm always searching for ideas, eavesdropping on conversations and writing them down before I forget.  My kids (grown now) called it "asking too many questions."
  2. playing the "what if" game.  Once I have ideas, I follow where they lead.
  3. my characters, who won't leave me alone once I get to know them.
  4. the 5th grade student who asked during my author visit, "Do you have a body guard?"
  5. my faithful students.  How can I continue to teach creative writing if I'm not creating my own?
  6. my 9-year-old grandson, a budding writer himself, who keeps asking when he can read my next book.
  7. a deadline.  Solid as a rock.
  8. my discerning editor, who knows how I can make my story better and who cares enough about my work that she's willing to go to bat for it at an acquisitions meeting.
  9. my writer friend, who shares the literary heart and holds me accountable by saying, "Let's send each other a page a day."
  10. my husband, who gently prods and sometimes, not so gently, gives me ultimatums, such as the time he said, "I won't go on the trip to Alaska with you unless you finish your novel first."  You can see above that we did not miss that trip to Alaska! 


Why Do I Write?

There must be some reason why I spend hundreds of hours on rough drafts and book dummies, many of which never get published. I suppose there are plenty of reasons.

Here are ten of them.

1. Good Books. When I read a top notch children's book like The Wednesday Wars by Gary Schmidt or Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus by Mo Willems, I'm inspired to try my hardest to join their ranks on the bookshelves.

2. Bad Books. When I pick up a trite or didactic book in the New Books section of my local bookstore, I get furious that such sloppy stories are being published for kids, and my ego screams, "I can do better than that!" So I try.

3. It's who I am. I call myself an author, and to retain that identity, I need to write.

4. Guilt. Creating good books for young people is my heart's desire, and when I don't write, I feel like I'm disappointing myself by not pursuing that dream.

5. Past Successes. The positive comments and awards my books have received are great for my self-esteem. I like being recognized for my work, and it's a wonderful thing to be told that I'm good at something.

6. Critique Groups. They hold me accountable. They also provide me with good role models of people who are diligent and serious with their writing.

7. Freedom. Writing gives me a wonderfully flexible schedule. I don't have to commute to my job (which is especially nice during Minnesota blizzards), and when I hear the horror stories of my friends who work for large corporations, I thank my lucky stars that I am self-employed.

8. Variety. One day I might be visiting an elementary school to talk to kids about using similes, the next day I might be learning how to use a new computer software program to illustrate a book, and the day after that I might be going on a hot air balloon ride as research for a novel. How many other jobs encompass such a wide range of activities?

9. Hope. I'm optimistic enough to believe that each story I start might find its way through the obstacle course of rejection letters and overworked editors and eventually become a book that people I have never met will someday read.

But even if I never had another book accepted for publication, or if I never received another award for one of my books, I suspect that I would still keep writing. Why?

10. Because I love to create. I love to pretend. I love to use my imagination. Making books and writing stories (just like carving pumpkins and entering contests) is a way for me to be creative. When I've come up with a surprising or fresh or funny idea for a book, when I'm truly being creative, it fills me with joy. And that's a pretty good feeling.


Look Both Ways by Christy Hale

This past weekend I was one of eight illustrators invited to speak at the MAZZA Museum (International Art from Picture Books) Fall Weekend Workshop. I was impressed by each speaker and came away with many nuggets. Marla Frazee spoke of an early project she had struggled to write and illustrate. She enjoys a close relationship with her editor. Marla said, “An editor’s job is to believe in you.” What a privilege it is for creators to have someone to fill this role. What a necessity!

My first critique group began when I was only eleven. My best friend and I walked home from school together and spent many afternoons writing stories. Then we read these works-in-progress aloud and became a part of each other’s creative worlds. Friends, family, classmates, critique groups, editors have all been a helpful, offering both encouragement and insights. Outside connections provide structure and even deadlines, which spurs the writing along.

I have always liked this quote by Madeleine L’Engle (A Circle of Quiet)

“I think that all artists, regardless of degree of talent, are a painful,
paradoxical combination of certainty and uncertainty, of arrogance
and humility, constantly in need of reassurance, and yet with a
stubborn streak of faith in their validity, no matter what.”

A response from the outside is certainly desirable, yet motivation from the inside is essential. The writing process appeals to me for these reasons:

I enjoy word play, the sounds of alliteration, assonance, rhyme and meter whether the work is poetry or prose.

I like ideas. Writing is a way of finding form for thoughts that cross my mind.

Writing helps me make sense of life. While I’m writing I see connections and patterns that never occurred to me before.


What keeps me writing...

Writing is terribly subjective. Some people love the same story that other people may abhor.

I'm a little jealous of people in more objective pursuits. Like, say, plumbing. If plumbers get critiqued, it's more like "Dude, it flushes! Well done."

So, as a participant in a subjective career world, it helps to develop a thick skin. And I have, to some point.

So what keeps me going with this pursuit of writing stories that I know will potentially elicit some comments that threaten to pierce my thick skin?

1. The sea of little faces at schools when I read them my stories. The eager hands waving in the air, wanting to know more about my characters and me.

2. My agent Scott, with his comment "You rock!" when, once in a while, I exceed expectation.

3. One of my editors, with her notes on my marked-up manuscript, jots a quick "This is great!" Even among all the stuff I know I need to fix, that one little jolt of sunshine can keep me going for 50 pages.

4. Bloggers. All it takes is one of them to say "I read this book in one sitting..." and I'm on Cloud 9 for a week.

5. Readers. And parents of readers. Like the one who said "My daughter refuses to go to sleep unless we read her your picture book first."

6. Fellow writers, like the ones on this blog. We're all in the same canoe, and there is always someone to help me paddle when I get blisters.

7. My kids. My oldest texted me from the school bus one morning: "Mom! Half the kids are reading your book!' Amazing feeling, to know your children are proud of what you do.

8. My husband. He always tells me to keep writing, even when I don't want to.

9. My critique partners. They tell the truth, but kindly take out the sharp edges. And my stories get better for it.

10. My cat Ficus, who sits by me when I write. Good words or bad. And she always fixes me with an objective look. It might not be "Dude, it flushes! Well done." But it's close enough.

By Stephanie


What Author?

When I was a student at Manz Elementary School in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, we never had an author visit our classroom and talk about writing. We never had an illustrator come in and talk about the process of drawing or painting or creating a book. This didn't happen for me at Central Junior High School or Memorial High School either.

As a result, I grew up thinking that books came from some place far away. I didn't see anybody in the town I lived in making books. And, partly as a result, I never imagined being an author when I grew up. 

One of the reasons I like going into schools and talking with students so much now is because I never had this experience. I want to demystify the process of writing and making a book and show them that it can be just some guy writing about driving at night or playing basketball. I am amazed how much many students  know so much about the writing process and book making. This comes from teachers and librarians and parents making it a priority to bring in authors and illustrators to schools. It's wonderful for the students and it's wonderful for us.

And yes, sometimes I think about what would have happened had an author come to my elementary school. I would have been fascinated. I would have imagined what it would be like to be an author and see your name on the front of a book. And I'm pretty sure I would have found my way to writing books sooner than I did.


Today is November 5th, 2008 and with yesterday's election results I am finding it very hard to concentrate on anything but the celebration of hope for my children, the environment, education, and our relationship to the world. Last night's speech from Grant Park was brilliant! I have not felt this hopeful about America for many, many years. And thinking back many, many years to when I was young and in the schools, there was no such thing as "Visiting Authors". The school librarian I remember was more concerned with clean and careful hands touching her books than in revealing the human being behind the story to our young and impressionable minds. She was so strict, I became afraid of books. Afraid of leaving a mark that might incur her wrath! Thus...
  1.  I was all grown up when I met my first author, Debra Frasier. She had just sold her first manuscript. It would soon become a children's picture book called On the Day You Were Born. Since I was all grown up and a painter from New York, I thought it very quaint to make a children's book. But when I read Debra's manuscript, I was moved to tears by its powerful poetry and meaning.
  2. Debra Frasier took me to my first children's bookstore, The Red Balloon Bookshop. Since I was all grown up and read only adult books, I thought it was very quaint to have a bookstore only for children's books. But when I saw books like The Mysteries of Harris Burdick by Chris Van Allsburg and Swamp Angel, illustrated by Paul O'Zelinsky an entirely new world of artistic possibilities opened up.
  3. Working as an Artist in the Schools I was often asked to present at Young Writer's Conferences. At these events I met many authors of all kinds: poets, novelists, children's book writers. I met the author, David LaRochelle many years ago at a Young Writer's Conference and he recommended that I read a book called Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech. I was all grown up and thought reading a book for young teens quaint. But then I read it and I have been reading almost exclusively YA literature since. 
  4. Several years ago, I was invited to go on a studio tour of four different children's book illustrators: Jill McElmurry, Derek Anderson, Mike Wohnoutka, and Rick Chrustowski. Visiting each of their studios gave me insight into their process that I will cherish forever. I was illustrating children's books of my own by then, but had not completely let go of my grown-up notions about art and children's books and these visits were pivotal in stepping deeper into my life as a picture book illustrator.
  5. As an illustrator I get to meet the authors of my books. I do not speak to them while I am illustrating their story, but afterwards we have much to share and talk about. What a gift!
  6. When I met the author, Anne Ylvisaker at an SCBWI conference in LA, we decided to start a writer's group when we returned to Minneapolis. 
  7. After the first meeting I went home and wrote Winter is the Warmest Season in five days. I loved the story so much that I sent it to my editor at Harcourt and she loved it so much that I had sold my first manuscript before the second meeting of my writer's group! 
  8. Because of children's books I have finally fully grown up and rediscovered my childhood. I lead a life that offers meetings with authors and illustrators in person on a regular basis. It is a far cry from the clean and careful hands that school librarian required.