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!

ADVENT CALENDARS: A Special Christmas Memory

In the fall of 1981, a shy girl, still very homesick for her friends and life in France, moved with her family to a suburban community just outside of Minneapolis, Minnesota. She didn’t know many people and to say it was a shock to her quiet self to be suddenly plunked into a huge junior high with 300 or so kids in the seventh grade alone, is an understatement.  There had only been 15 or so kids in the whole 6th grade at her previous school!

That fall this shy girl comforted herself by reading lots of books and writing and drawing.  But good things were at work for within days of starting school that girl (who was me if you haven’t guessed) met a sweet, kind, soul who immediately made her (me) feel welcome.

This girl, whose name was Elizabeth, was shy like me and also liked to read and write.  We quickly became “kindred spirits” for, yes, we had both, of course, read and loved Anne of Green Gables.  Elizabeth made that first fall in Minnesota not just bearable but delightful!  

This brings me to my special Christmas memory that was triggered by watching this Youtube video that this special friend, who grew up to be a Lutheran pastor, posted on her social media this week. In it, she shares a special life-long collection of hers:  advent calendars!  Enjoy the video and then read about my special memory below:

Pastor Elizabeth may not remember this, but that first December of my junior high life in Minnesota, she invited me over to her house.  I don’t remember all the details of that afternoon, but I do remember the highlight!  

“Do you want to make advent calendars?” she asked. I had never heard of such a thing so she showed me one and explained how it was a special way to look forward to Christmas day by opening little windows each day.  

Then she showed me how we could make our own by using two pieces of sturdy paper. First we drew our cover sheets with festive Christmas scenes. Next, using scissors we cut out 24 flaps for windows and numbered each one. Then we attached the undersheet and put a special Christmas message or symbol or verse in each window. It was so much fun!

I’m pretty certain that my own family’s love of advent calendars can be traced back to Elizabeth. Indeed, since they were little, my kids have looked forward to their advent calendars (and the chocolate inside) each and every year.  Need proof? Here’s a tasty close up of Miss A’s 2020 advent calendar.  

Now, in a spirit of gratitude and awareness of God’s blessings, I’d like to take a moment to honor Elizabeth, who’s been such a good friend over the years – doing kind things like cheering me on in my writing journey and even sharing my books with her congregation.

Here’s my closing thought for you. Is there some special holiday or family tradition that can be traced back to a special person in your life? If so, maybe today or this week is a good time to find that person and let them know.  

Blessings of the season, all!

ADVENT REFLECTION: Joy in the Simple Things

As we begin this advent season, it strikes me that my favorite holiday memories don’t involve expensive gifts or lavish decorations or endless busy-ness. Indeed, my favorite memories are very simple, but priceless, and they are a good reminder to me not to get so caught up and worried in making the season grand that we miss the simple joys along the way.

With that in mind, here are four memories of simple joys I’ve experienced at Christmas.

Memory #1: When I was in third grade, we moved to Paris, France. For Christmas that first year we flew home to spend the holiday with my grandparents in the US. When we arrived, my sister and I were dismayed to discover that the tree didn’t have a single ornament on it! My grandmother wasn’t much on saving things and must have felt that as empty-nesters they weren’t going to bother with the fuss of storing ornaments. So, taking out crayons and drawing paper, my sister and I made all the ornaments which my mom strung with yarn and we hung on the tree. There were angels in high heels and stars and santas. For tinsel, we strung popcorn. It was the best tree ever!

Memory #2: My sister and I loved putting on plays when we were little and for Christmas one year we decided to have our own pageant. My teddy bear played the role of Jesus, I was Mary, my sister was the angel, and a couple of friends played the shepherds. However, we needed a Joseph so we enlisted my dad. He did a great job wearing his plaid bathrobe and a dishtowel tied snuggly with with ribbon on his head. He was kind of big and clumsy (sorry dad), but that was part of the magic!

Memory #3: Fast forward to when my daughter was little, her favorite part of Christmas was taking Baby Jesus out of our little plastic nativity set and playing with him. In her play, Jesus would be crying and so she’d feed him with a bottle and gently carry him. Then she’d sing him a lullaby and put him down for a nap in the manger. FUN FACT: It’s this sweet memory that inspired me to write my picture book GOODNIGHT, MANGER because before her sweet play, I’d never imagined Jesus crying in the Christmas story.

Memory #4: My mother passed away on Thanksgiving Day 2013. When Christmas came a month later, we were still deeply grieving. None of us felt like getting a big Christmas tree, so we had little live tree that I later tried planting, but it didn’t survive. But even in the midst of that sad Christmas emerged a now a favorite memory which is a reminder to me that even in difficult circumstances, there’s joy to be found in the little things. That little thing, for me, was that on Christmas Eve that year after supper, all five of us (my husband, my dad, and our two kids, then ages 9 and 13) put on our winter coats and boots and our hats and mittens and we tromped outside. It was a chilly but clear night and for a delightful hour we caroled. We stopped at houses of friends and houses of strangers and sang our hearts out. We weren’t the most beautiful choir, but it didn’t matter. Whole families came out on their porches to listen. With big smiles they wished us a Merry Christmas and it was just what our aching hearts needed. Here’s a fuzzy picture of that night:

Thank you for joining me on this sentimental journey down Christmas memory lane. I hope my memories inspire you to reflect on some of the simple joys you’ve experienced over the years. If you have a memory to share, and feel inspired to share it, I’d love to hear it. Blessings all!

SPOTTED FAWN: Thoughts on Brand New Stories

Our little town in NYC suburbia is teeming with wild life – chipmunks, squirrels, raccoons, foxes, deer and more. I spot them often while on my morning walks. Pictured above is one of my favorites – a brand new fawn spotted two summers ago curled up in the dappled shade of a neighbor’s front lawn – so tiny and fresh, with soft baby chestnut colored hide and bright white spots! She’s the third such fawn I’ve discovered over the last few years, hidden – in plain sight – on the lawns of our suburban New Jersey community.

The first time I saw a fawn curled up like this with no mama in sight, I thought it might be abandoned or lost.  I’ve since learned that it’s standard practice in the deer world for a mama to leave her brand new (or nearly new) baby snuggled up like this in a quiet open space. She does this because when newly born, fawns are still wobbly and too little to keep pace with the older deer. Mama also needs to forage on her own for food so she has what she needs to properly nurse and care for her baby.

And – if you haven’t figure it out yet – yes, this sweet fawn so tender and new has gotten me thinking about writing. Seeing her this morning reminds me how, as a beginning writer, I was often tempted to submit my stories to publishers way too prematurely when what they really needed was to be left alone to rest and grow in a quiet place while I went about my business of reflection, revision and nursing those stories with plenty of quiet restful breaks in between feedings, until they were truly fit and ready to send.

I think ALL writers, seasoned and new, can benefit from this reminder every once in a while  – and what cuter way to be reminded than with the image of a sweet young fawn snuggled up in a quiet front lawn.

Happy writing… and remember not to rush the process.

Note: Over the summer, I will be sharing a few of my favorite analogies from years past as I stockpile new ones for the fall and beyond. I plucked this oldie, but goodie, from August of 2018.

KNIT THE TOWN: Thoughts on HOPE, LOVE, COMMUNITY (and writing)

A few weeks ago, I was asked by Teresa Murray, an extraordinarily creative knitter here in my hometown, if I wanted to participate in a surprise project to dazzle and cheer our little downtown clock plaza with yarn. We’d be yarnstormers, she explained, and the goal was to knit and/or crochet colorful creations which we would then wrap around the clock, lampposts, trees, benches, bike racks etc.  No need to buy new yarn, the challenge would be to use whatever we had on hand.  I immediately said yes, for I love a challenge and especially one that celebrates and blesses community through art.  

I chose a tree with a 72 inch circumference and quickly had a vision in my head of what I wanted to create – a patchwork of happy patterns framing the the word HOPE.  

Then, each day for two weeks, I spent at least an hour a day (and much more towards the end when I realized the project was bigger than I anticipated) knitting.  Since the final project needed to stretch 72 inches, I divided the project into three panels that I sewed together at completion.  The center panel featured the letters H O P E each offset by colorful complementary yarn.  I knitted the side panels patchwork quilt style, creating the brightest and cheeriest variety of colorful patterns that I could think of including stripes of all varieties – both vertical and horizontal, dots, checks etc. And I used the largest needles I had, size fifteen, intentionally knitting loosely for maximum stretchiness.  

When finished, it only measured 50 inches in diameter and I was worried it wouldn’t stretch around the tree completely.  But, thankfully, it was strong and plenty stretchy and I was able to wrap it around my assigned trunk and sew it in place with ease.  The result?  Success! Joy! 

It now hangs for a limited time with the knitted and crocheted creations of fifteen local “fiber artists” as Teresa so charmingly has called us.  Each piece is unique and together they fill the space with color and joy.  I’ve been down town a couple of times since the installation and have enjoyed watching people sit in the plaza enjoying the installation as they sip coffee or nibble ice cream.   

My hope is that the installation will be a reminder that hope lives and that, with intentionality,love and respect for all, we can come together as a beautifully diverse community (and world) of humans – each special and unique – but lovingly knit together into one humanity – just as all the colorful bits of yarn in this installation have come together to create beautiful works of art.

And the writer in me can’t help but be reminded that writing stories and poems is a lot like knitting. And that like these knitted creations, stories and poems also have the ability to bring us together and instill hope. Surprise, surprise, I’ve even written about the parallels between knitting and writing on this blog – twice!  Here are links.  Enjoy!  

SMITTEN with KNITTIN’: Writing in Verse 

KNITTING: Writerly Wisdom for the NEW YEAR (from a nine-year-old)

LOVE IS KIND: FIVE TIPS for Fostering KINDNESS in our Kids

I’m excited to share that a lovely little interaction on Twitter with a first grade teacher who shared how she had just read LOVE IS KIND to her students and tagged me – has resulted in an end of the year virtual school visit with the first graders at her school! I sometimes get discouraged  that all this social media socializing doesn’t seem to make a difference – but here’s a positive example of it working in a special way to make a very memorable experience for some first graders (and their parents and teachers) during these stressful times. I will let you know how it goes!

What makes this special visit extra special is that one of the very reasons I wrote LOVE IS KIND was to show in fun story form what love and kindness in action could look like. Now, in celebration of this teacher and her class, I thought it would be fun to share a few book-inspired tips to foster kindness in our kids. My hope is that they will inspire you and your little ones to follow in Little Owl’s footsteps and spread love and kindness near and far.

Tip #1: Be kind yourself. As Grammy from LOVE IS KIND would most certainly remind us, our little owls, I mean kids, are watching our every move. They are learning from us, seeing if our words match our actions. If we want them extend love and kindness to others, we must first be intentional about being kind ourselves in ways big and small.

Tip #2: Brainstorm ways to be kind. Little Owl was kind and loving every step of the way on his quest to get Grammy those chocolates, but he didn’t realize it until Grammy pointed it out. Sometimes reminders are helpful, so after reading the story, spend a few minutes brainstorming with your children some ways we can be kind to others. Consider having an older child write down your family’s ideas, then put them on the fridge as a visible daily reminder.

Tip #3: Make “good manners” a habit. Did you notice how polite Little Owl was throughout the story? And how good manners came so naturally to him? He said things like, “Have a good day!”, “Congratulations!” and “That’s nice.” I suspect Little Owl’s mama and papa and teacher were hard at work on a daily basis instilling those simple niceties. As parents (and grandparents) and caregivers, we can do the same with our kids so that when they are out and about those kind and friendly interactions are second nature.

Tip #4: Wear “kindness glasses.” I like to wrap up author visits by challenging the kids to be kind to those around them just like Little Owl. To help them remember this, I have them first hold their hands together so that thumbs and fingers touch to form a heart shape. I explain that these are their kindness glasses and I ask them to look through them every morning when they wake up and we all try it, which generates giggles all around. Then, while looking at them through my heart-shaped glasses, I challenge them to find at least one opportunity before the sun sets to extend kindness to another in an unexpected way. The silliness is part of the magic and it sets the tone for a good day. (Note: This tip pairs nicely with tip #2)

Tip #5: Catch each other being kind! Grammy caught Little Owl completely by surprise when she pointed out that he’d shown love and kindness along the way to Grammy’s house. And what was Little Owl’s reaction? He was thrilled! He realized HE was the gift and that his kindnesses towards others were better than any store-bought gift. Likewise, your children will be delighted when you notice their kind deeds. And this, I am certain, will spur them on to more and more and more! And that should make every parent’s heart sing. It sure makes mine!

Blessings to you and your kids as you lovingly instill in them hearts for spreading love and kindness.

Note: A version of this post previously appeared on Jean Matthew Hall’s delightful blog.  Please also enjoy her review of my book GOODNIGHT, MANGER, along with her rich archive of posts about both the writing and reading of picture books. And while you are there, be sure to check out her Bountiful Blessings Picture Book Series. Thank you, Jean!

THOUGHT FOR THE DAY: Tending the Soul DAFFODIL Style!

As I was out for a stroll with the pooch the other day (one of my Covid19 anxiety-relieving strategies), I was struck by the beauty and diversity of the daffodils in my neighborhood. I had no idea there were so many varieties – all heralding spring as they stretch towards the sun in full bloom. I was so moved with feelings of joy and calm, even in the midst of this pandemic which has me quite unnerved, that I stopped at several spots along my walk to take pictures of them with my phone.  I’ve been wanting to share the pictures, but wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted to say.

Then, just before bedtime, this lovely email popped into my inbox. It’s from Miss A’s second grade teacher. Miss A, as many of you may know, is now in 9th grade, but this teacher was a favorite and over the years we’ve bumped into each other at the super market and such. This note reflects a different kind of interaction- a fleeting drive by that I didn’t even notice at the time.   Here are her sweet words:

Hope all is well with you and your family. I often see you walking with your husband or dog. One day I saw you walking and taking pictures of flowers and it brought a smile to my face!!! Of course I always thing of [Miss A] when I see you.

After I read her note (which brought a smile to my face), I knew what I wanted to say in this blog post because I’m pretty sure the flowers she saw me taking pictures of were these daffodils! Of course, I’ve also been taking pictures of cherry blossoms, apple blossoms, azalea, teddy bears in windows (part of a town scavenger hunt to keep the kids entertained) and more! Those particulars don’t matter. The point is she caught me doing two things that are helping me to stay calm and even joyful in this time –– going on walks with the pooch and my husband –– and stopping to enjoy small things, like daffodil blossoms, along the way!  

So here’s my thought for the day. Like these daffodils, who bloom with such gorgeous diversity during this most unusual spring, we too can thrive, and even find calm and joy, in the midst of this anxious moment. There are lots of ways to bloom and thrive. For me – a walk helps.  Others find joy and peace in baking, or taking up beloved hobbies like quilting or knitting. I’ve spotted more people than ever out for runs and bike rides. Virtual gatherings have also helped to bring a sense of connection and love for many during this time. 

How are you finding ways to reach for the sun and dance in the breeze – during this unprecedented moment in time? As these daffodils remind me, there is not a single right way to tend your soul.  But however you choose to do it, I hope you take a little daffodil time today to nurture yourself. I, for one, plan to go on a nice long walk and see what small joys I can find along the way.  Happy Wednesday all!

SUNDAY REFLECTION: Thoughts on Wind and Faith

As it says on the banner above, this blog focuses on matters of reading, writing and life. Today’s post fits squarely in that last category. I hope it resonates as you walk through your day on this second Sunday (at least for us in New Jersey) of heightened regulations due to Covid 19.

I could really hear and feel the wind this morning as I was out on my first walk of the day. As it rustled the new spring leaves and tousled at my hair, I was reminded that God is present in the midst of this pandemic, even if we can’t see Him. And if we open our hearts we will sense His presence. 

But as I walked on, soaking up this beautiful, if brisk, sunny morning, it also struck me that God’s presence isn’t actually unseen. I cannot see the wind, but I can see how it makes flowers dance and branches sway. Likewise, I cannot see God, but I can see His movement as He works through those around me with acts of kindness, compassion, grace and more. I wonder how God will work through me and you today? Blessings, all!

The Christmas Memory That Inspired GOODNIGHT, MANGER

Have you ever wondered what inspired the author to write your favorite Christmas picture books? Well, we can’t answer to every story, but this week I’ve teamed up with fellow Christmas picture book authors Glenys Nellist, Mindy Baker, Crystal Bowman and Elizabeth Jaeger to present five days of “What Inspired the Story?” where we’re each sharing a short video clip describing a Christmas memory or tradition that inspired us to write our books.

Today it’s my turn today to share the inspiration behind GOODNIGHT, MANGER. And if you want to be sure to hear all the others, I invite you to like/follow me and the others on Facebook and Twitter. That way you’ll be sure to see all five of us share our stories because I’ll be sharing everyone’s inspirational clips all week. Enjoy!

SETTING THE GEARS IN MOTION: Writerly Thoughts inspired by my Antique Clock

In addition to the little toy train (circa 1906) that was my grandfather’s and the glass box that contains a chunk of the old-fashioned soap I helped make at the local 1740s living history museum where I volunteer, one of my favorite possessions above my fireplace is the pre-civil war mantel clock that I acquired from a dear family friend 15 or so years ago.  

Pre-electric, the clock needs to be “set in motion” each week by a steady winding of the gears using a lovely antique key, followed by a a gentle sideways nudge to the pendulum.  It’s a joy and a responsibility to do this each week, for my deliberate efforts set in motion not only a delightfully soothing tick-tock as the pendulum swings and the hands on the clock move forward second by second, but also a deeply resonant hourly chime,  set in motion by means of a coiled wire that releases a hammer that strikes the chime. 

All this winding, ticking, swinging and chiming is also a weekly reminder to me that “setting the gears in motion” is an important part in the life of a writer.  Nothing happens, writing-wise or clock-wise, if gears aren’t set in motion. In fact, with an antique clock, neglecting to set the gears in motion each week, if prolonged can freeze up the mechanics, thus destroying the lovely old-fashioned tick and gong that I so enjoy. 

Neglecting to set my writerly gears in motion on a weekly, or even daily basis, can have a similar effect. Not that my writing mechanics are destroyed, but I definitely start to feel rusty, and if I don’t do at least something to keep those gears in motion on a regular basis, it takes much longer to get back into a nice writing groove -or productive “tick-tock”, as I like to think of it. 

Now, with the holiday season upon us, it might be hard to find long stretches of time to pursue writerly passions, but not impossible!  With that in mind, and inspired by my antique mantel clock, here are FIVE ways, we can keep our writing gears in motion, even when life gets busy. 

1. If writing daily through the holidays is the goal, “setting the gears in motion” might simply mean getting up 30 minutes earlier to do just that.

2. If  trying a new genre is the goal, “setting the gears in motion”  could mean something as simple as going to the library and checking out several books in that genre and using them as mentor texts so that, either now or in the new year, you will be ready to write that first draft.

3. If getting a manuscript ready for publication is the goal, “setting the gears in motion” might mean taking thirty minutes every few days to revise again… and again… and again.

4. If publication us the goal, “setting the gears in motion” can be something as preliminary and vital as researching possible publishers or agents who might be good fits for your work… and then (when ready) sending that your best pieces off!

5. If  promoting an upcoming release is the goal, “setting the gears in motion” might mean taking daily small, but proactive, steps to set up a blog tour, arrange for book store visits, reach out to your publicist to see what they are doing etc.  

“Setting the gears in motion” doesn’t have to be big and splashy. It just needs to be intentional and weekly, or even better, daily. Take it from my clock – regular devotion to the craft we love best, pays off!  

Keep ticking and have a wonderful week!