LITTLE TOY CARS: Thoughts on Playing and Writing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AROUND THE WEB: October GUEST GURU at Rate Your Story

HAPPY OCTOBER! In the fun category, I’m Guest Guru at Rate Your Story for the month of October. Check out the interview and learn more about this resource for picture book writers. As part of my special duties, I’ll be rating four stories over the course of the month. So honored to be participating in this way, helping others along this journey. I hope you’ll pour yourself a fresh cup of coffee or tea and pop over for a read. I’ll make it easy for you. Here’s the link to the interview.

Happy reading and writing!

The Power of SETTING in PICTURE BOOKS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AUTHOR SPOTLIGHT: An Interview with Henry Herz in Celebration of the Release of I AM SMOKE

Today I’m delighted to host Henry Herz, author of many children’s books, including, most recently, I AM SMOKE (Tilbury House Publishers, 2021) which released two days ago. Illustrated by Mercè López, smoke itself acts as narrator in Herz’s story, telling us how it has served humankind since prehistoric times in signaling, beekeeping, curing and flavoring food, religious rites, fumigating insects, and myriad other ways. The book has already earned a Kirkus starred review, been listed in School Library Journal‘s The Most Astonishingly Unconventional Children’s Books of 2021, Kirkus’s 150 Most Anticipated Fall Books, and Children’s Book Council’s September 2021 list of anticipated bestsellers.

And now for the interview, with my questions bolded.

Welcome, Henry. You write for a variety of ages and in a variety of genres. Tell us a little bit about your writerly journey.

I was an engineer by education and profession. About fifteen years ago, I wanted to share my love of fantasy with my young sons. They were too little for watching most of the fantasy movies. Struck by inspiration one day, I came up with a way to share the joy of entering the magical realms of fantasy. I would create a fantasy book for them. That decision led me to discover my love of writing for kids.

If smoke were to narrate some lessons I’ve learned along my writerly journey, it might say:

  • I proofread over and over, but my manuscript still contains typos.
  • I must be in touch with my emotions to write, but I must develop a thick skin to handle the unavoidable rejection by agents and publishers. 
  • I must develop innovative concepts, but my books must fit into what publishers view as  marketable categories.
  • I must submit my manuscript at some point, but I always want to make one more revision.
  • I am eager to move ideas from my head to paper, but I must be patient while waiting for publisher responses.

What inspired you to write I AM SMOKE?

I’m inspired by many things in the natural world. I love how much personality dogs possess. I’m amazed that you can cut a piece off of a succulent, stick it in the ground, and grow a brand new succulent. That’s like making a whole new person from just a finger! The range of defense mechanisms employed by animals is amazing—from camouflage to squirting ink to being poisonous to mimicking predators. 

I find the use of fictional elements to convey facts a great way to engage with young readers and teach them without them realizing it. Fiction can be the melted cheese we pour on top of the broccoli of nonfiction. There are some picture books with anthropomorphic characters, but I’d never seen smoke treated as a character. And who better to explain the various ways in which people have employed smoke over the ages and across the world than smoke itself?

How does one research smoke? Were there any amazing moments where you discovered something completely new to you?

 I researched wood smoke and discovered it’s primarily carbon dioxide, ash, and water vapor. That got me thinking about the water cycle. Then it hit me that trees sequester carbon they extract from breathing in carbon dioxide. Eureka! Smoke has a “cycle” too. Fire releases wood’s molecules. Water eventually rains down and trees extract the carbon from the air to grow more wood. The “smoke cycle” became the framework within which I shared some of the many ways smoke has been used to fumigate homes, communicate over distances, cover unpleasant smells, aid beekeepers, flavor and preserve foods, participate in religious ceremonies, and heal. 

Teachers and parents are always looking for ways to tie picture books into the curriculum, and I think that’s especially true for a STEM rich book like this. Do you have any extension activities your readers might enjoy?

I don’t have any extension activities developed, but I would like to point out that in addition to its obvious chemistry (STEM) linkage, I Am Smoke can also be used to initiate conversations around history, geography, religion, and social studies.

Finally, what’s next? Are there more books in the pipeline?  Also, where can interested readers find your books?

I have a sci-fi/humor middle grade novel on submission and am revising a fantasy middle grade novel. I just became an editor for a small publisher, Running Wild Press. That should yield some interesting projects. My forthcoming books and stories include:

  • Denver Horror Collective’s adult horror anthology, THE JEWISH BOOK OF HORROR, will include my short story, Demon Hunter Vashti.
  • Launching in 2022 my contemporary magical realism early chapter book, THE MAGIC SPATULA from Month9 Books with co-author Sam “The Cooking Guy” Zien.
  • Launching in 2022 the middle-grade #ownvoices anthology from Albert Whitman & Co., COMING OF AGE, including my sci-fi/humor short story, Bar Mitzvah on Planet Latke.
  • Launching in 2022, the young adult horror anthology from Blackstone Publishing, THE HITHERTO SECRET EXPERIMENTS OF MARIE CURIE, including my short story, Cheating Death.
  • Highlights for Children has purchased two more of my stories, but I don’t know when those will come out. 

Thanks for having me!

Thank YOU for being my guest and for using your writing talents to create great books for kids.

MORE ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Henry Herz is the author of 11 traditionally published children’s books, eight children’s short stories, and over 20 adult short stories. He is co-editor of two children’s anthologies: THE HITHERTO SECRET EXPERIMENTS OF MARIE CURIE (Blackstone Publishing, YA) and COMING OF AGE: 13 B’NAI MITZVAH STORIES (Albert Whitman & Co., MG).

CONNECT ON THE WEB:

Website: https://www.henryherz.com 

Twitter: https://www.twitter.com/HenryLHerz 

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Henry.Herz 

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/henry_herz/

DIFFERENT LIKE ME: Six Extension Activities for 4 – 8 Year Olds

Today I am delighted to feature DIFFERENT LIKE ME, written by Xochitl Dixon and illustrated by Bonnie Lui. Published by Our Daily Bread Publishing in 2020, DIFFERENT LIKE ME is a joyous celebration of what makes us, God’s children, special. Through a delightful pairing of rhyming text and illustration, Xochitl Dixon and Bonnie Lui demonstrate through the example of a group of children, that though we are different, deep inside we feel things the same, have shared interests etc. and, thus, have much in common. The book’s takeaway is captured succinctly in the closing line: 

“I look all around me and what do I see?

God made every kid different…

and special like me!”

DIFFERENT LIKE ME would make wonderful addition to your church, school or home library. I can’t wait to share it with my Sunday School kids.

Now, in the hope of using the book as the spark for meaningful conversations with your little ones, here are SIX extension activities for DIFFERENT LIKE ME:

Play “God’s Heart” using chalk.  Read the story together, then head outside or to a large room for a game of “God’s Heart”. Using chalk or tape, draw a heart on the ground big enough for all the children to fit in. Ask what the heart reminds them of: God’s love! Explain that you will be calling out directions and if the answer to the direction is YES, they should run into the heart. Examples: “Step in to the circle if you have freckles(long hair, short hair etc.).” “Skip into the circle if you like pizza..” “March into the circle if you feel happy when others share.” etc. Continue until everyone is in the heart. Then, marvel at how wonderful it is that we are each unique creations, yet we all share much in common. And the best part is we are ALL in the heart. And what does that heart stand for?  God’s love!  And what does that remind us of? That we should love each other as God loves us! Play as many rounds as time and interest permit. 

After reading, think and talk.  This story can be used as a vivid spark for conversations with your little ones about embracing our diversity, noticing the wonderful ways we are alike and celebrating that we are created and loved by God. Use Xochitl’s question guide at the end of the book to get you started.

Do a picture read through. After reading DIFFERENT LIKE ME, flip things around by having your child re-read it to you using the pictures as clues! Reading the pictures is a great pre-reading skill because it encourages interacting with the page. It’s also a wonderful way to notice all the diverse and delightful details illustrator Bonnie Lui has added to the story. So, snuggle up and enjoy being “read” to. Reading the story again and again is also a good way to take to heart the message of the story (to quote Xochitl) – “that God intentionally created each person to be unique and to work together”.

Paint a rock that looks like YOU (or a friend… or both)! After reading the story, head outside to find some good painting rocks. Then let your children celebrate their special traits and qualities and those of others by painting portraits on rock – like this one, painted to celebrate love and acceptance! For extra fun, gather your rocks and place them in a garden or in a special spot as a reminder of God’s love for us which then can overflow from our hearts to others.

Find verses that show God’s loving care. Xochitl prefaces and concludes her story with two beautiful reminders from Scripture of God’s loving care in creating each person. As you read, point those references out to your children. They are listed simply as Genesis 1:27 and Psalm 139: 13 – 14.  After reading the story, have your children grab their bibles, or the class or family bible, and look up the verses. Then marvel at God’s love and handiwork in creating each one of us.

Wrap the reading up in prayer. Wrap up your DIFFERENT LIKE ME story and activity time in prayer, thanking God for stories like this that remind us about God’s love for us and that we are each unique and special creations.  This is a sweet opportunity both to model prayer with your child and also to let them add to the prayer in their words. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:  Xochitl (So-Cheel) Dixon, author of Waiting for God: Trusting Daily in God’s Plan and Pace and the2021 ECPA Christian Book Award Finalist, Different Like Me, advocates for inclusion and equity based on the strong biblical teaching of God’s intentional diversity. With her service dog, Callie, Xochitl crosses generational and cultural boundaries, reaching international readers with love through her contributions to Our Daily Bread at www.odb.org and on her blog at www.xedixon.com. She inspires others to share God’s love with Spirit-empowered courage, confidence, and joyful praises through the Christian apparel and accessories she designs for Worship Expressed at www.worshipexpressed.com.

AUTHOR SPOTLIGHT: It’s Time for a Read, Discuss, Do! Interview with Tina Cho

I’m so excited to be a part of a fabulous reading initiative geared to families, librarians, teachers and anyone, really, who enjoys reading picture books with their kids. 

Created by founder and picture book author Rebecca J. Gomez, Read, Discuss, Do! exists to help you extend the magic of story time beyond the last page by following three simple steps: 

Read a book. 

Talk about the book. 

Do a simple activity inspired by the book.

And now she’s supercharged the whole experience by launching a website with newsletter devoted to all things #ReadDiscussDo! providing a wonderful landing place for book-themed lists, reviews, activities and more. And she’s asked a team of us to help! (Can you tell I’m excited!)

And today on ReadDiscussDo.com, I am interviewing my friend and children’s author Tina Cho. Tina and I met through our online critique group and I have enjoyed each and every one of her books. I even created a Picture Book Sundays lesson for her MY BREAKFAST WITH JESUS which you can find here. In today’s interview she shares her thoughts on connecting with kids through books, the benefits of reading picture books, and more! You’ll also get a little peek into her newest book THE OCEAN CALLS: A HAENYEO MERMAID STORY.

I hope will take a moment to pop on over for the interview and explore the website. Maybe you’ll even decide to sign up for the newsletter. That way you’ll be first in line for all the wonderful things we have planned for the fall. I’ll make it easy for you. Here’s the link.

Happy Reading, Discussing… and Doing!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BLESSINGS upon BLESSINGS: LOVE IS KIND Brings Comfort to a Kindergartner… and the Mother’s Note Brings Joy to the Author (me!)

Last week in the comments section to a post I had shared on Facebook about Feeling Blessed by a Bouquet, a kind young mom left a thoughtful comment, which blessed my day in a extra-special way.

Here are her words, shared with her permission:

Laura, not related to this, but I just wanted to tell you how much joy your book “Love is kind” brought into my daughter’s life. Last year you came into her Kindergarten classroom for the reading and we purchased an autographed copy that day. It has become her favorite book! I cannot tell you how many times she re-read it during the lockdown and then during the months of remote learning. She really connected with it and it gave her comfort during these difficult months. Thank you!”

It’s almost like this mom was reading my mind because her message to me about the impact one of my books has had on her daughter was just what this heart needed.  In fact, I was so moved, that I responded to her Facebook comment with this:

Thank you for telling me this. You made my month! This past year has been so difficult – and especially for the kids. I’m glad to know the book provided comfort. That, I know, would make Little Owl very happy!

And then after some more thought, the next day I added this: 

I’m still so moved by your sharing this. May I have your permission to quote your kind words in post about one never knows the impact ones words/book can have and an encouragement to keep writing and speaking from the heart…I was feeling a bit in a writing slump and your comment really, as I said, made my month!

Her answer: “Of course!” 

And I so share these words today as both a reminder and an encouragement for me and for you to keep writing – or developing whatever special talents you’ve been gifted – with the knowledge that, just as surely as Little Owl helped one little girl face a difficult time in her life, your story or gift will surely also impact others in ways that, most often, we will never know. 

Happy writing and creating… and connecting!

FUN NEWS! Diva Delores and the Opera House Mouse is an Iowa Goldfinch Award Nominee!

The nominees for the 2021-2022 Iowa Goldfinch Award, which is given annually by the Iowa Association of School Librarians, have been selected and DIVA DELORES AND THE OPERA HOUSE MOUSE made the list! For the complete round up of nominees plus links to the book trailers for each click here

According to the official description, the four-fold purpose of the Iowa Goldfinch Award is to:

To encourage children to read more and better books.

To discriminate in choosing worthwhile books.

To provide an avenue for positive dialogue between teacher, parent, and children about books and authors.

To give recognition to those who write books for children.

The Goldfinch Award is special because it offers school kids an opportunity to choose the winning book and to suggest books for the yearly reading list.

Delores and Fernando are delighted to be included and can’t wait to have their story shared and talked about by Iowa school kids!

If you live in Iowa, please ask your library, school or bookstore to provide books and voting materials etc. for this award. What a neat chance to be a part of celebrating reading in this special way!

And now, just for fun, here is the book trailer for DIVA DELORES AND THE OPERA HOUSE MOUSE. Enjoy!

Free Printable LOVE IS KIND and EL AMOR ES BONDADOSO Matching Game!

Are you a parent, teacher, or librarian, looking for a fun way to extend bilingual story time using LOVE IS KIND and its adorable Spanish version EL AMOR ES BONDADOSO?  Then this easy craft/game is just for you!  It’s primary purpose is to be a matching game, but you can also use the cards as stand-ins for puppets so your little ones can retell the story in Spanish or English, or both, in their own sweet words.  

LOVE IS KIND and EL AMOR ES BONDADOSO Matching Game

MAKE:

  1. Print out the English and Spanish versions of the cards.
  2. Color in the picture squares.  Then cut out.
  3. Glue the picture squares onto construction paper squares.

PLAY: 

  1. Place the cards face down. Take turns turning over two at a time.
  2. Name the pictures in Spanish and English. If they are a match keep them. If not, place back face down.
  3. Take turns until all the cards have been matched. Player with most cards wins.

FREE PRINTABLE GAME CARDS: