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?
I love my early morning walks with our sweet cockapoo, Sophie. For me, it’s a chance to get some morning exercise and enjoy the freshness of a brand new day. I often have my camera with me so I can snap pictures of glorious moments – like spotting a purple orb – or discovering sidewalk chalk art drawn by a child. But for Sophie it’s all about scent and sound! Indeed, it’s first with nose and ears, not eyes, that she notices a cottontail bunny or crinkling leaf or sweet clover. She even sniffs out long forgotten, and apparently smelly, tennis balls, hidden deep in our pachysandra.
Just for fun, I sometimes close my eyes and try to soak up the world from Sophie’s perspective. When I do, it’s amazing how heightened my other senses become. Here are some of the things I’ve noticed: flags flapping, gate hinges creaking, wild onion smells so pungent you can almost taste them, fresh coffee wafting out the neighbor’s kitchen window, the tickle of a lady bug bare skin, and the coolness of wet grass between my toes.
As writers for young children I think we could all benefit from closing our eyes sometimes. I don’t mean burying our heads in the sand so that our writing is sappy and disconnected from reality. Of course not. What I mean is that my writing, at least, tends towards the visual if I’m not careful. But when I’m intentional (and close my eyes) my other senses kick in and my writing is enriched. Using multi- sensory imagery is especially important in picture books and other illustrated pieces, such as poems for magazines, where the illustrations already provide plenty of visual detail. So, go ahead, close your eyes and feel those other senses kick in. That’s my plan this week. Happy writing all!
The lovely 1920s house across the street from our home recently sold and now it is being renovated. They are doing a good job and I am confident the house’s final “new look” will still retain the integrity of the original and be in keeping with the feel of the neighborhood. The particulars of what exactly the renovated house will look like, however, are still a mystery and the neighborhood is abuzz with curiosity.
At the end of every day, the workers stop. And shortly thereafter, curious passers-by, out for their evening strolls, pause to inspect the latest work. Several times, I’ve been out while they are pausing and we’ve pondered together questions like:
“Do you think they’ll add a big porch across the front the whole front?”
“Are they going to bump out the back too?”
“How do you think they’ll pitch the roof?”
“What kind of siding will they use?”
This end of day anticipation over what will happen next reminds of page turns in picture books, for both have the power to spark excitement in the onlookers/readers. With that in mind, here are FOUR sure-fire TIPS for using page turns in picture books to spark curiosity and make it irresistible for readers to turn the page.
TIp #1: Pause mid-sentence at the page turn. This is a strategy often used in picture books and, if done well, it adds suspense and wonder to the story. Use an ellipsis or em dash to indicate that the rest on the sentence will be on the next page. Here’s an example of this strategy in use from Matt Forrest Esenwine’s and Fred Koehler’s delightful FLASHLIGHT NIGHT (Boyds Mill Press, 2017):
Tip #2: Provide a clue in the illustration as to what might happen next. This tip is really more for the illustrator than for the author, but it’s a fun one that really prompts little ones to “read” the pictures for clues for what might happen on the next page. CAUTION: Be judicious in your manuscript about prescribing things for the illustrator. However, if an illustration note is vital to the story, it’s okay to note it in a succinct illustrator note.
For example, for my debut picture book GOODNIGHT, ARK (Zonderkidz, 2014), it was important to know that the skunks (never mentioned in the text) are included in the host of creatures that crowd Noah’s bunk, so I simply said in an illustration note something like: (ILLO: including skunks). Then, illustrator Jane Chapman used her expertise to incorporate a pair of sleeping skunks into every spread so that when they finally wake up, it’s a clue as to what will happen when readers turn the page and one that makes turning the page irresistible. Here it is:
Tip #3: Use the rhyme (if yours is a rhyming picture book) to incorporate clues as to what will happen when the reader turns the page. This is one of my favorite page turn strategies. It’s really a variation of tip #1, but instead of just pausing the text mid-sentence at the page turn, you add the extra layer of having the rhyme pair split at the page break so that anticipating what the second rhyme might be becomes a game as to might happen after the page is turned. Here’s a fresh and fun example from Corey Rosen Schwartz’s, Rebecca J. Gomez’s and Hilary Leung’s rompin’ tale TWO TOUGH TRUCKS (Orchard Books, 2019):
Tip #4: Ramp up the page turn moment with a question. This strategy is not as common and its freshness comes in its sparse use. When used sparingly, it will definitely make the reader want to turn the page. Here’s an example of it being used well in a spread from author Glenys’ Nellist’s and Sally Garland’s picture book LITTLE MOLE’S CHRISTMAS GIFT (Beaming Books, 2020):
Now it’s YOUR turn. What tips would you add to my list? Happy Writing, all!
February 8th is OPERA DAY! And since DIVA DELORES AND THE OPERA HOUSE MOUSE is all about opera, I thought it would be fun to re-share a favorite post inspired the book’s protagonists, Delores and Fernando. My opera-loving duo made their opera debut when the book released in 2018, but as any well-trained diva knows, singing on stage is just the final thrill. What comes before that? Hours and hours, even years of hard work! But is it all worth it? You bet!
Now celebrations of opera and divas and picture books, here are five tips to help you write picture books – diva style!
Go to the opera… a lot!
If you are going to be an opera star, it only makes sense that you immerse yourself in the glorious world of opera by attending operas, listening to opera music, and all-around saturating yourself in all things opera. Likewise, if you want to write picture books, it only makes sense that you immerse yourself in the world of picture books. For me, this means making regular trips to the children’s section of my library, or my favorite local bookstore, and reading, reading, reading! I read with two purposes: first, just for the pleasure and joy of it, and second… to learn. That’s why I always bring along my writerly opera glasses and a notebook so that I can thoughtfully ponder and record what makes each opera (i.e. picture book) sing… or not.
Rehearsal is important.
If you want to be a diva, you have to spend time rehearsing and developing your craft. For opera stars, I imagine this means a daily routine of warming up with scales, practicing a variety of pieces, working on voice projection etc. Similarly, if you want to to write picture books, you have to be willing to invest the time and effort into writing daily. My daily writing routine includes free writes (my version of scales), as well as working on a variety of poems, blog posts and the handful of picture book manuscripts I’m working through at any given moment.
Control those crescendos.
I’m not an opera expert, but it seems to me that in the field of opera, like in the field of picture book writing – less is more! I mean divas don’t just cut loose and sing at the top of their lungs willy-nilly! No, they artistically control their voices so that it plays a magical role in telling the opera’s story. Likewise, as a picture book writer – and especially as one who loves to rhyme – I work hard to control my crescendos so that every word, sound, phrase, action, magically moves the story forward.
Be confident, yet humble. (i.e. be willing to learn from others)
Confidence is good, but if you want your singing, er writing, to shine, I’ve learned over the years that confidence must be tempered with an open heart, open mind, and gracious spirit when receiving constructive feedback.As a young writer I thought my writing was fabulous! But now that I’m more seasoned, I look back on those early pieces and cringe. They would definitely have benefitted from a little more humility and willingness to productively process and put into place suggestions from more experiences writers!
(Which leads me to my last bit of advice.)
Everything’s better with a buddy!
As Diva Delores discovers at the opera house, the journey to success is just all-around better with a buddy. Likewise, I’ve found that the picture book writing journey wouldn’t be the same without a nice support system. For me this includes my family, my talented agent, and the wonderful network of like-minded children’s writers I’ve connected with over the years, many of whom have become dear friends and trusted critique partners. So, my last bit of advice for writing picture books – diva style! – is to find a buddy or two to encourage you and help you grow along the way.
Note: A version of this post first appeared on Darlene Beck Jacobson’s lovely blog. She’s been kind enough to host me for the release of each and every one of my books. Thank you, Darlene!
I am a list maker and have been all my life. As a child I wrote lists of what I wanted for Christmas and birthdays. I also kept lists of the books I read. I’ve always wanted to be a writer, so I even had a list of last names that I thought would be good for the main characters in my future books. Whipple was at the top of the list!
My mother was a list maker too. And so was her mother. I know this because my mother insisted that I make packing lists before traveling and showed me how to do it. And my grandmother kept lists on index cards documenting every single dinner party she ever hosted, who came, what time they arrived, and what she served. My daughter is now a list-maker too. This summer she kept a list of healthy snack and meal ideas which we still refer to regularly.
Now that I’m mid-century age-wise and somewhat forgetful at times, I keep daily lists to help me remember the things I need to do. I also keeps lists of things such as blog posts I’d like to write about. For awhile, I kept a list of every new word I learned. And I still keep lists of the books I have read and the books I want to read. This post actually is becoming a list of all the kinds of lists I like to make.
The point is – I couldn’t survive without lists. Neither could my writing. Flip through any journal of mine and you will see lists. Lists of potential story ideas. Lists of potential character names. Lists of favorite memories. Lists of craft ideas and poem ideas. You name it, I’ve listed it. Indeed, lists have become one of my go-to strategies for combatting writer’s block. But even after I have an idea and the creative juices are flowing, lists play a crucial role in developing that idea.
As I wrote each of my rhyming picture books, for example, I paused many times to make lists. I wrote lists of fun rhyming pairs and vivid sound words and more. And, as I point out to students at school visits, those lists helped immensely! Indeed, many of the words and ideas generated in those lists appear in the final versions of each book.
This month I’m applying this list strategy to chapter books. That’s right, as part of my challenge to myself to write a chapter book series, I have set a goal for myself to make a list plot ideas throughout the month of November. Actually, in this case, the list is a little more complex. I’m collecting vignettes or scenes for possible future use in this potential series, so my “list” includes not only one-word or short phrase “titles” for each possible vignette, but also a page or two of free-writing that potential story scene from the POV of my chapter book protagonist.
Of course, it’s only November 5th. I still have a long ways to go, but I’m already excited about how this new chapter book-themed list is taking shape. (And I’m blessed to have a chapter book critique group taking a similar challenge to keep me accountable – and I recommend that too.)
Are you a list maker? If not, why not give list-making a try this week as a way to get those creative juices flowing! Have fun!
One of the best decisions I ever made as a writer was to be open to critique. By this I mean showing my work to others with the express purpose of receiving feedback. Over the years, these critiques have come from a variety of sources including teachers, editors, agents and fellow writers.
It takes courage and thick skin at times, I but opening oneself to critique is an essential part of growth. With that in mind, here are five tips for using feedback productively. These are geared to writers, but I think they apply to other situations as well.
FIVE TIPS FOR USING FEEDBACK PRODUCTIVELY
TIP #1: BREATHE AND BE GRATEFUL
Recognize that each person offering critique is doing so in spirit of being helpful.
Try to set aside feelings of defensiveness or sensitivity to criticism.
Feedback is a gift!
TIP #2: BEFORE YOU DIG IN, RECOGNIZE THAT THERE AREDIFFERENT TYPES OF FEEDBACK
GLOBAL: Overarching feedback which pertains to piece in entirety, addressing issues such voice, setting, pacing, marketability, heart and more
STRUCTURE/STORY LEVEL: Pertains to structure of piece: rule of three, cumulative, parallel, story arc etc.
SENTENCE LEVEL: Focuses on details of story at sentence level. May pertain to voice, character and any elements of story. More than just grammar, but can also include grammar, word choice, meter/rhyme.
PRESCRIPTIVE: Gives specific suggestions for what to fix.
DIAGNOSTIC: Makes observations and asks questions without prescribing specific solutions.
This is your chance to get an overall sense of feedback. Don’t try to react or respond. Just read.
TIP #4: DIG IN MORE CLOSELY
Look for types of feedback.
Interact with feedback: Take notes, use a highlighter etc.
Look for patterns in feedback. (Are several people saying similar things?)
Look for the deeper message behind the comment. (Maybe, for example, what they are commenting on about an unconvincing plot development, is really grounded in an issue of theme or character.)
TIP #5: APPLY WHAT RESONATES
After you have thoughtfully considered all the feedback, it’s time to revise! Remember, though, that this is YOUR story. Feedback is a gift to help you bring it to the next level. That doesn’t mean, however, that you must apply every suggestion to your story. Choose what resonates, always remembering, that you, ultimately, are the crafter of your own writing and that you know best the heart of your story.
Most of all, enjoy the process, because this is what we writers do. repeating the process until our stories sing! HAPPY WRITING ALL!
A lovely 3rd grade teacher from Australia reached out to me because her students are writing their own stories and she thought it would be special if they could meet an author and ask questions about writing. This is the second time we have done this, but with a new group of students. Before the visit she read LOVE IS KIND to them. Next, because it was hard to get a steady “live” video connection, I sent them a short video introducing myself and welcoming them to ask me questions via email. I received their questions just before they went on holiday and returned them yesterday. Once again, their questions are WONDERFUL and I thought you might enjoy reading a few of them. I’m also including a short excerpt from my video chat with them. What a marvelous use of technology and wonderful way to inspire children near and far to be readers and writers.
First, the video clip:
Next, three of their amazing questions, along with my responses.
How much do you write in a day?
Sometimes I write a whole page. Sometimes I write a few sentences. Sometimes, if I’m at a tricky part and have some story bits that need working through, my writing will take the form of notes or lists. But even when I’m not writing, I’m very often thinking about writing and what is going happen next in a story I’m working on. That’s why I always keep pen and paper handy.
In your book, Love is Kind, why do you have different lengths of text on each page?
This is a very good question. It shows you are reading like a writer! I think it’s a matter of keeping the story varied and interesting. Just as it would be very monotonous to have every single sentence be exactly the same number of words, it’s very boring to have the text on every page look exactly the same. Variety is the spice of life, and that’s true in page layout as well.
What inspires you to write books that include morals?
It’s not that I purposely write stories with morals. It’s more that in a good story the protagonist needs to grow and learn something and be a better Little Owl, for example, by the end than he was at the beginning. This is true of life too, isn’t it? We hope to grow and learn as we journey along life’s way.
After singing the praises of critique groups, I think it’s only fair now to offer a few tips on how to find a good critique group. After all, finding a critique group can be daunting, especially for a new writer who has been spending most of her/his time writing in isolation. At least, that was my experience as a new writer. I first posted these tips in September of 2016, but they are just as applicable today.
Here then are four tips, I’ve found helpful:
Look inward. First, decide what you want out of a critique group. Do you want an in-person group or an on-line group? Do you want a genre-specific group (i.e. picture books or poetry, YA or MG etc) or would you like a mix of genres? How much time are you willing to spend per week/month writing critiques? How often do you want to be responsible for submitting work? How big or small do you want the group to be?
Network, network, network. Once you have a sense of what you want from a critique group, you can use your social networks (on-line and in person) to see if anyone you know is part of a group. If so, is that group open to new members? Another good strategy is to be pro-active at conferences to see if anyone is in a group that is interested in new members. The SCBWI blue boards also have a thread devoted to critique groups seeking new members so that’s another possible venue to tap. Finally, check your local library and book stores to see if they have groups that meet there.
Do a little research. Once you’ve discovered some potential groups, do a little research. Do the groups have both new and seasoned writers? Have any members of the group be process? (In my experience, most of the better groups do.)
Give it a try. Once you have done all of the above, it might be time to take the leap and give it a try! If you feel it is the right step for you, apply to the group that sounds best for you.
Thanks for checking out these tips! I hope you will find, as I have, that being part of a critique group makes all the difference in your growth as a writer. Happy writing, all!
Special note: If you enjoyed this post, please consider following my blog or “liking” me on my Facebook Author page, Twitter, or Instagram. I’d love the support and connection.
In the thoughtful category, children’s author Glenys Nellist has written an inspiring post about her top tip for aspiring authors: attend a writing conference. I love her tip and I wholeheartedly agree that attending conferences is important. It’s a great chance to interface with editors and agents, for example, and to network with other authors. It even led to her first book offer! (Yes, you really should read her post.)
But what would my top tip be? Hmmm… there are so many possiblities. Writing daily, reading voraciously. Attending conferences. Yes. But I guess if I had to pick one top tip for aspiring writers, it would be to join a critique group.
Often when I chat with newer writers, I discover they’ve been writing in isolation. And very often the manuscripts they share would benefit from several more rounds of revision. As a new writer, I, too, was guilty of writing in quiet isolation, never sharing my work in progress with anyone (except maybe my husband or mother) and consequently sending pieces to publishers far too prematurely.
It wasn’t until I started sharing my work with a handful of trusted critique partners that my writing really improved. Joining a critique group also got me connected with other writers eager to learn and grow and succeed. In fact, I would go so far as to say that being part of various critique groups over the years has made all the difference in my love for this writerly journey.
Here then, with gratitude to my awesome, trusted critique buddies, are FOUR wonderful perks I’ve enjoyed by participating in critique groups.
1. COMMUNITY SUPPORT: Writing can be lonely and the intricacies of the publishing world are certainly confusing. What a blessing it has been to be part of various critique groups that have included both new and seasoned authors, all eager to support and encourage each other, providing advice and insights along the way.
2. FRIENDLY ACCOUNTABILITY: Most critique groups have rules for submitting and sharing work. Members are expected to abide by those rules and are kept accountable by the other members in the group. My current online group, for example, has seven members and we each take turns submitting one manuscript per week. I’ve also met virtually for in-person critique a couple of writing buddies during the pandemic. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been tempted to set a story aside because I’m stuck over some sticky wicket, but instead I’ve pressed on. Why? Because my critique group was counting on me (and cheering me on) to produce a presentable draft.
3. FRESH EYES AND FRESH PERSPECTIVE: I am grateful for the honest, thoughtful feedback I’ve received from my critique partners. Indeed, there’s nothing like fresh eyes on your story to give you much needed perspective. I must confess, however, that I have grown as a writer, just as much, if not more, from giving feedback to others. Sometimes it’s easier to see what is and isn’t working in someone else’s writing. And if you can articulate that for your critique partner, you not only help them, but you can most likely apply that feedback , or some variation of it, to your own writing.
4. DEEPER UNDERSTANDING OF YOUR GENRE: Finally, participating in a critique group offers members a chance to gain a deeper understanding of their genre. This happens quite naturally as you read and respond to each others’ work. For example, when critiquing each others’s work, members in my groups will often suggest helpful titles to read, perhaps pieces that follow a similar structure, or that have a similar theme. Through this process of feedback and discussion and reading suggestions, our understanding deepens and our skill improves.
Now it’s your turn. What critique group perks have I missed? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.
Happy reading, writing, and critiquing 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 September of 2016.
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.