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!

CREATING AND CONNECTING: One Picture Book Author’s Journey

laurasassi5In January the editor of my alumni magazined asked if I might be interested in writing a piece for their new essay series on the Princeton Alumni Weekly website called “Voices”.  My name came to his attention because of my blog (just in case you’ve ever been torn about the benefit vs. effort of keeping a blog), and he asked if I might be interested in writing something about my experiences as an author of children’s books.

I said yes.  And today that piece is live! Titled “Creating and Connecting: One Picture Book Author’s Journey”, the essay is about how my passion for story has opened my heart and broadened my sense of community.  I’d be honored if popped on over for a read. Happy reading all!

 

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).

CHAOS TO CALM: My First TV Interview!

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Last night I had my first tv interview on a Christian parenting show called Chaos to Calm with Noelle Kirchner. We chatted about books, life, and faith.

Here’s Noelle’s official description of the  episode: “Children’s book author Laura Sassi is this month’s guest on my parenting TV series, Chaos to Calm with Noelle Kirchner! The episode topic is “The Calm of Building Faith Foundations,” and Laura will weigh in on that as an author, mother, and educator. The magic that makes her stories come alive will open new avenues for sharing faith in your own home!”

If you’d like to watch the episode, here is the link.  Be sure also to enter the wonderful 10-book giveaway that Zonderkidz has authorized in conjunction with Noelle’s episode.  For details and to enter, please visit Noelle’s blog.

GOODNIGHT, ARK: Original Spread (And a Writerly Pep Talk)

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I love my porch. It’s a wonderful spot for reading, people watching, and playing board games with my kids. It’s also a great landing spot for special packages, like this sturdy parcel which landed here on Friday!

I knew this was my long anticipated birthday/Christmas gift and I couldn’t wait to unwrap it!

First, there was the bubble wrap. Next, I could  could just see the top edge in a tidy plastic encased swirl.

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and then – oh my – in my hand!  

img_3783-1It’s the original hand-painted spread for the “Time for bed/It’s getting dark” spread in GOODNIGHT, ARK!  I just love the details in the original – actually being able to see the layering of paint and those tiger whiskers, Jane, are just amazing!  

Thank you, Dad, for this lovely gift, and thank you, Jane for being will to part with one of these treasures!  

img_3786After oohing and aahing with my family, I took the illustration straight to my favorite local framing shop.  And Stefanie and I (Thank you, Stefanie!) spent almost two hours playing with mattes and frames and lay out options.

Now, here’s my writerly pep talk – which I very much needed on Friday, by the way. I had optimistically put $.50 in the parking meter, thinking that an hour would be ample time to select the perfect matte, frame and layout for Jane’s piece.

But after an hour, we still hadn’t found a winning combination. To be honest, I was ready to be finished, but Stephanie handed me $.50 to replenish the meter and so, even though it was raining, I dashed out to buy another hour’s time.

When I returned to the shop, waterlogged, Stephanie said something so simple, yet so wise.  Here are her words:  “Oh, good, we’ve got more time because I think you and I both know it’s not quite working yet.”  I smiled at her honesty.  And somehow, with that truth now out there in the open, it was easier to return to the quest. Indeed, shortly thereafter, tucked low on one of her revolving racks, I found a simple wooden frame that really said “Noah’s Ark” to me. Once we had that, it was suddenly clear as daylight which matte we should use.  What it took was admission that we weren’t quite there yet and renewed intent and joy in the search.  

It’s like that as writers too.  We work and work on a story, at points even hoping that it’s finished and ready to submit.  But, sometimes, it just isn’t and what that story really needs is an honest voice – maybe your own, or maybe that of your critique partner or agent – to say “Keep at it, it’s not quite working yet”.  

Then, even if your spirit feels rained on, go add money to the meter!  Keep at it. Don’t give up! Persevere!  You will make that story sing. It may just take looking at it from a new perspective, digging deep and finding a new ending twist -or bit of arc- tucked low in the recesses of your brain, waiting to be discovered. 

Happy writing this rainy  week and don’t be afraid to add extra money to that meter!

STONE STORIES: What We Write and Why

Do you have favorite stories? Ones that have profoundly changed the way you look at the world?  My childhood favorites include Madeleine L’Engle’s A WRINKLE IN TIME and Kate Seredy’s THE CHESTRY OAK. But the story that’s had the biggest influence on how I view the world as a writer comes from the Old Testament. It’s found in the book of Joshua, chapters three and four. Here’s the gist of the story.

After wandering for forty years in the desert where God repeatedly provided for His people in amazing ways, yet repeatedly, they forgot His blessings, it was finally time to cross the Jordan River into the Promised Land. As God had done before when He parted the Red Sea so the Israelites could safely flee Egypt, He again parted the raging waters of the Jordan River so all of Israel could safely cross into the Promised Land. This time, in hopes they’d never forget His great provision, God instructed Joshua to have twelve men hoist twelve boulders from the center of the still-parted river and place them in a pile on the shore of Promised Land.  “In the future,” Joshua explained, “when your children ask why these rocks are sitting here, tell them the amazing story of how God helped us cross the Jordan River.”

The stories and poems that we write are like those stones. When read, they have the potential to leave a deep imprint in a child’s memory, serving not only as a reminder of experiences past, but offering glimpses into ways that are good, offering hope for the future, and joy in the present moment. It is my deepest wish is that the words I write, whether religious or secular, point kids towards goodness, hope, joy, and God.

What about you?  Have you ever thought about why you write?  If stories are rocks, what kinds of rocks are you writing?

(Note: This post first appeared on my blog in November 2102, but I’ve been thinking a lot lately about our mission as writers and thought it worth revisiting.)

FROSTED WINDOWPANES: The Magic of Picture Books

IMG_2856On this chilly Friday afternoon, with even colder weather in the forecast, I can’t resist reposting this old favorite.  Grab a cup of hot cocoa and enjoy!

There’s a scene in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s LITTLE HOUSE IN THE BIG WOODS in which Laura and Mary spend a magical morning etching pictures in the frosted windowpanes of their little cabin using Ma’s thimble.  As a child I wanted to try that, but our windows were too well-insulated to gather frost. Imagine my delight, then, to discover thick frost completely covering the old-fashioned windows of our detached garage. For several days, I’ve been itching to take my thimble and do a little ice etching of my own.  And that’s exactly what I did today, using my keys, instead.  Doesn’t it look magical?

Like window frost begging to be etched, good picture books invoke in me a nostalgic return to childhood and a reminder of the simple joys in life.  When my children were younger, our days were enriched by reading picture books.  What a treat it was to curl up together on the sofa with a stack of books.  The joy we found in those books was not flashy or over the top, but simple and deep. We cheered on Mike Mulligan and Maryanne, from Virginia Lee Burton’s MIKE MULLIGAN AND HIS STEAM SHOVEL (Houghton Mifflin Books for Children, 1939), to dig a little faster and a little deeper, and afterwards, scurried outside do our own digging in the snow.  And Sam McBratney’s GUESS HOW MUCH I LOVE YOU (Candlewick, 2005) evoked such warmth that we held our own matches to show how much we loved each other.

If you’re feeling like you’ve gotten too caught up in the busy-ness of life, may I suggest heading straight to the children’s department of your nearest library or bookstore and stocking up on some of your old favorites as well as some delightful new picture books? Then curl up and read, read, read!

It won’t take long to feel the magic, for picture books hold within their 32-pages, that sometimes much-needed reminder that our deepest joys are found in the simple pleasures of life – following a butterfly on her journey, getting a new pet, having a tea party on the porch, counting tadpoles in the swampy puddle in the woods.

Need help getting started?  Here are a few of my recent favorites:

John Himmelman’s KATIE LOVES THE KITTENS (Henry Holt and Co. 2008)

Ame Dyckman’s TEA PARTY RULES (Viking, 2013)

Sarah Weeks’ WOOF: A LOVE STORY (Laura Geringer Books, 2009)

Clare Jarrett’s ARABELLA MILLER’S TINY CATERPILLAR (Candlewick, 2008)

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!