Tag Archives: writing

Books Alive!

31 Dec

unnamedYay! I did it!

I promised myself this year that I would read as many new picture books as I could. I got my recommendations from friends and from my library, thank you Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County! Every week I would look at my library’s website and find the new releases and put them on hold for me to read. Today is the last day of 2015 and I have reviewed 360 picture books on my BOOKS ALIVE page! I actually read many more, but these are the one that made the cut for my page.

I quickly realized there were going to be more books than I could possibly read in one year, so I set a few parameters for myself.

First of all, I read almost exclusively fiction because this is what I write. Although I couldn’t pass up a few non-fictions recommended by friends, these are very few of the total number of books read.

Secondly, I only reviewed the ones I could honestly give 3, 4, or 5 stars to. If I didn’t want to reread a story or buy it for my grandchildren, I didn’t review it.

Thirdly, I steered away from commercial characters. Even though I love Winnie-the-Pooh, Curious George, and the Disney franchise, I had to limit my reading and this was one way to do it. I love a good series as much as the next person, but I was really looking for what I could learn from the stand alone picture book to inform my own writing.

Lastly, I stuck to traditionally published books because this is the route I would like to take myself and part of my quest included learning about what sells. So basically, if I couldn’t get my hands on it in my library system I didn’t read it. Although, I have put in purchase requests online for books that were getting a lot of media attention and which were not in my public library.

In total I reviewed… 360 picture books in Books Alive! This does not include the books I read and did not review. It also does not include the books I read that were not published in 2015. Sometimes I would find an author I liked and went back and read more of their work.

Top 10 Things I Learned About Writing Kid Lit from BOOKS ALIVE!

1. There are no hard and fast rules! Yes, publishers are buying and selling rhyming text… good rhyming text. Yes, publishers are buying and selling ‘quiet’ books.

  1. Diversity matters! Even though the We Need Diverse Books movement started last year, I found that there was more diversity in children’s books than I first realized. These books were written and acquired several years before they were published and therefore were in the works before the movement started. I think this issue has been n the forefront of publishers’ minds for longer than we realized. These titles include gender diversity, racial diversity, cultural diversity and diversity in the authors and illustrators who produce these books. And, yes we still have a long way to go… so let’s get busy!

  2. Animal characters still make up the core of picture books. I think children relate well to animal characters and as adults, authors are more apt to tell a ‘difficult’ story one step away from a child protagonist. Also, in going back to the diversity issue, any child can identify with an animal since there is no obvious human trait of gender, race, or culture that makes them different from the reader. Readers can then see themselves as friendly, helpful, brave, adventurous, frightened, etc instead of different from the kid in the book based on physical appearances.

  3. Opinions are like noses, everyone has one. And not everyone can see past their own. Just because someone else did not like a particular book, does not mean that you will dislike it as well. Some of my favorite books are the ones that were overlooked by the media. Conversely, not all the hype about a book coincides with your own opinion. As a matter of fact, I try to generally be positive in my reviews of a book and stay away from those I don’t care for. There are some books out there that you may hate, but remember someone liked it enough to publish it. And you may read a book I have reviewed and think I was crazy to give it 5 stars… again that’s just my opinion. In the same way, agents, editors, and publishers have opinions. There are things they like and things they don’t care for. Just because your work gets a pass from one of these people, does not mean that your work is no good… it’s just not their cup of tea. Try someone else. Research who you submit to so that you can increase the likelihood that they will want your story.

  4. Not all wordless picture books are written by the same author/illustrator. It must be difficult to get your idea across to an agent, editor, publisher, or illustrator if you want to tell a story through pictures exclusively or almost exclusively and you are not the artist. But I have seen it successfully accomplished time and time again. So take your vision and go with it!

  5. There were no books (that I found) beginning with the letter X. That may or may not mean something to a writer out there, but I just thought it was interesting. I might consciously try to write something with an X as the first letter… Xavier’s Puppy? X-Ray Vision? X Marks the Spot? Hey, I kinda like that one… dibs on X Marks the Spot!

  6. Speaking of titles. I can’t tell you how many books I read with the same or almost the exact same title as another picture book. After reading, I would go to Goodreads to record my books read (Which by the way, if you don’t add the date finished, Goodreads will not count it as a book read this year! Guess when I found this out? Last week, when people started posting how many books they read this year and went to look up mine and I had two, TWO. Aiye!). Anyway… while searching for the book by title I would often find more than one with a similar title. Usually this occurred within a few years of each other. But sometimes within the same year, but with different publishing houses. So just because there is already a book out there like yours don’t give up, it might be exactly what someone else is looking for.

  7. Along the same lines, there are hundreds of books with similar themes… friendship, loneliness, fears, lost items, first day of school, bullies, etc. But those that are getting published are new, different, exciting! So what if there are a lot of monster books? Make sure yours is unique… a monster story that only you can tell! Sometimes I’d pick up ‘another bear book’ with dread, and then WOWZERS the author would knock my socks off with the clever jokes, the deep meaning, or the lovely illustrations. And I’d have to remember, THIS is what the publishers want!

  8. Whenever I reviewed a story, I did my best to connect in some way with the author and/or illustrator. I liked their page on Facebook, I sent a friend request, connected on Twitter, looked up their blog. This personal connection gives you another layer of rapport. I found that kid lit people are extremely friendly! They enjoy hearing from fans, they appreciate good reviews of their work on Goodreads, Amazon, and blogs. Many become instant friends, others merely acquaintances. Each connection is another chance to learn from someone who has already made it in the business. Take advantage of personal relationships, these people are your allies in the writing field!

  9. And speaking of making connections… meet as many pros as you can. I love nothing more than to find a great new book and have it signed by the author. Some of the books I reviewed here are a direct result of meeting the author and or illustrator at a workshop or signing event. SCBWI events, Books by the Banks in Cincinnati, and writing workshops are great places to meet the pros. Nothing beats personal connections. I have found them to be wonderful people. They are open, honest, kind, generous, and insightful! This includes the booksellers, librarians, and teachers in your area. Luckily for me, I do know a lot of teachers. For awhile I knew more teachers than an other profession. Now that I’m retired, we still get together for lunch or coffee. It’s important as a writer to remember your audience, parents, teachers, and kids are top on the list! When you check out as many books as I have in the last two years, the librarians get to know you. When you attend book signings, booksellers begin to recognize you. These people can steer you in the right direction when you’re looking for something specific and will be important contacts to have when you are published and ready to go out in public for the first time.

Bonus… give them something, make their life easier, make them remember you. The most important things I did for my readers had nothing to do with my writing journey. The notes I took for myself, were not recorded on my blog, those I keep in my journals. What I did for the readers was simply to give the a quick overview of the story, yes spoilers and all, so they could first see if this was one that met their needs. And then I gave them a few ideas they could use with their children to extend their reading. So whether a parent, grandparent, teacher, or daycare worker, needed a book and an activity to go with it, I tried to give them something they could use. Pinterest became my best friend this year! It takes time to find arts and crafts or easy recipes that are age appropriate without duplicating them too often. But I hope these little things make someone else’s life easier. Many times parents and teachers are too frazzled at the end of the day to think of one more thing. I hope they will come back to my blog once in a while and type in a key word to search for a just-right book and activity for the next day.

Now, off to rest for one whole day before 2016 begins with all its new resolutions! See you on the other side!

 

Bridging the Generations

14 Nov

When writing for children, especially picture books, we need to remember the adult as well. We’ve often heard, it’s the adults who are the gatekeepers to children’s literature. Will they read this book repeatedly? Will they purchase this book? Today I want to add one more, Will they find themselves in this book? Today I did just that.

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Little Tree is a book about holding on and letting go. It’s a book about facing an unknown future. It’s a book about growing up.

It’s written for children. It’s written for adults. I’ll bet, it’s written for you.

For a summary of the story and suggested activities for Little Tree look HERE.

I met Loren Long, author and illustrator of Little Tree this morning. He was kind and giving with his audience. He shared his story of a little tree with us. It’s a story of watching his firstborn embark on his school career. Not once, but twice. He retold how frightening those experiences were for him as a parent watching his son go off to kindergarten… and then to college. And, we got to meet his son the college student and inspiration for the story, and see what a wonderful relationship they have and watch them work together on a piece of art for the bookstore.

 

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Here’s a picture of Loren sharing my favorite page:

“As his last leaf floated to the ground, for the first time Little Tree felt the harsh cold of winter.”

The artwork is stunning. And the text reminds me that when you finally let go of something that’s been holding you back, it can be cold and scary. But in the end, you know you that in order to grow… you must first let go.

Think back to the times it was hard for your little ones to let go… let go of their binky, let go of diapers, let go of their afternoon naps, let go of your hand in the school parking lot. It was a cold and scary time for them. You were there to dry their tears, give them comfort, help them through it.

And think of the times it was hard for you to let go and watch them grow. I think about the times when they fell and scraped their knees, when they boarded their first school bus, when they wanted to be dropped off at the mall without me, when they got their hearts broken for the first time, when they moved out of town. It really did feel like a harsh cold winter. I thought my heart was dying. But each time they came back to me taller and stronger… more of who they were and less of who I was. And it felt good.

See, what I mean about writing across generations? Loren Long has done that beautifully. I hope you pick up a copy for yourselves and feel the splendor of letting go as a wonderful thing.

 

 

 

The 7 Levels of Children’s Literature

12 Oct

I was having dinner with my husband’s cousins this weekend and the topic turned to my writing. “So, what are you working on?” I went on to describe a couple of my stories which are ‘out there’ waiting for representation and the new work I’m doing on the CYBILS Easy Reader and Early Chapter Book panel. The latter was met with cocked heads and furrowed brows. It wasn’t the Award that was confusing, it was the difference between Easy Readers and Early Chapter Books.

Confused

It’s actually a look I’m quite familiar with; many of the parents of my second graders had the same look when I introduced them to the genres past picture books. Most of these parents, and I believe the general public, think there is one giant step their children make from picture books (which them deem as ‘too easy’ for their kiddos) to chapter books (which they erroneously believe their budding geniuses should be reading). I can’t tell you how many parents want their kids graduating from Dr. Seuss to Harry Potter in one fell swoop. And, as the gate-keeper to the class library, I should be the one to put these books in their hands. But I digress…

So, back to the confusion between the levels of children’s literature. Although someone else may have more or fewer, depending on how they organize their thinking, I’d like to discuss seven stages of children’s literature which correspond to children’s levels of reading development. These are categories which can be identified in most libraries and bookstores and are agreed upon terms by the kid lit community. Now, the tricky thing to remember about readers is that no one is totally in one category or another. Children often flow between two or three categories at a time, and should be encouraged to do so.

What I’ve done here to help ‘outsiders’ understand the differences, is to give an example of how the writing changes for each category. Beginning with a story told completely with illustrations and ending with a story told with no illustrations, topics of increasing maturity are presented to the reader.

1. Wordless: No text. (full illustrations)

2. Near Wordless: Duck. Worm. (full illustration)

3. Picture Book: Duck and Worm are friends. (full illustration)

4. Easy Reader: This is Duck. This is Worm. Duck and Worm are best friends. Duck likes to fish. Worm likes to draw. Worm drew a picture of Duck. “You are a great artist, Worm,” said Duck.   (some illustration)

5. Early Chapter Book: “Hey, Worm,” Mallard called to his little brother, Wesley. Mallard picked up his rod and reel. “Shake a leg.  We need to leave now if we want fish for dinner tonight.” Wesley yawned and threw his covers back. “I’m coming,” he said. (fewer illustrations)

6. Middle Grade: Mallard and Wesley marched into Coach Goliath’s office after football practice. Middle School is hard enough without having to deal with the social hierarchy forced upon them by the likes of the knuckleheads on the gridiron. It’s about time someone stood up for the rights of the little guy. And, with Mallard at his side, Wesley felt taller than his 4 foot 9 inches. (illustrated sporadically)

7. Young Adult: It’s unnatural. At least that’s what the demonstrators outside Oak Park City Hall claimed. Wesley shrank away from the chanting crowd. If anyone saw him, there would surely be a lynching tonight. Oak Park’s old guard wasn’t ready for high school prom queen like Wesley. And he wasn’t ready to provide them with one either. He clutched his carry-on bag in one hand and his ticket in the other. He darted toward Mallard’s waiting car at the edge of the parking lot. (text carries the story)

As you can see, the main differences in the levels are in the subject matter, vocabulary, sentence structure, and dependence on illustrations. Each one has a unique function and fills a need in children’s literature. Do not be tempted to rush a child you know through the levels. Take time. Savor the stories. Allow children to become confident, fluent readers who read for enjoyment… not to reach the next landmark… and you will have a happy, life-long reader.

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The Dark Cloud of Rejections

29 Jun

This has been a whirlwind month of joyous events. I have celebrated graduations, retirements, weddings, Father’s Days, birthdays, and anniversaries. I am surrounded by family and friends. I feel loved every single day. Even little activities like critique meetings, lunches, shopping, movie dates, and coffee with friends, fill me with delight.

Then I received back to back rejections on submissions.

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Gloom. Melancholy. Dejection.

Choices.

1. Grouse. (Not my style.)

2. Wallow in misery. (That sounds more like me.)

3. Reappraise the situation. (After a brief period of mourning.)

So I did a little shopping around and found a new umbrella. I kind of like this one. Bright. Cheery. Metaphorically speaking, just what I need. th

Now, under the protection of my bright, cheerful, metaphorical umbrella I can analyze the facts. Both of the rejections were polite, friendly even. Both were addressed to me by name. Both thanked me for sharing my work with them. Both reminded me that other people in the industry might be interested in representing me. Both wished me luck on my publishing journey. Neither suggested I quit writing. Neither recommended I reevaluate of my goals. Neither advised me to tear up my manuscript and never contact them again.

Look… the clouds are passing. I have renewed energy and a positive attitude. I will wait to hear from others on the submissions that are pending and I will spend the day working on my new project. But before I do, I might just take a minute to splash in the puddles!

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Journal

19 Apr

FullSizeRenderThis is a very special journal. I got it several years ago while I was still teaching. The cover intrigued me with its melting clock, random numbers and elastic side fastener. I knew exactly how I would use the minute I picked it up. It was my retirement planning journal. I jotted notes, phone numbers, workshops, passwords, etc on its pages. I took it to every retirement meeting I attended whether it was in-district or at the state offices. I took it with me to my finical planner twice a year. Sometimes I would just take it out, turn the pages, and stare at it. I wondered if it was really possible. Was it realistic? Was this attainable? This melting clock was my reminder that there was a day and time somewhere in the future when I would meet my retirement goals. And guess what? I did. Almost two years ago.

For the first year of retirement, this trusty journal remained with my official paperwork. I never opened it again, but I kept it just in case… just in case the IRS called me, just in case the school district called me, just in case the state retirement board called me, just in case.

Last year, I took it out. It was time to put it to good use again. After all, it served its purpose so well I thought I could get one more ‘miracle’ out of it. I tore out the pages pertaining to retirement and filed those in a manilla folder. Now, with a clean slate, I use the melting clock to remind me that in time (no one knows how long) I would be a published author.

This is my Submissions Journal. On each page, I write the title of a manuscript I have sent out into the world. Under the manuscript title, I write where, when, and to whom I sent it out. I count the months since the last submissions. I decide to either resubmit to new names and places or revise yet one more time. I take it out now and then just to stare at all the titles. I envision my published books in libraries and bookstores everywhere. But like my retirement plans, these things take time.

I added a new page yesterday… a new manuscript, a new name, date, and address.

On Ideas

30 Apr

I’ve been working on a character sketch for about a week now. I know her name, age, home, likes, dislikes, pretty much everything about her. I’ve also been working on a story to put her in, but nothing seemed to be just right. Then just before midnight as I was drifting off to sleep, this happened…

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I turned on the light, grabbed my laptop and started writing furiously. Luckily for me, my husband can sleep through my late night frenzies so I didn’t even have to leave my bed. As I read my first draft this morning, I realize that it’s not too bad. There’s a lot of work to do to get it right, but I’m on the right track. And now that I know where I’m going, the journey is going to be so much easier. Maybe I should just lie down for a little while.

On Creativity and Art

25 Apr

10153238_10203890570323989_6113696178644298692_nMy critique group met this morning. I shared something brand new and totally different from what I normally write. It kinda went over like a baloney sandwich at a banquet. It started out okay. It had a funny ending. But the middle was missing something. It just didn’t work. That’s not to say that the whole thing needed to be pitched, there were just some problems to address. So we focused on what worked. We talked about how to move from the initial concept to a desirable product.

So I went home with some sound advice and a plan. I knew where the strengths were and I knew what I wanted. The first thing I did was reread the original story with new eyes and the words of my critique partners ringing in my ears. Then I put it down, did some laundry, fed the dogs, read a new picture book, and worked on my blog. All the while, this was stewing in my head. I hadn’t planned on working on it today, I was going to let it simmer for a few days. That was the plan until … wham! It rushed at me full force.  I opened my computer and started revising. I finished it in less than an hour. And now I want to gather my group back together and scream, “Look at this! I’ve got it!” but I have to wait two more weeks to see them.  Oh well, maybe in that time, I’ll find something else to change.  If not I’ll start on my next project.

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