STAYING AFLOAT: 4 Writerly Things I Learned From Noah and his Ark (And a GIVEAWAY!)

IMG_0257With the release of the board book edition of GOODNIGHT, ARK just a week away, I thought it would be fun to share four things Noah and his ark have taught me about getting boats, er stories, to float.
Don’t expect your boat to float overnight. When I first got the idea for GOODNIGHT, ARK my mind whirred with possibilities. Which animals would be scared of what?  How would they get to Noah’s bed? And how would Noah ever comfort them and return them to their bunks?  I knew early on that I wanted to write the story in rhyme but finding the perfect meter and line length did not come easily. So I played around with plot and form again, and again, and again. Each time I finished a draft, I’d put it away and work on other things for several weeks so I could see it with fresh eyes. I repeated this cycle for two years and each time the story improved so much that it ended up with two offers! That experience has taught me not to worry about how long a story is taking me to write. Instead, I relax and let creativity work at its own pace until my stories are buoyant and ready to set sail.
Every ARK needs an ARC. Even with all that revising, my agent thought the initial version of GOODNIGHT ARK I sent her was too quiet. In that early version, the storm escalated and animals kept piling in, but there was no sense of rising action or urgency in resolving the night-time pile up. Except for the fact that the animals changed, the scenes were essentially static. In other words what the ark needed was an arc! The story still needed to be soothing for littlest readers, so I knew any tension/ rising action I infused had to be playful and fun. It took many hours of writing and re-writing, but I hope readers will agree that the final version with its ark tipping, bed crashing buildup and stinky, yet ultimately soothing, resolution is anything but static. I now analyse all my stories for effective rising action, climax, and resolution early on in the writing process. One way I do this is by making a 32-page dummy. That way it’s easy to see if your scenes are static as they build across 14 – 15 spreads or if there’s a sense of rising action etc. Plus, it’s a lot of fun, especially if you have little ones at home who like illustrating your dummies!
Don’t overload the decks. Noah’s ark was sturdy and well-planned with three decks, but though Noah may have been tempted to bring aboard extra animals, thank goodness, he showed restraint and took only two of each. Overcrowding would have put a strain on provisions. Worse yet, the ark might have capsized! Likewise, as a writer, I’m sometimes tempted to overcrowd my story with cute phrases and details that only weigh down the plot. During early stages of a project, I don’t worry about overwriting. My goal at that point is simply to build my story. Before I let it out of the port, however, I make sure to streamline the plot so every word and event pushes the story forward.
Everything’s better with a buddy. Noah didn’t try to build the ark all alone. His family cheered him on and pitched in with the building, providing much needed moral support amid the taunts and jeers of the onlookers. Likewise, I’ve found that the long, hard journey to publication just wouldn’t be the same without a nice support system. For me this includes my family, my lovely agent, and the wonderful network of like-minded children’s writers I’ve connected with over the years, many of whom have become dear friends and trusted critique partners. So, my last bit of ark-themed advice for staying afloat and giving your stories a floating chance, is to find a writing buddy or two to join you on the journey!
Don’t forget to enter the GOODREADS GIVEAWAY for a chance to WIN ONE OF FIVE COPIES of the board book edition of GOODNIGHT, ARK.  Press HERE to enter.  GIVEAWAY ENDS August 4th.
(NOTE: This post first appeared on the GROG blog as part of my first ever blog tour.)

GOODREADS GIVEAWAY: GOODNIGHT, ARK the BOARD BOOK EDITION!

Image 1To celebrate the release of GOODNIGHT, ARK, the board book edition, Zonderkidz has generously offered to give away FIVE copies of the new edition in my first ever Goodreads Giveaway!

With sturdy pages and a padded cover, GOODNIGHT, ARK, board book edition, is perfect for littlest readers who want to turn the pages themselves. It’s a good size too – perfect for showing off all the wonderful details in Jane Chapman’s illustrations.

Here’s what the reviewers have to say:

“This humorous offering serves as a delightful and amusing bedtime story.”  – Booklist 

“Sassi’s debut offers a fun twist to the oft-told story of Noah’s ark.” – Publishers Weekly 

“Sassi’s bouncy verse incorporates lots of onomatopoeia for the sounds of weather and animals… Minimal text per page allows Chapman plenty of space to showcase the animals’ movements.”  – School Library Journal

Don’t forget to add GOODNIGHT, ARK to your Want to Read shelf!

Giveaway ends Tuesday, August 4th.  Click here to get to the GOODREADS GIVEAWAY page.

Tell all your friends. Good luck!

PICTURE BOOK CRAFT: Bendy Knitted Snake Inspired by GOODNIGHT, ARK!

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Here’s a fun craft for the parent or grandparent (or aunt or uncle, or teacher or friend) of a little GOODNIGHT, ARK fan.

I love Jane Chapman’s depictions of the snakes in GOODNIGHT, ARK.  Her amicable yellow and green striped snakes appear on many of the spreads and are about the coziest looking snakes I’ve ever witnessed.  So when, in the process of sorting through my yarn drawer, I discovered some leftover yellow and green yarn balls, imagine my excitement!

Want to make your own cute Bendy Knitted Snake? Here’s how:

Gather:

green and yellow yarn (to match the snakes in GOODNIGHT, ARK)

knitting needles (I used size 6)

a yarn needle

two yellow pipe cleaners, twisted together to make one long piece (so that snake is bendable)

Create:

1. Cast on six stitches with yellow yarn. Knit a row, pearl a row, etc. until you have 12 rows. This will be the head.

2. Switch to green for two rows, then alternate four rows of yellow, with two rows of green until you reach your desired length.

3.For the tail, switch to green, reducing every other row until two stitches remain.  Cast off.

4. Using the yarn needle and green yarn, add on two green snake eyes.

5.  Before stitching the snake closed, gently poke the tip of your pipe cleaner strand through the pearl side of the head (and then back again). Fold the tip in firmly so that the pipe cleaner will stay in place and not be pokey.  Stretch the pipe cleaner out so that it fits nicely in the snakes insides.  Every so often as you stitch the underbelly closed with yellow yarn, loop a stitch around the pipe cleaner so that it stays in place. Continue until snake is completely stitched together.

6.  Now you have a cute reading buddy to share with your little reader. For extra fun, make a pair!  It might even be fun to let your snakes slither across the pages of GOODNIGHT, ARK as this friendly fellow is. Enjoy!

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GUEST POST: WRITING, BAKING, RUMINATING with Annie Silvestro

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Today I’m delighted to have children’s author, Annie Silvestro, as my guest.  Annie and I met at the wonderful June NJSCBWI conference several years ago. She recently announced that her debut picture book BUNNY’S BOOK CLUB, illustrated by Tatjana Mai-Wyss, will be published by Doubleday in Spring of 2017! Way to go, Annie! She’s joining us today with her thoughts on how to work through writing when the going gets tough. You are in for a tasty treat! Take it away, Annie!

Writers can spend hours in front of a screen or notebook, staring.

And after all those hours, we’ve finally got it! The right word. A strong sentence. A cohesive paragraph.

Those little successes can make us feel like a million bucks. But the time it takes? That can feel daunting.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not always that way. Sometimes writing is magical in how smoothly it flows and how quickly ideas take shape. But when it’s not, and particularly when you’re stuck on an idea, it can be very frustrating.

I’ve found that as part of my writing process, when my words get muddled, I make like Amelia Bedelia and bake. I think that’s because with baking, in a relatively short period of time I can accomplish a sure thing – something tangible, pleasant, and delicious that I can share (or not).

Plus, with baking, I follow a straightforward recipe. There’s no guesswork, no hair-pulling, no screaming at the screen. I grab butter, flour, and sugar without even thinking. I measure and mix precisely, then pour the sweet concoction into a pan or onto a cookie sheet. When the timer goes off, voila! Muffins! Banana bread! Snickerdoodles!

The best part is, while I’m baking, my subconscious is freed up to ruminate over the ingredients I’ll use in whatever story I’m working on. Ingredients like good characters, strong plot, tension, page turns, and the ever-important layers of emotion, humor, and heart.

We writers pull those ingredients from our imaginations, measure and mix as we see fit (revise, revise, revise), then pour them into a well-structured arc. Finally, and maybe most importantly, we let our stories bake.

Ideas need time to come together so we can see that their particular flavors and textures are just right. Just like too much flour can make your cake dry out, too much or too little of any story ingredient, and your manuscript can fall flat.

Time gives you the opportunity to read your story with fresh eyes so you can see more clearly what works or doesn’t work. Perspective helps you tweak your recipe so it’s absolutely delicious. And when the story is done, and the fork comes out with only a few crumbs clinging to it, you can bet you won’t mind sharing.

What do you do when you’re feeling unproductive in your writing? Share your ideas in the comments.

Annie Silvestro 5-2015Annie Silvestro writes, bakes, ruminates, and reads, reads, reads on the Jersey Shore where she lives with her husband, two boys, and a cat named Blinky. Her debut picture book BUNNY’S BOOK CLUB, illustrated by Tatjana Mai-Wyss, will be published by Doubleday in Spring of 2017. Twitter: @anniesilvestro

Summertime Book Events (with Skunks and Crafts!)

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Looking for something fun to do with the kiddos this summer? How about joining me for a summertime reading of GOODNIGHT, ARK. Meet my storytelling companions – Stinkie and Pinkie – and enjoy a special craft.  (The craft at the Princeton event will be extra special – created and designed by the amazing Dana Sheridan. To see just how amazing her crafts are, check out her blog, Pop Goes the Page. I can’t wait to see what she puts together for GOODNIGHT, ARK!)

July 13, 2015       PJ Storytime, 6:30 pm, Kenilworth Public Library, NJ

                             (Wear your pjs and bring your favorite stuffed animal!)

July 24, 2015       Tiger Tales Storytime 11am, Cotsen Library, ages 3 – 5

                              Princeton University, Princeton NJ

 August 3, 2015    Storytime and Craft  11am

                              Fine Print Book Store, Lakeside, OH  (Green Gables)

August 11, 2015   Toddler Storytime 10:30am, Garwood Public Library, NJ

August 19, 2015   Storytime and Craft 2pm

                              Point Pleasant Beach Public Library, NJ

PHEASANTS and WEASELS: Avoiding Word Blunders

Bird Under ParasolPlease join me over at my online critique group’s blog – PENS AND BRUSHES – for some thoughts on avoiding embarrassing word blunders. I’ll make it easy for you. Press here.

CHRISTMAS in JUNE: (Look what landed my porch!)

IMG_0241I love my porch. It’s a wonderful spot for reading, people watching, and playing board games with my kids. It’s also a great landing spot for surprise packages, like these advanced copies of GOODNIGHT, MANGER (Zonderkidz, 2015) which arrived yesterday. There’s something magical about holding the book you’ve journeyed with for so long – from inspiration to the hard work of writing to – finally -publication! With Jane Chapman once again illustrating, the book has come together beautifully!

To pique your interest, here is the blurb from the inside flap:

“It’s bedtime for baby Jesus, but who knew a stable could be so loud?  Mama, Papa, and all of the animals try to lull the baby to sleep, but between itchy hay, angels singing, and three kings bearing gifts, it’s just too noisy.  Cuddle up as Mama finds a way for everyone to work together to shepherd Baby into peaceful dreams under the twinkling stars.”

GOODNIGHT, MANGER is available for pre-order wherever books are sold.  The release date is October 6th, 2015 – just in time for the holidays.  I am also starting to schedule readings and visits.  If you would like me to do a reading for your preschool or early elementary school class via Skype or in person, please contact me via my contact tab.

Happy reading, all!

PARLOR PLIÉS: Thoughts on Ballet and Writing

IMG_2946.JPGRight now my daughter, aged 10, is dancing around the living room to the rich music of Coppelia, a beautiful 19th century ballet. Using a dish towel as a prop, she’s flitting and twirling and swooping to the music in perfect motion. I would love to snap a photo, but she has asked me to remain in the kitchen (where I am cleaning up from supper) and I want to respect her privacy.  But, oh my, each time I peek in I am amazed. She is 100% into the moment – listening to the mood of the music and improvising as she goes.  And, wow, how her movements flow. The result is beautiful!

As a writer, I am taking note. This young budding artist is not letting the inner voices of self doubt and fear of criticism interfere one bit. Perhaps she hasn’t even recognized their pesky little voices yet.

I was never a dancer, but I have distant recollections of that beautiful innocent time when I just let my creativity flow both through writing and drawing without holding back. That phase ended for me in mid-elementary school when I suddenly became self conscious about my writing, especially at school. Thankfully, I continued to write stories and poems for my own pleasure.  Still, it took years for me to return to that safe place where I felt secure enough to really open up and let that creativity flow again.

To reach our full creative potentials, we must follow my sweet daughter’s example and reconnect with that creative sweet spot from our childhood when we felt free to create without inhibition. Will you join me this week in finding the joyful spot? Happy dancing, er writing, all!

SKUNKS and SKETCHES: Thoughts on the Creative Process

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NOTE: I simply can’t resist piggybacking (or should I say skunk backing) on yesterday’s skunky quiz with a few writerly thoughts on skunks, elephants, and creativity, so please bear with me and enjoy! 

Can you guess what these are?

They’re preliminary sketches for the sleepy little pair skunks and the large pair of frightened elephants that appear in GOODNIGHT, ARK. When Jane Chapman first posted them on Facebook a few months back, I couldn’t take my eyes off them. I was amazed at all the detail and artistic brainstorming that went into developing these delightful animals. They clearly show that she spent at least as much time “playing with pictures”  as I spent “playing with words” in the creation of my story.

Jane’s sketches are a wonderful reminder that there is joy in the process of creating and that creating takes time.  Don’t rush the process by just sketching one skunk or elephant.  Sketch a a full page of them!  Likewise, don’t rush to finalize your word choice or your plot twists. Keep on playing with those words and let the creative process work its magic. Fill an entire notebook if you need to. That’s what I did!

As a fun aside, and in conclusion of today’s skunk-themed thoughts, if you have a copy of GOODNIGHT, ARK, you might enjoy examining these sketches and then perusing the pages of the story to see which sketches made the final cut.  The students I share the sketches with LOVE doing this and I have to agree, it’s fun!

Enjoy!

Happy NATIONAL SKUNK DAY! (And a QUIZ)

IMG_0354Did you know that in addition to being Flag Day, yesterday was also National Skunk Day?! And since a pair of the little stinkers play an important role in GOODNIGHT, ARK, I’ve grown especially fond of the species.

So now, in celebration of skunks, not just once a year, but every day, here’s a fun quiz to test your skunk expertise.

1. TRUE or FALSE:  All skunks have black and white stripes.

2.TRUE or FALSE: A batch of baby skunks is called a litter.

3. TRUE or FALSE: Spraying that stinky mist is a skunk’s first defense mechanism.

4. Which of the following predators are IMMUNE to the skunk’s stinky spray?

A. foxes         B. coyotes             C. great horned owls       D.badgers

5. TRUE or FALSE: Bathing in tomato juice is the best remedy for “de-skunking”.

ANSWERS: (Skunk’s honor: no peeking until after the quiz.)

1. FALSE: All skunks are black and white which acts as a warning for predators to keep away. The specific fur patterning, however, varies.  Different types of skunks have different black and white patterns including stripes, spots, and swirls.

2. TRUE: Skunk babies are born in the spring. Mother skunks typically give birth to between two and ten babies per year.  The babies follow their mother around until late summer when they are ready to be on their own.

3. FALSE: Lifting the tail and spraying is a skunk’s LAST line of defense. Before resorting to spraying, skunks give several warning signs including growling, stomping feet and, finally, raising  tails and hind legs while stomping. These advanced warning signals give predators time to back-off without getting sprayed.

4. C. Great Horned Owls, and most larger birds of prey, are immune to the skunk’s stinky spray.

5. FALSE: Actually, according the Humane Society plain old tomato juice isn’t all that effective because it lacks the acidity necessary to neutralize the chemicals in the stinky spray.  Adding vinegar helps somewhat, but the best way to  “de-skunk”, according the Humane Society, is to make your own odor neutralizing home remedy.  For more on that, visit this helpful post from Humane Society.

To learn more about skunks check out these great resources from National Geographic, the University of Michigan and the Humane Society.