FIELD TRIP: Storytelling with Norman Rockwell

IMG_2957_2Over spring break, we took a family field trip to the Newark Museum to see the exhibit “American Chronicles: The Art of Norman Rockwell”. Organized by the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, the exhibit chronicles Rockwell’s artistic contributions to American culture. This not-to-be-missed exhibit runs through May 26, 2014 at the Newark Museum.  Its next stop will be the Fondazione Museum in Rome, Italy, followed by a stop at the Tampa Museum of Art in Tampa, Florida.IMG_2960

This exhibit especially appealed to me because I partially credit Norman Rockwell for infusing me with a love of storytelling.  My parents owned a book of Norman Rockwell’s most famous illustrations and, as I child, I would often grab that book, curl up in my favorite wing chair, and use the illustrations as a springboard to tell myself story after story.  First, I’d pick which character I wanted to be, then I’d be off on some adventure. I literally spent hours savoring all the wonderful details in his pictures, carefully incorporating them into my stories. I never wrote any of these stories down, but they enriched my thoughts and were, in hindsight, a much better way to spend time than watching television for they made my imagination soar.

Thank you, Norman Rockwell for inspiring me with your illustrations. Now, in celebration of the power of pictures to spark storytelling, here’s a challenge for my writing friends.  (It’s good for kids too.) Ready?  If this week you find yourself stuck over what to write next, or just want a good warm up exercise, grab your favorite art book and randomly pick a picture.  Steep yourself in all the details, then let your imagination take over and write, write, write! Even if your scribblings don’t result in a new story, I think you’ll find some little gem there that could be the start of something.

Happy writing, all!

And the WINNER is…

Wee Lassie coverI’m delighted to announce the winner of this week’s special giveaway, a signed copy of Rebecca Colby’s’ picture book, THERE WAS A WEE LASSIE WHO SWALLOWED A MIDGIE (Floris Books, 2014),  is…

GENEVIEVE!

Congratulations!  I will be in touch with you today so we can get the book to you.

Thanks again, Rebecca, for making one signed copy available to our lucky winner.   I’d also like to thank everyone who took the time to comment on this week’s post and to my daughter , once again, for lending me her snazzy hat for the drawing. IMG_2887

Happy reading and writing, all!

INTERVIEW with Debut Picture Book Author Rebecca Colby… and A GIVEAWAY!

Wee Lassie coverToday I’m delighted to have children’s author and poet, Rebecca Colby, as my guest.  Rebecca and I met through the Poet’s Garage and, as former critique buddies, I can attest that she is a rhyming whizz with a quirky, fun sense of humor.  She’s joining me today to celebrate the launch of her debut picture book, THERE WAS A WEE LASSIE WHO SWALLOWED A MIDGIE (Floris Books, March 2014), a Scottish twist on the traditional rhyme.

Laura:  Welcome, Rebecca. First off, congratulations! THERE WAS A WEE LASSIE WHO SWALLOWED A MIDGIE has been out in Great Britain for just over a month. How has the launch been?

Rebecca: It’s been a fun journey so far! The launch party was filled with wee lassies, wee laddies, and even dozens of midgies—although only in the form of midgie cupcakes and midgie shortbread. Since the launch, I’ve been out on an average of two events per week at libraries and schools, as well as taking a fantastic trip to Edinburgh to the Scottish Storytelling Centre to share my book. To make the readings more interactive, I hired a local seamstress to produce a wee lassie costume. A child volunteer at each event is asked to dress in the costume and ‘swallow’ all the creatures in the book as it is read. Most of the events have also included a craft-making session with Loch Ness monster puppets and Loch Ness monster fridge magnets. (Take one guess as to what else the wee lassie swallows besides a midgie!)

Rebecca's two wee lassies. Adorable, aren't' they?

Rebecca’s two wee lassies. Adorable, aren’t’ they?

In the way of on-line promotion, I’ve started a mini-marketing collective for published children’s writers and have been busy organizing the collective. I’ve also produced a teacher’s guide for the book which is now available to download from my website. But I’ll talk more about that in a minute.

I’m not the only one who has been busy with the launch of the book. My publisher has produced a trailer, complete with the obligatory Scottish bagpipe music. For a sneak peek inside the book, check out the trailer.

Laura: I’ve always loved the traditional “There Was an Old Woman Who Swallowed a Fly” and have enjoyed different twists on it over the years.  Can you tell us a little bit about WEE LASSIE’s journey from spark to publication?

Rebecca: Like you, Laura, I’ve also always enjoyed the traditional rhyme “There Was an Old Woman Who Swallowed a Fly” and the various twists on it. One of my favorite twists is Jennifer Ward’s “There Was a Coyote Who Swallowed a Flea.” But it was when I came across the laugh-out-loud Australian version, “There Was an Old Lady who Swallowed a Mozzie” by P. Crumble, that I got the idea to write a Scottish version.

My original idea was to have the wee lassie swallow the Queen (then turn ill and green), but I eventually decided that would be too contentious and probably not agreeable to most publishers, so I changed it. Once the manuscript was finished, I submitted it to Floris Books in Edinburgh for their Picture Kelpies imprint. Their website listed a reply time of three months. As advertised, it was nearly three months later when they wrote back offering me a contract.

I should add that while WEE LASSIE is my first book to be published, it’s not the first book I sold. I acquired my agent, Kathleen Rushall of Marsal Lyon Literary Agency, a month before WEE LASSIE sold. Within a week of signing with Kathleen, she sold my first book—a book about a witch parade entitled IT’S RAINING BATS AND FROGS–to Feiwel & Friends. But it will be summer 2015 before that first (or rather, second) book comes out.

Laura: The illustrations that accompany your story are fetching. Tell us a little bit about the artist.  Do you have a favorite creature she’s drawn or a favorite spread?

Rebecca: The illustrator, Kate McClelland, did a fantastic job with the book. She’s an Edinburgh-based artist who likes working in mixed media. As she explained to me, she feels she would get bored working with only one material like watercolors and pencils, and prefers to use lots of different materials to create an image.

It’s hard picking a favorite creature or spread when you love all of them equally. It’s kind of like asking a parent to choose their favorite child. They’re all wonderful in their own ways. But given that I’m drawn to the mysterious side of life, I’d have to say the Loch Ness monster spread really makes me smile. With Kate’s kind permission, it’s the illustration I’ve chosen to feature on my website and social media sites.

I just want to add that Kate is an illustrator to watch. She’s already hard at work on her next picture book—a book that she’s both writing and illustrating. To follow Kate’s work and learn more about her, you can visit her website.

Laura: Teachers and parents are always looking for ways to tie picture books into the curriculum or extend the enjoyment with post-reading activities. Do you have any extension activities your readers might enjoy?

Rebecca:I sure do! As a parent of two wee lassies and as a former teacher, I know how important curriculum-based and post-reading activities are to enhancing the picture book reading experience. With that in mind, I produced a teacher’s guide to WEE LASSIE that includes everything from measuring length with midgies and learning about animal habitats, to baking midgie shortbread and making the Loch Ness monster puppets mentioned above. The guide also includes interviews with the illustrator, Kate McLelland, and myself, as well as coloring pages for younger children. You can download a free copy of the guide from my website at: www.rebeccacolbybooks.com/teachers

Thank you, Rebecca, for stopping by.  To learn more about Rebecca and her books by visiting her on Facebook, Twitter, and her website.Image 1

Now for the GIVEAWAY! Rebecca has generously offered to give away one signed copy of THERE WAS A WEE LASSIE WHO SWALLOWED A MIDGIE.  To enter for a chance to win this signed copy simply leave a comment. Optional: Tell us what else the wee lassie might swallow.  (Note: You must be at least 13 to enter and you may only enter once.) The contest ends Thursday, 4/17/2014 at 11:59 pm EST. The winner, whose name will be pulled from a hat, will be announced Friday. 

NOTE:  The Giveaway is now over.  Thank you to all who entered. The winner is announced here.

SCHOOL VISIT: Children’s Author Christine Pakkala Visits Third Grade!

IMG_2915Last week the third graders at my daughter’s school were treated to a delightful assembly and writing workshop with Christine Pakkala, author of Last-But-Not-Least Lola (Boyds Mills Press, 2013). Christine opened the assembly by asking her eager young listeners where they get their ideas, then described how she got the idea for her book and what the process from idea to publication was like. It took seven years and lots of revision until she finally got to see Last-But-Not-Least Lola in print. Her kid-friendly take-away? You, too, can your turn your ideas into stories.  Just keep writing and revising and reading all kinds of literature!

The students were brimming with thoughtful questions. As a writer I was particularly interested in this one. Is it easier to write a single book or a series?  Christine paused for a moment, before concluding that, for her, writing a series is easier because you have a list of characters you get to know, almost as if they are real friends, and you build your stories based on different things they do together. This answer pleased the the kids, especially when she revealed that Lola is the star of… a series! The second book, Last-But-Not-Least Lola and the Wild Chicken will be published in Fall 2014 and a third book is in the works.

IMG_2923After snack-time, it was time for writing workshop. The assignment was to write a story beginning with this sentence: “I only had 10 seconds before the alarm went off.”  With imaginations in high gear, the kids got busy, filling the cafeteria with the sounds of pencils scratching on paper.  At the end, students from each table shared their stories-in-progress.  Each was unique and wonderful, which just proves that even with the same prompt, no two stories are exactly alike! That’s the wonder and joy of using our imaginations.

IMG_2920Something that made this particular school visit extra special was that Christine’s editor, Rebecca Davis, was in the room as well!  It turns out that in addition to being a terrific editor, she’s also a mom with two kids at my daughter’s school. Here’s a lovely snapshot of Christine Pakkala and Rebecca Davis, Senior Editor for Boyds Mills Press.

IMG_2914Before leaving, students who had pre-ordered them, received their signed copies of Last-But-Not-Least Lola. My daughter proudly brought hers home and we’ve been enjoying reading it together every night.

For more information about Christine Pakkala visit her website.  She’s also active on Facebook and Twitter.  You can purchase her books online or at your favorite bookstore.

April Fools’ Day: HAPPY BIRTHDAY!

Laura Sassi:

It’s hard to believe, but today marks the start of my third year blogging! Two years ago, I shyly and rather nervously took my first baby steps into the blogging word (and social media in general). What I discovered was a wonderful community of people – writers, readers, parents, teachers – who share my love for picture books, poetry, and life! Thank you all for reading my blog! You are the best!

Originally posted on Laura Sassi Tales:

Happy Birthday Poem

No foolin’, tomorrow marks the one year anniversary of my blog.  So, in celebration of reading, writing and life, here’s a poem about a little boy who knows that imagination is the best gift of all.  May the coming year, like the past, be full of imagination and inspiration.  Happy writing all!  (And a big thank you to my mom for her wonderful illustration!)

HAPPY BIRTHDAY

by

Laura Sassi

Ben got a bear

And a sleek shiny jet

And a stool with his name

And a little train set.

.

But what he liked best

Were the astronaut clothes

That he made from the boxes

And ribbons and bows.

.

In full cardboard armor

He gives a salute.

Then he’s off to the moon

In his new birthday suit.

View original

SPOTLIGHT: Cards by Martha South

My mother's cards on display in Lexington, VA.

Some Martha South originals recently on display in Lexington, VA.

After years of delighting family and friends with her one-of-a-kind bird cards, my mother finally decided a couple of years ago to act on her dream to start a card business.  She and my sister were just in the process of making this dream a reality when my mom got sick. Throughout her illness, she and my sister, nonetheless, pursued this dream, and had just selected five cards to launch the business when my mom passed away.

IMG_1599_2Now, in memory and honor of our beloved mother, my sister has created a website featuring my mother’s beautiful cards. My sister, Dad, and I would be most delighted if you would pop on over to http://www.marthasouth.com for a peek. They are also available at a small, but growing, number of independent card shops. Enjoy!

THE PEANUT BUTTER PRINCIPLE: Getting Ideas to Stick

IMG_2904I love peanut butter, especially slathered on a slice of toasted whole grain bread.  It’s tasty, but even more pertinent to my point today, it’s sticky! That inherent stickiness makes it ideal for securing tasty add-ons like cranberries, dried apricots, and apple chunks. My kids like it too because it turns eating into art! Take a look, for example, at the tasty, yet artistic, peanut butterfly we made using two small slices of sourdough bread, peanut butter, and an assortment of edible delights.

I challenge you, however, to try and get apple bits or cranberries to stay put on plain old bread. It doesn’t work! Without the peanut butter they just roll off.

As a writer, I firmly believe that peanut butter is to bread what the pen is to paper. That’s why, as a writer, I always bring  my peanut butter, a.k.a. pen,  and a nice compact loaf of bread, a.k.a. notebook, wherever I go. I usually stuff these essentials in a pocket or stash them in my purse. Actually, it really doesn’t matter how I carry them, as long they are easily accessible, so that when cranberries, a.k.a tasty bits of inspiration, hit me, I can quickly, take out my peanut butter and capture the goodness onto the bread before it rolls away and disappears forever.

Anyone else like to carry peanut butter and bread around?

Happy slathering, er writing, all!

THE MAGIC OF SMALL MOMENTS: Thoughts on a Mama Robin

IMG_0662

Recently, I was moved by a post written by G.R. LeBlanc on “The Magic of Small Moments” in which she challenged her readers to pause and appreciate the little moments that, in the big picture, make life meaningful.  That got me thinking that I, too, need to be intentional about enjoying those little magical moments. So everyday since reading her post, I’ve been pausing to reflect on the little joys that come my way.

For example, all winter I’ve noticed a mama robin hovering outside my kitchen window on a nearby lilac bush.  She should be in Florida with the rest of her kind, but here she is. My husband thinks she must be protecting her empty nest.  (Actually, she’s just now been rejoined by her species, but that’s a new springy development.)

Whenever I see her, I think of motherly love. I think about how much I love my children and how much my mother loved me.  And looking back on my mother’s case and her mother’s case, for that matter, I see that this love continued long after the children left home. My mother’s love demonstrated itself in a thousand different ways – a thoughtful phone call, the tear shed at the end of every visit (since our grown up relationship was always long distance), an unexpected envelope in the mail full coupons so I could select a new outfit at a savings, the list goes on and on.

I feel a little teary now when I see that bird because until I stopped to write this post I didn’t realize how much back thought I was placing on that little bird.  And to think, I would never have even realized the richness of this connection -  bird and motherhood – had I not taken time to savor the simple joy of seeing a mama robin hovering outside my kitchen window.

If you haven’t stopped to savor the simple things in a while, may I suggest you do that today?  And once your eye has caught sight of something, take time write about it.  Is there some unexplored back thought waiting to be uncovered that will enrich your day, as that mama robin has enriched mine?  I hope so.

In the meantime, the mama bird in me, is going to write a special love note to tuck into my children’s lunch bags today.

Happy writing and reflecting all!

GUEST POST: Ten Cures for Writer’s Waiteritis by Diana Murray

IMG_2897

Today I’m thrilled to have the delightful and talented picture book author and poet, Diana Murray, as my guest.  Diana and I have been critique buddies for some time, but only recently did I discover we both struggle with the same writing ailment – waiteritis!  Take it away, Diana!

Writers are perpetual waiters. We wait for feedback from critique partners. We wait for agents to reply to our queries. We wait for editors to reply to our agents! And even after we get an offer, there’s still plenty of waiting ahead. There’s the wait for the contract, the PM announcement, the news of an illustrator, revision notes, reviews, and more. Waiting, it seems, is part of our job. But it wasn’t until I became a writer that I realized how painful waiting could be. I wish patience came in a bottle. Wouldn’t that be great? I would take a swig of it each morning, and voila! I could calmly go about my day without that bothersome pins-and-needles feeling.

But since such a thing doesn’t exist (and let’s face it, it would probably have nasty side effects), I’ve decided to come up with some more natural remedies. Here are some writerly things you can do right now to help with a case of waiteritis:

1. Start a New Project

Waiting on a current sub? Ironically, one of the best cures for waiteritis is more writing! You can brainstorm new ideas or continue with another work-in-progress. One methodical way to brainstorm is to make a list of the kinds of stories you already have. This can help you see what’s missing from your repertoire, and thereby jostle some new ideas. You can also rummage through your old files to see if anything re-sparks your interest.

2. Try Something Different

Usually write in prose? Try rhyme. Usually write picture books? Try a chapter book, novelty book, or MG novel. Usually write for older kids? Try a poem/story targeted at babies. Go ahead and push yourself out of your comfort zone. The extra effort it takes will help keep your mind off things, in addition to stretching your skills.

3. Enter a Writing Contest

Yes, it will give you something else to wait on, but that will help weaken the grip of the first thing you were waiting on. Check the rules for the following contests and grants:

Highlights Fiction Contest

Children’s Writer Writing Contests

SCBWI Work-in-Progress Grants

Katherine Paterson Prize for YA and Children’s Writing

There is also a list of writing and illustrating contests on the SCBWI discussion board  and pitch contests (like #PitchWars) often pop up on Twitter.

4. Participate in an Online Writing Challenge

There are loads of great writing events to choose from. They’ll keep you so busy, you won’t have time for waiteritis! Here are a few: “Picture Book Idea Month” (PiBoIdMo) , “Chapter Book Challenge” (ChaBooCha), “12 Picture Books in 12 Months” (12×12), March Madness Poetry Tournament (#MMPoetry), Susanna’s Short and Sweets.

Even if the event isn’t currently ongoing, you can still review the posts for inspiration.

5. Submit to a Magazine

While waiting on a book submission, you can sub fiction, non-fiction, poetry, a rebus, a finger rhyme, or a craft to a children’s magazine. You can also write an article (or poem) for a publication like the SCBWI Bulletin.

6. Freshen Up

Freshen your web presence by updating your bio and links, reevaluating your navigation, and changing your photo, etc. My own site could definitely use an overhaul.

7. Research

If you can, get yourself to the library or bookstore. Make a list of your favorite first lines (OK, you got me. I really like lists. In fact, here’s another.) What do they have in common? You can also type out your favorite books and/or make notes about their structure, page by page, or chapter by chapter for longer works. Maybe you’ll even forget to obsessively check your email on your phone (probably not).

8. Read

9. Write a Blog Post, Of Course!

It’s nice to take a moment to contemplate the craft and it keeps you busy to boot. Thank you, Laura, for giving me this opportunity to keep my waiteritis at bay.

10. ?

Sorry! I really wanted to round it out at ten. Whoever heard of a “Top Nine” list? But I just couldn’t think of a tenth cure. What do you do to ease the pain of waiting?

BioDianaMurray-insideDiana Murray is a children’s poet and picture book author. Her books include NED THE KNITTING PIRATE: A SALTY YARN (Roaring Brook Press/Macmillan, Winter 2016) and GRIMELDA, THE VERY MESSY WITCH (Katherine Tegen Books/HarperCollins, Summer 2016). She is (not very) patiently awaiting the announcement of her latest book deal, along with assorted other things. Visit her at her website or on Twitter

FIELD TRIP: THE LITTLE PRINCE Visits the Morgan Library

IMG_2890As you can tell by the above snapshot, I love THE LITTLE PRINCE.  I read it first as a child living in Paris.  Antoine de St. Exupery’s story of a little lost prince searching for what matters in life resonated with me. Like the Little Prince, I too, felt far from home and longed for a good friend, my own rose, or fox, or sheep. Imagine my delight, then, to discover that the Morgan Library in New York City has put together a delightful exhibit of original manuscript pages, watercolor sketches, and correspondence to celebrate the 70th anniversary of this classic book.  Last week I spent a delightful morning with fellow picture book writer, Robin Newman, enjoying every nook and cranny of the exhibit.

Now, having savored the experience, I’d like to share with you three writerly principles I took away from the exhibit.

1. Write from the heart.  Now a classic, THE LITTLE PRINCE had a slow start because the publisher wasn’t sure whether to promote it for children or for adults. Thank goodness Antoine de St. Exupery didn’t worry about how to categorize it.  He just wrote the story he wanted to tell. And, as it turns out, it was the very story readers of all ages (and cultures) wanted to hear. Indeed, as I learned at the exhibit, THE LITTLE PRINCE  has been translated into more languages than any other work of fiction. So, take heart and write from the heart!

1. Revise, revise, revise!  The early manuscript of THE LITTLE PRINCE on display is more than twice as long as the final published version. The framed pages are lightly scrawled in pencil and/or ink and show clear signs of intense revision – not only at the sentence level, but at the story level too.  Big cross outs show where entire sections were deleted.  Simple lines through phrases and words show how the author’s wording evolved.  Revising can be long and painstaking, but also rewarding as you see the story emerge and transform on the page. So take out that pen and let the words overflow.  Then, like Antoine de St. Exupery revise your text to perfection.

3. Save your doodles. Antoine de St. Exupery was a doodler and for years sketched a little “bonhomme” in the margins of his notebooks. Something about that doodle, in particular, captivated his imagination and ultimately gave birth to the little fellow readers now know and love as the Little Prince.  I, too, am a doodler, but my doodles take the form of words and phrases – little bursts of inspiration.  Some of those word-doodles go nowhere, but like that little “bonhomme” some keep reappearing in my pages.  I’ve even developed some of the peskiest ones into stories and poems.  So save your doodles, for they might be just the spark you need to write your next piece.

The Morgan Library and Museum Exhibition: “The Little Prince: A New York Story” runs through April 27th, 2014. I highly recommend it, if you happen to be traveling in these parts. For more details check here.