Archives for posts with tag: creativity


This past weekend I was grateful to be one of the speakers at Wisconsin’s SCBWI conference held in Racine, Wisconsin. As such conferences usually are, it was a time of little sleep and a time of consuming mega-vitamins. Imagine, two days of not having to explain why you want to write for children. Imagine, two days of joyfully talking our particular shop.
In my presentation Friday evening I referred to many books. I promised those in attendance that I would post that bibliography on this blog. And, as time permits, I will try to post bits and pieces from my talk.

Thanks to all in Wisconsin who attended the conference. My plane flight home was a flurry of new book ideas and how to make some old projects better.

Related Bibliography

Ahlberg, Allan. THE ADVENTURES OF BERT. Illus. by Raymond Briggs. Farrar, 2001.


Bright, Robert. GEORGIE. Viking, 1944.

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

Donaldson, Julie. WHAT THE LADYBUG HEARD. Illus. by Lydia Monks. Holt, 2010.

Goffstein, M.B. GOLDIE THE DOLLMAKER. Farrar, 1969.

Gorbachev, Valeri. WHAT’S THE BIG IDEA, MOLLY? Philomel, 2010.

Hesse, Karen. THE CATS IN KRASINSKI SQUARE. Illus. by Wendy Watson. Scholastic, 2004.


Johnson, Crocket. HAROLD AND THE PURPLE CRAYON. Harper, 1955.

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

Mack, Jeff. FROG AND FLY: SIX SLURPY STORIES. Philomel, 2012.

Marcus, Leonard, ed.  DEAR GENIUS: THE LETTERS OF URSULA NORDSTROM. HarperCollins, 2000.

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

Muntean, Michaela. DO NOT OPEN THIS BOOK! Illus. by Pascal Lemaitre. Scholastic, 2006.

Rathmann, Peggy. RUBY THE COPYCAT. Scholastic, 1991.

Rosenthal, Amy Krouse and Tom Lichtenheld. DUCK! RABBIT! Chronicle, 2009.

Scarry, Patsy. THE BUNNY BOOK. Illus. by Richard Scarry. Golden Press, 1955.

Scarry, Richard. RABBIT AND HIS FRIENDS. Golden Press, 1953.

Schwartz, Roslyn. THE MOLE SISTERS AND THE RAINY DAY. Annick, 2002.

Shaw, Charles G. IT LOOKED LIKE SPILT MILK. Harper, 1947.

Stein, David Ezra. POUCH! Putnam, 2009.

Thomas, Jan. A BIRTHDAY FOR COW! Harcourt, 2008.

Winter, Jeanette. SEPTEMBER ROSES. Farrar, 2004.


Working With Our Audience

Photo credit: Steve Stolee

I’ve not written here lately because I’m been spending time with our audience, and helping them find ways to both improve and enjoy their own writing. While I may use different references with children than I do with adults, writing is writing. After a recent visit to Dallas letters from 4th graders let me know we had truly connected through the basics of writing.





A video project in Washington state brought key aspects of writing to life in a different way. LISTEN, DRAW & TELL was sponsored by Thrive by Five Washington, The Culture of Literacy Council of Olympic & Kitsap Peninsulas, and Early Learning Coalition. Filming and production were provided by Stolee Communications & The Picture Project.

Now, back to the puzzle and pleasure of writing for children.

Photo credit: Steve Stolee


“You can’t wait for inspiration.  You have to go after it with a club.”

Jack London

 As in childhood most of us tend to approach games and new endeavors with “Get ready. Get set. Go!”  But when it comes to writing “getting ready” and “getting set” can easily become a quagmire of avoidance that brings us to a stop.

 Just Go!

“One never knows what one is going to do. One starts a painting and then it becomes something quite different.” Picasso

Write. Doodle with words and ideas. Write without clinging to previous ideas. Write to discover what the writing reveals. Write without fearing a finish line. Write with the playful flow of Bidemmi in Vera Williams’ CHERRIES AND CHERRY PITS. How many stories can grow from a single cherry pit? More and more and more and more.


 And Keep Going…

At the “Go!” stage of writing picture books there are no mistakes. Surprises and frustrations, yes. But these offer more opportunities. REGINA’S BIG MISTAKE by Marissa Moss shares this truth as a picture book. The class assignment is to draw a picture of the jungle. As she draws the sun Regina’s crayon slips. It’s ruined! Not true. Her ability to keep going, to keep imagining allows her to created something unique. Everyone else draws the jungle in daylight. Regina’s ruined sun becomes the perfect moon for her distinctive picture of the jungle at night.

Illus. by Marissa Moss

Just like Aesop’s tortoise wins the race through ongoing action, picture books are created in the “Go!” of writing.

 Books Discussed

CHERRIES AND CHERRY PITS by Vera Williams. Greenwillow, 1986.

REGINA’S BIG MISTAKE by Marissa Moss. Houghton, 1990.


 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.



“…a good essay…must draw its curtain round us, but it must be a curtain that shuts us in, not out.”   Virginia Woolf

Ultimately, concept picture books are essays. They invite children to explore new perspectives, new realities, and experience their world in a different way. Concept books may be deal with ideas as seemingly simple as counting, colors or opposites. Such books help the child find order in the world. Yet, other concept books can go far beyond order, and celebrate the complexity and wonder of the world. These books have a great deal to offer the child in her journey from egocentric toddler to an understanding of being part of a much wider world

Three outstanding, yet very different picture books, invite the child to explore the realities of time, self and simultaneity.

AT THE SAME TIME by Tom Tirabosco shares a brief text based in the truth of “and at the same time” a multitude of things are occurring near by and around the world. Gentle evidence that one’s private world is not the only world.

Silvio Freytes’ IN JUST A SECOND also takes an expanding look a moment, but does so with a more intimate and interactive view. A specific geographical moment is a weave of all the experiences of those reacting to one another. Some directly. Others with a silent glance. But everyone is affected by what he notices as are the people that notice the man reacting to something else they hadn’t noticed.

If you subscribe to the “butterfly effect” every action or moment eventually effects all other actions and moments.

Karla Kuskin’s wonderful THE PHILHARMOIC GETS DRESSED not only explores simultaneity, but also the eventual confluence of those separate realities within a moment. In this case it is the reality of one hundred and five people getting dressed for work. One hundred and five lives coming together in the same moment and “turning the black notes on white pages into a symphony.”


The seemingly mundane subject that brings you sighs of wonder just might be your next picture book. And, in turn, make your readers’ world more interesting.

Picture Books Discussed

AT THE SAME TIME by Tom Tirabosco. Kane/Miller, 2001 (1997).

IN JUST ONE SECOND by Silvio Freytes. Illus. by Flavio Morais. WilkinsFarago, 2009 (2007).

THE PHILHARMONIC GETS DRESSED by Karla Kuskin. Illus. by Marc Simont. HarperCollins, 1982.


Leo Lionni


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.


 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).

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?



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.


“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.”


“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?

I of III

“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.


“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.”


“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.”


“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.


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