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!

Writing Thoughts: FAIRY Edition!

Miss A and I just returned from a special overnight visit to my sister’s new house in Pennsylvania so the kids could have some much anticipated cousin time!  Since it it was our first time being together in a while we decided to surprise them with a special project – building a fairy garden!  

Finding the perfect spot was easy – I mean just look at the wonderful antique planter.  Next, everyone, including me picked a wooden dwelling to paint. There was lots of chatting and giggling and imagining as we painted. 

Once everything was dry, it was time to build the garden, adding a river and even a dangling precipice for the gazebo. Doesn’t it look wonderful? 

Now, inspired by my life-long fascination with fairies (which has clearly rubbed off on my daughter and her cousins) here are three fairy-themed writing posts to inspire your creativity and foster some writing skills in your little ones. 

Fairy Post #1: One of my favorite early morning activities as a child visiting my grandparents was to tiptoe across their dewy lawn in search of fairy wash. Do you know what I’m talking about?  Find out in this oldie-but-goodie: FAIRYWASH: Capturing Ideas Before They Evaporate.

Fairy Post #2: A few years ago, my daughter and I (this was at the height of our own fairy garden building frenzy) were delighted to discover the most amazing fairy forest at Boxerwood Gardens in Lexington, VA.  See how that inspired my writing in this special post: BOXERWOOD FAIRY FOREST: Learning from the Experts.

Fairy Post #3: Find out how I used my daughter’s love of our fairy garden to foster letter writing skills in my reluctant reader and writer in this sweet post: HAPPY SPRING: Time to Write Fairy Letters!

Happy Writing, Fairy Style!

DOWN THE SHORE: Thoughts from the Beach to Inspire Your Writing

My family and I just returned from a lovely week at the beach or “down the shore” as they say here in New Jersey. Our destination was Surf City on Long Beach Island. It’s a long, narrow island and we enjoyed watching the sun rise, beachside, and set, bayside, almost every day.

Here’s a little glimpse of my morning coffee and quiet time spot. I read and wrote in my journal here every day except for the one stormy morning we had. On that morning, I opted to stay in our cozy cottage instead.

Spending the week “down the shore” was good for this writer’s soul and my various activities reminded that this is not the first time I have found writerly inspiration at the beach.

So now, while I can still almost feel the sand between my toes and inhale that wonderful salty air, I’d like to share three posts from the past that came to mind as I enjoyed the week through writerly eyes.

Every day, at least once, I walked along the ocean’s edge looking for shells. As a result, I now have a new collection of shells on my dining room table. Many are broken, but all are beautiful in their own way and they remind me of this seashell inspired post from 2012: BROKEN SHELLS: Thoughts on Creating Compelling Characters.

The abundance of seagulls eager to snatch up sandwiches from unsuspecting beach-goers, made me smile/cringe as I remembered this writerly post inspired by some greedy seagulls on visit down the shore in 2013: LUNCH AT THE BEACH: Thoughts on Seagulls and Writing.

Finally, the discovery of these delightful painted stones, colorfully arranged around a street post, reminded me of this post from 2012 about visualizing our stories as stones. Not beach-themed, per say, but called back to mind when I spotted these stones. Here it is: STONE STORIES: What We Write and Why.

And now, as we step into this new week, I wish you the best as you write and create!

FIVE Traits That Make PICTURE BOOKS Perennial Favorites

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? 

NOTE: This is my first time doing a post like this. What do you think? For comparison, see a previous version I posted in the summer of 2019: https://laurasassitales.wordpress.com/2019/07/03/picture-books-what-makes-a-perennial-favorite/

Write like a…DOG!!!

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!

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT? Four Tips for Making PAGE TURNS in Picture Books IRRESISTIBLE!

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!

How to Write Picture Books – DIVA Style!

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!

  1. 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.

  1. 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. 

  1. 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.

  1. 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.) 

  1. 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!

THE POWER OF LISTS: Early Chapter Book Style

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!

FIVE Tips for Using FEEDBACK PRODUCTIVELY

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 ARE DIFFERENT 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.

For more thoughts on these, visit:

https://laurasassitales.wordpress.com/2013/08/26/story-level-versus-sentence-level-thoughts-on-revising/

https://laurasassitales.wordpress.com/2013/03/18/heres-what-i-tinkle-thoughts-on-critiquing-stories/

TIP #3: GIVE EACH CRITIQUE A FIRST READ THROUGH

  • 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! 

HYBRID AUTHOR VISIT: Inspiring Young Writers in Australia!

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.

Finally, here’s an invitation for teachers to please reach out to me if you would like a visit – either in person, or virtually, or some sort of hybrid like this! And I still have a handful of free KINDNESS AUTHOR visits left. For more details on that visit: https://laurasassitales.wordpress.com/2020/09/28/back-to-school-offer-celebrate-kindness-with-a-free-author-visit/