Ten writers for children. All with something to say.


Edie, Soup Man and me

Here's a fun picture of Edie, me and Soup Man on 42nd Street in New York. She's here for the SCBWI conference and I am here for a long weekend of appointments and fun. We jumped at the chance to talk spuds, so after we met at her hotel, we set off to find a place for lunch. We were headed towards Bryant Park when we  spotted Soup Man.

On a January afternoon, the soup was great and we enjoyed a wide ranging conversation between potatoes. I feel like we knew each other through the blog and websites, but it was great to meet in person. We also talked about ways that we could get more potatoes together for other events.

Okay, all you potatoes, let's work on setting up more potato connection.



Either, Or, Both

To continue the discussion of books we read for fun and study, I have compiled my own “personal favorites” list, in no particular order. Some are common titles/authors, others more obscure (I purposely chose to leave out obvious classics—Charlotte’s Web, Holes, etc.—in hopes of highlighting some titles/author you may not be as familiar with). Each title and author has inspired me and informed my own pursuit of craft. All can be read for either fun or research, or best of all, both!

*The Mouse and His Child. This is the book that inspired me to switch from writing adult literary fiction to children’s fiction. A profound tale of the search for home and family, this book has it all: humor, suspense, satire, memorable characters. As numerous reviewers have noted, it is also possibly the most "philosophical" kid’s story you will ever read.

*Eva Ibbotson. The Great Ghost Rescue started it all, and I still haven’t read an Ibbotson book that didn’t teach me a lot about writing, especially when it comes to juggling a bunch of characters while still making each one an individual.

*Far-Flung Adventures series: Fergus Crane, Corby Flood, Hugo Pepper. These three books are like nothing else I’ve ever read, produced by the dynamic British team of Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell. If I had to label the books, I supposed I’d call them “literary chapter books.”

*Acquila. A quintessential example of incorporating a moral (in this case, the value of education and how with the help of others we can achieve our dreams) seamlessly into a narrative.

*Lloyd Alexander. Personal favorites, Wizard in the Tree and The Cat Who Wished to be a Man. Great examples of striking the right balance between narrative and dialogue, with plenty of humor thrown in.

*Dick King-Smith. Babe, of course, is a contemporary classic, but Pigs Might Fly is just as good, in my opinion, if not better. If you want to enjoy or study chapter books, usually with animal protagonists, King-Smith is an acknowledged master.

*Shipley Manor. Another fine example of developing numerous characters and subplots in a story, mixed with a bit of magic realism, and having it all work out!

*Kaye Umansky. Funny, light-hearted fare is Umansky’s specialty. Her Pongwiffy series is justly popular in England, but everything she writes is a template for great pacing and comedic timing. Try Clover Twig and the Flying Cottage.

*Once Upon a Marigold. This is another book that has it all: tension, romance, humor, adventure, and great writing. A work so well executed it’s hard to say if it’s inspiring or daunting.

*Sid Fleischman. What can I say about Fleischman? For humor and plotting, I don’t think there is a better practitioner in the middle grade novel. Even a chapter book, such as The Ghost on Saturday Night, has a plot so deftly intertwined and satisfying that it defies easy summary.

That’s ten, and I didn’t even get to The Scarecrow and His Servant (a hilarious picaresque romp) or Standard Hero Behavior (a post-modern twist on the quest story) or the Freddy the Pig series (good, old-fashioned stories showing the value of ingenuity and friendships) or . . .

Now you know why friends don’t ask me for reading recommendations unless they’ve got some time to spare while I recite them the list!!

Bonus Tip: taking the advice of an old English professor, I still write a short synopsis of each book I read, including a brief plot summary as well as anything else that stands out. Sometimes when I’m stuck on my own writing, or just looking for inspiration, I read through the synopses (more than 80 pages at this point) and, so far, it has never failed to give me new ideas by reminding me of books and motifs I might otherwise have forgotten.


The Artist's Way

Hello Papas Calientes (May I borrow that from you Carmen? I love how it sounds.),

The book that keeps popping up in my life is the Artist's Way by Julia Cameron. I would describe it as a 12 step program for writers and artists (I think Julia even defines it this way). Through exercises, journaling and "field trips," this book brings one back to the basics of creativity. Every few years I go through it again, and amazingly, there are always new secrets to be learned.

Another book that I refer to when I need to remember why I'm writing is bird by bird, by Annie LaMott. Her chapter on "S----y" first drafts is freeing, and her chapter on jealousy makes me laugh out loud - only because I identify so much with what she's saying.

But at this point in time, my main reading material consists of works by Romantic poets, philosophers, and linguists - all required classes at Cal State. Wordsworth is enjoyable, but Blake is hard to figure. He seems contrary and ornery, which actually reminds me of me when faced with yet another paper to write. Are there any Blake fans out there that can convince me to love him?

In the realm of children's books, Pink and Say by Patricia Polacco is a favorite, as is Little Birds Don't Cry, They Peep by Arnold Spilka. I also love The Great Gillie Hopkins by Katherine Paterson. So, so many gifted authors out there, including my fellow spuds. Happy reading!


Discovering old friends...

I grew up in the days when there were two television channels to choose from, sometimes a third when the wind blew just right, so I read a lot of books. On Saturdays, we drove down to the small library in Merrillan , Wisconsin. I can't imagine there was much funding for books in those days, and their shelves consisted of a lot of old books. So over the years I discovered fabulous children's classics. The Five Little Peppers series was a favorite, but the ones I loved the most were the Oz books by L. Frank Baum. Many people think, mistakenly, that there was only one book, the one made into the movie The Wizard of Oz. But that volume was actually not one I enjoyed very much. I still love those books, like Ozma of Oz and Tiktok of Oz, and collect them when I can off of Ebay. They are easily the most beloved books of my childhood.

So, I'm feeling a bit sheepish that I had not discovered Gregory Maguire's Oz books until last week. I was in the Portland airport and I went into Powell's to buy a book. The mass market paperback of Wicked, with lovely green pages, jumped out at me. Of course I'd heard of it before, I just hadn't considered it to be something I'd like. But I bought it. And I loved it. I feel like, once again, I'm submerged in a world of old friends. A different version of Glinda, to be sure, but it's like my favorite books from childhood have been rewritten to satisfy my adult tastes. That doesn't happen every day.

I met Gregory Maguire at ALA in 2007. He had a children's book out, and he signed an ARC for my daughter. He actually commented on her unusual name, asking me where I came up with it. Now I feel so dumb that I had no idea he'd already written the books which brought my childhood favorites back to life. I would have thanked him profusely.

But all this has been a lesson about characters. That, despite me thinking of my characters as written, done, their story over when the book says The End, is it really the end? Maybe they will never show up in a book again. Then again, what would L. Frank Baum say to that?