Summer time reminds me that I LOVE perennials, those wonderful plants that bloom in my garden, season after season, where they are enjoyed by all, again and again. My favorites include my butterfly bush, the daisies, the echinacea, and black-eyed susans.
The joy of seeing my perennials bloom more gloriously than ever has gotten me thinking about how picture books – the good ones – are like perennials too, enjoyed by generations of kids and caregivers. So, what makes a picture book a perennial favorite?
I’m sure I’m just scratching the surface, but here are FIVE characteristics that I think elevate a picture book to perennial status. What would you add?
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.
One of my favorite books as a child was LE PETIT PRINCE which I read in French because we were living in Paris at the time. My teacher, Mme. Lucas, chose it for our class because it was relatively simple in terms of word choice and sentence length, which was perfect for intermediate level students (and foreigners) like me. But even as an eleven year old, I understood that there was more to the story than the relatively simple word choice and plot structure. THE LITTLE PRINCE, I soon discovered, had the magic ability to touch readers on different levels. It was my first exposure to allegory and symbolism and reading it brought storytelling to life for me in a new way that still resonates with the reader and writer in me.
But, there was one part of the book that for years I just didn’t get. What was up with those pesky baobabs? The Little Prince was so adamant about plucking them the minute they sprouted on his little asteroid B612, that he insisted the narrator draw a picture of what a planet overrun by baobabs might look like as a warning to children who might travel to faraway planets as he had. “If you attend to a baobab too late,” he warned, “you can never get rid of it again!” As a child, the picture of the baobab infested planet was of my favorites because I thought it so preposterous.
To this day, every time I pluck a wayward oak or maple or elm sapling, I think of the Little Prince and those baobabs which is, in and of itself, a testament to the power of story. It wasn’t until last summer however, when an unusually large number of Rose of Sharon saplings invaded a corner of our back yard, that I fully appreciated his insistence on attending promptly to wayward saplings.
At first, I ignored our sprouting Roses of Sharon. After all, they were small and green and seemingly harmless, right? By end of summer, though, I had second thoughts and decided I should pluck them. And guess what? The Little Prince was right! I had waited too long. It was such hard work plucking all those tenacious little saplings that I vowed never again to ignore a wayward sapling. However, I noticed this summer that I didn’t quite get them all, which attests to his princely wisdom.
I think the Little Prince’s wisdom can be applied to our writing as well. First, if we’re not careful, just like that baobab-infested planet, the little planet that is our work-in-progess can quickly become overrun with filler words, tell-y descriptions, forced plot twists etc. Our job as writers, then, is, first, to be able to recognize those unwanted story bits, and second, to be willing to pluck them, just as the Little Prince insisted, before they take over our story planet.
But the Little Prince didn’t pluck everything. He allowed some seedlings to grow, like his treasured rose. He tended to that rose with the utmost care because she, unlike the baobab, was the perfect size for his planet. And he liked her company. Likewise, our writing notebooks and computer files are filled with all sorts of stories-in-progress. Some have more potential than others. The trick is to have the discernment to see which story seedlings are worth pursuing so they grow into magnificent – publishable – stories.
With that last thought in mind, I’d like to share one final image. Nine years ago I spotted a wayward sapling growing in the garden by the fence. It was a nice little sapling and I kind of liked it there, so let it be and it grew… and grew… and grew. It now provides nice shade in that part of the yard. It turns out it’s an elm, the offspring, probably, of the old elm just up the street that had to be chopped down last summer because, after almost 100 years, it was sick. And now… there’s a new tree – with a new story to tell.
This week as you sit down to write, what kinds of seedlings do you spot – both within your stories-in-progress and in the larger body of your ideas and projects? Are there some story bits that need to be plucked or stories-in-progress that need to be set aside? Then do that! But surely there are also a few projects or ideas, that like this vibrant young elm, are meant to survive and thrive and enrich the world. Don’t pluck those! Instead tend to them with loving care! Happy writing, all!
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 the summer of 2018.
My daughter loves creating new recipes and one of her favorite strategies in the kitchen is to take a tried-and-true favorite, and then add an unexpected twist. Most of the time her creations are delicious, but tonight, as I’m reminiscing about her joyful kitchen spirit, I’m reminded of the time she proudly offered me her fresh out of the oven creation – “the scuffin”, as she called it, a creative combination of two favorite teatime treats – the muffin and the scone. Sounds delish, right?
We thought so too, so before actually tasting them, we posted on Facebook this delectable-looking picture along with this tantalizing description:
“Crispy on the outside like a scone and fluffy on the inside like a muffin…with chocolate chips too. Yum!”
Immediately, “likes” and congratulatory comments filled my Facebook timeline. But, to our horror, when we took our first nibbles we discovered they were… awful! Thus, in the interest of full-disclosure, I added this to the post:
“…to be perfectly honest, once we tried them we both agreed that they were a little heavy and they stuck to the paper. I think, in all honesty, that they should be called “mones” instead of “scuffins” because that better connotes the feeling you have have after eating one.”
Writing can be a lot like baking. Often, the results of experimentation are successful, but sometimes instead of picture book “scuffins” we produce “mones”. So what’s the secret to distinguishing between story drafts that are light and delicious, as opposed to “mone” inducing? Miss A. and I are so glad you asked. Here are our suggestions:
TIP #1: Give your “scuffin”, er story, time to cool before tasting. This will allow you to remove yourself a little from the the process, so that you can discern – without so much emotion – whether your creation is light and delicious… or not.
TIP #2: Keep track of drafts so you know what’s working or not in each round of recipe, er story, creation, so you can add and modify intelligently. After assessing her recipe notes, Miss A. thought, perhaps, that she added too much oil to her batter, and in revising for the next batch, she used less. The new “scuffins”, IMHO, were better, as a result. Likewise, if you keep track of changes/additions/deletions made to each draft of your story, you can more easily assess and make effective improvements.
TIP #3: Let a few trusted critiquers sample and give feedback on your latest “scuffin” in progress. As Miss A. discovered, the feedback from a slightly more seasoned baker (me!), was just what she needed to take her “scuffin” from “mone” to “magnifique”!
TIP #4: DO NOT send to local bakeries, i. e. publishers, too soon! Not that Miss A has even considered marketing her kitchen creations, it’s still good advice. Far too many new writers, submit their work to publishers far too quickly when patience, I have learned, is the better way… by FAR!
Well, that’s it from the Sassi kitchen today! Happy story baking!
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. This oldie but goodie was first published in April 2018 (but it was baked in 2016).
On a recent walk, I noticed a squirrel scurrying up and down a tree carrying bits of thatch and leaves, to line her nursery, I guessed. A couple weeks later this baby squirrel showed up on my porch. Could he be one her babies, I wondered?
I don’t about you, but during this pandemic, going on walks has become a soul-nurturing necessity, so every day I strive to intentionally slow down and savor the little things. With all that’s going on the world right now, it would be easy to miss these little glimpses of joy and wonder and that would be a colossal shame.
This deliberate slowing down has gotten me thinking about my life as a writer. I’ve discovered over time that my most satisfying writing days are those in which I pause from the hectic pace of it all to ponder chirping birds or baby squirrels (or whatever) – in other words, to allow myself to slow down enough to see the world with the child-like wonder we all once possessed.
Heaven knows, the publishing world moves slowly enough, so what’s the rush, really? Especially, when there’s so much pleasure and inspiration to be gained from pausing to see the world from the unrushed and wondrous perspective of a child!
Now, in celebration of child-like wonder and the pleasures of slowing down, I offer you:
FOUR Tips to Help the WRITER in You SLOW DOWN (and See the World Anew)
SPEND TIME with a CHILD. There’s nothing quite as perspective changing as spending time with a little one. Play a game together. Ask questions. Talk. See the world through their eyes. (During this time of social distancing, this can be done virtually!)
CLEAR the CALENDAR for a morning. Then find a spot, preferably outside, and be still – or go on a quiet walk as I do. Listen to the sound of the wind rustling the leaves or the peals of children’s laughter. Quietly follow the trail of a chipmunk. What is he doing? Where is he going? You will be amazed at how alive and fresh everything (and you) will feel! And, if you are anything like me, you will come away with at least a dozen new writing ideas.
DEDICATE an AFTERNOON to READING PICTURE BOOKS. As soon as libraries and bookstores re-open, settle yourself down in the children’s department of your local library or at your favorite bookstore and READ! Pick old favorites as well as newer titles. Before long, those stories will transport you to the magical world of child-like wonder. Have a notebook handy because you never know what long-forgotten memory your reading will stir. (And for now, go investigate the books you have on hand, or tune in to the many virtual read-alouds that are temporarily available – thanks to the generosity of many publishers – during this unprecedented time.)
Investigate AUTHENTIC CHILDHOOD WRITINGS. These can be your own childhood writings or, if you’re like me, you’ve also saved your children’s writings. I always ask my kids permission to read through their old school journals and story folders, and they always grant it. I’m so happy they do, because those journals, as well as my own childhood scribblings, are precious sources of authentic kid-talk and they always inspire me.
Happy Monday all! And may we each find time to stop and revel in the wonder of small joys – both new and old – and transform them into amazing new writing pieces.
I chipped a mug today. Not just any mug. It’s a mug my mother and I bought together a few years ago. She lived in Colorado at the time and I lived in New Jersey. She had one just like it and I when I drank from it, I would think about us sipping tea together, even though we were apart physically. The connection I feel with that mug has only gotten stronger since she passed away. When I sip from it as I read or write, it’s almost as if my mother is nearby, looking on in her loving way.
I think I can still use the mug for a little bit, but the crack runs long and I know that bacteria will set in and that at some point very soon I will need to set the mug aside and say goodbye do it. All this has gotten me thinking about things that are temporal versus things that are eternal.
This mug is temporal — and by that I mean it is earthly, physical, finite. Very soon it will join a remarkably large collection of other dishes that I have chipped, broken, or shattered.
But the love I have for my mother is eternal, just as is the love I have for my family, my husband, my children, my father and my grandparents. Likewise, I know that the love God has for me and for our world is eternal and that gives me great hope in this moment in which we find ourselves.
As we step into this week ahead, my hope for me (and for you to, if you are willing) is that we would focus on things eternal even in the midst of the temporal.
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!
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.
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!
Not only has my dad always been a loving, caring father (and more recently a wonderful champion of my writing endeavors), he’s also been a life long creator of wonderful phrases that make life a little bit funnier. Memorable dad phrases include “I’m going to get my hairs cut”, instead of haircut, “Don’t worry, Daddy-do-it”, and, my favorite, “Okay, kids, we’re taking the long cut”, the opposite of short cut, which translated means, “I took a wrong turn, so now we’re going to explore”.
On road trips as a child (and we took many), I remember my mother would often sigh and roll her eyes (in a loving way) when Dad announced that we were taking yet another “long cut” because he was a real stickler for doing it himself (i.e. “Daddy-do-it”) and refused to stop and ask for directions, unless the long cut got really, really long, or if it became apparent that we were just going in circles and even then he might not ask for directions.
But though she might roll her eyes, I think secretly she, and certainly my sister and I, came to really love and appreciate Dad’s “long cuts”. After all, without them, we might never have discovered that little out of the way village with the wonderful bed and breakfast run by a little Scottish woman who took us under her wing the time we got lost, I mean “took the long, long cut” through some Scottish countryside.
And without one of my dad’s “long cuts” we would never have had the amazing fascination of having a picnic in a field in Spain, next to a big, big rock, only to discover the skeleton of a cow on the far side of the rock! (Actually, my dad discovered that and wouldn’t let us look, which I for a long time I resented, but which actually I now realize he was doing to save us from losing our appetites).
And without my dad’s “long cuts” we most likely would never have found the perfect lunch spot in a meadow overlooking the Chateau de Chantilly, or have sat on a lonesome bench on a twisty mountain road with a view like this!
Looking back on my childhood, some of my favorite memories are of discovering unexpected and wonderful spots while were were taking “the long cut” between destinations. I see now that those “long cuts” instilled in me an important life principle, for they taught me, in a wonderfully meandering fashion, that life is richer when I’m not rushing from one pre-determined destination to the next. In fact, in my opinion, the best part of living is being willing to take the long cut and enjoy the wonderful things you discover along the way. Thank you, Dad, for instilling that in me!
Now for the writing tie-in: Like many new writers, when I first started out, I expected immediate results – i.e reaching my destination without any twists or turns. And I’m embarrassed to say that in those first couple of years, as I was exploring the craft, I submitted stories and poems to publishers far too prematurely. Now, when I look back at my earliest pieces, I’m amazed at how stilted, clumsy and rough they are. Indeed, it wasn’t until I slowed down and really started to savor the writing process through years of writing daily, reading, studying the craft, attending conferences, and participating in peer critique (in other words, taking the writerly version of “the long cut”) that I began to develop into the writer I am today (who is still ever-working on improving and expanding her craft).
So, here is my bit of writerly wisdom for the day: Writing is not a race to get published. It’s a beautiful “long cut” journey to be savored and enjoyed. So, take heart and be patient. Join a critique group. Attend a conference. Sign up for a writing class. Read a book about writing. Spend time at the library reading all the picture books you can get your hands on. And, through it all, keep writing, writing, writing! The results may not fit your pre-conceived conceived timeline, but if you keep at it, I think you will find that the “long cut” journey – though not short, to be sure, – is rewarding.