THE TEL OF THE JRAGIN AND THE GOL: Five PICTURE BOOK Writing Tips from a Four-Year Old!

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“The Tale of the Dragon and the Girl” by W, age four

Look what I found today while rummaging through the third drawer in my desk. It’s the first book my son ever wrote – as a four year-old.  He’s written other things since, but this was the first. (Yeah, I know. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.)

I remember the day well.  My son announced one morning that, like me, he wanted to be a writer and that he was going to write a book. Next thing I knew, he had planted himself at the dining room table with paper and pencil. Then he wrote and wrote. He didn’t stop until he was finished. Once he did, he didn’t let me peek. Instead he ran to our craft drawer and grabbed construction paper for the book cover.  With my help, we stapled the book together. Then, and only then, did he let me read it.  I needed his help the first time through, but his imagined spelling makes total sense to me now and I love how he didn’t let his lack of spelling knowledge keep him from expressing himself.

Here’s the story.  I’ve translated it in the captions, but just for fun, see if you can figure it out for yourself first.  Then, take a moment to think about my writerly takeaways from this authentic 4-year-old writing sample.  Enjoy!

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“You might not think that nothing might happen to Annie, but something happened to her.”

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“It happened by a dragon.”

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“We don’t know why the dragon took her.”

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“The dragon took her because it was hungry.”

I find this writing sample especially fascinating because it reveals one four-year-old’s perspective on what makes a winning picture book. Now, inspired this find, here are five characteristics of effective picture books – as seen through the writings of a four-year-old.

TIP #1: Have an attention grabbing title. I just love W.’s title.  I mean who wouldn’t want to read a tale of a dragon and a girl?  For me, at least, it immediately evokes fairy tales and magic. So, here’s my takeaway. What’s the first glimpse you get of a book sitting on the shelf at the library?  The spine of course. And on that spine you’ll find the title. So, using my son’s catchy title as an example, I think it’s worth considering that if want your book to stand out, a catchy title is a must.

TIP #2: Employ suspenseful page turns.  Even at age four, W. understood the power of a page turn.  He even included page numbers within his text. And if you carefully examine story, you’ll see that each page ends with a little tease – almost a cliff hanger.  This, I believe, is a reflection of something he enjoyed most as young partaker of picture books – the power of a suspenseful page turn. As you analyse your own work-in-progress, be inspired by W. and take a moment to consider how well-placed page turns can enhance your story.

TIP# 3: Keep your text sparse but active. You have to admit W.’s text is pretty lean.  There’s no fluff to be found. Every word he uses pushes his four-year-old story forward.  In fact, his story is almost blunt in its intensity. Likewise, as we write our stories, we need to to shed every word that doesn’t push the story forward – relying on meaty verbs and vivid nouns to bring our tales to life.

TIP #4 Create conversation sparking content. You can almost sense that one of W.’s favorite parts of reading picture books as a preschooler was the conversation that each page sparked.  We never just read a story through. Instead, we asked each other questions, pondered the pictures, and wondered what might happen next.  W.’s text almost reads as an answer to those questions.  As such, his wording is a great reminder to the picture book writer in me that I, too, want to make sure my stories open themselves to lots of interactive reading.

TIP #5 Don’t forget the conflict! Even as a four-year-old, W.’s writing reveals that he had a strong sense of one of the fundamentals to a good story.  Conflict!  A good story needs to have a problem that the character faces, learns from, and hopefully overcomes.  Poor Annie was eaten, but we as the readers, figured out why.  It’s because the dragon was hungry and hopefully, from now on, you’ll steer clear of hungry dragons.  But seriously,  W.’s story is a good reminder that, like dragons, children do indeed hunger for good stories with plenty of action, conflict, and excitement.

Happy writing, all!

AWKWARD! Capturing Ideas at Inconvenient Times

IMG_4133I don’t know about you, but over the years, I’ve discovered that inspiration often hits at the most inconvenient times – like when I’m in the shower or in the middle of the night or when I’m out walking the dog.

I’ve developed a few strategies to capture those awkwardly timed bits of inspiration. For starters, I keep a pen and notebook by my bedside for those middle of the night moments. We also have an antique slate chalkboard in our kitchen where I often capture bits of inspiration. (My children know never to erase funny looking word snippets without first checking with me.)  And I always have a pen in my purse. I try to have little notebook as well, but if I don’t I’ve become quite skilled at writing on napkins, old ticket stubs, receipts etc. I’ve also been known, if out and about without the necessary idea capturing tools,  to talk aloud to myself, repeating that perfectly phrased new rhyming snippet, until I get home or find emergency access to pen and paper.

These strategies, however, are far from perfect.

There was the night, for example, when I came up with the perfect third verse for a poem I was working on.  Not wanting to wake my husband, I quickly grabbed my bedside note book and pen and wrote the verse down in the dark.  The next morning I was dismayed to discover the page was completely blank. I’d written with the cap on!

And my children have made it perfectly clear through eye rolls, etc. that they find it embarrassing when we’re walking together and I start to repeat verses out loud while on walks so that I don’t forget them.  Mortified, I think would be the right word their reaction.

That’s why I’m delighted to have hit upon a new idea capturing device – the “notes” feature on my iPhone. Since I’m a terrible at texting – all thumbs as they say-  I use the handy dictation mode to record sparks of inspiration or that perfect phrase for my current work-in-progress.  This system works well, though I have be careful to speak slowly and clearly or the words get jumbled.

What about you?  How do you handle it when creativity strikes when you are busy with something else? I’d love to hear your stories of funny, awkward inspiration moments and/or what you find to be the most effective way to capture ideas.

Happy idea gathering, all!

 

 

KINDERGARTEN POETRY MOMENT: How High Can a Cow Jump?

P1010023.JPGJust in time for National Poetry Month, I rediscovered this little treasure while paging through one of my old notebooks. It’s a perfect example, not only of seizing the moment, but of the power of poetry to spark not only conversation, but creativity!  ENJOY!

“How high can a cow jump?” my newly-minted five year old asks from the back of the car – all serious and deep in thought.

“Come again?” I ask.

“How high can a cow jump?” she repeats. “You know, COWS?” And she drags out the word C-O-W-S to make sure I really understand.

“They can’t,” I reply. “Cows can’t jump. They can moo and chew grass, and they sort of plunk along slowly, but they can’t jump.”

There’s a momentary quiet in the back and I can tell by my daughter’s squiggly brows that she’s perplexed. Finally, she says, in exasperation, “Then how did the cow jump over the moon?”

As we wait for the light to change, I consider the various ways I might answer this. “It’s just pretend,” I want to say, but this, I know, will be too abstract or her. She understands real versus make believe, in theory, but in practice she still gets scared during movies with cartoon characters. She also believes in fairies and Santa and so the distinction is still very fuzzy.

So instead, I say, “Come now, can a dish run? Can a spoon dance?”

My daughter giggles. “No!”

So I continue, “Can cats fiddle?”

“No!” she snorts between giggles.

“Do dogs laugh?” I ask.

By now, my daughter is hysterical. “Say more funny stuff!” she squeals.

So I do. “Do hamsters play flutes?” I ask. “Now your turn!”

My daughter explodes with laughter. Then she says, “No! Do fish dance ballet? Now your turn, Mommy.”

And so we continue, getting sillier and sillier with each passing car. As we head for home, it dawns on me that, as a poet and picture book author, this is exactly the kind of conversation I hope my writing will spark.  And I am reminded, once again, of the power of stories and poems, to spark – not only conversation – but creativity as well!

Happy National Poetry Month all!

Celebrating THE GREEN UMBRELLA: 10 Extension Activities!

This week I’m sharing yet another ADORABLE new picture book out just in time for Valentine’s Day. Written by Jackie Azua Kramer and charmingly illustrated by Maral Sassouni in their double debut, THE GREEN UMBRELLA (NorthSouth Books, Inc, 2017) is story of a friendly pink elephant, his green umbrella, and the imaginative friends he meets along the way.  Treat yourself to the delightful book trailer. Then help yourself to a rich serving of extension activities celebrating rain, friendship, sharing, and the power of imagination!

 

THE GREEN UMBRELLA:  10 Extension Activities 

Make umbrella valentines. With its theme of friendship and kindness, The Green Umbrella makes a perfect Valentine’s read.  Afterwards, celebrate friendship and kindness with your child by making these cute umbrella-inspired valentines using colorful paper, index cards, and those mini candy-canes that you might still have left over from Christmas!   

img_3858Be an inventor. After enjoying the story, extend the fun by having your child imagine how THEY might creatively re-purpose the umbrella if they were in the story.  Then using paper or clay, or whatever materials tickle your fancy, bring your idea to life!  (For extra fun, have have a few cocktail umbrellas on hand to be incorporated into the creation.

Put on a play.  Creatively re-enacting the story is a great way to embrace and reinforce the wonderful concepts of empathy, friendship, and imagination.  So, after reading the story, have fun retelling it using stuffed animals, puppets, or yourselves!  Don’t forget to use an umbrella as a prop!

img_3855Have an umbrella tea party. With your child’s help, fix a pot of tea (or lemonade) and arrange (or even bake) a plate of cookies.  Then grab a picnic quilt, an umbrella and, if possible, a few friends! Select a cheery spot outdoors (or indoors if it’s raining), then read and have tea under an umbrella, just the way Elephant and his friends do in the story.

IMG_3853.jpgTake a rainy day stroll.  Take advantage of the next rainy day to read the story and then take your very own stroll in the rain.  Catch rain drops on your tongue, splash through puddles, and take turns holding the umbrella for each other!  Then come inside for a book-themed rainy day snack of tea and cookies.

img_3851Shower the world with kindness (umbrella style!). Using little strips of paper brainstorm and write down 14 sweet acts of kindness.  (Ex. Hold the door open for someone; Make a card for someone; etc.)  Fold and tape the strips to the bases of little paper cocktail umbrellas.  Place umbrellas in a bowl. Each day, select an umbrella to find your surprise mission.  Then shower strangers and loved ones alike with your sweet acts of kindness.

Play umbrella hide and seek.  While one person has their eyes covered, another hides the umbrella making sure everyone else sees where it is hidden.  Then using clapping (to sound like soft rain or a raging storm) help the person whose eyes were covered to find the umbrella.  No voices allowed.  Only the pitter-patter of rain – soft if they are far from the umbrella and loud if they are close. (Warning:  This game will be a big hit!)

Play musical umbrella.  First put on your favorite children’s kindness/friendship themed album.  (We like anything Raffi at our house.)  Then, using the umbrella instead of the more traditional “hot potato”, sit in a circle and gently pass the umbrella to the music. When the music stops, everyone says one kind thing to the person holding the umbrella. Ex. You are funny.  I like your striped socks.  You make me feel welcome etc.)

Watch the book trailer. Then make your own!

Your turn!  I know I said 10, but I have a better idea! I bet you might have some, so in the comments section below, leave an idea and let’s see how many we end up with!

Happy Valentine’s Day and Happy Reading! 

To learn more about Jackie, visit her website.

To learn more about Maral, visit her website.

The ROSE: A Not Too Sappy Analogy (Well, Maybe a Little)

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I first posted this “rosy” post back in 2013 – my first February blogging.  However, with Valentine’s Day just around the corner, it still feels as fresh and fun as ever.  Enjoy!

It was sleeting and snowing, but I decided to walk anyway. The world was black, white, and gray. Then something pink caught my eye. It was a rose, lying in the slushy street. I picked it up, for it was the perfect cheery burst of color on a dreary day. There must be some analogy to writing here, I reflected. My mind whirred with possibilities.

Nearing home, I crossed an old bridge with a wrought-iron railing. Setting my rose beneath the railing, I searched my purse for my camera to take the perfect shot of my rose set against a gray backdrop. It wasn’t there. Hurrying home, I grabbed it and invited my husband to join me on my picture-taking walk.

As we slushed along, I described my blog idea, that the rose might represent my cheery stories and poems. My husband thought for a moment, then observed, “Laura, the rose is decapitated.”

Then he mused, “And isn’t it odd to find real roses outside this time of year?”

Yes, perhaps, but that just made it more beautiful, right?

We were almost to the bridge when he asked the final blog-zapping question. “Where exactly did you find it?”

I pointed. “Up there, in front of the church.”

“Laura, there was a funeral there this morning.”

With heavy heart, I took my picture.

Once home, I set my rose afloat in a pretty bowl. And though I’ve enjoyed her beauty all week, my cheery analogy feels sappy now.

Now when I look at her all I can think is “heart”. This rose isn’t just some sugar-coated flower. She’s got backstory. First she was cut from the roots and decapitated, then tacked to a hearse, on a one-way trip to the cemetery. By chance she toppled off the hearse and was redeemed. It’s this history that makes her special and gives her dimension. It’s what gives her “heart”.

Likewise, to create heart-felt stories, we must create characters with heart, not just shallow pink rose representations. There are far too many picture books out there with one-dimensional characters. Others tend towards “cute” rather than “clever”, and those stories end up feeling sugar coated and sappy, much like my first rose analogy. But, dig a little deeper, to find the heart of your character’s problem and/or situation and you’ll have a story that resonates deeply with your reader.

Happy writing, all, and may all your stories be rosy (in the not sappy way).

FROSTY LEAVES: Seeing the World with Writerly Eyes

Look what I spotted on my walk  – frosty leaves sparkling in the early morning sun. Covered in the daintiest of crystals, they took my breath away and Sophie and I had to stop for a closer look. While she waited patiently, her sweet pants punctuating the morning cold in little steamy puffs, her tail wagging, I marveled at the intricacy of the crystal patterns and how the frost so beautifully outlined each leafy vein.

As we continued our walk, my mind was already racing in the way a writer’s mind does.  Do you know what I mean? Does your mind race too – forming poems and story lines – just at the sight of, say, morning frost?

img_3744This is not the first time frost has set my imagination in motion.  One early winter morning a couple of years ago, hoarfrost inspired a little poem about a chipmunk scurrying to get ready for winter.  That poem, entitled “Chipmunk’s First Frost”, appeared in the November 2013 issue of Clubhouse Jr.  I wonder what the frost will inspire this time? I’m not sure yet, but I think fairies may play a role.

I LOVE seeing the world through writerly eyes. It makes each day richer and each moment fuller.  I make observations that I might not otherwise, storing up treasured tidbits of humor, irony and beauty that become the spark for writing projects. Even if I never got published, I would still keep writing for it is a wonderful gift to be able to see the world through writerly eyes.

Now, as we start a new year, my heart is filled with joy at all the story and poem possibilities that await, ready for me to embrace – but only if I am attentive in using the gift of these writerly eyes!  HAPPY NEW YEAR and HAPPY WRITING ALL!

Going on a PATTERN Hunt (Plus a Craft): An Extension Activity for GOODNIGHT, MANGER

img_3308Teachers and Parents:  This is the second in a series I will be posting especially for you.  Over the course of the next few weeks, and in celebration of the release of the board book edition of GOODNIGHT, MANGER,  I will be posting several book-linked activities for you to enjoy with your children. 

Going on a PATTERN Hunt (Plus a Craft):

A GOODNIGHT, MANGER Extension Activity for Pre-Readers

Seeing and recognizing patterns are important skills for pre-readers. They lay the ground work for understanding words and stories. With that in mind, here are some fun pattern-related activities you and your child might enjoy after reading “Goodnight, Manger”.

Picture Patterns: Each page of “Goodnight, Manger” is full of colors and patterns. Colors alternate to form stripes.  Shapes are repeated (ex: stars, squares, dots, rectangles, milk splashes, palm fronds). As you explore Jane’s wonderful illustrations, see how many visual patterns you and your child can find. Afterwards, grab crayons and paper and make your own patterned star ornaments. (See sample below).  Or go on a pattern hunt around your house looking for fun visual patterns in curtains, plants, tiles etc.

Text Patterns: The text, too, is patterned visually. Pre-readers might enjoy examining the lay out of words. With your child, notice how the text is clumped into verses. Count how many lines are in each verse (four) and note that this is a repeating pattern throughout the story.

Sound Patterns: When you read the story aloud you’ll note that the sounds of the words form their own patterns as well. With your child, listen for sound patterns. Each verse contains rhyming words at the end of the 2nd and 4th lines (ex: fed/bed, itches/twitches). There are also words that repeat one right after the other (ex: No! No! No! and tap, tap, tap).  After exploring different sound patterns, you and your child might enjoy making a game of creating your own sound patterns using rhyme and repetition.

EXTRA FUN:   Celebrate the joy of Christmas and reinforce the fun of patterns with this simple craft.

img_33071. Cut a simple star shape from stiff paper.

2. Review different pattern options with your child – ex. stars, stripes, dots, swirls, etc.

3. Using pencil, have your child lightly outline the patterns on the ornament, using Jane Chapman’s delightful illustrations as inspiration.  Then, using markers or crayons, color it in!

4.  Tape a yarn or ribbon loop to the back. Then, hang your pretty patterned star on a door nob or on the Christmas tree.

THE POWER OF LISTS: Getting Your Creative Juices Flowing

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Please join me over at my online critique group’s blog – PENS AND BRUSHES – for some thoughts on making lists as a writer. I’ll make it easy for you. Press here.

THE POWER OF SMELL: An Olfactory Reminder for Writers

Pee ew stinkyRecently, prompted by a very whiffy truck ahead of us, my daughter and I passed a most enjoyable half-hour brainstorming all the smells we love and hate. Some we agreed upon. Others we did not.  Still, we both agreed that smells add richness to life.

The lists we compiled serve as fragrant and stinky  reminders that kids LOVE the idea of SMELLINESS and that, as a picture book author, I need to remember my readers noses. Take a whiff (rather than a peek) at our lists below. What would you add?

Our List of FAVORITE SMELLS… coffee percolating,  puppy ears, strawberries, asphalt after a summer rain, salty sea air, damp earth, pizza in the oven, a clean baby, skunk (faint), lilacs in bloom, a crackling fire, candle smoke, newly mown grass, bubble gum, spring, balsam needles,  hamburgers on the grill, freshly laundered sheets, pumpkin pie, impending snow, herbs snipped from the garden, freshly sharpened pencils, old books, freshly polished wood, crayons, bacon sizzling, rubber boots, spent matches, peppermints, perfume, vanilla, honeysuckle, clover, brownies baking, mountain air, waxed hallways, leather, curry, onions sautéing, cedar chests, roses, hay, apple pie in the oven, soup simmering, new sneakers.

Our List of STINKY SMELLS… hot tar, mucky marshes, skunk (strong), cigar smoke, bus fumes, sour wash clothes, new mulch, dirty diapers, rotten eggs, doggy doo, butt snorts (as we call them in our family), clammy feet, stinky socks, wet wool, moldy cheese, manure, chicken coops, summer garbage cans, nail polish, sweaty armpits, old melon rind, gym lockers, dank cellars

A hint of odor, skillfully incorporated, can be a powerful addition a story. Indeed, I repeatedly hear from parents everywhere that their kids favorite spread of all in GOODNIGHT, ARK is the one in which two creatures, who shall remain nameless, make a BIG stink! 

What whiffy addition will you add to your WIP this week?

Happy writing!

 

 

SPRING POEM: The Spelling Bee

Spelling bee picToday I am delighted to be sharing a favorite poem of mine as part of Rebecca Gomez’s POETRY WEEK BY WEEK: A National Poetry Month Celebration. Rebecca is author of Hensel and Gretel: Ninja Chicks (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, May 2016) co-written by Corey Rosen Schwarz and illustrated by Dan Santat as well as What About Moose? (Atheneum, June 2015) also co-written by Corey Rosen Schwartz and illustrated by Keika Yamaguchi. She also writes poems for children which have appeared in Highlights for Children and elsewhere. Each week during April she is celebrating a different variety of poetry.  Last week she celebrated concrete poems. This week’s focus is animal rhymes. My poem, “The Spelling Bee” is a whimsical look at a new kind of bug.  Please buzz on over for a peek!  Happy  rhyming!