Archives for category: Quotations


Why We Read…and Write



Writing about the photographer’s dilemma, John Szarkowski stated:

“…what shall he include, what shall he reject. The line of decision between in and out is the picture’s frame…The photographer’s edge defines content. It isolates juxtapositions. The photographer edits the meanings and patterns of the world through an imaginary frame.”

The Photographic Eye

Szarkowski may have been thinking about photography, but his words also apply to our process and choices as writers. Who among us hasn’t tried to include everything in a manuscript only to end up with a muddled mess?

As writers our “imaginary frame” takes many forms. Genre. Length. Point of view. Where we begin and end the narrative. First or third person. Like the photographer, we are wise to explore all the options our frame can offer before pressing click or print.

Joel Meyerowitz

I know writers who thought they were working on a picture book, but it was better when reframed as a novel. I’ve had a poem that ended up better expressed and framed as a picture book story. And vice versa. We have nothing to lose and much to gain by telling ourselves to “Look again” at our manuscript. Explore alternative frames or edges. Literally try different points of view.

Joel Meyerowitz

Central themes or common threads can often be found throughout an author’s work. With the best authors this does not mean repetition, but rather a collection of different perspectives, different frames just like the many ways John Meyerowitz explored the St. Louis arch.

Joel Meyerowitz

It is also how we read. No single story or book can represent the only truth because there is no single truth. Both reading and writing let us continue to look through a wider and wider range of frames. The result—a life that is forever growing wider and deeper.

“A writer is not so much someone who has something to say as he is someone who has found a process that will bring about new things he would not have thought of if he had not started to say them…One implication is the importance of just plain receptivity.” William Stafford

Books That Encourage One to “Look Again”

*THE ARCH by Joel Meyerowitz. Little, Brown & Co., 1988.

FAMILY SCRAPBOOK by M.B. Goffstein. Farrar, 1978.

GALEN’S CAMERA by Jill Kalz. Illus. by Ji Sun Lee. Picture Window Books, 2006.

*THE PHOTOGRAPHER’S EYE by John Szarkowski. The Museum of Modern Art, 2007 (1966).

TAKE ANOTHER LOOK by Tana Hoban. Greenwillow, 1981.

THE TURN-AROUND, UPSIDE-DOWN ALPHABET BOOK by Lisa Campbell Ernst. Simon & Schuster, 2004.

*WRITING THE AUSTRALIAN CRAWL: VIEWS ON THE WRITER’S VOCATION by William Stafford. University of Michigan Press, 1978.

*Published for adults


Why We Read…and Write

I of III

As human beings we are plagued with the desire to create boundaries. This is this and only this. You are you and not one of us. In this spirit, we might ask what the former curator of photographs at the Museum of Modern Art could possibly have to do with picture books? Plenty, if we take the time to relax and look again. There is always more to see in what we think we’ve already explored.

I have long been intrigued and inspired by the following quote from THE PHOTOGRAPHER’S EYE by John Szarkowski.

“If the photographer could not move his subject, he could move his camera. To see the subject clearly—often to see it at all—he had to abandon a normal vantage point, and shot his picture from above, or below, or from too close, or too far away, or from the back side, inverting the order of thing’s importance, or with the nominal subject of his picture half hidden. From his photographs, he learned that the appearance of the world was richer and less simple than his mind would have guessed. He discovered that his pictures could reveal not only the clarity but the obscurity of things, and that these mysterious and evasive images could also, in their own terms, seem ordered and meaningful.”

"The Octopus" Alvin Langdon Coburn. 1912.

Even if one isn’t a photographer, who hasn’t spent time as a child leaning off the edge of the bed marveling at how the world looks upside down. Or, watched a giant tree move when you look first with just the right eye then the left.

A few days ago serendipity brought the discovery of a wonderful early reader / picture book that demonstrates Szarkowski’s quote in just as many words. GALEN’S CAMERA by Jill Kalz encapsulates the joys of looking at the world from a slightly different angle or distance. And, as Galen’s camera does that, it also inspires the world of simile and metaphor. In a (supposedly) mere 112 words spread through 24 pages, Kalz introduces her reader to a boundary-free world that is rich with overlapping realities.


Look again.

Books That Encourage One to “Look Again”

*THE ARCH by Joel Meyerowitz. Little, Brown & Co., 1988.

GALEN’S CAMERA by Jill Kalz. Illus. by Ji Sun Lee. Picture Window Books, 2006.

*THE PHOTOGRAPHER’S EYE by John Szarkowski. The Museum of Modern Art, 2007 (1966).

TAKE ANOTHER LOOK by Tana Hoban. Greenwillow, 1981.

THE TURN-AROUND, UPSIDE-DOWN ALPHABET BOOK by Lisa Campbell Ernst. Simon & Schuster, 2004.

*WRITING THE AUSTRALIAN CRAWL: VIEWS ON THE WRITER’S VOCATION by William Stafford. University of Michigan Press, 1978.

*Published for adults

* One Theme * Three Species *

* Four Books * Six Talking Animals *

“It is always difficulty to pose as something that one is not.”

The maxim or moral above is from the story “The Hen and the Apple Tree” in FABLES by Arnold Lobel. It is also a reoccurring theme in picture books. “Be true to your self.” “The grass is NOT always greener on the other side.” To include pop culture, the conclusion of these books is also the awakened celebration of Lady Gaga’s song “Born This Way.” Writers for adults have explored this theme, but picture book writers are able to distill the theme by casting talking animals.


All begin with a dissatisfaction of daily life. Hippo in THE UNHAPPY HIPPOPOTAMUS, the horse in LUCILLE, the pigs in PIG TALE, and Veronica in VERONICA all find their lives bland and boring. They imagine that a different identity and location will make them happy. Who among us hasn’t had moments of similar fantasy?

And, who among us hasn’t had the experience of Arnold Lobel’s SMALL PIG, when another insists we’d be better off with this job or that dress or that partner? And though we may try to follow their well-meaning directions, we lose ourselves in the process.


Talking animals allows picture book writers to cut to the proverbial chase. That being, attempting to behave like another species. Trying to ignore your born realities. For these talking animals the “better world” is that of humans, the reader’s world. Which is doubly potent because the reader is also the one thinking his life could be better if only something was different.

Still, even within brief picture books there can be variations. Oxenbury’s pigs enter the human world with little notice thanks to their money. The hippo in THE UNHAPPY HIPPOPOTAMUS is clearly in a human world, but we never see her encountering a human. Arnold Lobel’s SMALL PIG and LUCILLE both explore the differences between country and city. And, thanks to the tone and brevity of the genre, neither writer nor reader needs to concern himself with who made their out-sized clothes!


All these talking animal characters find happiness by returning to their natural state. But, Veronica, Duvoisin’s hippo, experiences an additional level of joy and satisfaction. She shares her story, her journey of trying to be somebody else but finding delight by returning home, much like these picture book authors have, as well.


Picture Books Referenced Above

FABLES by Arnold Lobel. Harper, 1980.

LUCILLE by Arnold Lobel. Harper, 1964

PIG TALE by Helen Oxenbury. McElderry Books, 2004 (1973).

SMALL PIG by Arnold Lobel. Harper, 1969.

THE UNHAPPY HIPPOPOTAMUS by Nancy Moore. Illus. by Edward Leight. Vanguard, 1957.

VERONICA by Roger Duvoisin. Knopf, 1961.

Talking Animals in a Parallel World – III

Child Substitutes

OWL AT HOME by Arnold Lobel

“The children don’t know, but the truth of the story, whatever gives it validity, is its truth to me, as an adult.”

Arnold Lobel

Some of the most beloved talking animals in picture books are frequently described as “child substitutes.” They exist in a mezzanine world between childhood and adulthood. Characters like Frog and Toad are a double fantasy. First–the animals talk. Second–the characters get to live on their own (be their own boss), yet aren’t burdened with adult duties.


If Frog and Toad or George and Martha were children (even talking animal children) readers would immediately want to know why they’ve been abandoned. There’s nobody watching out for them. Why are they living alone? Who makes their dinner? If Frog and Toad were adults (human or animal) a different set of urgent questions would arise. Why don’t they have a job? Why don’t they always wear pants? Or, why is George naked and Martha only has a skirt? Why are they worried about child issues like flying kites and hating pea soup?

GEORGE AND MARTHA by James Marshall

When we read “The Corner” in Lobel’s third collection of stories about Frog and Toad, Frog tells a story involving his parents. It is a jarring moment because it is a significant shift in type of fantasy. How can one be a “child substitute” if he had parents? If he had parents, then shouldn’t he should be a grownup by now.

Other books like Tim Eagan’s ROASTED PEANUTS explore friendship between child substitutes, but this literary element can work just as well when writing about solo characters.  Arnold Lobel created the very solitary OWL AT HOME. Another popular example is SCAREDY SQUIRREL by Melanie Watt.

Using child substitutes allows a sense of distance and suspended disbelief much like talking animals do in traditional fables. And though it may seem contradictory, this distance opens doors to intimacy. Once external reality is suspended, adult writer and child reader can meet on the mezzanine between their daily lives, and savor the emotional core of the story.

Sources Referenced Above

GEORGE AND MARTHA by James Marshall. Houghton, 1972.

FROG AND TOAD ALL YEAR by Arnold Lobel. Harper, 1976.

FROG AND TOAD ARE FRIENDS by Arnold Lobel, Harper 1970.

“An Interview with Arnold Lobel” with Roni Natov and Geraldine DeLuca. THE LION AND THE UNICORN (1977):72-97.

OWL AT HOME by Arnold Lobel. Harper, 1975.

ROASTED PEANUTS by Tim Eagan. Houghton, 2006.

SCAREDY SQUIRREL by Melanie Watt. Kids Can Press, 2006.

When Animals Speak:

Perks, Perils and Possibilities


Well into the movie BABE a little girl sitting behind me in the theater blurted, “Hey, sheep can’t talk!” For one reason or another she hadn’t been concerned that other animals were talking. But sheep? That was ridiculous. As surely as talking animals are a staple in children’s literature there are also crowds who resist and even despise them. There are writers to use talking animals wisely. And others who hope talking animals will be enough to disguise a weak story. When someone asked editor/author James Cross Giblin what he thought about talking animals his frequently quoted response was: “It depends on what they have to say.” It also depends on when, where and to whom they speak.

This series of posts will explore talking animals (anthropomorphic characters) as a literary device in picture books. Like any element of writing, it is important to understand how to use it, why we’re using it, and whether or not it enriches or deflates the story we have to tell.

It is also valuable to examine the many sub-genres of talking animals:

*Talking Animals in a Parallel World [ie. FROG AND TOAD]

*Talking Animals Within the Human World, But Not Talking to or Interacting With Humans [ie.  WHAT THE LADYBUG HEARD]

*Talking Animals Within the Human World & Who Talk to Humans Who Are Not Surprised to Hear an Animal Speak [ie. NORMAN THE  DOORMAN]

*Talking Animals Within the Human World Who Suddenly Begin Talking to Humans Who Are, Initially, Surprised [ie. MARTHA SPEAKS]

*Talking Animals Who Speak While Maintaining Their Animal Nature [ie. SWIMMY]

*Talking Animals Who Are Essentially Humans in Animals Costumes [ie ZELDA AND IVY]

And, to no surprise, they are many sub-sub-genres as well as countless overlapping perils and possibilities.

On we go…

Picture Books Mentioned in This Post

FROG AND TOAD ARE FRIENDS by Arnold Lobel. Harper, 1970.

MARTHA SPEAKS by Susan Meddaugh. Houghton, 1992.

NORMAN THE DOORMAN by Don Freeman. Viking, 1959.

SWIMMY by Leo Lionni. Knopf, 1963

WHAT THE LADYBUG HEARD by Julia Donaldson. Illus. by Lydia          Monks. Holt, 2009

ZELDA AND IVY by Laura Kvasnosky. Candlewick, 1998.



I grew up pouring over the 25th anniversary volume of NEW YORKER cartoons again and again. This cartoon (a far more recent one) by Jack Ziegler is one of my favorites. Some days I look at it and think “Even super-heroes know how important picture books can be.” But other days, I think, “Oh great. Here comes one more picture book written or supposedly written by a celebrity.”

For a bit of fun, what topics or titles do you think Superman or any super hero might actually use once he/she stops saving the world and MAKES time to finally write?





Outside the Box:

Nurturing Fresh Ideas


As writers we are frequently asked, “Where do you get your ideas?” Although usually expressed with genuine interest, the question is thoroughly off the mark. Ideas are not discovered at a “where”, but rather through action. We are also frequently told, “You need to try thinking outside the box.” One way to do this is to actively step outside our box–look outside our genre and outside writing for guidance and inspiration. Two of my favorite books on the action and play of creating are by a jazz violinist and a cartoonist for THE NEW YORKER. My third favorite source or activity that nourishes “outside the box” thinking is exploring books, websites and blogs that focus on the visual arts. A favorite recent discovery is the work of a photographer who had a create deal of fun drawing new realities for dead flies. Trust me. You’ll see.

FREE PLAY: IMPROVISATION IN LIFE AND ART by Stephen Nachmanovitch is a mega-multi-vitamin for anyone in the arts. My copy bought in 1993 has been highlighted in multiple colors over the years and its margins continue to record new thoughts and impressions. Sample quote: “Practice gives the creative processes a steady momentum, so that when imaginative surprises occur they can be incorporated into the growing, breathing organism of our imagination.”

THE NAKED CARTOONIST by Robert Mankoff is a rich blend of humor, reflections on creativity, and specific exercises to stretch one’s thinking. Sample quote: “…boredom is your creative friend. When you’re bored, you seek stimulation. If you are denied external stimulation, you’re forced to make do with what’s in front of you.”


Photographer Mangus Muhr’s witty creations that began with dead flies demonstrate the power of both imagination and context. A seemingly nothing becomes quite something once we give it a relative place in the world.


If Muhr can create so many different contexts for a dead fly, we have the same scope of possibilities for any character or sliver of story that captures our imagination. If, that is, we stay active: asking questions, playing with juxtapositions, and forever leaping outside the box.


As Robert Mankoff says, “Getting ideas is like getting a loan. If you already have money, it’s easy to get more. Likewise, if your mind is already stocked with ideas and associations, more are likely to come your way.”

Cossack Dance

Related Books & Sites to Explore

DEAD FLY ART by Mangus Muhr. (photographer)

FREE PLAY: IMPROVISATION IN LIFE AND ART by Stephen Nachmanovitch. Tracher, 1991.

THE NAKED CARTOONIST by Robert Mankoff. Black Dog & Leventhal, 2002.



THANK YOU BEAR by Greg Foley

An empty box, especially a large one, is one of the delights of childhood. Year after year adults shake their heads as children spend more time playing with the empty box than the toy that came inside it. So how can an empty box beat a toy for attention? Possibility. Interaction. Creative control. When the Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi said, “It is not making things that is difficult, but putting ourselves in the condition to make them.” I believe he was referring to the artist’s and writer’s need to keep rediscovering the empty box. Our need to keep returning to a sense of openness and play.

Four picture books explore the theme of the empty box, and do so in four different ways. NOT A BOX by Antoinette Portis offers the most direct and interactive approach to the topic. The reader/audience becomes the inquisitor.

Why are you sitting in a box?

It’s not a box.

Clearly, an empty box can become anything the mind creates.

Leslie Patricelli’s THE BIRTHDAY BOX addresses the setting or occasion for an empty box. In this case it’s a birthday. While the box contained the gift of a puppy, the birthday boy quickly takes the dog on a series of imaginary adventures thanks to the box’s endless possibilities. Both action and text insure we understand that the empty box was the greatest gift.

THE BIG BROWN BOX by Marisabina Russo not only celebrates the possibilities of an empty box, she also adds a gentle plot of sibling rivalry. Sam lays claim to the box that protected the new washing machine. It becomes a house. Then a cave. Then a boat. With each new reincarnation of the box, Sam’s younger brother begs to join the fun. But Sam rejects him time and again. Their mother’s quiet wisdom saves the day. She gives the little brother his own empty box. Together the brothers turn their respective empty boxes into individual spaceships and play together.

As writers, one of the most important things we can do to maintain Brancusi’s “condition to make things” is to keep returning to our own empty box of possibilities. And, to approach each new idea as its own empty box that could become anything if we allow our imagination to play.

Greg Foley’s THANK YOU BEAR explores the theme of the empty box in a way that addresses our inner self-doubts and our outer critics. Bear finds an empty box and decides to give it to Mouse. On his way one animal after another proclaims it’s not so great, old hat, and too small.

Who among us hasn’t shared a new book idea only to have others tell us that it’s not so great, old hat, too small or too big? Foley’s addition to the classic empty box theme is the relationship between giver and receiver. In a way, he is celebrating what librarians refer to as the right book at the right time. When a rather dejected Bear finally gives his empty box to Mouse, Mouse looks at it this way and that.

Then Mouse crawled inside

the empty box and said,

“It’s the greatest thing ever!”

And so it is with our story ideas, our own empty boxes. No idea or book will be right for everyone. But if we keep returning to the empty box and playing with possibilities we will most certainly enjoy the process, and have a better chance of being the right book for the right reader at the right time.

It all begins with emptiness.

Picture Books About Empty Boxes

THE BIG BROWN BOX by Marisabina Russo. Greenwillow, 2000.

THE BIRTHDAY BOX by Leslie Patricelli. Candlewick, 2007.

NOT A BOX by Antoinette Portis. HarperCollins, 2006.

THANK YOU BEAR by Greg Foley. Viking, 2007.

The Power of a Sentence

The Power of a Word

“The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.” Mark Twain

As writers we are always in search of the right word in at the right time. Moving from the lightning bug to lightning is the challenge and blessing of doing many drafts. A MOTHER FOR CHOCO by Keiko Kasza provides dynamic evidence as to just how much a change in word or sentence can do. Including a shift is awareness.

“Choco was a little bird, who lived all alone. He wished he had a mother, but who could his mother be? One day he set off to find her.”

Choco meets a giraffe, a penguin, and a walrus. Each has a physical attribute in common with Choco, but all three quickly note more differences that similarities and dismiss the little bird.

When Choco begins to cry Bear comes to see what’s wrong. Bear’s choice of words transforms both the story and the perspective of “mother”. Rather than comparing appearances and giving answers, Bear asks the question, “If you had a mommy, what would she do?”

Action.  Just as action makes a story breathe, action is the life force of relationships.

Choco knows his mother would hold him, kiss him, and sing and dance to cheer him up. Bear can and does do these things. Choco’s journey is now complete. Mother and home have been found thanks to the right word and the right sentence at the right time. Lightning!

Sample Books by Keiko Kasza

A MOTHER FOR CHOCO. Putnam, 1992.

MY LUCKY DAY. Putnam, 2003.



Writing with Sound * Writing by Instinct

The dictionary is laced with technical terms for specific literary forms and rhythms. But unless one truly listens and absorbs the different way rhythms and sound affect us physically and emotionally, the technical terms are lifeless.  Randall Jarrell’s novella for children, THE BAT-POET, contains a wonderful scene that honors the value of listening and instinct.

“Why, I like,” said the mockingbird. “Technically it’s quite accomplished. The way you change the rhyme-scheme’s particularly effective.”

The bat poet said: “It is?”

“Oh yes,” said the mockingbird. “And it was clever of you to have that last line two feet short.”

The bat said blankly: “Two feet short?”

“It’s two feet short,” said the mockingbird a little impatiently. “The next-to-the-last line’s iambic pentameter, and the last line’s iambic trimeter.”

The bat looked so bewildered that the mockingbird said in a kind voice: “An iambic foot has one weak syllable and one strong syllable; the wear one comes first. That last line of yours has six syllables and the one before it has ten; when you shorten the last line like that it gets the effect of the night holding it’s breath.”

“I didn’t know that,” the bat said. “I just made it like holding your breath.”

THE BAT-POET by Randall Jarrell. Illus. by Maurice Sendak. Macmillan, 1966.