Archives for category: writing children’s books

Story is Story is Story

Kukla, Fran and Ollie

I have never understood writers who proclaim, “I write for myself not the reader.” If they only write for themselves, why do they bother jumping through knotholes and hoops to get published? If they only write for themselves, why don’t they burn what they write as soon as it’s written? Sharing stories is part and parcel of being human. It is one of the vital ways we connect with others through time and space.

Studying picture books and the many wonderful books about creating picture books is always wise and beneficial. But it is also valuable to look beyond our particular genre. Traditional storytelling and the theater focus on sharing stories (journeys of action, emotion and change), but because they deal with an immediate, breathing audience there is no way they can proclaim they only write for themselves.

As David Mamet states in THEATER, “If the audience members didn’t laugh, it wasn’t funny. If they didn’t gasp, it wasn’t surprising. If they did not sit forward in their seats, it wasn’t suspenseful.” As picture book writers we have much to learn through the immediacy of theater.

Let yourself roam through the library and grab any book that relates to story in one form or another: theater, acting, film, art, or graphic novels. You’ve got nothing to lose, and much to gain from learning how others not only connect with their audience, but keep them engaged.

Here’s a brief list of books that have recently given my brain and writing a welcome buzz.

THE ACTOR AND THE TARGET by Declan Donnellan. Theater Communications Group, 2002.

ARTISTOTLE’S POETICS FOR SCREENWRITERS by Michael Tierno. Hyperion, 2002.

THEATER by David Mamet. Faber and Faber, 2010.

Revision:

Like the Sun is Coming Up

THE NEW YORKER

On the very rare occasion our first draft brings perfection like a turbo-charged magic wand. Done! But most often (as in the cartoon above) we know we need to try it again. And again. I believe the need to revise is actually more beneficial than a magic writing wand. The process of revising provides our manuscript a chance to deepen. A chance for it to become more than we first imagined. Revising also offers new opportunities to learn our craft.

Revision exists on at least three levels. 1) Our approach or attitude, 2) words & mechanics, and 3) structure.

Attitude: For some reason people of all ages tend view the need to revise a manuscript as an act of failure. They’ve made mistakes. Yet these same people do not experience failure when they alter a drawing, add more spices to a recipe, or decide their work refurbishing a car needs more work. Relax. Revising IS writing. And, the act of writing is why we write.

Words & Mechanics: It is so easy to cling to our first draft. Cling to the “perfect” words we’ve selected. Cling to the sentence that will most certainly make our readers gasped in awe. Get over it. The perfect word or sentence mean nothing if they do not serve the story as a whole. One of the first people to see Rodin’s clay sculpture of Balzac kept commenting on the magnificent hands. Rodin chopped them off because they’d become distracting. They did not contribute to a unified whole.

Try this. You’ve nothing to lose but an improved manuscript. Put your current draft in a drawer. Take a break. Then WITHOUT referring to that draft, compose a new draft. Tell the story again. Do not worry about what you’ve written before. How are you telling the story THIS time?  Let it evolve. Take chances. This exercise is not about ego; it is about the story you want to share as effectively as you can.

Structure: Beautiful words and perfect punctuation do not a story make. If you or others still feel something is lacking in your picture book story, dig deeper. It’s time to re-examine the spine of the story and the contributions of each scene. It’s time to apply the basics of fiction and drama no matter how short the story may be. Have you been clear about what each characters wants? Are your characters and action active or passive? Does each scene propel the story with a “Yes, and then…” contribution?

When I work with children I show them a folder of very messy drafts of a particular story. We discuss how the pages may be messy, but they contain no mistakes because each draft is a process of making it better. And, making something better is never a mistake.

To assure the disbelievers, I ask them how they feel inside when they are getting better and better at doing something. Responses are typically: Good. Great. Happy. Several years ago a young girl at a school in Hong Kong answered with a poem: “I feel like the sun is coming up!”

Happy revising as you feel the sun coming up.

Is it Worth It?

"Pierre Writing" Renoir

“Remember, that writing is translation and the opus to be translated is yourself.”      E.B. White

A former writing student feeling very weary of rejections recently asked me the classic question: “Is it worth it?” The question is a big one, and one I’ve wrestled with it at least once each year for over 30 years. Most writers I know are in the same boat. The vital thing is deciding what “worth it” means for you. Each writer is likely to have a slightly different answer. And, that answer may change over a period of time.

If one defines “worth it” as getting rich or even being able to support one’s self with writing, then the answer is probably no. Like most people in the arts, very few writers are able to make a solid living by their writing alone. I can’t.

If one defines “worth it” as enjoy the brainstorming, the writing, the revising–the process of creating, then one is far more likely to find the time and effort worth it. The value and satisfaction are in the effort, in the doing. Damn right, that getting published and earning a bit of money would make it even better. We writers cannot control reviews or sales.  But we can control (or attempt to control) our definition of “worth it” and our pleasure in the process.

Writing to explore our lives and passions is the dual gift of our efforts, indeed all the arts. We experience “the worth it” as we create. We experience “the worth it” as we translate our selves as a way to connect with others. And, whenever someone connects with our writing, we experience “the worth it ” in yet another way even though we rarely meet our readers.

So, “Is it worth it?” Only you can decide.

Picture Book Biographies:

98 Years in 32 Pages?

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 “People read biography for the same reason they read fiction; not to find out, simply, what happens next, but to figure out how people live their lives, how they solve their problems,”

Marnie Jones. THE AMERICAN SCHOLAR. Winter 1984-85

Each life is story of problems to solve. How one addresses these problems, or decides if it is even a genuine problem that needs to be solved is how people live their lives. In other words, the way one interacts with the world. The actions in their lives.

Though these four picture book biographies on Georgia O’Keeffe are different in many ways, they all share the primary chords of this painter’s life. They share a focus on how she lived in the world.

* A preference for and ease with solitude

* An uncommon child with an uncommon dream (for her time)

* An individual who followed that dream throughout her 98 years

* Her love of nature, shapes, flowers, sea shells and bones

* The three primary landscapes of her life and work: Wisconsin prairie, the New York skyline, and the wide-open spaces of the southwest.

* She was dedicated to her work and that work included how she lived in the world.

* And because of that, she continued to explore

Winter’s MY NAME IS GEORGIA is the only volume that makes a reference to O’Keeffe’s relationship with Alfred Stieglitz. And that is only a single, small image of a white haired man seen through a window of O’Keeffe’s Manhattan studio. Some might say an artist’s adult relationships have no place in a picture book biography. Other might say to leave out such information is a lesser or distorted representation.

I urge you to look again. O’Keeffe’s relationship with Stieglitz was based in how she lived with the world, and that is the rich distillation these four books offer to children.

 Picture Book Biographies Discussed

GEORGIA RISES: A DAY IN THE LIFE OF GEORGIA O’KEEFFE by Kathryn Lasky. Illus. by Ora Eitan. Farrar, 2009.

GEORGIA’S BONES by Jen Bryant. Illus. by Bethanne Andersen. Eerdmans, 2005.

MY NAME IS GEORGIA by Jeannette Winter. Harcourt, 1998.

THROUGH GEORGIA’S EYES by Rachel Rodriguez. Illus. by Julie Paschkis. Holt, 2006.

Picture Book Biographies:

98 Years in 32 Pages?

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biography |bīˈägrəfē|

noun ( pl. -phies)

an account of someone’s life written by someone else.

• writing of such a type as a branch of literature.

• a human life in its course : although their individual biographies are different, both are motivated by a similar ambition.


By definition a biography is not required to stretch from cradle to grave. A biographer might elect to focus on only a portion of “a human life in its course.” Such is the case with our third and fourth picture biographies of Georgia O’Keeffe.

In GEORGIA’S BONES Jen Bryant focuses on her subject’s early years: childhood through her initial experiences and paintings in New York and New Mexico. Kathryn Lasky’s GEORGIA RISES: A DAY IN THE LIFE OF GEORGIA O’KEEFFE describes a typical day in O’Keeffe’s life at an advanced age in New Mexico. While they focus on opposite ends of a life, both texts are reflective in tone. They also both attempt to slip inside O’Keeffe’s mind and thoughts, a style that is as much historical fiction as biography.

Lasky’s “Author’s Note” actually identifies her manuscript as “historical fiction” because it blends events and chronology. Bryant’s narrative voice blends comments by O’Keeffe herself with her own ponderings as to what O’Keeffe might have thought.

GEORGIA’S BONES

“She didn’t know why they [bones] pleased her so.

Perhaps it was the quiet way

they did their work – the years of being invisible,

and then, when everything fell away,

they appeared, pure and beautiful.”

 GEORGIA RISES

“The sky is purple now, and a slice of silver moon still sails over the desert. She looks down at the path. A bone gleaming white sits as pretty as angle wings just ahead. Georgia likes bones. She picks up the bone and holds it high and closes one eye. The moon skins its top. She tilts the bone and captures the moon for one brief instant.”

Each of these four picture books is as interested in how O’Keeffe lived her life as much or more than the chronology of her life. A chronology is merely a list of facts. The “who we are” and “how we live” creates the story.

“People read biography for the same reason they read fiction; not to find out, simply, what happens next, but to figure out how people live their lives, how they solve their problems,”

Marnie Jones. THE AMERICAN SCHOLAR. Winter 1984-85

Next: Finding the primary chords in a life stretching 98 years.

Picture Book Biographies Discussed

GEORGIA RISES: A DAY IN THE LIFE OF GEORGIA O’KEEFFE by Kathryn Lasky. Illus. by Ora Eitan. Farrar, 2009.

GEORGIA’S BONES by Jen Bryant. Illus. by Bethanne Andersen. Eerdmans, 2005.

MY NAME IS GEORGIA by Jeannette Winter. Harcourt, 1998.

THROUGH GEORGIA’S EYES by Rachel Rodriguez. Illus. by Julie Paschkis. Holt, 2006.

Picture Book Biographies:

98 Years in 32 Pages?

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“Is there a right way to tell a story? Sure there is: a different one for every writer. And just as surely, this is what gives life and strength to literature.” Patricia Wrightson

The biographer writing for adults has an all but endless number of decisions to make regarding scope, accuracy of source material, and what to include and what to leave out or (as the case may be) gloss over.

Authors of picture book biographies have an even greater challenge. How to make all these decisions, and share a person’s life in only 32 pages.

The spine of all biographies is what made the subject who they were, and how that shaped what they did. For the picture book writer this means a great deal of distillation. It is also a matter of perspective and angle much like Joel Meyerowitz and his varied photographs of the St. Louis arch. Neither photograph nor biography has to include everything in order to share an honest representation of the subject.

Georgia O’Keeffe painted her giant flowers so people would “look close.” Four very different picture book biographies about O’Keeffe can help us “look close” at the options in scope and voice.

MY NAME IS GEORGIA by Jeanette Winter and THROUGH GEORGIA’S EYES by Rachel Rodriquez both begin with O’Keeffe’s birth in Wisconsin. With place and time established, both authors identify young O’Keeffe as an outsider due to her love of solitude, colors, shapes, and drawing. It is here that Jen Bryant begins her biography, GEORGIA’S BONES. Still, each author is different in voice.

THROUGH GEORGIA’S EYES

“Georgia roams the prairie. The trees and land keep her company. Pencil and sketch pad comfort her. She discovers she likes to be alone…At twelve, she takes painting lessons…But in 1899 only boys become artists. A girl wishing to be one is scandalous.”

MY NAME IS GEORGIA

“When I was twelve years old,

I knew what I wanted—

to be an artist.

I’ve always known what I wanted…

When I was small

I played alone for hours and hours and hours.

I was satisfied to be all by myself.”

GEORGIA’S BONES

“As a child, shapes often drifted

in and out of Georgia’s mind.

Curved and straight, round or square,

She studied them, and let them disappear.

In the woods around her father’s Wisconsin farm,

she collected shapes: flowers, leaves,

sticks and stones…

‘Such common objects,’ said her brother.

‘Why do you bother?’ asked her sister.

‘Because they please me,’ Georgia replied.”

One story, three voices and styles: third person present tense, first person past tense, third person past tense. In only two or three double spreads each author has established the aspects of O’Keefe’s personality that shaped who she was, what she did, and who she became.

Next: Finding the primary chords in a life stretching 98 years.

Books Discussed

GEORGIA RISES: A DAY IN THE LIFE OF GEORGIA O’KEEFFE by Kathryn Lasky. Illus. by Ora Eitan. Farrar, 2009.

GEORGIA’S BONES by Jen Bryant. Illus. by Bethanne Andersen. Eerdmans, 2005.

MY NAME IS GEORGIA by Jeannette Winter. Harcourt, 1998.

THROUGH GEORGIA’S EYES by Rachel Rodriguez. Illus. by Julie Paschkis. Holt, 2006.

“When Cultures Meet” by Patricia Wrightson in THROUGH FOLKLORE TO LITERATAURE edited by Maurice Saxby. IBBY Australia Publications, 1979.

Casting Your Picture Book Story

THE NEW YORKER

Directors of all media know that who they cast in a role is as vital as the actor’s talent. Imagine Sophia Loren as Maria in THE SOUND OF MUSIC or Julie Andrews in PULP FICTION. Selecting the cast or species can be equally significant in a picture book.

Arnold Lobel often spoke about how the natural expressions of frogs and toads helped create their contrasting personalities. The casting of a frog and toad was also a wonderful match for the setting and tone of Lobel’s stories. FROG AND TOAD stories are garden or pastoral stories. Though Frog and Toad may be wearing pants they still exist in their natural environment. Recasting the stories with Dingo and Jackal would be disastrous.

When James Marshall cast hippos as George and Martha he was also matching cast with tone, albeit in a different way. A significant part of the humor comes from massive hippos engaged in daily, dainty activities. Imagine George and Martha as mice, and the comic energy drops.

Mice, however, were an inspired choice for Leo Lionni’s FREDERICK. Mice are natural gatherers and nesters. They are small and share intimate environments. Whether one wants them in the house or not, they still have a coziness about them. Recast Frederick as a rat, and the story changes. Recast Frederick as a hippo, and the story is all but lost. Why? Hippos are not gatherers. Nor do they have to worry about surviving winter’s cold.

When we work on an anthropomorphic story we wise to serve as casting agent. Rather than grab the first species that comes to mind or the one we think is the cutest, audition several species. What does each one add or detract from the theme and story you want to share.

As the Charles Addams cartoon above demonstrates, casting can make all the difference.

Play Time

Explore the picture books listed below, and ask yourself how the cast or species serves the story and how. Is the species inconsequential?  Or perhaps undermine the story.

DANDELION by Don Freeman. Viking, 1964.

HILDA MUST BE DANCING by Karma Wilson. Illus. by Suzanne Watts. McElderry, 2004.

THE MOLE SISTERS AND THE RAINY DAY by Roslyn Schwartz. Annick, 1999.

POUCH by David Ezra Stein. Putnam, 2009.

SHELLEY, THE HYPERACTIVE TURTLE by Deborah M. Moss. Illus. by Carol Schwartz. Woodbine, 1989.

ZELDA AND IVY by Laura McGee Kvasnosky. Candlewick, 1998.

Mail Call

There are many ways to tell a story and share the interactions between two people. One way is reading the letters the two people write to one another. The letters between John and Abigail Adams share a vibrant story in American history. Collections of letters are regularly published, and read by those eager for an inside look at people’s lives.

Letters can also be a form of fiction. Because the primary audience for picture books has limited if any ability to write, it is not a common form in children’s books. Still, Karen Kaufman Orloff has now demonstrated twice how letters can be a vibrant and tongue-in-cheeky form of picture book fiction.

I WANNA IGUANA published in 2004 captures every child’s desire for a pet, and that child’s never-ending attempts to bargain. By making the story a cycle of notes from child to parent and parent back to child, Orloff is able to “cut to the chase” and focus on dialogue like a play. Choice of words, phrasing, and tone become even more significant. As readers, we discover the relationship between the boy and his parents through their letters.

It is a wonderful book to read aloud to children. As writers, we can also learn a lot from studying how Orloff develops character through dialogue. Not only what is said, but also how it is said. And in addition, the tone and the love beneath the words.

We can also learn a lot from Orloff’s dedication to the sequel I WANNA NEW ROOM published in 2010.

“For my editor, Susan Kochan, who guided me and waited patiently until I got it right.”


Good writing takes time. Sure, there is the occasional strike of lightning, but time and patience are a writer’s wise friends. I WANNA NEW ROOM is solid sequel about this family that writes notes to one another. A large part of the solidity is that it shares a fresh story,  acknowledges the passage of time, and takes the main character to a new level of maturity.

May we all be as fortunate in our lives and writing.

Books Discussed

I WANNA IGUANA by Karen Kaufman Orloff. Illustrated by David Catrow. Putnam, 2004.

I WANNA NEW ROOM by Karen Kaufman Orloff. Illustrated by David Catrow. Putnam, 2010.

LOOK AGAIN!

Why We Read…and Write

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FAMILY SCRAPBOOK by M.B. Goffstein

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

LOOK AGAIN!

Why We Read…and Write

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THE NEW YORKER

Though we humans may be initially resistant, most of us eventually take delight in discovering multiple or conflicting realities. This is the center of everything from jokes to optical illusions. It is why we read. We are eager to experience someone else’s perspective on a situation. To see how they solved it, or at least lived through it.

While there may be great differences in the number of words and pages, novels share this reality with picture books. At the same time adults are pretending they’ve solved the question of who’s what and what’s what, children are still actively taking delight in the exploration. As picture book authors, we have the chance to join and share the fun.

Narrative

What is truth? Ed Young’s retelling of the classic tale THE LOST HORSE is a prime example. How can one be sure what good luck or bad luck really is until one knows the full context and circumstances?   Mike Mulligan and his steam shovel, Mary Ann, struggle to reach success that soon becomes defeat. That is, until they take a different perspective and triumph under fresh definitions. Roslyn Schwartz’s mole sisters find delight in the midst of what most would view as a terrible day. How? Perspective the acceptance of more than a single reality.

Concept

Context and mercurial definitions are at the heart of vibrant concept books, as well.  In her many picture books, the singular Tana Hoban invited children to look and then look again and again. Edward Carini’s TAKE ANOTHER LOOK invites us into the realities of optical illusions. And, if I may, my own WHITE IS FOR BLUEBERRY requires children to realize multiple truths.

Take a look.  Then look again. One of the world’s greatest gifts is that there is always something new to see.

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 LOST HORSE by Ed Young. Harcourt, 1998.

MIKE MULLIGAN AND HIS STEAM SHOVEL by Virginia Lee Burton. Houghton, 1939.

THE MOLE SISTERS AND THE RAINY DAY by Roslyn Schwartz. Annick Press, 1999.

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

TAKE ANOTHER LOOK by Edward Carini. Prentice-Hall, 1970.

TAKE ANOTHER LOOK by Tana Hoban. Greenwillow, 1981.

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

WHITE IS FOR BLUEBERRY by George Shannon. Illus. by Laura Dronzek. Greenwillow, 2005.

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

*Published for adults