Creativity, Inspiration, Life, Writing

FINDING YOUR JOYFUL SPOT: Thoughts on Parlor Pliés and Writing

My daughter, aged 17, is away at a ballet intensive for two weeks. I’m not hearing much from her except a few texts that says things like “I love it here!” and “I’m sore from all the dancing, but it’s really good!” and “The girls are nice and we are warming up to each other.” That’s all I need to hear.

Miss A has been a dancer all her life and she inspires me. And maybe because I am missing the sound of her dancing in her room (right above my little morning spot here in the living room), I decided to search “ballet” on my blog and turned up this nugget. It was just what I needed to read this morning as I jump (or perhaps dance) into a morning of writing.

Here it is… straight from the summer of 2015! Enjoy!

Right 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!

Creativity, Inspiration, Writing

MEASURE BY MEASURE:  Thoughts on Singing and Writing

When I was in high school, I performed in my school’s concert choir. Not coming from a particularly musical family, it was my first entrée into the world of vocal music and choral music. I loved it. I sang second soprano and even took voice lessons. I never had a solo, but I learned a lot, not only about reading music, but about bringing it to emotional life with our voices. I partially credit my sense of versification, especially meter, to those years in Mr. Peterson’s choir room.

I also learned something else during those choir years that has had a positive, lasting impact on my writing. This is it: In preparing a piece for performance, you don’t have to learn it in order.  Rather, as I recall, each piece was taught and practiced according to Mr. Peterson’s skilled and strategic plan. Often this meant we started by tackling a particularly difficult passage or a repeated chorus. Every day, bit by bit, we’d explore the piece, but only towards the end would he have us put it all together in sequential order. And to this musical newbie, hearing all those measures learned out of order finally come together was an exciting moment and a signal that we were almost ready to perform. 

Writing a story can be a lot like preparing a choral piece. For both, it’s good to have an overall strategy or storyline in mind, but neither needs to be developed in strict sequence from beginning to end. Rather, just as Mr. Peterson did, it’s okay for writers to jump ahead to the end or the middle or to whatever part of the story your muse is ready to tackle. Indeed, this strategy makes good writerly sense because some parts of the story will require more wrestling with than others, and the progress you make in working through each section or “measure” will invariably help shape the other parts of your story until they all fit together with perfect crescendo and decrescendo like a high school choral piece being sublimely performed.

Looking back over my years as a writer, I can’t imagine creating a piece without applying what I learned in concert choir. Thank you, Mr. Peterson! Maybe his approach will inspire you, as well, in your creative endeavors this week. Happy writing! 

Creativity, Inspiration, Picture Books, Writing

LITTLE TOY CARS: Thoughts on Playing and Writing

I’ve been spending hours in my basement lately re-organizing and on one of the shelves I re-discovered this box of little toy cars. With that in mind, I couldn’t resist re-posting this car-themed post from 2017. Enjoy!

I was organizing boxes in my basement this weekend and rediscovered this – it’s a box full of my childhood Matchbox cars co-mingled with my husband’s –  with some more recent additions from when my kids were little.  The youngest cars in the collection are about fifteen years old – the oldest – almost fifty!  What amazes me most about this collection is the wildly contrasting condition of the cars.

I mean, if you look at them carefully, they are all comprised of the same basic elements – wheels, chassis, colorful paint job.  And, yes, of course, all have doors, hoods, and trunks (some that open which were my favorites as a kid). Yeah, yeah, some are trucks instead of cars, but basically they all fit into the same overarching miniature toy car category.

And yet, through the seemingly innocent act of playing with them… look how distinctive they’ve become! My husband’s cars are all battered up. He even had to repaint his little toy ambulance, a very necessary vehicle for his play world. That’s because for him, a perfect day of play involved car races and crashes and battles over rough terrain.

By contrast, my perfect day of automobile play involved creating a village in the fragrant bed of pine needles that covered the craggy old roots that abutted my grandparents’ driveway. I would spend hours creating roads and story lines to go with each car as they navigated my imaginary village world, stopping for tea at imaginary tea houses and picnics along imaginary vistas. Very different from my husband’s play.

But that’s where the originality and creativity emerges, isn’t it?

Writing stories is a lot like playing with toy cars.  We all begin with the same basic car parts – the words – and all our stories fit into a relatively small range of car models, i.e. story structures, plot lines and universal themes.

But does that mean that originality is impossible?  Not at all.  Like children playing with toy cars, that’s where the creativity begins!  So get out those stories-in-progress this week, or grab a new little car – and then PLAY! I wonder what new play worlds will emerge this week. Happy Monday all!

Creativity, Picture Books, Writing

The Power of SETTING in PICTURE BOOKS

There once was a child who loved to play make believe and every day, using her imagination, she created story worlds. Somedays, she was a pioneer traveling the prairie in a covered wagon. Other days, she was teeny tiny person living amongst the craggy roots of her grandmother’s old pine grove. And sometimes, she was a magic fairy flying through sparkle-mist clouds in a world full of dragons. Her storyline was always similar – young girl, headstrong and brave in the face of danger, forging new friendships in the midst of the unknown. What changed each day, or every few days, was the SETTING! And that, for the little girl, was what made all the difference. 

That girl, if you haven’t figured out by now, was me and, as a picture book author, I’m still enamored with the power of SETTING to make a story shine. In fact, three of my six picture books began with quite ordinary settings. Goodnight, Ark began as a quite ordinary tale two storm-frightened children and a thunder-spooked dog all bounding into their parents’ very crowded bed. It wasn’t until I started playing with possible alternate settings – initially a hollow log in the woods – and ultimately Noah’s Ark – that the story really took off. And what made the difference that allowed my imagination to soar in new, creative directions? SETTING! 

A similar switching-up occurred with Goodnight, Manger which began as the story of a hen trying to get her chicks to sleep in a typical barn setting. It wasn’t until I decided to make it a very special barn – the stable where Baby Jesus was born – that the story took shape in a fresh new way.  Likewise, my picture book Love is Kind (Zonderkidz, August 8, 2018) began as the simple story of a small boy in a small town on a quest to get his grammy something for her birthday. It wasn’t until I made the protagonist an owl and set the tale in a magical woodsy setting, that the story took off.

Even though my opera-themed picture book, Diva Delores and the Opera House Mouse, was set in an opera house from the get-go and Little Ewe, likewise, was always set in a meadow,  it’s still the settings that help those stories really take off.  Indeed, as picture book author Susanna Leonard Hill remarked about Diva Delores and the Opera House Mouse in one of her lovely Perfect Picture Book Friday posts, “The fun of this book is in the setting – an opera house… Although the story is really about friendship, manners, and appreciation, the fact that it takes place in an opera house and involves operatic performance makes it educational as well as original and fun.”

In fact, for all my books (and yours too, probably), I would argue that the impact of carefully considering setting reaches far beyond just text and storyline. Fresh settings also open the door to fabulous illustrations because they allow illustrators, too, to stretch their imaginations and create spreads that are more unusual and fun than they might have been with more ordinary settings.

In Goodnight,Ark, for example, how much more fun is it to gasp at tigers jumping into a bed already crowded with sheep, wild boar and quail – than to see two small children and a dog crowding into a quite ordinary run-of-the-mill bed? Much more fun!

And in Goodnight, Manger how much more thrilling is it to see a frazzled mama asking a glorious array of angels, rather than geese, for example, to quiet down? Much more fun!

And doesn’t the special friendship between Delores and that Opera House Mouse seem that much more magical with the backdrop of velvet curtains and floral bouquets? 

Finally, just look at these darling spreads from Love Is Kind  and Little Ewe in which illustrator Lison Chaperon and Tommy Doyle each use their imagination, prompted by my settings, to create wonderful story worlds!

I don’t have any interior to show you yet from my next release BUNNY FINDS EASTER but you can take a peek on Amazon where you will see that a charming cottage setting enhances that story as well.

Because setting is powerful in the hands both author and illustrator, I think it’s important, as writers, to spend time contemplating how we might enhance our stories by taking full advantage of the setting. So, here’s my takeaway:  If you find yourself stuck in a story, wondering how to make it stand out from the rest, why not take some time this week to play with setting.  Maybe you will find, as I have, that a new setting might make all the difference!  Happy writing all!

Crafts, Creativity, Picture Books

10 Book-Themed Crafts and Activities for DIVA DELORES AND THE OPERA HOUSE MOUSE

TEACHERS! CAREGIVERS! LIBRARIANS! I’ve rounded up TEN activities created just for DIVA DELORES AND THE OPERA HOUSE, perfect for kicking off the new school year, which is just around the corner, or any time of year. Enjoy!

ONE: Make a pair of fancy glasses, then pretend you are at the opera while reading DIVA DELORES AND THE OPERA HOUSE MOUSE at Celebrate Picture Books

TWO: Do a book-themed Read, Discuss, DO! 

THREE: Discuss what it means to be a diva, then make a feathered fan like Delores uses in the book with this project created by Rebecca Gomez.

FOUR: Spark even more meaningful book-themed conversation using these seven teacher-approved discussion starters.

FIVE: Extend the story with a DIVA DELORES AND THE OPERA HOUSE MOUSE coloring page and writing prompt.

SIX: Read the story, then create your own Delores and Fernando puppets inspired by illustrator Rebecca Gerlings puppet activity.

SEVEN: Teach a lesson on RESPECT with Diva Delores and Fernando.

EIGHT: Organize an eight-book opera-themed story time featuring Diva Delores plus seven other fabulous titles!

NINE: Create colorful tissue paper bouquets just like Delores longs for in the story.

TEN: Have your kids draw pictures of their favorite scenes/characters and then share on your socials using the hashtag #divadeloresandtheoperahousemouse.

HAVE ANY MORE IDEAS? Let me know in the comments!

Creativity, Inspiration, Picture Books, Writing

How to Write Picture Books – DIVA Style!

February 8th is OPERA DAY! And since DIVA DELORES AND THE OPERA HOUSE MOUSE is all about opera, I thought it would be fun to re-share a favorite post inspired the book’s protagonists, Delores and Fernando. My opera-loving duo made their opera debut when the book released in 2018, but as any well-trained diva knows, singing on stage is just the final thrill. What comes before that?  Hours and hours, even years of hard work! But is it all worth it? You bet!

Now celebrations of opera and divas and picture books, here are five tips to help you write picture books – diva style!

  1. Go to the opera… a lot!

If you are going to be an opera star, it only makes sense that you immerse yourself in the glorious world of opera by attending operas, listening to opera music, and all-around saturating yourself in all things opera.  Likewise, if you want to write  picture books, it only makes sense that you immerse yourself in the world of picture books.  For me, this means making regular trips to the children’s section of my library, or my favorite local bookstore, and reading, reading, reading!  I read with two purposes:  first, just for the pleasure and joy of it, and second… to learn. That’s why I always bring along my writerly opera glasses and a notebook so that I can thoughtfully ponder and record what makes each opera (i.e. picture book) sing… or not.

  1. Rehearsal is important.

If you want to be a diva, you have to spend time rehearsing and developing your craft. For opera stars, I imagine this means a daily routine of warming up with scales, practicing a variety of pieces, working on voice projection etc. Similarly, if you want to to write picture books, you have to be willing to invest the time and effort into writing daily. My daily writing routine includes free writes (my version of scales), as well as working on a variety of poems, blog posts and the handful of picture book manuscripts I’m working through at any given moment. 

  1. Control those crescendos.

I’m not an opera expert, but it seems to me that in the field of opera, like in the field of picture book writing – less is more!  I mean divas don’t just cut loose and sing at the top of their lungs willy-nilly!  No, they artistically control their voices so that it plays a magical role in telling the opera’s story. Likewise, as a picture book writer – and especially as one who loves to rhyme – I work hard to control my crescendos so that every word, sound, phrase, action, magically moves the story forward.

  1. Be confident, yet humble. (i.e. be willing to learn from others)

Confidence is good, but if you want your singing, er writing, to shine,  I’ve learned over the years that confidence must be tempered with an open heart, open mind, and gracious spirit when receiving constructive feedback.  As a young writer I thought my writing was fabulous! But now that I’m more seasoned, I look back on those early pieces and cringe. They would definitely have benefitted from a little more humility and willingness to productively process and put into place suggestions from more experiences writers! 

(Which leads me to my last bit of advice.) 

  1. Everything’s better with a buddy!

As Diva Delores discovers at the opera house, the journey to success is just all-around better with a buddy. Likewise, I’ve found that the picture book writing journey wouldn’t be the same without a nice support system. For me this includes my family, my talented 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 advice for writing picture books – diva style! – is to find a buddy or two to encourage you and help you grow along the way.

Note: A version of this post first appeared on Darlene Beck Jacobson’s lovely blog. She’s been kind enough to host me for the release of each and every one of my books. Thank you, Darlene!

chapter books, Creativity, Writing

THE POWER OF LISTS: Early Chapter Book Style

I am a list maker and have been all my life. As a child I wrote lists of what I wanted for Christmas and birthdays. I also kept lists of the books I read. I’ve always wanted to be a writer, so I even had a list of last names that I thought would be good for the main characters in my future books. Whipple was at the top of the list!

My mother was a list maker too. And so was her mother. I know this because my mother insisted that I make packing lists before traveling and showed me how to do it. And my grandmother kept lists on index cards documenting every single dinner party she ever hosted, who came, what time they arrived, and what she served. My daughter is now a list-maker too. This summer she kept a list of healthy snack and meal ideas which we still refer to regularly. 

Now that I’m mid-century age-wise and somewhat forgetful at times, I keep daily lists to help me remember the things I need to do. I also keeps lists of things such as blog posts I’d like to write about. For awhile, I kept a list of every new word I learned. And I still keep lists of the books I have read and the books I want to read. This post actually is becoming a list of all the kinds of lists I like to make.

The point is – I couldn’t survive without lists. Neither could my writing. Flip through any journal of mine and you will see lists. Lists of potential story ideas. Lists of potential character names. Lists of favorite memories. Lists of craft ideas and poem ideas. You name it, I’ve listed it. Indeed, lists have become one of  my go-to strategies for combatting writer’s block. But even after I have an idea and the creative juices are flowing, lists play a crucial role in developing that idea.

As I wrote each of my rhyming picture books, for example, I paused many times to make lists. I wrote lists of fun rhyming pairs and vivid sound words and more. And, as I point out to students at school visits, those lists helped immensely! Indeed, many of the words and ideas generated in those lists appear in the final versions of each book.

This month I’m applying this list strategy to chapter books. That’s right, as part of my challenge to myself to write a chapter book series, I have set a goal for myself to make a list plot ideas throughout the month of November. Actually, in this case, the list is a little more complex. I’m collecting vignettes or scenes for possible future use in this potential series, so my “list” includes not only one-word or short phrase “titles” for each possible vignette, but also a page or two of free-writing that potential story scene from the POV of my chapter book protagonist. 

Of course, it’s only November 5th. I still have a long ways to go, but I’m already excited about how this new chapter book-themed list is taking shape.  (And I’m blessed to have a chapter book critique group taking a similar challenge to keep me accountable – and I recommend that too.)

Are you a list maker? If not, why not give list-making a try this week as a way to get those creative juices flowing! Have fun!

Creativity, Writing

SPILT MILK: Five Tips for Finding Time to Write

Don’t you love this tiny figurine set of kittens lapping up spilt milk that I was given as girl? I keep it in a printer’s tray that hangs in my bathroom with many other little treasures. (That’s a topic for another post.)  The messy little scene reminds me that over the course of my life, spilt milk, spilt detergent, and even spilt glitter have made me cry. Perhaps you can relate.  However, there’s one thing I never cry about.  Spilling words! Specifically words on paper.  Indeed, my joy each day, is in finding time to spill words for that time blesses my soul and, by extension, I hope it blesses those who subsequently read those words.  

The daily challenge, however, is in finding the time, for unlike milk or glitter, which, at least at our house, spill far too easily and frequently,  spilling words freely and creatively is quite another matter.  

With that in mind, here are five tips for finding time to let those words flow freely:

Tip #1: Set special time aside each day to write.  For me, this means beginning the day with 30 minutes of writing before the sun rises.  It’s amazing how freely the words flow before the cares of the day set in.

Tip #2: Turn off distractions, like the internet, for a pre-determined period of time and, instead of surfing the web or scrolling through your various feeds, write.

Tip #3: Exercise your mind and body by writing using dictation mode while you walk or use the treadmill. I love this strategy especially when I’m experiencing writer’s block.

Tip #4: Find a writing buddy or group to meet with weekly, virtually or in person, for an hour or more of writing. Check in with each other both before and after the writing session with writing intentions and accomplishments.  Note:  This is also a good way to stay connected during a pandemic.

Tip #5: Write for five minutes on the top of the hour – all day long. For those other 55 minutes, your mind will be whirring with ideas, as you go about your day, then you can let them pour out in hourly spurts.  Set the timer and don’t hesitate – write! This worked especially well when my kids were little.

This is just is getting the spilling started. What tips would you add?  Please share in the comments. 

And for more thoughts on finding time to write and maximizing the time we do have, here are some other posts you might enjoy:

Ten Tips for Finding Writing Time When You Think You’re Too Busy to Write!

GUEST POST: Take a Spirit Vacation with Children’s Writer Sara Matson

JOURNALING AND OTHER STRATEGIES: Thoughts on Unleashing Our Creativity

Crafts, Creativity, Picture Books

The LOVE IS KIND Puppet Craft Challenge!

THANK YOU for joining me for the LOVE IS KIND Puppet Challenge! I just finished live streaming on Facebook and thought I would take a minute to share the challenge with you here. Please find the video of the Facebook Live stream here, or simply scroll down for the instructions below. (The video is just for extra fun.) I can’t wait to see what you come up with!

Inspired by Little Owl, who extended love and kindness everywhere he went – and in very creative ways – the goal of this challenge is for children to extend love and kindness by creating a fabulous one-of-a-kind Little Owl puppet. They will then use that puppet to make someone else feel special and loved.  Here’s what you and your child need to do:

  1. Read LOVE IS KIND (Zonderkidz, 2018) and think about all the ways Little Owl was kind and loving.
  1. Using materials found at home have your child design their own, original Little Owl puppet. Possible construction materials include: brown bags, construction paper, felt, newspaper, fabric, Legos, an old sock or mitten, a yogurt tub or milk container, feathers, sequins etc. Be creative and have fun!
  1. Once the puppet is finished, spread joy by using the puppet as a side kick (like I do in my story times) to share LOVE IS KIND (or another story of your choice) with a special person in your child’s life – either in person or virtually! 
  1. FOR EXTRA FUN: Take a picture of your child’s puppet or you and your child reading with the puppet and send it to me. With your permission, and I will double check to make sure I have it, I will share the pictures on Facebook and my blog so we can all enjoy each other’s creativity!

WANT MORE IDEAS: Download the free LOVE IS KIND Activity Kit found here: https://www.zonderkidz.com/resources/freebies/.

INTERESTED IN PURCHASING A COPY? LOVE IS KIND is available wherever books are sold, but if you live locally, and want to show support for an indie bookstore — Anne, at The Town Bookstore if Westfield, NJ is offering 10% off any of my books (for a limited time only). Simply mention that you watched my Facebook Live Story Event.  If you’d like the books signed, mention that to Anne and we’ll make it happen!  The phone number for The Town Book Store is (908) 233-3535. You can also email Anne, at anne@townbookstore.com

Creativity, Writing

JOURNALING and OTHER STRATEGIES: Thoughts on Unleashing our Creativity

If you have followed my blog anytime at all, you have probably noticed that I love writing analogy posts where I draw comparisons between writing and life.  These are, in fact, my favorite kinds of posts.  

A couple of years ago I was even asked in an online interview by the delightful Margaret Langan over at Read.Learn.Repeat about these types of posts. The specific question was: In what way are these writing exercises useful in your pursuit of writing picture books?  

My answer was as follows: 

For me, a big part of picture book writing is making creative connections—taking a snippet of inspiration and then playing with it, combining one idea with a seemingly totally disconnected different idea, pairing characters with unusual settings, switching things around etc. 

But to do that, I need to warm up and I do that by beginning each day with my journal. I use that journal to record free-flowing thoughts, observations, joys and struggles and… analogies.

This time spent journaling is crucial for getting my creative juices going and those creative analogies just seem to flow out of me—much the way my rhymes do.  And once written, it seems a shame not to share them, especially since over the years I’ve gotten such positive feedback from writers and friends who find them encouraging and inspirational.

(For the full interview plus links to all her wonderful interviews with authors and illustrators, press here.)

I still stand by this answer and I still begin each day by journaling and those journal entries still serve to unleash creative sparks that invariably lead to analogies as well as new poems and stories. 

However, I would now also add that this creative unleashing – at least for me – can be released in other ways too – such as immersing myself in any sort of special project, such as knitting, sewing, drawing or cooking.  If intentional, even something as seemingly uncreative as going on a walk or cleaning the house or weeding can also be creative because I have found that the calm, repetitive nature of those three things in particular is conducive to contemplating ideas and playing with words – both important parts of the creative process.

And why am I making a point to share this with you this week? Easy!  I want to encourage you (and me!) to step into the days ahead eager and open to unleashing our storytelling creativity in intentional ways that can range from free writing in a journal –– to pondering plot while plodding along the sidewalk –– to whatever other specific activity you find yourself immersed in this week.  

Happy unleashing, all!