Archives for category: Writing Tips

POLKA DOT PENGUIN POTTERY

 The child narrator of this wise and truthful story about writing identifies herself by her “nom de plume”—Aspen Colorado Kim Chee Lee.  Her writing process is familiar, succinct, and nurturing to those of us who write. And, at the same time, encouraging to readers who don’t yet write

“First button on your writing jacket. Then stuff your pockets with seaweed crackers. Then sit very still and think. Last but not least, choose words and line them up—like a fruit seller who choosers her best mangoes and pomegranates and bananas and puts them on display. And when you’re done—yay!—a story.

Like most writers at one time or another, Aspen Colorado Kim Chee Lee discovers that she’s lost the fun of writing. Ideas have become illusive and the joy is gone. The cliché’ term is “Writer’s Block” but the truth is closer to “Writer’s Self-Block.” One’s internal pressures and expectations of grandeur or success can put so much attention on the final product that the pleasure of the process goes missing.

Illus. by Yumi Heo

Aspen’s gently supportive grandparents lead her to a different art form, painting pottery. Initially, her fears or “block” follow Aspen into the pottery studio. But stepping outside her primary art form and into another allows her to rediscover the truth:

“You can only make a masterpiece if you’re willing to make a mess.”

In other words, you’ve got to relax, experiment, and remember that puzzle of choosing which words and lining them up in which order is the part of writing we love the most.

The next time you encounter a spell of “Writer’s Self-Block” take a cue from Aspen Colorado Kim Chee Lee. Paint, sculpt, dance, bake, build or anything activity that helps you relax and remember that process is messy but also the fun.

POLKA DOT PENGUIN POTTERY by Lenore Look. Illus. by Yumi Heo. Schwartz & Wade Books, 2011.

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Quiet!

Sempe' PAR AVION. Knopf, 1991.

These days it is not uncommon for picture book authors to receive a rejection letter stating something like “beautifully written, but too quiet” or “beautifully written, but won’t sell in today’s market.” One quickly wonders if Margaret Wise Brown, Charlotte Zolotow, Alvin Tresselt, and Ruth Krauss would be able to find a publisher today. Still, we see quiet picture books from earlier years (including these authors) continually reprinted, as well as the occasional new quiet book.

At least three questions arise. #1 Is there a place for quiet books in the current market? #2 Is there a place for quiet books in children’s literature? And, #3 What makes a good book that is also quiet in tone?

#1 Yes. But in a tight market place filled with buyers living at the pace of video games and multi-tasking it is certainly a tougher sale. At least until they discover a value in a bit of quiet. Many years ago I often rolled my eyes at the slow pace of Mister Rogers. Then one day a parent kindly chided me. In the hubbub of the current world and the speed of Sesame Street, Mister Rogers provided a needed balance and an opportunity for calmer times.

#2 Always. Just as the still life will always be a vital part of painting, the quiet book will forever be a valuable part of children’s literature and children’s lives.

#3 But one must never confuse a good still life painting or a good quiet book for something that is lifeless, flat, and boring. A great still life painting is vibrantly alive in its stillness, and so is the engaging, quiet picture book.

Before we dismiss the editors and publishers who reply “beautifully written, but too quiet” we have the opportunity to re-examine our manuscript to see what kind of quiet we have written. Quiet need not be synonymous with nothing happens or nothing changes. It is the awareness and transition that engages the reader. Marie Hall Ets classic quiet book PLAY WITH ME offers a lively example. The narrator, a young girl, rushes from place to place and animal to animal in hopes of making a connection. But her rushing only scares all the creatures away. It is only in her stillness—a time of receptive quiet—that the creatures come to her.

Our manuscript may be quiet, but it is important to ask what is it inviting young readers to explore and discover. How does our manuscript’s quiet provide space to widen their lives? If we’re not sure, it’s time to go back to work.

A Sampling of Quiet Picture

BABOON by Kate Banks. Illus. by Georg Hallensleben. Frances Foster/Farrar, 1997.

THE EMPTY POT by Demi. Holt, 1990.

HIDE AND SEEK by Janet S. Wong. Illus. by Margaret Chodos-Irvine. Harcourt, 2005,

MISS RUMPHIUS by Barbara Cooney. Viking 1982.

PLAY WITH ME by Marie Hall Ets. Viking 1955.

THE SNOWY DAY by Ezra Jack Keats. Viking, 1962.

Leo Lionni

FREDERICK

As picture book writers, we have a braid of dreams. First, to write a book that expresses something we want to share. Second, a book that connects with our audience, engages the child. Third, a book that will last. If there was a workshop for achieving these goals, we’d all be signed up and sitting in the front row. Alas, no such workshop exists.

What we can do is study picture books that have lasted andremain fresh. Several such books are by Leo Lionni. His seemingly simple texts that speak to the human condition continue to captivate children. Lionni’s best-known picture books are now over 40 years old, and still in print. Students in all the arts begin by studying the masters. So should we.

INCH BY INCH

 In his own words:

“You may have asked yourselves, when you saw my books: birds, worms, fish, flowers, pebbles…what about people? Of course my books, like all fables, are about people…My characters are humans in disguise and their little problems and situations are human problems, human situations. The game of identifying, of finding ourselves in the things around us is as old as history. We understand things only in terms of ourselves and in references to ourselves.”

 “And then there is another aspect of the allegory as a storytelling technique. It is easier to isolate situations, to bring them to a clean, uncluttered, symbolic pitch outside of ourselves. What a ponderous, complex story SWIMMY would have been if some cruel dictator has slaughtered a whole village and only a little boy had been able to escape.”

A Sampling

FREDERICK by Leo Lionni. (Pantheon, 1967).

INCH BY INCH by Leo Lionni. (Harper, 1960).

LITTLE BLUE AND LITTLE YELLOW by Leo Lionni. (Harper, 1959).

“My Books for Children” by Leo Lionni in AUTHORS AND ILLUSTRATORS OF CHILDRLEN’S BOOKS: WRITINGS ON THEIR LIVES AND WORKS edited by Miriam Hoffman and Eva Samuels. (Bowker, 1972).

SWIMMY by Leo Lionni. (Pantheon, 1963).

How Listening Can Improve Your Manuscript

 “What one has written is not to be defended or valued, but abandoned: others must decide significance and value.”        William Stafford

Illus. by Feodor Rojankovsky. THE BIG ELEPHANT by Kathryn & Byron Jackson (1949)

One of the most beneficial aspects of participating in my writing group the last twelve years has been learning to share new manuscripts without being defensive. Do I hope they tell me I’m a genius? Absolutely. Do I always like what my writing group has to say? No. Do I always agree with what my writing group has to say? No. But I’ve also learned that by quietly listening to their comments I might well discover the key to making my story even better that I thought I could. If their comments do not feel helpful I can simply let them go. There is no need to prove my view is right and theirs is wrong. History also has proven that I might even end up agreeing with their assessment as I revise.

As a teacher and periodic critique-reader at conferences I am bewildered at how many people request (even pay) for an evaluation of their manuscript. Yet, they spend their allotted time telling me what I don’t understand rather than listening to what thoughts I have that might improve their manuscript. I’ve seen this cycle occur in many situations and many genres.

Who doesn’t want to have our first reader clutch the table in ecstasy and proclaim our manuscript is the best thing since the wheel? But as the emperor in his new clothes came to understand, “yes” men are of little value.

When we enter a critique situation in a defensive mode we are literally too busy planning how we will explain our manuscript to even hear the comments we have requested. Jumping to defend and explain our manuscript to a critique group or editor is ultimately about our ego, not our manuscript. Each of us must continue to choose which is most important.

Are critique groups and editors always right? Of course not. Even if their comments don’t feel appropriate, their suggestions might spark new ideas of our own. We have nothing to lose and much to gain by quietly listening without defense while our manuscript is being critiqued.

Ignorance Is Bliss:

 Sometimes Sweet, Sometimes Dangerous,

and

Often Good for a Laugh!

from ARE YOU A HORSE by Andy Rash

As picture book writers who do not illustrate, it doesn’t take much some days to leave us feeling powerless. Us? Think about our young audience that is literally at the mercy of the adult world. Any time a young child experiences a moment of mastery it is a time of delight.

One source of this delight is found in picture books that feature nitwits or naïve characters in peril. The young reader celebrates because she truly knows more than the character. She gets the joke and experiences compassion for the less aware character.

If you’re interested in writing stories that share humor and delight and give children a chance to celebrate their growing wisdom, explore these wonderful examples of classic nitwits and blissfully unaware characters.

Endearing Nitwits & Those Sweetly Naive

ARE YOU A HORSE? by Andy Rash. Arthur Levine Books, 2009.

MINERVA LOUISE by Janet Morgan Stoeke. Dutton, 1988.

A NEW HOUSE FOR MOUSE by Petr Horacek. Candlewick, 2004.

THE RAIN PUDDLE by Adelaide Holl. Illus. by Roger Duvoisin. Lothrop, Lee & Shepard, 1965.

Blissfully (Albeit Dangerously) Unaware

This basic plot has much in common with Alfred Hitchcock’s films. Think of REAR WINDOW when we know that Jimmy Stewart is in far more danger than he knows. The murderer is coming! However, in picture books humor prevails because it is quickly established that the villain is even more naïve than the intended victim. Hitchcock meets Wily Coyote.

LOOK OUT, SUZY GOOSE by Petr Horacek. Candlewick, 2008.

SUDDENLY! by Colin McNaughton. Harcourt, 1995.

 A Bit of Fun

Try taking one of these plots as the thread to a story and see what new beads you can string. For example, ARE YOU A HORSE is a parallel to ARE YOU MY MOTHER? (Eastman). In THE RAIN PUDDLE when naïve animals see their reflection in a puddle they assume they are looking at a real hen etc that has fallen into the puddle. KITTEN’S FIRST FULL MOON (Henkes) features a kitten that “sees” a bowl of milk in the pond. And, many folktales feature characters that assume a mirror is actually a painting of someone else.

Your next manuscript could already be sneaking up behind you!

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.

Vessels of Story

Passing down family stories from generation to generation is a nourishing aspect of human nature. It simultaneously grounds our immediate world and connects us with a larger world and perspective. Common objects often serve as the vessel for the memories and stories lived by previous “owners.”  Within the clan, the object smiles as a reminder. To those outside the clan who look and wonder, it gives family members the chance to share their stories once more.

Dan Yaccarino’s newest picture book shares the beauty of family stories, and how any object can become family gold when it becomes the vessel of family history and tradition. Even a little shovel, as honored in ALL THE WAY TO AMERICA: THE STORY OF A BIG ITALIAN FAMILY AND A LITTLE SHOVEL.

Yaccarino’s text begins with his great-grandfather who was given a little shovel by his father so he could help in their garden. As a young man this great-grandfather sailed to America. But not without the little shovel and all the stories it held. In New York City the little shovel is used to measure flour and sugar in a bakery as new stories are added. Then used to measure nuts as the great-grandfather ventures out on his own with a peddlers cart. Generation after generation, the little shovel serves as a vital part of the young people’s lives and memories. In time, the little shovel is passed on to the author himself, Dan Yaccarino. Now its values are three-fold. It serves as the vessel for his family’s stories, provides the spark of this gem of a book, and is used as a little shovel by his son on their terrace garden.

Where do writers find their ideas? Often the simplest of family heirlooms.

 Children’s Books That Feature Objects as Vessels of Family Story

ALL THE WAY TO AMERICA: THE STORY OF A BIG ITALIAN FAMILY AND A LITTLE SHOVEL by Dan Yaccarino. Knopf, 2011.

BLUE WILLOW by Doris Gates. Viking, 1940.

MY NOAH’S ARK by M.B. Goffstein. Harper, 1978.

THE STONE BOOK by Alan Garner. Collins, 1978.

THIS IS THE BIRD by George Shannon. Illus. by David Soman. Houghton, 1997.

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.

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.