Monday, November 15, 2010

Picture Book Biographies: Story Arcs

I've finished the main research phase for my picture book biography. On a bulletin board I've mounted all kinds of photos and illustrations- not just of my subject, but of people he knew and milieus he would have been familiar with. I keep going back to the Internet to look at photos of the places where he lived.

Now the question is: How much of my subject's life will my story cover? Will it be comprehensive enough for children to use in writing biographical reports? If that's the case, I'd need to include details about birth, marriage, homes and death- no matter how unfortunate the circumstances.

Another story arc might cover childhood, through the person's "breakthrough." My book Dreamer from the Village starts with Chagall's birth, and continues til his art is first recognized and becomes popular. On the last page the story fastforwards many years later, to his exhibition at the Louvre when he was on old man.

Some "picture book biographies" treat an even shorter period, perhaps a pivotal episode in childhood (Alan Schroeder's Ragtime Tumpie recalls the first time a very young Josephine Baker appeared on stage.) Other bio's plunge in during a
a fruitful phase of the subject's career (Action Jackson by Jan Greenberg, for example, begins with Jackson Pollack as a practicing artist)

Still others may describe only a few exhilarating moments during a famous person's life (The brief narrative in Home Run: The Story of Babe Ruth by Robert Burleigh covers part of a baseball game). These shorter bio's often include backmatter, sidebars (Peter Sis's Starry Messenger), or other ways of communicating additional information. (In Burleigh's book, this is cleverly done with fact-laden baseball cards.)

The shorter narratives may be written lyrically, so they convey more impact. The young reader may emotionally connect with the subject, and be inspired to learn more about him.

So many possibilities. Once I know the story arc, I'll have to decide on plot points (the acts and then the scenes), plus how much - and what kind- of details/anecdotes to include. The negative space, what is left out, will be as important as what is put in.

Whatever I decide, it's been a great pleasure, over all these months, getting to know the poignant and quirky particulars about "my guy" and his times.

Today's Non-Fiction Monday round up is over at In Need of Chocolate.

A big thanks to California Readers for choosing Tyrannosaurus Math to be in the 2011 California Collection, a recommended choice for school libraries.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

What Makes an Award-winning Nonfiction Book for Children?

Last weekend, Alexis O'Neill, Mary Ann Fraser and I presented a talk on Funding Author Visits at the CRA (California Reading Association) conference in Riverside.

Here we are with the Barnes & Noble booksellers.

One of the highlights of the event was a session introducing this year's CRA's Eureka! Awards for Nonfiction. Coordinators Sandra Yoon, Helen Foster James, and Armin Schulz gave us insights into why the books were chosen.

Factors included:

1. Tie in with the curriculum, and/or with excellent fiction (Larry Dane Brimner's Birmingham Sunday, for example, would pair up nicely with The Watsons Go to Birmingham: 1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis). Several titles were recommended for Women's History Month.

2. Innovative, appealing book design and illustration.

3. Unusual take on biography (The Extraordinary Mark Twain (According to Susy)).

4. Relevant for a range of grade levels.

5. Dramatic narrative (or poetry) was enhanced by factoid sidebars (in one case including photos).

6. Useful, accessible glossary of terms.

7. Subject matter pertinent to their students' cultural background.

8. Inspirational story with kid appeal (Pierre the Penguin).

It was a pleasure to learn what leading educators value in nonfiction, and to hear so much excitement and praise for it. Kudos to the committee for all the time and thought they spent on bestowing these awards.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Blog Stop for Ogg and Bob

The Cat & The Fiddle happily joins the blog tour for Ogg and Bob by Ian Fraser, with illustrations by Mary Ann Fraser.

Ian reinvents the easy reader "buddy genre" with these charmingly illustrated books ("Meet Mammoth" and "Life With Mammoth") about two cave guys and their pet. The cave buddies' naivete and misadventures should elicit lots of laughs, and their rudimentary speech ("Me wash feet ten days ago") is just right for decoding practice. Another plus is the exotic, distant setting- it's a place children rarely get to visit in fiction. Ogg and Bob delivers fresh meat to the easy reader crowd- and they're going to eat it up.

I had lots of questions for the talented son and mother team behind this book.

The idea of using early man with simplistic speech for an early reader is did that idea come about? What were the turning points (the most important events) on the road to publication?

IAN: Well I'm pleased that you thought that the simplistic speech was brilliant. The idea was mostly a result of long hours spent reading all of Gary Larson's The Far Side comic collection, Bill Watterson's Calvin and Hobbes, and a whole lot of boredom. I simply thought that cavemen were funny. The book started out as a small story that I wrote when I had nothing to do. It was the encouragement of my mother and the lack of something to do for my senior project in high school that prompted me to try publishing it.

Why the fascination with cave men? Tell us a little about playing "cave man" when you were a boy.

IAN: I suppose pre-history was a large part of my childhood. Or some semblance of it was anyway. I always loved dinosaurs, and there was always a need for hapless victims of these rampaging beasts. I guess there's probably something deeper about getting in touch with our primeval selves or something else silly like that, but the truth is I thought that it would be funny to use cavemen at the time.

Are you more of an Ogg or a Bob- how so?

IAN: I'm not really sure. I see myself as a combination of both really. Their interactions and personalities are probably similar to how I would interact with myself if I were cloned in some secret government base, tagged, and let loose in the wild.

Keeping in mind the format of the easy reader, what were your goals in writing each of the little stories--(for example, it had to have repetition, physical humor, etc)

IAN: The stories weren't really written for a easy reader format. They were actually written more for something like a cross between a screenplay and a comic book. I wrote them to be as entertaining and as hilarious as possible. When writing, all I did was try to make each scene as funny as possible. Most of my editing however, was to piece everything together and make it flow in some semblance of a story.

What advice would you give someone whose illustrator is their mom?

IAN: Be happy for it. Being able to communicate exactly how I saw the story whenever I wanted was a blessing. We could exchange ideas simply by walking into the next room. I don't know if Ogg and Bob could have succeeded this well if I had someone else illustrate it for me.

Now, some questions for Mary Ann. Did you encourage Ian's fascination with cave men when he was young?

MARY ANN: Not really. Ian was a voracious reader and had a fascination for all kinds of subjects when he was younger. He loved humor, particularly Gary Larson's The Far Side, so I think there was fodder there for sure.

Could you tell us about the process of creating the characters? Why did you choose blue for Mug (their pet mammoth)?

MARY ANN: It took a lot of sketching to develop Ogg and Bob. I wanted them to be distinct as individuals and to project very child-like qualities despite the underarm hair and five o'clock shadows. I think of them as the Lucy and Ethel, Laurel and hardy of neanderthals. Mug's blue hue was actually the suggestion of Margery Cuyler at Marshall Cavendish. The publisher had decided to do the books in full color, but the art was predominantly browns, a bit boring, so we spiced it up. Ian has had a difficult time with the blue. He likes things to be based in fact, but that's a mechanical engineering student for you. I like how it visually punches up the book and informs the reader not to take this from a scientific point of view.

What are the challenges of illustrating an easy reader as opposed to a standard picture book?

MARY ANN: First of all, there's simply way more art. Keeping the characters consistent and the art varied is that much more of a challenge. Also, the books are a smaller trim size than I am used to, so the gutter has a bigger impact and compositions need to be kept simple.

What were the joys and tribulations of working with your son?

MARY ANN: It was mostly all joy. Ian cracked me up a lot of the time when we would be talking about the project. A couple late nights we bantered ideas back and forth about Ogg and Bob's possible misadventures until we were in hysterics. Invariably he did his own thing and I really respect that. I think staying out of it when he was working on the book for his senior project was the most challenging part for me --parents weren't allowed to be mentors. Following the two book offer from Marshall Cavendish he had to expand the stories he had and then write three additional ones, and he only had his winter break from college in which to do it. I think that was a bit daunting, so I tried to be the cheerleader. (You can read supportive nag here.) Once he wrapped his head around it, though, I was amazed at how quickly he pulled it off. I hope he continues to enjoy writing as much as I have. Rumor tells me that he has more adventures for Ogg and Bob rattling around in his head when he's not reading quantum physics or studying material properties. Now if I could just get him to call home more often.

For each day of the tour Mary Ann Fraser will be giving away an original piece of art from Ogg and Bob to a randomly selected commenter. So follow the tour and be sure to comment to enter. "Winners of the "Ogg and Bob Art Giveaway" will be announced Monday, October 18 at

Monday, September 27, 2010

Not Your Mother's Picture Book Bio

Many years ago, I checked Jonah Winter's Diego out of the library for my young children. The book begins

"Deep in the mountains of Mexico there was a town called Guanajuato. And in Guanajuato there were two happy parents. They were happy because they had twin sons, Diego and Carlos."

Diego falls ill and is taken to an Indian healer, who has "magical things" in her small hut. What a delight it was to discover, a few pages later, that this simple text reminiscent of folktales was in fact a biography of Diego Rivera.

Diego was published in 1991 (and it inspired me to write my first p.b. bio, Dreamer from the Village: The Story of Marc Chagall). Since then, more and more authors have been bending the genre.

Consider the range of approaches and tones in the openings of following picture book biographies:

"You gotta be kidding! You never heard of Sandy Koufax? He was only the greatest lefty who ever pitched in the game of baseball. Well, for six years he was, anyway. From 1961 to 1966, almost no one could hit the guy. The mighty Mickey Mantle, one of the greatest power hitters of all time:whiff! After the Mick struck out one day, he turned to the catcher and said, "what the heck was THAT?"
-You Never Heard of Sandy Koufax?! by Jonah Winter and Andre Carrilho

The narrator of the book is an anonymous veteran teammate. Note his lively, period language, and how he involves the reader/listener (as did Laurie Halse Andersen, earlier, in Thank You, Sarah.)

Carole B
oston Weatherford's biography of Jesse Owens, written in the second person, puts the reader in the position of addressing (and rooting for) the athlete:

"Go from cotton fields to city sidewalks/from sickly child to keen competitor/ from second class citizen to first place finisher/Go, Jesse, go. Trounce Jim Crow/ Run as fast as your feet can fly/ As far as your dreams will reach." - Jesse Owens: Fastest Man Alive

An unusual and impassioned way of telling the dramatic story of the African American who captured four medals at Hitler's 1936 Berlin Olympics.

M.T. Anderson begins his story of Erik Satie with poetry and mystery:

"Erik Satie/was born by the sea/ in the village of Honfleur/on the coast of France./ It was 1866. "I was born/very young/ in a very old world," said Satie once. / And he never grew up/but was always a child/ with an old man's smile."

Anderson's rhythmic language, full of quirky imagery, captures the essence of this eccentric musician.

Expressive language can lend poignancy to bios written in the traditional format. This lyrical passage introduces us to a devoted, little known nature painter:

"There was once a man whose love of nature was as wide as the world. There was once an artist who needed to paint as much as he needed to breathe. There was once an islander who lived in a cottage at the edge of Mississippi, where the sea meets the earth and the sky. His name is Walter Anderson. He may be the most famous American artist you've never heard of."-The Secret World of Walter Anderson by Hester Bass.

Authors of picture book biographies have more choices than ever. They can experiment with innovative storytelling techniques-invented narrators, interactivity, or unconventional formats. They can entertain young readers with humor, or touch their hearts with poetry.

As I begin writing my upcoming bio, I'll ask myself what tone, what approach, what "voice" best conveys the story I want to tell. How can I snare the young reader?

I also need to decide when to begin and end my story. But more on that next time. For more posts on the subject, check the labels to the right.

Monday, September 13, 2010

The Poetry of Picture Book Biographies

Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart

This is as true with picture book biographies as it is for fiction. Effective writing is all about summoning and expressing emotion. Especially when it comes to capturing the zeal and commitment of the man or woman you are portraying.

Enjoy the vigorous prose from these picture book biographies:

"His eyes move up and down, back and forth. With light steps, he follows the sweep of his brush. He stops and a pool of paint pauses. Paint, paint and more paint, dripping, pouring, flinging. "The painting has a life of its own. I try to let it come through." Jan Greenberg & Sandra Jordan's Action Jackson.

Note the upbeat rhythms. Feel the movement of the up/down/back/forth. Repetition creates emphasis. Hear those explosive p's as the paint hits the canvas.

"Colors came to life like actors on a stage! One color stepped away. Another popped forward. Colors became softer and louder...Colors even disappeared! Josef kept making painting after painting of squares...With each painting he proved that colors don't stand alone-they interact! 'I can kill the most brilliant red by putting it with violet,' he said." Natasha Wing's An Eye for Color: The Story of Josef Albers.

Metaphors create imagery. Repetition for emphasis. Varying sentence length creates interest- and short sentences are more energetic. Note the contrast: "colors don't do stand alone-they interact!

"When the billboard came into view that afternoon, what the brothers saw astonished them. From more than a mile away, it looked like the billboard was on fire! When they got up close, the Switzers didn't find any flames. Instead they discovered something even more exciting. It was just like those silk samples Bob has seen in his backyard in Berkeley: even without the ultraviolet light on, the billboard was glowing-glowing bright orange in the setting sun." Chris Barton's The Day Glo Brothers

The power of simile, and emphatic words/phrases like "astonished" "from more than a mile away" and "even more exciting." Repetition. Contrast between sentences 3 and 4.

Poetic language enhances the drama of the story's climax.

As I continue to research my subject, I'll be looking for actions that reveal his ardor for his work. Did it start in his childhood? What were his inspirations? What lengths did he go to accomplish his goals? What obstacles did he have to overcome? Did he ever describe his love for his work?

Once you feel a deep emotional connection to the person you're writing about, once your imagination is truly engaged, the evocative language will pour forth. Capturing your subject's passion is one of the greatest challenges- and rewards- of writing a picture book biography.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

In celebration of Darcy Pattison's Random Acts of Publicity Week, I recommend The Rooster Prince of Breslov by Ann Redisch Stampler, illustrated by Eugene Yelchin.

The book is a feast for the eye and ears- a blend of witty, lucid storytelling:

"In Breslov, there lived a prince who had more than he wanted. When he was hungry for a slice of bread, he got a slice of cake dripping with honey. When he asked for a raisin, he was given a silver bowl of candied plums. When his eyes rested on a pony or a strudel or a bird's nest or a golden bowl, it was bundled up and brought to him before he even blinked."

and satirical, eye-popping illustrations.

Ann offers a fresh take on this well-known Yiddish parable, about a pampered prince who starts behaving like a rooster til he spends several days with a wise old man. (The sage acts like a rooster to gain the boy's trust.) Though children will be amused by the antics of the strutting, clucking pair, the folktale is much more than that. Ann has impressively re-visioned it as a coming of age story. The prince has a fit of roosterism- an extended, paralyzing tantrum- because he's been spoiled rotten. Only through acts of compassion- through the boy's concerns for the old man's comfort- is he able to grow and mature. A relevant story in this era of so many coddled, over-programmed kids....and a thought-provoking read for the upcoming Jewish holidays.

Today I have the pleasure of sharing an interview with Ann.

Why did you choose to retell this folktale?

I only retell stories that I truly love, and I have always loved the story of The Rooster Prince. It’s a hilarious, over the top slapstick tale with a wonderful message. The story has special relevance for me as a parent since not only is it a coming of age story that addresses what it means to become a good person, but it also deals with the way a parent or teacher can help raise a child to be adult who honors the values of compassion and kindness.

Broadly, how is your version different than the original? What elements did you flesh out or reinterpret?

The original original of this story, to the best of my knowledge, is attributed to Rabbi Nachman of Breslov. His is a very spare story that is interpreted as showing that a teacher of religion must meet the student at the student’s level – even if that is a very low level – in order to help the student climb to spiritual heights.

But of course, with the oral tradition, things change! And my grandmother’s version was, to my mind, very much a down to earth, immigrant’s story in reaction to the material riches available to American children, about how a child having “more than he wanted” does not necessarily lead either to happiness or to desirable, humane values.

And while the bones of the story belong to Rabbi Nachman and my grandmother, the imagery, rhythms, and the particular way the message is woven through, are mine.

What kind of research, if any, did you do for this book?

I read a lot of folklore and have studied the culture from which this story comes. But I think that, really, to write these stories well, the connection has to go beyond research. Even the best researched story in the world won’t come alive on the page unless the writer has a real emotional and with some stories spiritual connection to the tale.

You've retold several folktales. What are the rewards and challenges of writing in this genre?

Writers who retell folktales with their own spin face a bit of a paradox. Folktales come from an oral tradition that maintains its vibrancy, at least in part, as a result of the flexibility available to the teller in presenting a new and different version of the tale every time he or she tells it. Yet when we present the stories as books, we pin them down and trap them in a single, unchangeable form.

The writer’s job is to get the story right in a way that honors its roots and its cultural context but that also reflects the writer’s own creativity and values. When you get it right, there is a sense of having preserved a lively and important bit of the culture that produced the story. And because, in the case of The Rooster Prince, the culture in question is my own heritage, this is particularly gratifying.

If you were to interview the Rooster Prince, what questions might you ask him?

Well, if he were still a child, in the rooster state he’s in throughout much of the book, the only question to which I might expect a response would be something like, “So, uh, cock-a-doodle-doo? Buck buck buck, cluck cluck?” But if I were to meet him as the man he is on the last page, I might ask him if somewhere deep in his heart, there is a special place for the rooster he once was.

To learn more about Ann and her books, visit her website at

Monday, September 6, 2010

Children's Books For Labor Day

Honor Labor.

There's no shortage of picture books about firefighters, zookeepers, bakers, and other high interest jobs. Plenty of books too about teachers and librarians- since they play such a vital role in the daily lives of children. It's rare to find a title, however, that points out the ways workers are connected or mutually dependent on each other.

"Who comes to the rescue when the fishermen run aground at 5 a.m.?" is a question posed in Jessica Hartland's Night Shift (2007).

The book describes the work of donut makers, late night djs, bridge painters, window dressers and ten other evening workers-each of them related in some way. (The donut maker sells a donut to the fisherman, who is later rescued by the tugboat captain). At the end of their shift the workers gather at an all night cafe- and it's nearly morning. Hartland's book has much to offer- it celebrates workers and "community", it's interactive, and the illustrations are lively and cheerful.

And now, for older readers. I was recently astonished to come across the title, You Wouldn't Want to Be a Victorian Mill Worker!
one of a British series published in the states by Franklin Watts (2007).

Author John Malam engages the reader and supplies plenty of detail:

"Gray smoke covers the town like a dirty blanket and blocks out the sunlight. You've moved in with an Irish family that lives in the district called Little Ireland- a rat-infested slum along the banks of the River Medlock. There are 4000 poor people here, and your landlady and her family live in the cellar of one of the houses. ...Welcome to your new home!"

It's grim but dramatic stuff- and though the colorful cartoonish illustrations (complete with scowling mill managers) may seem at odds with the subject matter- they'll attract and keep the attention of the target audience. (The book does end on an upbeat note- a couple of years after a strike, a government factory inspector's report leads to new restrictive child labor laws...) This title, paired with a traditional photo illustrated book about child labor (such as Russell Freedman's Immigrant Kids), would be an excellent resource for teaching history and social responsibility.

Also in the series: You Wouldn't Want to be a Pyramid Builder, You Wouldn't Want To Work on The Railroads, and many more.

Other recommended books about work: Margaret King Mitchell's Uncle Jed's Barber Shop, Gary Paulsen's Work Song and The Tortilla Factory, Deborah Hopkinson's Sky Boys.

On a personal note: Melissa Sweet is currently in the preliminary stages of illustrating my book on Clara Lemlich, the firebrand who led the groundbreaking Shirtwaist Maker's Strike of 1909. I'm grateful to her, to my editors, and to everyone at Balzer & Bray who will be involved in the publication of my book in 2012!

Happy Labor Day

Monday, August 30, 2010

Picture Book Biography: Crafting the Setting

The Cat & The Fiddle reopens, after a summer break.

I've been working full-bore on my fifth picture book biography. The writing won't come til I can vividly imagine the setting of the story-which might include geography and the culture of the times.

Here are good examples of setting from picture books about historical figures. Notice the use of cultural artifacts and details about natural environment:

"In the days when farmers worked with ox and sled and cut the dark with lantern light, there lived a boy who loved snow more than anything else in the world. Willie Bentley's happiest days were snowstorm days. He watched snowflakes fall on his mittens, on the dried grass of Vermont farm fields, on the dark metal handle of the barn door." - Jacqueline Briggs Martin's Snowflake Bentley

"On an island called Puerto Rico, where baseball players are as plentiful as tropical flowers in a rain forest, there was a boy who had very little but a fever to play and win at baseball. He had no money for a baseball bat, so he made one from a guava tree branch." - Jonah Winter's Roberto Clemente

"They came face to face with a fish as big as a truck-with long fangs, lips like giant tires, and huge saucer eyes. They called it the truckfish. On the bottom, they found pink ghost crabs, with eyes on long stalks, buried so deep in the sand they looked like a garden of eyes." - Jennifer Berne's Manfish: The Story of Jacques Cousteau

"We'd wander in the gardens, he and I, beside the pleasure lake where lotus blossoms grew. The servant girls would come on soundless feet and bring us fruit- grapes, dates and figs- the baskets balanced on their heads, a cloth of linen spread beneath a canopy that kept us from the sun. And we would feast while harpists played." Eve Bunting's I Am the Mummy Heb Nefert

Where does a writer track down these kinds of details? So far I've read biographies and novels- and watched movies- from the same time period and location as my subject. I've looked at paintings and cartoons and researched period costume. I've visited one of the locations where he lived, and taken a field trip to an equestrian center- because horses and jumping events may play a part in the story. For one section I'll need to learn more about the type of office he worked in, and the tools of his trade.

Once my imagination is furnished with the imagery, once I feel like I "own" the material, I can start writing. The hours of research required are a way of honoring the subject matter.

In other news: Tyrannosaurus Math has been licensed to the Scholastic Book Club, and it's also coming out in Japanese. A belated congrats to Barbara Bietz for her Beautiful Blogger award, and thanks for "passing the award on" to the TC&TF.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

An Interview with Candace Ryan, Author of Animal House

I met Candace Ryan a few years ago at an SCBWI conference. She's an incredibly supportive and active member of the children's book community in Southern California. It's a pleasure for me to post this interview with Candace, in celebration of Animal House, her debut picture book that arrived this month.

How does Animal House reflect Candace Ryan? Why were YOU the person to write this book?

This is a really good question. I’ve always loved wordplay, humor, and animals. In the most basic sense, ANIMAL HOUSE is about the joining of these elements.

But the real reason that I, Candace Ryan, had to write this book is because the uncultivated mathematician/scientist in me is obsessed with discovering patterns. Of course, most of these patterns are meaningless in terms of having practical, real-life applications. Fortunately, children’s literature isn’t overly concerned with the "practical."

For this reason, I couldn’t just combine animals with furniture in a willy-nilly fashion. Anyone can do that. But by using the pun as my accomplice, I created a system of logic in a nonsensical world. As a result, creatures like a "refrigergator" seem improbable and inevitable at the same time. When nothing much makes sense in the real world, it can be strangely satisfying to discover the sense in an unreal one.

This book obviously has a sense of humor. Are you an inveterate punster? What about the rest of your family? Are you guys silly?

Punning has become a very important means of expression for me. I didn’t grow up in a punning household, although my father had a great sense of humor and was a talented writer.

It wasn’t until I was a ninth grader, studying Shakespeare, that I realized punning could be an art form. Later, when I discovered James Joyce, the fabric of space-time tore. I realized there was no limit to what the pun could do.

In recent years, after claiming my writer identity, I’ve indulged almost compulsively in the act of punning. But I’m not really much of a spontaneous punster. Most of my punning occurs when I’m thinking, daydreaming, or actively writing.

And my family? My husband, son, and I are just three silly kids looking for the next fun fix. There can never be enough laughter and hijinks in our house.

Did this book go through a metamorphosis, from the original concept? If there were any challenges, what were they?

ANIMAL HOUSE started as a list of animal/furniture objects in conjunction with a punny title. I knew early on that a story structure based on touring the house would make for the most natural and logical fit.

Whereas other authors might have made an outline to get a story flowing, I was busy drawing a floor plan. I wrote the names of the creatures inside the rooms where they would most likely be found. I figured that creating more rooms inside the gorvilla would translate to creating more action in the story.

I actually wrote the first draft in verse, but I knew I didn’t want it to stay that way. I had been hearing a lot of sing-songy verse read aloud that week in a writing course I was taking, and the rhythms were stuck in my head.

Writing in verse was the only way I could get it to come out. Once I had a first draft, I transcribed it into prose. Then, my agent helped me set riskier stakes for the main character, and my editor helped me raise them.

The biggest challenge ANIMAL HOUSE presented involved the issue of verisimilitude. I had written a story in which all the internal mechanics of how animal/furniture creatures moved and how they fit inside the gorvilla made sense to me.

The problem was (and oftentimes is), I had to realize that no one else lives inside my head. The book had to explain, either with words or images, how exactly a kangaroom bounces out of a gorvilla. Working with the great team at Walker, we figured it out.

Which children book authors are your influences or inspirations? Who are your current faves?

The children’s book authors that had the biggest impact on me when I was a kid were Dr. Seuss and Shel Silverstein. My early exposure to books was somewhat limited, so I feel very fortunate to have read these two heavyweights during my formative years. My imagination found ample playroom in their books.

My current favorites are (in alphabetical order): Mac Barnett, Douglas Florian, Emily Gravett, Adam Rex, Amy Krouse Rosenthal, Jon Scieszka, Laura Vaccaro Seeger, Shaun Tan, Jan Thomas, David Wiesner, and Mo Willems.

Which of the animal houses would you like to live in, and why?

The gorvilla is definitely my favorite. What better place to monkey around?

Animal House was illustrated by Nathan Hale. Publication festivities are ongoing at his blog. To be eligible for a free autographed copy of the book, go to Goodreads.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Picture Books For Hard Times: The Wrap Up

Finally, Spuds, by Karen Hesse.

The set-up: A mother and her three children (Maybelle, Jack and Eddie- in that birth order) live a hard-scrabble life in a rural area.

From the title to the last word, this book rings with authenticity. Hesse nails all the details- the speech, the setting, the emotions - beginning with sibling relations, and desire. One night when Ma is working Maybelle persuades her gullible younger brothers to do their own "tater harvest" on a neighbor's farm. As they pick the potatoes in the darkness, she "gooses" the boys on with mouthwatering descriptions: "Ma's gonna boil 'em and bake 'em. She's gonna slice 'em thin as fingernails and fry 'em up crusty brown with lots of salt sparklin'."

The key scenes are emotionally powerful. After the stealthy tater snatching, the children come home and spill their bags on the kitchen floor. "Them hard spuds rolled out, fillin' the room with the smell of dirt. I bent down to sort the muddy clumps. Then I knelt. Then I sat down in the middle of the cracked linoleum. And that's when I felt a hole open up inside my heart." The children have harvested mostly stones.

Spuds is about honesty, and forgiveness- even in the hardest times. Ma makes the kids return their catch, but she forgives them. (After all, Maybelle says she was only trying help her put food on the table.) The farmer tactfully thanks the children for clearing his field. With the potatoes he lets them keep, Ma makes a fry up that tastes like "all kinds of goodness." That goodness is sustenance, mother love, and compassion.


In the picture books discussed this week, the authors selectively use details to convey financial hardship. The characters need a way out, an escape or a different focus. Beauty, imagination, and self-expression offer release. Working towards a goal, being generous towards the even less fortunate- or experiencing someone else's generosity- also helps them transcend their condition. The characters may not solely solve their own problems (at least one loving adult is involved), but they're active and dynamic.

Fly Away Home and Tar Beach are two other moving, inspirational books about characters in hard times. If you discover others, please let me know, and if you're writing such a story...bravo!

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Picture Books For Hard Times: Day 4

Today, a look at Those Shoes by Maribeth Boelts, a hard times picture book with a spot-on child voice.

The set-up: Jeremy, who lives with his grandma on a limited income, dreams of getting a new pair of high top tennis shoes like all the boys are wearing.

On all fronts, Boelts has written a convincing socially realistic story. The dialogue is authentic ("There’s no room for ‘want’ around here- just ‘need’," says Grandma) and the details well-chosen (Jeremy is given outdated shoes from the guidance counselor that "have an animal on them from a cartoon I don't think any kid ever watched.") The boy's thoughts ring so true: "I'm not going to cry about any dumb shoes. But when I'm writing my spelling words later, every word looks like the word shoes and my grip is so tight on my pencil I think it might bust."

The character's behavior is plausible too- his envy, his guilt, his indecision and his final "sacrifice." Jeremy wants those shoes so bad he buys a pair that are too tight from a thrift shop. Then he notices a classmate with a taped up shoe, and feet smaller than his. At the park after school, he can help but notice that loose piece of tape smacking the concrete every time he jumps.

Jeremy solves his problem by solving someone else's. Unlike Lydia in The Gardener, he undergoes a crisis of conscience. Jeremy's generosity comes gradually, honestly, with difficulty...we experience his inner turmoil. I'm not going to do it, he thinks, over and over. The reader must infer what thought he's banishing from his mind. When Antonio comes for dinner, Jeremy can feel him "wishing those shoes were his." At night, he lies awake thinking about the boy, and tries the high tops on one last time. The next morning he races over to Antonio's doorstep to give him the shoes, before he can change his mind. It's so human, so childlike.

Those Shoes is realistic, but hopeful. All of Jeremy's classmates (except for Antonio) make fun of his unfashionable shoes. More important than this is the love from Grandma (who schleps him to the thrift shops and buys him the winter boots he needs), support from the guidance counselor, and friendship from Antonio. At the end of the book the two boys race off together in the newly fallen snow.

Tomorrow: one more book, and a wrap up.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Picture Books for Hard Times: Day 3

In which we continue our discussion of picture books about characters with financial difficulties. How do the characters transcend their circumstances? Let's look at How I Learned Geography by Uri Shulevitz.

The set-up: a boy and his family flee their war-torn country and move, penniless, to a far off land.

With a few choice details, Shulevitz paints a bleak picture of the family's impoverished existence. The sun-baked houses are made of clay, straw and camel dung. The family shares a room with another couple. The boy has no toys, books, and little to eat.

A couple of telling scenes evoke the wretchedness:

One day his father goes out to buy bread, but instead returns with a map. He could only have afforded a tiny bit of bread, so they would have been hungry anyway. Mother is incredulous.

“No supper tonight,” Mother said bitterly. “We’ll have the map instead.”

The furious son goes to bed hungry and doesn’t think he’ll ever forgive his father. To make matters worse, his roommate is noisily eating:

“oh! how loudly he chewed. He chewed a small crust of bread with such enthusiasm, as if it were the most the most delicious morsel in the world.” The boy covers his head with his blanket so he won’t hear.

Can you feel the pain?

It's important that you do, because of what follows. The next day, Father hangs up a huge map, which floods the cheerless room with color. The boy is fascinated with it. He makes rhymes out of the strange sounding locations, and repeats them like a magic incantation. This carries him far away:

“I climbed snowy mountains where icy winds licked my face.” He goes on to wondrous temples, shady fruit groves, and cities of tall buildings (all lovingly illustrated by the author).

The book ends with: “And so I spent enchanted hours far, far from our hunger and misery. I forgave my father. He was right, after all.”

Even more poignant, the book is based on Shulevitz’ childhood. His family fled Warsaw after the 1939 blitz, and lived as refugees in the Soviet Union, Paris, and Israel. The Author's Note includes a photograph of the artist/author taken in Turkestan, a map he drew on an envelope, and a scene of the marketplace he later drew from memory.

Shulevitz’s writing in How I Learned Geography is spare, honest, and selectively descriptive. The utter dreariness of his life at the beginning of the story sharply contrasts with the sensory richness of the map passages later.

In this hard times book, a loving parent initiates the “solution." It’s the boy’s vivid imagination, however, that transforms the map into something magical. The map offers colorful destinations for his mental journeys, an escape from his deprivation. Like the books discussed in my previous posts this week, “beauty”- whether real or imagined- relieves the child of the sadness of his condition.

Tomorrow: another character, and very different circumstances.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Picture Books for Hard Times: Day 2

Today, a look at The Gardener by Sarah Stewart (illustrated by her husband, David Small.)

Like all the hard time books I’ve chosen for this week, The Gardener is told in the first person/lyrical voice, though it’s in the form of letters. The narrator writes in the present tense about past events, giving us immediate access to her feelings.

The set-up: While her father looks for work in a rural area, Lydia is sent to live with her undemonstrative baker/uncle in the city.

Lydia devises a secret plan to win over her uncle (the outward goal is to make him smile). Suspense builds til the end, when we learn that she has covertly grown scores of flowers to transform the bakery's dirty unkempt roof into a lovely oasis.

We feel Lydia's excitement as she hatches and executes her secret plan. Her letters home bubble with enthusiasm: “My heart is pounding so hard I’m sure the customers can hear it downstairs!”

At the end of the book, the shop is closed so Lydia, her uncle and the bakery workers can have a party in the rooftop garden. The uncle brings out a cake covered in flowers, a cake that “equals one thousand smiles.” It turns out there’s more to celebrate, for Papa has found a job and Lydia will be going home.

Stewart uses just a few telling details to show Lydia’s circumstances at the beginning of the story. In her letter to her uncle she writes, “Did I tell you that Papa has been out of work for a long time, and no one asks Mama to make dresses anymore? We all cried, even Papa.” She wears one of her mother’s dresses, made over for her, on the train.

David Small's exquisite illustrations pack emotional wallop in the scenes, while dramatically evoking the Depression era setting.

The Gardener has much in common with A Chair For My Mother (see yesterday's post). In both books, the main characters have supportive environments (in the former, friends and neighbors bring Lydia plants and containers). Both girls are positive and singlemindedly focused on their goal- they're both working towards something concrete, and beautiful. But Lydia- a rural girl who knows all about growing things- takes pleasure in using her talent to benefit someone else. The goal involves expressing her own identity (her parents have taught her about beauty. Neighbors call her “the gardener.”)

Tomorrow- another predicament, another solution.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Picture Books For Hard Times

Happy Birthday, America, and may the next year be a healthy and prosperous one.

Especially for the less fortunate among us. With those people in mind, the TC&TF devotes this week to picture books about characters with economic hardships.

Each day we’ll look at a hopeful yet authentic story. The subject matter presents many challenges: Which details can be used to evoke the setting? How can the characters transcend their circumstances? Is it possible for the characters to solve their own problems? How will emotion be conveyed?

One of my all-time favorite realistic picture books is Vera Williams’ A Chair For My Mother.

The set-up: a child, her mother and grandmother are saving spare change to buy a chair, because their possessions have been destroyed in a house fire:

“When we can’t get a single other coin into the jar, we are going to take out all the money and go buy a chair Yes, a chair. A wonderful, beautiful, fat soft arm chair. We will get one covered in velvet with roses all over it. We will get the best chair in the whole world.”

Ah, feel the desire in those few sentences. The repetition and lush description that creates emphasis. And note the choice of the first person/lyrical voice- for a story about healing, after a traumatic event.

An upbeat attitude prevails throughout the book. The chair becomes a symbol of hope, renewal and comfort. It provides the family with an achievable, concrete goal. The community is supportive- the boss at the diner where mother works gives the child coins for helping out. After the fire, friends and relatives donate food, furniture and other necessities.

The story is optimistic, while also vividly real. The author uses a few well chosen details to describe the aftermath of the fire, and scenes of everyday life. When mama comes home her feet hurt, and sometimes she’s so tired she falls asleep while the child counts the money into piles. Some days mama has only a little money and she looks worried. When grandma wants to sit back and hum and cut up potatoes, she has to get as comfortable as she can on a hard kitchen chair.

One of the more interesting things in ACFMM is the use of flashback, uncommon in picture books. It starts in the present tense as the family saves money for the chair, goes into the past for back story about the fire, returns to the present …when mom and child are still saving up coins. Why? Because this re-creates the feeling of desire in the main character. We can feel her wanting that chair, feeling the pain of the past, anticipating it more as the jar fills up and then….

the story moves forward in time. The family goes furniture shopping and finally find the chair “they were dreaming of.”

The story ends in the never-ending present, leaving the reader with a cozy, reassuring scene. “Now” grandma sits in the chair during the day, mama rests in it at night, and after supper the child joins her, sometimes falling asleep.

The watercolors are lovely. The plump cozy chair is covered with roses. No wonder this book is still in print!

Friday, June 18, 2010

The Logic of Poetic Picture Books: A Look at ALL THE WORLD

Much has been written about the structure of picture books- the importance of beginnings, middles and ends, plot turning points, rising and falling action.

But what about plotless picture book poems? These books don't depend on conflict, suspense and resolution, yet they still make use of structural logic (beyond their formal aspects, if they're in verse). Poetic books still lead the reader on an engaging journey. The accumulation of scenes/images, set forth in purposeful order, convince us of an emotional truth.

Just look at Liz Scanlon's All The World (illustrated by Marla Frazee), one of last year's critical favorites.

This book is a celebration of the pleasures of nature, and human love. It begins

"Rock, stone, pebble, sand/Body, shoulder, arm, hand/A moat to dig/A shell to keep
All the world is wide and deep."

Notice the organization of this stanza, repeated with variation throughout the book:

-The lists go from big to little
-The imagery moves from the particular in the first line, to the general in the last. Suggesting illustrations that move from close up, to wide angle (and rendered brilliantly by Frazee).
-Also note that the human activity is the artist people to illustrate.

From the shore, the poem moves on to gardens, to tree-climbing, and other outdoor delights. When "Morning sun becomes noon blue" the story becomes anchored in time, and subsequently unrolls in chronological order (Frazee depicts one long family excursion).

Then, at midpoint:

"Slip, trip, stumble, fall/Tip the bucket/Spill it all/Better luck another day/All the world goes round this way"

This accident/loss/moment of human weakness (And how real- and reassuring- this moment is, for young children!) shifts the focus in the second half of the book from nature to people, from the outer world to the intimate one. The day draws on, the family comes home to a warm hearth and loving relatives.

In its final verse the poem synthesizes what's come before (the outer and interpersonal worlds) then goes beyond that- to our bonds with humankind:
"Hope and peace and love and trust/All the world is all of us."

This book doesn't have a classical plot, but it's got solid architecture, down to each well-wrought couplet. If you're struggling with your plotless picture book manuscript (in verse or not), consider:

Does your book have structural logic? Does a principle of order (chronological, specific to general, size, distance, quantity, quality, etc.) organize your "scenes" and create movement?
Do you use repetition of words and/or images with variation? Does your ending echo- and deepen- the beginning?

You can also study your favorite poetic picture books, looking for organizing principles and links between the scenes/verses. Would the poem work if these verses were put in random order?

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Naomi Howland on "Princess Says Goodnight"

My "Writing the Picture Book" course at UCLA Extension has just come to a close. When a class has a great esprit de corps like this one, I'm wistful when it ends. One of the highlights of the six weeks was a visit from Naomi Howland. The students got to see her manuscripts, storyboards, sketches and dummies and hear about all the patient hard work that goes into writing and illustrating a picture book.

Naomi also read her wonderful new release, Princess Says Goodnight, which received a starred review from PW!

Here's a brief interview with Naomi for our customers at The Cat & The Fiddle:

What was your initial inspiration for the book?

When children see their teachers outside of school, doing something ordinary like grocery shopping, it is always such a surprise. I began thinking about how a child might wonder about other adults they see and about these adult’s lives. That got me thinking about bedtime routines, which led to thinking about how policemen and kings and queens might get ready for bed. It was a circuitous journey.

Did you need to do any research?

No- I have raised 2 princesses and one prince and am experienced in royal behavior and expectations. :o)

What was the time line between initial idea, and publication?

I have thought about this bedtime book for years and years, possibly ten years.

What could beginning writers or illustrators learn from your experience?

While you may have a good initial idea, you have to write and rewrite and rewrite some more. When I first submitted Princess Says Goodnight, it was about a king and queen getting ready for bed. Now it is about a little girl who imagines she is a princess. The characters changed though many of the activities stayed the same.

What do you hope young readers will take away from this book?

I hope this is both a fun and comforting bedtime book. Princess also uses some nice language and I hope that children want to know what those words mean.

Finally, where would you take the princess if she came for a visit to Los Angeles?

I would take a princess to the Huntington Gardens because to walk around the roses, outdoor sculptures, or through the buildings there would make any little girl feel like royalty. Also, she would have a fine time playing in the children’s garden. And I would buy her an eclair and some petit fours in the afternoon.

Thanks so much, Naomi. With David Small's buoyant art, and your classy rhymes, this book is sure to be a winner.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Torrible Zone: Authors Talk About Writing Obstacles

TC &TF dedicates this post to Edward Lear, master of magical nonsense verse, who was born on this day in 1812.

In one of his poems, Lear sings of the blue headed Jumblies, who improbably sailed the sea in a sieve,

And in twenty years they all came back,
In twenty years or more,

And every one said, `How tall they've grown!
For they've been to the Lakes, and the Torrible Zone,
And the hills of the Chankly Bore!'

So in honor of Edward, this post is about the time authors spend in the Torrible Zone. Sometimes, during the writing process, the sky is dark and the voyage is long. I asked my fellow writers in CAN (The Children's Authors Network) “Which of your stories was most difficult to write? What did you learn from the process?”

Alexis O'Neill: It took me seven years to write my shortest story, The Recess Queen (586 words). What I learned is that some stories can't be rushed. You have to find the right mix of conflict and characters to pull off a satisfying read. I also learned that, even when your story is hidden away in a filing cabinet, you have to keep your antennae up for creative solutions to a story's problems.

Jeri Chase Ferris: The story most difficult for me to write was my historical fiction set during the Siege of Leningrad. Difficult because of my passion for the people and grief at the unimaginable suffering they experienced. Also difficult because it has been in progress for fifteen years! (the writing, that is). I learned to push on anyway, and to put all that emotion right into my characters. If you are passionate about your story, then YOU are the one to tell it. No one else will do it as well as you, so keep writing!

Janet Wong: The easiest story for me to write was Me and Rolly Maloo-the picture book version. The idea for it came from nowhere. While I was writing it, I found myself thinking that Judy O'Malley at Houghton Mifflin would be the perfect editor. Judy bought it in a week. When Judy left for Charlesbridge, she negotiated to take our project with her. Charlesbridge asked me to revise the book. Ordinarily I have no problem with revision--even substantial changes and many of them--but Charlesbridge's editorial team thought the book would read better as a novel. From this picture a novel? Their point was reasonable: the book is about cheating on a math test, and cheating really isn't an issue until 3rd grade or so, when they're reading novels.

I struggled for the next two years with making it twenty times longer. I had a strong vision of its illustrations, and I couldn't figure out how to reconcile those images with the format of a novel.

During that time, Judy O'Malley fell into a coma and I thought both the book and my beloved editor Judy were gone. Now, over six years after selling it, Me and Rolly Maloo is finally a hardcover book that I can knock my knuckles on. The project has inherited a second editor, Emily Mitchell, whose attention to detail is magnificent--but the book is still Judy's, and I dedicated it to her.

Joan Graham: Splish Splash, while challenging to write, was more difficult to market as it was concrete poetry, and not everyone knew what that was. I had not seen a full book of shape poems since Robert Froman's Seeing Things and Street Poems in the 70s, and those were in black and white. Once I did find a home for my manuscript in 1993 with Houghton Mifflin (Hooray for them for seeing the possibilities!), there were just a few very minor tweaks, and it was ready to go to an artist. I believe Splish Splash was one of the first books to be illustrated by computer; it was published in 1994 and is now celebrating its Sweet Sixteen Birthday. After Splish Splash came out, a friend called to say she had been to NYC and saw my book at the Museum of Modern Art! Well, it is word art, and I learned to be persistent and stay true to my vision.

April Halprin Wayland: The novel I'm writing now. It's been 14+ years.

Why is it difficult?

Because it's been 14 + years!

Me: Dreamer From the Village was a tough self-taught class in how to write a picture book biography. After months of research I was drowning in a sea of vivid anecdotes. Several revisions went by before I realized I had to narrow the story down to the sources of Chagall’s inspiration, how he learned his craft, and the distinguishing characteristics of his art. I kept re-reading Jonah Winter's Diego to get a sense of simplicity. One editor helped me distill the material, but ultimately passed on the project. The whole process must have taken over a year, but the manuscript ended up where it belonged- in the hands of Marc Aronson, who was named after the artist! (his father, a scenic designer, knew Chagall and wrote a monograph about him).

So if you're struggling with a story, take heart. Writing is not always smooth sailing. Be one of the select few who takes risks and toughs it out.

Like the Jumblies. They are initially discouraged from taking their adventure. But they don't care a button, they don't care a fig! And upon their return, everyone

..... drank their health, and gave them a feast
Of dumplings made of beautiful yeast;
And every one said, 'If we only live,
We too will go to sea in a Sieve,---
To the hills of the Chankly Bore!

Write on.