Archives for posts with tag: creativity


Why We Read…and Write



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.


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.


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


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

Replacing the Inner Critic

Writers in all genres battle with their “inner critic.” Some writers spend so much time lamenting and discussing their inner critic they have little time left to write. Many writers also talk about getting rid of their inner critic, but fail to explore possible replacements.

For myself, the opposite of the dastardly “inner critic” is the nurturing “inner editor.” In other words, creating my own version of the ideal editor. Two drawings by master artist/cartoonist, Saul Steinberg, offer a visualization of both sides of this writers’ coin.

Inner Critic

* Doubting

* Undermining

* Snide

* No way to please

* Second guessing your every word and move


Inner Editor

* Encouraging voice as he/she also challenges

* Doesn’t tell you what to write, but asks vital questions that help YOU discover what to do

* A supportive and curious energy moving toward a richer creation

* Eager to read and examine your efforts

* Honest when it comes time to say “I believe you can do a better job.”

* Literary cheerleader who is not impressed by your ego’s need to be loved


If you have the power to generate an “inner critic” you also have the power to generate your ideal “inner editor.”


THE CATALOGUE by Saul Steinberg. World Publishing, 1962.

THE COMPLETE CARTOONS OF THE NEW YORKER edited by Robert Mankoff. Black Dog & Leventhal, 2004.

The Alchemy of Ideas

People are forever asking writers, “Where do you get your ideas?” Many assume they arrive like pearls dropped from above by a muse resembling Tinker Bell. Some writers believe they do. Others strap on pith helmets and go hunting. Still others announce they are blocked, locked in a box that lets nothing in or out.

Valeri Gorbachev’s picture book WHAT’S THE BIG IDEA, MOLLY? is wonderful to read and share with children. It also has a great deal to offer any writer in search of ideas. Primarily, that it is not so much a search for ideas, but rather an openness and receptivity to what arises in one’s life. And, an openness and receptivity to seeing what arises from different perspectives.

Molly loves words and loves to write poems, but she can’t find an idea. Friends arrive to discuss what they make for Turtle’s birthday gifts. When they all decide to draw Turtle a flower Molly says they can’t all give the same gift. “We need to think.”

Rabbit, Goose, Frog, Pig and Molly (mouse) all go to the spot where they do their best thinking. Fortunate are writers and artists who know their spot! All but Molly return with an idea. Unfortunately, all of them have the same idea. They’ll draw a tree for Turtle!

So, where do writers get their ideas? Molly discovers her idea in what appears to be a problem. There are differences to be found even within similarity. Problems may spark possibilities. Each friend draws a tree for Turtle, but a tree in a different season. And Molly writes a poem for each tree and season.

Gorbachev’s story concludes (and reopens?) with Molly wondering if “I will get another big idea tomorrow. I am ready for it.” Where do writers get their ideas? By being open and ready for them.

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

"What One Sees" by Richard Stine. 1995.

Learning to Appreciate What We Can’t Do

Part II

Related & Recommended Websites and Blogs

32 Pages: A Passion for Picture Books

Donna McKinnon explores picture books with passion and a discerning eye. Her “Stuff I Follow” will take you to even more great sites.


36 Pages

After a long and honored career as a graphic designer Craig Frazier has turned his attention to picture books.  To quote: “Some of my favorite designers and illustrators put their talent to work on those pages. Their books simply rise to a different level. I am going to look at those books, talk to their creators, and share the inspiration.” I also look forward to exploring his monograph about his process as an illustrator, THE ILLUSTRATED VOICE.


The Picture Book Junkies Blog

Five working illustrators share their thoughts and insights about making picture books. Enjoy!

Learning to Appreciate What We Can’t Do

As picture book writers, it’s obvious we love the genre’s blend of text and art.  But what can picture book writers do when we’re not also illustrators?  Learn to appreciate what we can’t do. I don’t mean bone-up on illustration and art so we can be nagging backseat illustrators.  Rather learn the process of illustration and how pictures work so we have a greater understanding and respect for what illustrators bring to our texts.  When we truly value what illustrators do our need to fret and second guess their contribution begins to fade away.

Two outstanding books on illustration and design are well worth several readings. Acclaimed picture book author/illustrator Molly Bang has created a direct and dynamic exploration of how pictures work. PICTURE THIS was written for adults and has been in print for twenty years.

Mark Gonyea explores many of the same basic elements in his lively book for children, A BOOK ABOUT DESIGN: COMPLICATED DOESN’T MAKE IT GOOD.

Next time we start to grumble that no one respects how much work goes into a picture text, let’s make sure we understand enough about illustration so we truly respect how much work goes into the art.

Next: Related & Recommended Websites and Blogs

Books Discussed


PICTURE THIS: HOW PICTURES WORK by Molly Bang. Chronicle, 2000 (1991).

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.

Bitten: Smitten With Words

Writers and young children love words like a painter loves paint. We love the sounds, the combinations, and the play of words as we stretch their meaning. Two very satisfying picture books explore the occasional confusion, but also the poetry of using words in fresh ways.

In Barbara Williams’ ALBERT’S IMPOSSIBLE TOOTHACHE Albert’s toothache is impossible because Albert is a turtle. Turtle have no teeth. Still, Albert insists on staying in bed due to his toothache. Various family members try to convince him he is wrong. They even accuse him of hiding in bed out of fear. But Albert persists. Only his grandmother takes the time to listen and explore the possibilities of language.

Where do you have a toothache?” asked Albert’s grandmother.

“On my left toe,” said Albert. “A gopher bit me when I stepped in his hole.”

A toothache is a toothache is an ache from being bitten.

Young children and writers revel in similes and metaphors. Such comparisons and juxtapositions expand and enliven our world. A LITTLE BIT OF WINTER by Paul Stewart celebrates the poet’s search to describe and evoke.

As a hibernating creature, Hedgehog has never experienced winter.  What is it?  What’s it like? He asks Rabbit to “save me a little bit of winter for when I wake up.” But how can one save winter? Rabbit finally decides to save a giant snowball that he wraps in leaves. By the time spring returns and Hedgehog wakes Rabbit’s ball of winter has melted to a mass of leaves with only a tiny ball of snow inside. Hedgehog looks and sniffs trying to learn about winter. Then he picks it up.

Ouch,” he cried. “It bit me.”

That,” said Rabbit, “is what winter feels like.”

Anyone who’s experienced winter has certainly felt its bite.

ALBERT’S IMPOSSIBLE TOOTHACHE* by Barbara Williams. Illus. by Doug Cushman. Candlewick, 2003.

A LITTLE BIT OF WINTER by Paul Stewart. Illus. by Chris Riddell. Harper, 1999 (1998).

*To see how two different artists interpret the same text, take a look at the 1974 edition of William’s story then titled ALBERT’S TOOTHACHE and illustrated by Kay Chorao (Dutton).

Writing, Mice, and Winter


FREDERICK, Leo Lionni’s treasured twist on “The Ant and the Grasshopper” features a poetic mouse named Frederick. While the other mice gather food for winter, Frederick gathers sunrays, colors, and words. As his fellow field mice eventually discover, Frederick’s gathering colors and words is as vital as gathering corn and wheat. One pair nourishes the body. The other nourishes the spirit.

This awareness celebrated in FREDERICK is significant to all writers. And especially so when the calendar and/or family life becomes very hectic. At times, there is truly be no time to write for several days or even weeks.  But that does not exclude gathering colors and words. They exist no matter what the time, temperature, or schedule.

And, even when there is time to write, it is important to remain awake and open to life and the arts in all their expressions. Why? First, it is a vibrant way to live. Second, it continues to nourish our life and our writing. What we truly experience becomes a part of us. It is what we gather (like Frederick’s colors and words), and lets us create and share our creations.

Yuko Takao’s picture book, A WINTER CONCERT, offers additional support for our role as receiver as well as creator/writer. No one creates in a vacuum. Takao’s unnamed mouse protagonist attends a concert in the dead of winter. The pianist makes beautiful music that fills the concert hall and the ears and hearts of the audience.

“The concert ended but the music did not. It paved their pathways home. It colored their world.”

That night the music (the experience and awareness) still lingers in the mouse’s thoughts, and becomes a part of what she creates.

During both calm and hectic times this winter, may we be as open, aware, and self-nurturing as these two mice. When our writing time returns (and it will) we’ll have all the more to share.


FREDERICK by Leo Lionni. Pantheon, 1967.

A WINTER CONCERT by Yuko Takao. Millbrook Press, 1997 (1995).

Always Possibilities

When one sees the crowded shelves of picture books at the library or discovers that thousands of new picture books are published each year, it is all too easy to collapse into a despairing heap of “what do I have to say that’s new”?

Plenty, if you say it in your unique voice and say it well.

The wisdom of Willa Cather and a classic cliché offer us a world of support and encouragement.

Says Cather: “There are only two or three human stories and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before.”

The nurturing cliché is “a picture is worth a thousand words.” Those of us who write picture books even though we cannot illustrate them ourselves can learn a lot from the visual arts.

The amazing Laura Vaccaro Seeger has this mega visual vitamin to offer in her book BLACK? WHITE! DAY? NIGHT!

At the same time you accept the reality of Cather’s statement, relax, enjoy, and go write YOUR picture book snowflake!

BLACK? WHITE! DAY? NIGHT! A BOOK OF OPPOSITES by Laura Vaccaro Seeger.  Roaring Brook Press, 2006.