Friday, April 29, 2011

Joan Bransfield Graham, April Halprin Wayland and Janet Wong on the Writing Process

Hats off to The Opposite of Indifference for hosting today's Poetry Friday Round-Up, and offering such irresistible bookmarks (I have a soft spot for sock monkeys).

As promised, I'm posting Part 2 of my Q and A with noted poets (and fellow Children's Authors Network members) Joan Bransfield Graham, April Halprin Wayland, and Janet Wong.

Q: Using one of your poems as an example, could you briefly describe your writing process- from idea to finished product?

Joan: For my "Sun" poem in FLICKER FLASH I decided to speak as the sun itself--a mask poem. Sometimes the sun would shine down the hallway in my house, hitting me in the face like a big alarm clock--that was my inspiration. The sun, of course, would be loud; it would "shout," "bounce," and "solar power" to create a "dynamite, ring-a-ding day." The letters b, d, p, and t are "plosives" and their sounds add to the impact. It was fun to slip in a bit of scientific information. Then I played with the shape, experimenting with different fonts to achieve the best roundness. Ease of reading is always a consideration. There's a lot going on in two sentences. I read all my poems aloud many times and revise accordingly. I've enjoyed breaking this up and doing it in call-and-response with students. When I ask, "Who needs to be solar powered out of bed in the morning?" a lot of hands shoot up, especially the teachers!


miles away I bring
you this dynamite, ring-
a-ding day. I'll shout in
your window and bounce
near your head to solar
power you out of
your bed."

--(c) Joan Bransfield Graham

Janet: One good example is "Scute," a poem that I wrote for PoetryTagTime, the eBook anthology that I compiled with Sylvia Vardell. In this book, 30 poets "play tag," writing poems that connect to one another. I was tagged by Mary Ann Hoberman, who wrote a poem about turtles, tortoises, and terrapins--so I knew that I had to write about some aspect of those T creatures. Since I was the last poet, I also wanted to link to the first poet, Jack Prelutsky, who wrote about the moon. Joseph Bruchac's Thirteen Moons on Turtle's Back popped into my mind; you can see what I did with that, below. I wrote over a dozen drafts but could not choose a favorite. Here are the three finalists that I chose to send to a few poet-friends. Take a look and see which you'd choose:

Scute #1

Every once in a while
a word sinks deep
into my mind
and I find myself
thinking about it
in the strangest places.
Today’s word: scute.
It’s a cute word--
or even if it isn’t,
I tell myself it is,
so I’ll remember
how to say it.

In school we learned
some people see
thirteen moons
in the big scutes
on a turtle’s back.
I can see moons there,
but scutes actually
remind me more of
Mom’s cinnamon rolls
squished together
in her favorite oval pan.

And I see
an old tortoise scute
in Grandma’s
kitchen chopping block,
a thick slice of
meat-stained oak
that shows thirty years
of rings.

Scutes everywhere,
even where
you don’t expect
to find them.

Grandpa’s scaly tough
toenails: scutes--
and not-so-cute ones!

All these scute-thoughts
have got me thinking:
time to shed the old
and grow
a fresh new shell.

Scute #2

In school we learned
some people see thirteen moons
in the big scutes on a turtle’s back.
I can see moons there, sure--

but scutes actually remind me more
of Mom’s cinnamon rolls
squished together
in her favorite oval pan.

And I see an old tortoise scute
in Grandma’s kitchen chopping block,
a thick slice of meat-stained oak
that shows thirty years of rings.

Scutes everywhere, even where
you don’t expect to find them:
Grandpa, I think it’s time to shed
a few layers of toenails, don’t you?

Scute #3

Every once in a while
a word digs itself deep
into my mind
and I find it everywhere.

In school we learned
some people see thirteen moons
in the big scutes on a turtle’s back.
I can see moons in the scutes,
but turtle scutes remind me more
of Mom’s cinnamon rolls
squished together
in her favorite oval pan.
I see an old tortoise scute
in our kitchen chopping block,
which is one thick slice of oak
showing fifty years of rings.
Grandpa’s scaly tough toenails:
scutes--and not-so-cute ones!

Tonight all these scute-thoughts
have got me thinking:
time to shed the old
and grow a fresh new shell.

Their opinions were all over the map, of course! Most of the praise was for #2, but despite the praise—or maybe because I wasn't able to "accept" it easily—I kept questioning myself. One poet-friend asked if I could tinker further with the toenail section. After she said that, I knew instantly that this was what I needed to do. You can read the final draft in PoetryTagTime (our 99-cent eBook) or at (in the Poems section, connected to the turtle prop).

April:I just posted MIDNIGHT CAT on my Poetry Month blog.

I wanted to write a mask poem--a poem from the point of view of my cat. She sneaks into the house each night, tiptoes around my sleeping dog, Eli, and sleeps next to me all night long. In the morning before anyone's up, she sneaks back outside.

I love with working with the online and several online rhyming dictionaries, including With this poem, I simply slid inside the mind of our cat (whose name, if you must know, is Snot), and then played with rhymes. And played and played and played. I wanted to limit the number of sounds I used in the poem and I wanted to get the 'tude of Snot and how she feels about our dog. Sometimes writing a poem takes a very long time and sometimes it feels like I'm splashing in a mud puddle. This one felt like I was deep in that delicious mud!

A bouquet of thanks to Joan, April and Janet!

May all your months be filled with poetry.
Part One of this interview was posted last Friday.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Joan Bransfield Graham, April Halprin Wayland and Janet Wong on Writing Poetry

Today I'm pleased to present Part One of a Q & A with acclaimed poets Joan Bransfield Graham, April Halprin Wayland and Janet Wong, (my fellow members in the Children's Authors Network). All three have poems out in the brand new Poetry Tag Time ebook.

Happy Poetry Month and Poetry Friday!

What is the challenge of writing poetry for children?

Janet: The hardest part of writing is knowing when to stop, which draft to choose. Most children like bouncy, silly rhymes, so it takes discipline to choose a more subtle approach. It's sort of like choosing between serving chicken nuggets and chicken soup.

April: To get quiet inside and find the real, the true.
To get past the obvious, to not write superficially.
That's the challenge of writing anything. It's all the same.
To be clear but not corny. Be accessible but don't underestimate the audience.

Joan: The challenge of writing poetry for children is to be original, capture a moment in time, create the poem you've never read before, connect with readers and make them say--"Oh, YES!" Each poem should be an act of discovery that surprises the senses, shakes you awake, and startles your imagination.

Which poets are your influences, and what about them do you admire?

Janet: Myra Cohn Livingston nurtured and "created" so many of us; she will forever be The Grandest Teacher of Children's Poets (and the most generous). She would go to great lengths to help new poets connect with editors (once you'd demonstrated some serious effort).

April: I love so many writers. I have to say that I love Janet Wong for her originality, for the often casual, conversational tone of her work. I love Joan Bransfield Graham for her use of language and for always finding a new way to look at things. My mother used to read Ogden Nash to us. In fact, I was named for his poem, "Always Marry an April Girl," which my parents would say aloud to me often. I love the way he invents words and his humor. I love e.e.cummings for his fanciful flights of poetry. I fell in love with Lawrence Ferlinghetti when I was thirteen. I loved his book, A CONEY ISLAND OF THE MIND.

Joan: I've always admired Valerie Worth's use of metaphor and David McCord's and Eve Merriam's wordplay. Richard Wilbur and Mary Oliver provide such stunning imagery, as does Billy Collins, whose perspective and humor are a constant surprise and delight. I was fortunate to be able to study with Myra Cohn Livingston in her Master Class at UCLA--along with Janet and April. What an amazing group--we learned so much from each other!

What is one of the most "autobiographical" poems you've written? Why does it have special meaning for you?

Janet: In GOOD LUCK GOLD (out-of-print, but I will be bringing it back to life soon in Kindle form) there is a poem called "Dad," where I say that my father is like a turtle. When he's mad, he snaps and pulls into his shell. It's becoming quite autobiographical because my own "turtle tendencies" are growing stronger each year--my son can tell you all about that!

April: EVERY one is in some way autobiographical. I've written poetry for many years and one poem a day for over a I have too many to choose from! Whine, whine, whine... : ^ )

Joan: At first I did not realize this, but my books SPLISH SPLASH and FLICKER FLASH are very autobiographical! Growing up on a barrier island along the southern coast of New Jersey, I loved the ocean, boats, the salty air, the sound and rhythm of the waves. What was my first book? Water poems. For years I've studied photography, and I'm always conscious of the interplay of light and shadow. Before digital I developed my own black and white prints in the darkroom, where I saw the effects of light take shape. My next book? Poems about light. Philosopher Immanuel Kant said, "We see things not as they are, but as we are."

Any tips for classroom teachers on how to integrate poetry into the curriculum?

Janet: Here are three tips: 1) Build your own Poetry Suitcase; read why at;

2) Have kids write poems on endangered animals and send them to me via (where you'll find more info about what we're doing to build awareness of endangered animals and how we're donating money to help protect them; a good discussion topic for Earth Day); and

3) please visit our blog where Sylvia Vardell shares amazing poetry tips on a daily basis!

April: Go to -- six children's authors who also teach writing. On most Fridays, which is "Poetry Friday" in the Kidlitosphere, one of us has posted poetry and a writing tip.

And here's another tip: be present. That's what I've learned in writing a poem a day. I've learned that for me, the way to net today's poem is to tune in: what am I feeling? What is that kid is saying? What does the smell of her peanut butter cookie remind me of?

Ask yourself what feels interesting in class today? Can I condense this into a poetry prompt? Maybe you're teaching cursive writing and you've talked about forming the curve of a letter.

Ask the class to become aware of other curves in class, then brainstorm a list of things with curves on the board (a swimming pool, the arch of a doorway, a macaroni noodle, a cat's tail...).

Then have each student make their own list of 5-10 things that curve...if there's time, let them walk around the school campus looking for ideas or eat their lunches and think about curves, then come back and write their list.

Then have them pick one thing from their list to explore in a poem.

Because rhyming can take you away from what you want to say and force you in another direction, you might ask them to avoid rhyming this time.

Why did they pick that particular item from their list? Ask them to think about why it's interesting and how they can weave details of it into the poem so that it will be interesting to readers.

Then stand on your head when you read their poems aloud.

Just kidding.

Joan: Each poem creates its own small world with vivid imagery and vigorous verbs . . . perfect to tuck into so many areas of the curriculum. Since I do lots of school visits and am a former teacher, I know that my poems in SPLISH SPLASH and FLICKER FLASH have been used to open science units on water and light, to inspire students to write their own concrete poetry, and to spotlight "word art" for art classes. You can find Teacher Idea Sheets on my Web site: I've had many teachers tell me that my shape poems--since they are so visual--work well for their ESL students . . . providing clues to help decode words. I love the "Poetry Break" idea, where someone pops into each classroom to share a poem. You should always have a Poem in Your Pocket, and every month should be Poetry Month! All the lessons poetry teaches enhance any kind of writing you choose to do.

This is Part One of the Q & A. (Joan, April and Janet will talk about their writing process in Part Two, which I'll post next Friday.)

The Poetry Friday round-up is hosted today by Book Aunt.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Erica Silverman on Liberty's Voice: The Story of Emma Lazarus

Welcome to this week's Nonfiction Monday Round-Up. If you'd like to join in, please leave your name, your link, and a description of your post in the comment section below. I'll add links throughout the day, beginning at 6 am on the West Coast.

Today, an interview with award-winning author Erica Silverman, whose picture book biography, Liberty's Voice: The Story of Emma Lazarus (illustrated by Stacey Schuett) was published this spring.

Why did you choose to write a biography of Emma Lazarus? What drew you, personally, to her story?

There is so much about her that intrigues me and that I admire.

Her passion for poetry from an early age was something I identified with. I was impressed by her strong need to learn and grow as a writer. She was a strong, independent woman, a successful writer in the late nineteenth century – a time when women had little voice in the public sphere and were decades away from winning the vote. And then, despite coming from a life of comfort and privilege, she became a strong voice for social justice. She became an active advocate for immigrants at a time when anti-immigrant sentiment was on the rise. And she was courageous, confronting anti-Semitism head-on in her writing, despite the fact that she traveled in mostly non-Jewish circles and was no doubt aware of the anti-Semitic attitudes among her own friends. She described herself as not being religious and yet had a strong Jewish identity and a strong feeling for Jewish history. She was in so many ways an independent thinker.

How do you think children might relate to Emma?

I hope they see her as a role model, are inspired by the fact that she followed her dream, listened to her “voice within”, and wasn’t afraid to speak out for her beliefs. I hope her willingness to stand up for immigrants' rights empowers them to speak up for their beliefs. I also hope they will see how poetry, which we don’t take very seriously as a culture, can actually be powerful and important. Lazarus’ poem, The New Colossus, quite literally defined the Statue of Liberty as our most well-known and loved national symbol for immigrants.

What was the greatest challenge in writing the book, and how did you overcome it? How long did it take to write?

Years. I started the book in 2002 and it’s just come out. I had a hard time tracking down some of the source materials. My best find was the many memorial letters written at the time of Emma’s death. They were published in a newspaper called the American Hebrew. I found them on microfilm at LAPL.

The other big challenge was narrowing down the story. There was so much about Emma’s life that fascinated me. And there was so much historical background I wanted to include. It was hard to leave so much out, but a picture book has to be very focused.

What advice would you give to writers of picture book biographies?

Find a storyline and stay with it. Find the moments in your subject’s life that are emotional, that have drama – moments of happiness, sadness, anger, failure, success. Include details that evoke the time and place in which your subject lived. You can’t tell everything about that time, but hopefully, you will awaken the reader’s curiosity and arouse a desire to learn more. And of course, in any picture book, you have to write “visually”, to give the artist scenes to illustrate.

Any interesting anecdotes about Emma that didn't make it into the book?

I was fascinated by Emma’s relationship with Ralph Waldo Emerson, which began when she was just eighteen years old. In my book I show how she met him at a dinner party and sent him a book of her own poetry. They embarked on a correspondence in which he mentored her, praising her work while guiding her to improve.

But when Emerson edited an anthology of American poets, he did not include any of her poems. Emma was devastated and furious. What I found interesting is that she wasn’t afraid to let him know, and shot off an anger-fueled letter to him. In my early drafts, I included the scene in which she discovers the anthology’s omission and writes to him. My editor gently pointed out that the book wasn’t about their relationship and that this scene, while dramatic, didn’t really move the story forward. I recognized that he was right.

If Emma were alive today, and you could spend the day with her, where would you take her in your home town of Los Angeles?

We’d take a tour of some of the immigrant neighborhoods – starting with Boyle Heights. Perhaps we could join a rally for immigrant rights. And then we'd get on a plane to New York
and visit the Statue of Liberty.

Erica's next book is Hanukkah Hop, a stamping, hopping, bim-bim-bopping celebration of Hanukkah, complete with a dancing parrot, a live Klezmer band and a girl named Rachel who lives to dance. The retro 50s art is by Steve D'Amico.

Nonfiction Monday Round-up

Book, Dogs, and Frogs has a booktalk/review of Kakapo Rescue: Saving the World's Strangest Parrot.

Wild About Nature is giving away a copy of Flowers Bloom! by Mary Dodson Wade.

Just in time for spring! Check out Summer Birds: The Butterflies of Maria Merian by Margarita Engle, illustrated by Julie Paschkis at Bookmuse. Enjoy!

Jean Little Library a book about cats! Perfect!

Nonfiction Book Blast has Charles and Emma: The Darwins' Leap of Faith for this week.

Fourth Musketeer has a review of Patrick McDonnell's adorable picture book about Jane Goodall, Me...Jane.

Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast shares an interview with illustrator Zachary Pullen and lots of art from Richard Michelson's picture book biography of Lipman Pike.

True Tales and a Cherry on Top features The Brothers Kennedy: John, Robert, and Edward by Kathleen Krull, and an appreciative nod to The Peace Corps.

Lori Calabrese Writes
is in with a review of National Geographic's Deadliest Animals.

Bookends Blog is soaring today with two Amelia Earhart books.

At Charlotte's Library, a review of The Thinking Girl's Treasury of Real Princesses.

The Cath in the Hat
has a post on Who Scoops Elephant Poo?

Books for Learning covers several books about seeds.

The selection at All About Books With Janet Squires is Piano Starts Here: the young Art Tatum written and illustrated by Robert Andrew Parker. Drop by and listen to this Jazz great at his best.

Simply Science has At the Sea Floor Cafe by Lesley Bulion as part of the Peachtree Publishers blog tour.

Pink Me is in with a review of Mark Kurlansky's World Without Fish. (Mmm, fish! Fish from certified sustainable fisheries, of course!)

Great Kid Books
shares Ask Me Everything, a new DK book. Mary Ann Scheuer says that her students love the visuals, the facts and the way it's all organized by questions they can ask themselves and each other.

Shelf-employed reviews two great new offerings from the talented duo of Steve Jenkins and Robin Page: Time to Eat and Time for a Bath.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Child Development & Picture Books: An Interview with Joanne Rocklin

In preparing to teach a writing class, I've been thinking about some of the common problems of student manuscripts. Many are too descriptive and internal, many are "slight" stories, or they don't have "universal appeal."

Would a familiarity with child development help beginning writers with their picture book stories?
Acclaimed author/ teacher Joanne Rocklin, who has a doctorate in psychology, graciously answered my questions on this topic.

How could a knowledge of child development benefit a picture book writer?

Our main goal as authors is to delight, move, and envelop kids in a world they can escape to--in other words, get them to love books. And the easiest way to do this is to understand the children themselves - their humor, their conflicts and needs, and their particular intellectual and social development.

What kinds of books meet the MAIN needs of the pre-school and early elementary age child?

BOOKS FOR TODDLER AND PRESCHOOL: As authors, we want to enhance the conditioning process by which the book remains something warm and comforting and wonderful, (a "transitional object" like a blankie or favorite toy) simply by its association with the parent who is reading and holding the child. What kind of book does this?

-Books which emphasize the senses, using bright, simple images so the baby can focus. Tasty, textured or smelly ones, like Pat the Bunny (Kunhardt, 1998)

-Books emphasizing Repetition, Rhythm and Rhyme, to give the child a comforting, secure feeling, making the world seem less chaotic. There is a security and increased sense of control when the rhyme and refrain reappears. The child is learning about "object permanence", a phrase coined by developmental psychologist Jean Piaget-- that objects still exist, even when out of sight.

-by the end of this period, Piaget's sensorimotor period, the toddler can hold an image in her mind for longer periods, and can anticipate what will happen next. And that's what's needed to understand story, and leads us to

PICTURE BOOKS: These books also reflect the developmental needs of the child (ages 3 and up):

-They are short! They should be able to be read in one sitting, because of the child's relatively short attention span.

-They are child-centered, i.e. there's a simple plot based on everyday situations in the child's life.

-There is a "rehearsal for separation" as defined by E.M. Roberts in The Children's Picture Book: the parent is often in the background, but nearby, as the child has adventures, as in Where the Wild Things Are (Sendak)

-Piaget and others have shown, and parents intuitively know, that children endow inanimate objects and animals with feelings and opinions (animism), that they believe the whole world thinks and feels as they do (egocentrism) and that they believe in magic. So it's natural for the child to accept storybook characters who are animals or fantasy creatures, and even anthropormorphic creatures (The Little Engine that Could/Piper, 1978)

- BUT-the main character is almost always a child in disguise! Animals behavior is species-appropriate (eg. bears hibernate) but with child-like feelings and needs. Mice are popular--they are small, cute, scared and mischievousness, and kids identify. Even main characters who are adults are child-like (Strega Nona/dePaola). All this disguise gives the listener some distance from the weighty issues brought up.

-And the issues are weighty: separation, fear of loss, sibling rivalry, shyness, and many more. There should be a conflict that the main character solves herself; nothing is solved by coincidence, magic, a parent. This allows for growth by the character, and thus the identifying reader. (eg. Henke's Julius, The Baby of the World.)

-Humor in the p.b. reflects what the child himself finds funny at this age: slapstick, surprise, silliness. (Hattie and the Fox/Mem Fox)

-Endings are important: funny, surprising, quiet--but there must be a sense of closure. The adult doesn't want to send the child off into the scary dark void called Sleep with loose story-endings.

-There should be a melding of words and pictures. The words have to be lovely, but spare, with few adjectives and lots of descriptive verbs, to leave room for the illustrator. The child is a beginning reader at this stage, and is learning to go back and forth between words and pictures as he enters the next stage--reading on his own.

What was one of your favorite books to read when you were a child? Why do you think it was meaningful to you at that time in your life?

My favorite books of all time were middle grades, so that's what I write today. Little Women and especially, Anne of Green Gables (I'm a former Canadian) are imprinted in my memory.

I sold my latest book ONE DAY AND ONE AMAZING MORNING ON ORANGE STREET, I was told, because it was a quintessential middle grade. I like to begin a middle grade novel on "a day that is different", and in this book a troubling orange plastic cone appears on the street, as does a mysterious stranger.

Middle grade is all about character and introspection, lots of introspection, and I love writing about that. I have several characters in my new book, each focused on their own particular conflict, but also worried about that orange cone, an old orange tree, and that stranger. I had fun changing points of view--something you can't do in a younger work. But older readers like peeking into the heads and homes of several characters and can keep everyone's perspective in mind. I even have the old orange tree telling its story, and get inside the mind of a dog, a rodent, and children from other eras.

In a middle grade, you don't have to disguise or distance the reader from the conflict--it's right out there in the open. I laid out all the conflicts and was marvelously surprised and moved when everything came together at the end, and everyone's best self was realized --that's the scary magic of writing a novel--it does come together at the end, but you don't often have the ending until you get there. I think it's fair to say that a picture book author needs to have a clearer sense of the ending almost from the beginning...but that's a writing issue and not necessarily a child developmental one!

Any suggestions for reference books or websites about this?

I've mentioned Piaget. I just love his work and he seems to have started it all. Then there are lots of other books out there that codify the age needs and characteristics. Brazelton, The Gessell Institute (Ilg, Ames and Baker's book). I'm sure there are hundreds of more current ones, but not necessarily better ones.

Thanks so much, Joanne!

Sunday, March 20, 2011

School Visit at Glenoaks

On Friday I had a smashing good time at Glenoaks Elementary, along with authors and illustrators Lisze Bechtold, Naomi Howland and Amy Koss.

We did classroom presentations in the grades most appropriate for our books- an ideal format. I enjoy the intimacy, and speaking to my target audience. One of my main points: something you love right now, as a child, might make you famous someday.

Dino host Rex Green made a surprise appearance. Much to the amusement of even the fourth graders.

Merci beaucoup, Glendale Assistance League, for inviting me once again !

Monday, March 14, 2011

Nonfiction for Children's Hearts and Minds

One of the most frequently cited examples of the use of child psychology in fiction picture books is Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are. Max's vivid imagination allows him to express rage/rebellion against discipline, as well as need for mother love.

Non-fiction picture books can reach young readers' hearts in the a similar way. In A Seed is Sleepy, Dianna Hutts Aston alludes to the struggle for independence, one of the main challenges of early childhood.

Kids will recognize themselves in Aston's anthropormorphized seeds, which are small, vulnerable, naked, growing, in need of nurture. The book begins "A seed is sleepy. It lies there, tucked inside its flower, on its cone, or beneath the soil. Snug. Still." Like a child in bed.

The seed is needy, like a growing child. It's thirsty and hungry. Several lines suggest a youngster's need to separate. The seed will be "cozy" until it's ready to grow. It may take its time. Then "the seed is adventurous" for " It must strike out on its own..." and "push up up up..."

Once it finds an ideal place to put down roots, the seed behaves like a mother, giving the baby plant an embryo or seed coat to keep it warm, and seed leaves for its first meal.

A few other comments about technique. Aston's text, a series of attributes about seeds (illustrated in graceful watercolors by Sylvia Long), is full of rhythm and repetition. The imagery (including freckles and a child's shoelaces) is kid friendly. In the emphatic finish that circles back to the beginning, the sleepy seed has breakfast and a drink of water, then awakens in a crowd of vivid sunflowers.

I've long been a fan of Eric Carle's The Tiny Seed, on a comparable subject. While Aston combines poetic language and factual material, Carle creates a dramatic narrative. His protagonist must overcome many perils on its journey to fulfillment- becoming a flower. Kids will root for the tiny, vulnerable hero making its way alone in the world. Both books hint at a growing child's struggles.

If you're a picture book author who is not already familiar with childhood ages and stages (both personal and social) consider researching the subject. It may help you create metaphors and narrative that connect intimately with young readers.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

E-books vs. Traditional Books: The Kids Speak

Back from a scenic and stimulating week at Author Go Round in Santa Barbara, where I had an unexpected treat: a discussion with book-loving students (mostly grades 4 - 8, around 100 per day,) about the pros and cons of traditional vs electronic formats.

Bruce Hale, Joe Cepeda, Amy Goldman Koss, and me
along with Rose Koller and Steve Keithley of the SBCEO.

An overwhelming majority spoke wistfully of the tactile pleasures of traditional books. They liked holding old fashioned books in their hands, looking at their covers, rifling through the pages to see how much they'd read, they even liked smelling them. Paper books made it easier to "get into" the story (the glare of the electronic screen was a distraction). They liked keeping books on their shelves, looking at their spines, holding on to them as a keepsake. They didn't have to worry about charging, losing or damaging them. Some said we shouldn't "modernize" everything, and some lamented the closing of bookstores that might come with a total transition to ebooks.

A couple of students said they liked conventional books for novels, but ebooks for other kinds of material. The minority of kids who preferred electronic devices mentioned the convenience of having their whole library in one place, and the ability to immediately look up words.

This was a small sample, I know, but it blew me away. I had assumed that children raised in a culture obsessed with electronic media would be uncritical of it. When it comes to the experience of reading fiction, this group of kids detected a qualitative difference between digital and traditional formats. I hope publishers continue to give them a choice.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Book Trailers Day 5: An Interview with April Halprin Wayland

And so we wrap up Book Trailer Week at TC & TF.

The joys and perils of having students make your book trailer. Today author April Halprin Wayland shares her experiences.

What questions should an author ask herself before making (or having made) a trailer?

How much am I willing to pay?
Do I want to farm it out or do it myself?
Do I have the time to do it myself?
Do I have the skills to do a good job myself?
Whose book trailers do I admire?
What will make viewers want to buy my book?

What goals did you set for yourself for the trailer for New Year At The Pier?

I wanted the book trailer up at least a month before my book came out.
I wanted it to be short.
I wanted it to capture the warmth and the essence of the holiday which this book describes.
I wanted it to be stand out from the crowd.

Please note that I was very lucky. I'd hired a high school student to do a previous book trailer. Beware of high school students! He was terrific and truly original and I love the trailer...but he created half of it on his girlfriend's computer...and then they broke up. Then he got sick. Then there were finals. It came out in the summer instead Poetry Month (April), which was my target. It was a good experiment and learning experience!

I knew Chase Gregory, then a freshman at Tufts, through her parents. She is media savvy and smart and original and she gets the picture very quickly. (Bonus: she's also really wonderful)
It's a Jewish book and she's not Jewish...yet she captured the essence of this celebration beautifully.

She found music that I mention in the book. It was perfect, so we contacted the Klezmer musicians who played it and paid them to use their music. We also link to their website. She could have gotten some generic music for free, but this was absolutely the right music to use.

I literally handed her the picture book which she hadn't read and said, "Make me a trailer, Chase. Do anything you want." She filmed our local pier and the ocean and gulls...and combined those live action images and the music with illustrations from the book (which we got permission to use from the illustrator and our publisher).

The first one was a bit too long, so I asked her to do a shorter version...I've posted them both on my website. I love-love-LOVE the trailer.

My trailer for Tyrannosaurus Math? It was made by film school senior Jesse Johnson, using Final Cut Pro, audio from an online music library collection, and her considerable natural talents.

Thanks to April, and all the interviewees who took the time to answer my questions. I've learned a lot!

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Book Trailers Day 4: An Interview with Mary Ann Fraser

Are you thinking about making your first book trailer yourself? Today author/illustrator Mary Ann Fraser tells us how she went about making the video for the Ogg and Bob easy readers, which she also illustrated. The books were written by her son Ian.

How did you learn to make trailers?

I first learned about making book trailers from David Boeshaar at a Ventura/Santa Barbara retreat on social networking. He was great at making the process easy to understand, but a lot of it is just digging in and playing with the software to learn all you can do.

What goals did you set for yourself? What questions should an author ask herself about her book before making the trailer?

Basically the goal was to attract attention to my book (s) without giving too much away, and the final product needed to be two minutes or less. I also knew I wanted to make something a little different than what was already being done, but was somewhat limited by my video equipment, especially when it came to sound.

I think it's important to plan around what you know how to do and what you can afford. There are copyright free music downloads out there, some for free, some not. It's wise to figure out your budget from the beginning. I recommend writing a script before you start.

Were there any surprises or challenges along the way?

The most challenging part for me was figuring out how to get the video from the camera to my computer. I finally had to load it onto my husband's computer and then he sent it to mine. You can do voice-overs with an inexpensive headset and mike, but the sound will be compromised. The better the equipment, the better the final product.

What kind of software did you use?

I use Windows Movie maker which came with my computer. It is very user friendly.

Can you recommend places on the web for linking trailers?

Amazon's Author Central now allows you to attach a video to your author profile page. You might also look at,,, or

Thanks for sharing, Mary Ann.

TC&TF dedicates this week to book trailers, to celebrate the debut of my own for Tyrannosaus Math (see sidebar), created by the young and talented Jesse Johnson.
Tomorrow: An interview with author April Halprin Wayland.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Book Trailers Day 3: An Interview with Tina Nichols Coury

Today, TC & TF welcomes Tina Nichols Coury, author, blogger, and producer of many book trailers.

How did you learn to make trailers?

In 2008, my husband, Al Coury, received a lifetime achievement award from a heritage foundation in Washington D.C. and needed to supply a ten-minute video about his career. I wasn’t happy with the videos that a production company had done for the organization. My control freak self rose to the surface and I decided to go take classes and learn to do it myself.

Could you give an example of a trailer you admire?

The trailer for “The Hunger Games.” It is powerful, short and leaves you wanting to read the book. Also the trailer for “The Graveyard Book.” I had interviewed Neil Gaiman on my blog after he won the Newbery and was tickled with the animated trailer that he narrated.

What questions should an author ask themselves about their book before making the trailer?

Number one: can I afford a professional trailer? If you can, make sure the trailer producer READS your book.(You'd be amazed at the stories I've heard about how they "didn't get it.") There are many different companies that specialize in creating video trailers. You can spend as little as fifty dollars for a basic one or up to fifteen hundred for an all out animated version.

But if you have a knack and the proper equipment, you can produce a trailer yourself. Start with a short script, three sentences long. Make it a tease and not the whole story. Next, search for the perfect music to set the tone. It must be royalty free! I know of horror stories where people had to pay royalty fees when their kid made a trailer using licensed music. There are websites that specialize in royalty free music - Music Bakery, Royalty Free, and Beatsuite, just to name a few.

You want your trailer to be unique so it stands out. Make sure the trailer is short: 40 seconds to 1:20 max. Use the cover, your photo and the publishers name to set you apart from the self-published. Publish it on You Tube using a work in progress title, like "A-13." DO NOT USE YOUR BOOK NAME AT THIS POINT! You risk having a ghost trailer when you delete it for the approved version. Send the video to your agent and editor for approval or suggestions. Make the changes and sit on it for a week, as you would with a rewrite. When there is approval on all fronts, name it.

What kind of challenges have you faced in producing trailers?

The challenges usually arise from the clients. Most production houses limit editorial changes to three for a trailer. I am into making the client happy and have at times done as many as ten changes when the agent and editors get involved. 

What kind of software do you use?

I use a 17-inch Mac book Pro, with Motion Four and Finale Cut Studio.

Can you recommend places on the web for linking trailers?

Be sure to post your book trailer everywhere you can: your website, Blazing Trailers, Teacher Tube, Amazon, You Tube, Vimeo…just to name a few. If you do a blog tour, start it off with the debut of your book trailer.

Thanks for all those tips, Tina!

TC&TF dedicates this week to book trailers, to celebrate the debut of my own for Tyrannosaurus Math (see sidebar), created by the young and talented Jesse Johnson.

Tomorrow: children's book author/illustrator Mary Ann Fraser tells us about making her first trailer.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Book Trailers Day 2: An Interview with Tom Lichtenheld

Today I have the pleasure of sharing my interview with Tom Lichtenheld, who illustrated and collaborated with Chris Barton on their trailer for Shark vs. Train. The video won School Library Journal's Trailee award (Publisher/Author created for elementary readers PreK-6) last year.

Additionally, Tom handled production of the trailer for Amy Krouse Rosenthal's Duck! Rabbit! He did the storyboard, and hired a Flash artist and music house.

You're an experienced art director. How did that help you in coming up with the concept for the trailers?

As much as the technical skills, what I bring from advertising is the understanding that every execution needs a strong idea at its center.

What goals did you set for each trailer? Could you describe your process in coming up with the scripts?

I try to entertain the viewer and charm them into finding out more about the book. What I do not try to do is recreate the book in video form. The only time this worked was with Duck!Rabbit!, but that book was already set up more or less as a storyboard, so it worked well. Otherwise I think it's better to convey the personality of the book and just give a hint of the storyline.

Regarding the "personality" of the books. If you could tell us what, specifically, you were trying to capture for those two, that would be helpful.

For Shark vs. Train, we were definitely going for zany. Shark and Train are blindly competitive and goofily inept, so they come off as a couple of blow-hards that are more likely to be laughed at than feared.

Any surprises or challenges along the way?

The budgets are teeny-tiny, but it's a good reminder that a powerful idea is more important than expensive production techniques. For instance, the soundtrack for the Duck!Rabbit! trailer was recorded in my nephew's closet, using a Flip camera as a tape recorder.

What software/hardware was used?

The Shark vs. Train trailer uses a lot of stock footage, and Flash is great for animation.

How would you describe an effective book trailer?

Not overly slick, doesn't take itself too seriously, and is interesting enough to live on its own. The pace and rhythm should definitely reflect the book.

Thanks, Tom.

TC&TF dedicates this week to book trailers, to celebrate the debut of my own (see sidebar), created by the young and talented Jesse Johnson. Tomorrow: an interview with Tina Nichols Coury, blogger- children's book author and trailer producer.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Book Trailers: A Librarian's Viewpoint

This week, TC&TF runs a series of posts on book trailers, in honor of my very first!

Trailer created by Jesse Johnson at

Today, we hear from librarian and book trailer devotee Charna Gross of Sinai Akiba Academy.

Do you think trailers are effective forms of advertising? How are you exposed to the many trailers that are out there? Any sites that you regularly visit?

Yes! Kids are used to music videos, Youtube videos and movie previews. Book trailers speak their language. I look at book trailers that are mentioned on LM-Net, and I look them up on Youtube. I like and here is a site that gives a lot of info on how to make book trailers:

Could you give a few examples of well-executed trailers, and tell us why they might persuade you to read the books they promote?

I really liked the Found book trailer so much that I ordered the book: I also really enjoyed the trailer for the Secret of the Scarlett Stone at They are exciting visually and musically, and describe the book well without giving anything away.

Conversely, what kinds of trailers do not pique your interest?

If a trailer uses music that doesn’t fit the story or doesn't provide enough supporting text, it doesn't work for me. Another observation is that trailers shouldn't be too static. A trailer is meant to move.

How have you been using trailers at your school?

I have used them mostly as student-made products, either for a report on a book that the class is reading or for individuals to create their own trailers on books they want to promote. I have an educators’ account on Animoto, so it is limitless in terms of students making their own trailers.

What kind of observations/feedback have you gotten from the students about trailers?

Students inevitably want to check out books they’ve seen trailers of. Creating the trailers adds to their tech skills. They really enjoy using Animoto, but that is not the only way to do it.

Thanks for giving us your input, Charna.

Tomorrow: an interview with Tom Lichtenheld, illustrator of Shark vs. Train.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The Omnivorous Reader

Happy New Year,

TC&TF is back after a long unannounced hiatus, during which time drafts for bio have been written/rewritten, and hands been wrung. Sigh.

To cheer up and keep limber, I've also been reading a lot, all kinds of things. One of my resolutions is to start writing down and organizing the bits I like. For now I'll just share a few on the old blog!

From Five Surprisingly Effective Dinner Party Riddles That I Can Personally Guarantee
By Dan Kennedy (McSweeney):

Q: What's the difference between a knife fight and a dinner party?

A: About six more glasses of this wine.

From When You Reach Me, a middle grade novel by Rebecca Stead:

"The girls at school had been hurting each others' feelings for years before Sal left me and I was forced to really notice them."

From Introduction to Poetry by Billy Collins:

"I want them to water ski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author's name on the shore.

But all they want to do is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it."

From Arthur & George, a novel by Julian Barnes:

(An excerpt from a dinner party, where the hostess senses the "male restiveness" at the far end of the table)

"They were eager for the curtained study, the poked fire, the lit cigar, the glass of brandy, and the opportunity, in as civilized a way as possible, to tear great lumps out of one another."

From the short story Distant Relations by Orhan Pamuk (published in The New Yorker)

(This is what happens after the main character, who is soon to be married, has a conversation with Fusun, a beautiful salesgirl:)

"Then, for a moment, I paused: my ghost had left my body and I was now, in some corner of Heaven, embracing Fusun and kissing her."

From the short story Everything I Know About My Family On My Mother's Side by Nathan Englander (published in Esquire)

(The main character's girlfriend has left him)
She is gone, and she will be surprised that I'm alive to write this-because she, and everyone who knows me, didn't think I'd survive it. That I can't be alone for a minute. That I can't manage a second of silence. A second of peace. That to breathe, I need a second set of lungs by my side.

In other news: I'll be teaching a six week class called "Writing the Picture Book: An Intermediate Workshop" for UCLA Extension on Saturday afternoons beginning April 2.

May your new year be filled with fabulous books- whether you read them, or write them!