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1. Reader Resonance

Girl reading bookThe middle grade and YA sections of your local bookstore and/or library these days are teeming with genres, styles and subject matters for teens and ‘tweens to explore.  Some offer up fantastical and imaginative worlds, others deal with gritty topical issues – and there’s a vast range in between. But no matter what genre or format you choose to write in, there is a universal key to crafting a compelling plot for young readers: resonance for your intended audience.

What does that mean?

You want to be sure the central problem or big idea that your story grapples with is relevant to your target audience on a very practical, concrete level.  In other words, the reader must identify with it.  Feeling different, seeking independence, navigating relationships, testing boundaries – these are all universal experiences that any teen or tween can relate to, whether the story unfolds in the past, present or future and no matter where in the world it takes place. (This is not to say that you can’t write about a subject that only a select number of young readers can relate to… but that will narrow your audience, so marketing well to that ‘niche’ group becomes even more essential when the time comes.)

No matter your story’s genre or format, who the central characters are or the time and place in which it unfolds, be sure that the central issue the hero is wrestling with is germane to your target audience.  If you don’t have ready access to kids the same age as your target reader, spend some time studying the developmental issues and concerns of children, pre-teens or teens in that age group (The Gesell Institute’s child development book series is a great resource to start with.)  Knowing the age-specific passions, questions, struggles and quirks of your intended reader is the best way to brainstorm kid-friendly ideas and craft compelling characters with authentic voices that young readers will relate to.

(Interested in more information like this? Check out my home study courses in writing picture books, chapter books and middle grade novels and young adult fiction, at JustWriteChildrensBooks.com

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2. A Lesson in Showing Versus Telling

Last week I started teaching the spring course in Childrens Literature for grad students in the MFA in Creative Writing and Literature at Stony Brook Southampton. We spent the first class discussing the many formats of children’s lit, and began our picture book study (we’ll move on to chapter books, middle grade and YA fiction later in the term) by reading aloud and discussing some classic and contemporary books in the genre. In the former category, we read Ludwig Bemelman’s Madeline, Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are and Ezra Jack Keats’ Whistle for Willie. In the latter, we read Ian Falconer’s Olivia and Mo Willem’s Knuffle Bunny, by way of introduction.

Each book turned out to be a unique lesson in showing versus telling, meaning letting the art reveal as much, if not more, than the text does. We discussed at length how we knew that Madeline and her friends attended a Catholic boarding school as opposed to an orphanage, how clear it was that Max’s mother had forgiven him, where Peter and Willie lived, and how much we knew about Olivia’s and Trixie’s families without being directly told… simply by way of their actions in the story, and most of all, through the illustrations.

That night, with showing versus telling on my mind, I watched “The Artist”Michel Hazanavicius‘ valentine to silent films that is a contender for this year’s Best Picture Oscar. Since the story takes place in Hollywood during the time when silent cinema was replaced by the talkies, 90% of the film is silent. (It is also shot in balck and white.) The result is not only a wonderful, uplifting film and a terrific evening’s entertainment, but an invaluable lesson in showing versus telling.

With so little dialogue – which, when it occurs, is told through title cards – the story is almost entirely conveyed through action, behavior and expression.  It is a truly inspiring lesson for picture book authors, in terms of how little text is necessary to tell a story… as long as you know how to think visually, and show rather than tell. It also left me wondering how many other great silent movies might offer the same lesson.

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3. Ideas on the Go

I’ve been honing my Story Radar, and have found the holiday season to be more abundant than ever with respect to prompting ideas.  The problem is, most of them come to me when I’m on the fly… and if I don’t document them immediately, by the time I get home they’ve gone. So I’ve been experimenting with ways to keep track of ideas on the go, and have come up with a short list of what works for me.

1)   Write them down the old fashioned way – This requires carrying a notebook with me at all times, which is sometimes challenging to remember to do, let alone find room for in my purse.  I love Moleskins, since they feel so writerly, but I’ve also used Miquelrius notebooks, which I like because they have spiral binding and stay open easily. And of course, we have spiral-bound notebooks with the Childrens Book Hub logo on the cover that are very nice, too.

Peter H. Reynolds mentioned in our interview this month that he always carries index cards in his pocket, to jot down ideas or make quick sketches on, and also to flesh out his ideas, because they allow for shuffling.

2)   Write them down digitally – I love my iPad, but again, it’s not always convenient to carry around with me. What is convenient is my iPhone – and the ‘Notes’ app works well for capturing ideas on the fly. However, it’s not easy to type anything that requires detail on the tiny iPhone screen.

3)   Record them – This is my latest favorite method. I have the free app “Dragon Dictation” installed on my iPhone (I have it on my iPad as well). All I have to do is tap the app to open it, and tap the red button to begin recording. I say as much as I need to, and hit save. This miraculous app instantly transcribes my words to text, and it’s accurate about 90% of the time. One more tap and I’ve emailed the document to myself. When I get home and open my computer, the emailed idea is there, ready for me to edit, embellish or simply drag-and-drop it into the ideas folder on my desktop.

How do you capture your ideas?

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4. Chekhov, the Picture Book Author

Michael Chekhov – nephew of playwright Anton Chekhov - was an esteemed Russian-American actor, director and acting teacher. Among those who studied with him were Gary Cooper, Marilyn Monroe, Gregory Peck, Clint Eastwood, Anthony Quinn, Ingrid Bergman, Jack Palance, Lloyd Bridges, and Yul Brynner. Constantin Stanislavski, with whom Chekhov collaborated at the Moscow Art Theatre, referred to him as his ‘most brilliant student.’

I had the good fortune to listen to Joanna Merlin, president of the Michael Chekhov Association – speak about her mentor last week. (MICHA will be one of the theatre companies in residence at our Writers Conferences next summer.)

I have long been aware of the overlap between the dramatic and writing arts, but something Joanna said struck me as particularly relevant.

One of Chekhov’s valued concepts was that of the ‘four brothers’: ease, beauty, form and wholeness. As I listened to Joanna describe these elements with respect to art, I realized they were directly transferable to children’s literature.

Ease – Who hasn’t marveled at the ease of Dr. Seuss’s verse, or Jules Feiffer’s line? When a book really sings, doesn’t it seem effortless? Like it just rolled off the author’s pen? Doesn’t it make us think: That looks so easy! I could do that!

Beauty – From Kenneth Grahame to Gennady Spirin to Jon J Muth, there’s no denying the beauty in children’s book art. But there’s beauty in text, too… Whether it’s an exquisitely crafted message, mastery of language or authenticity of voice, there are times when the stellar narrative of a children’s book can make one weep.

Form – Thirty two pages, one thousand words or less. There’s no denying that picture books have form. The challenge is how to tell that story with a richness of character and plot that compels the reader to turn the page… within the confines of that form. Martha Grahame said “The aim of technique is to free the spirit.” I would amend that to say, “Within the confines of form, anything is possible.”

Wholeness – Beginning, middle, end. Problem, crisis, resolution.  Picture books travel a great distance in a thousand words or less… and the good ones provide a complete story, and a wholly satisfying journey.

Michael Chekhov wrote and published a few great books on acting, but never any children’s books. I suspect that, had he chosen to, he could have penned one with ease, beauty, form and wholeness.

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5. And in the End…

And so we come to the last of my series of posts based on Jane Yolen’s list of “10 Words Every Picture Book Author Must Know.”  Resolution… a fitting word to end the series with! Thank you, Jane, for providing us with such thought-provoking bounty (and two months worth of fodder for blog posts!)

Resolution shares its root with “resolve,” and in literary terms, it means the point within the story when the central conflict is worked out, or the problem is solved. Perhaps not exactly how the protagonist intended or hoped, but solved nonetheless, and in such a way that the hero has learned something and has changed or grown in the process.

The best resolutions satisfy a need created at the beginning of the book.  This needn’t be happy – but it should feel both earned and inevitable, which is different from predictable.  Rather than anticipating how the book will end, the reader should be pleasantly surprised, yet also feel “But of course it had to end that way!”  And picture book endings must also be clear, as opposed to implied or left open; young readers may have difficulty choosing between possible outcomes.

Let’s look at an example. In the beginning of Where the Wild Things Are, Max’s mother is angry with him, and sends him to bed without any supper.  The resolution occurs when Max decides, after a long ‘journey’ indulging in all his wild fantasies, to return home where “someone loves him best of all,” and discovers his dinner waiting for him. There’s that memorable last line: “And it was still hot.”

From this the reader understands that Max has been forgiven.  The need established at the beginning of the book – for Max to know that he is still loved, and lovable – has been met.  His problem – going to bed without supper – has been solved.  But note that his Mother is not calling him to dinner at the family table.  He has, after all, been naughty.  Yet we worry for a child who goes to bed without any supper, so dinner in his room feels both earned and satisfying (at least, by the parenting standards of Maurice Sendak’s era!)  And the fact that it’s still hot tells us that it wasn’t such a long journey after all. In fact, maybe just as short as a dream.

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6. Other Ways to Get Published

We’re discussing getting published this month at the Children’s Book Hub, so I’ll be devoting a few posts here to that topic.

Here’s a familiar Catch 22: Agents don’t seem interested until you’ve been published, and you can’t seem to get published without an agent. How to break the cycle? Expand your definition of ‘getting published.’  One way to do so is to include children’s magazines.

Consider submitting your work to one or more of the many popular children’s magazines, such as Highlights, High Five, Ask, Cricket, Ladybug, Muse, National Geographic Kids, or American Girl, to name but a few. Being published in a children’s magazine is an important credit for a bio or resume – and most magazines pay for published work, sometimes very nicely.

Writing for children’s magazines can also provide nice opportunities to write outside your usual genre or comfort zone. Many magazines for young readers publish short stories, but an even greater number focus on non-fiction articles that cover a range of topics, and some even publish poetry for young readers. If you choose to try your hand at article writing, remember that when writing non-fiction for children that it should still read like a good story, with all the same elements that draw the reader in: a degree of tension or suspense that compels the reader to want to know more, evocative language or imagery that incorporates the senses, emotional resonance.

The annual publication “Magazine Markets for Children’s Writers” details all the magazines in print, along with their submission guidelines and contact info. You can order a copy directly from Amazon.

One caveat: if you’re interested in writing for children’s magazines, be sure to read a number of them first. You will get a much better sense of the marketplace and what the style and approach of each magazine may be from the magazine itself than from encapsulated submission guidelines.  And you may be surprised by the content of some magazines for young people today… it’s a different world for children now than it was when we ourselves may have been reading Highlights!

 

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7. Something Utterly Inspiring

My daughter attended her annual book fair at school this week.  Among the books she wanted me to buy for her was Clarice Bean, That’s Me by Lauren Child. I was happy to do so, since Lauren Child is one of my heros.

Best known for creating the hilarious Charlie and Lola in addition to the Clarice Bean series, Lauren Child is an award-winning author and illustrator from England. Her body of work includes many other equally funny and creative books that I adore, such as her brilliant retelling of  The Princess and the Pea and Goldilocks and the Three Bears. She uses mixed media, combining endearing child-like sketches with collage and photos in a totally unique yet instantly recognizable style. As Lola might say, “I am an absolutely hugely enormous and big fan.”

So when I opened up Clarice Bean, That’s Me, I was particularly struck – and inspired – by the inside flap copy.

For anyone who ever loses faith that they might yet get their children’s book published one day, here’s a little gift from Lauren Child (in as close to her font/style as I could capture):

A word or two from Lauren Child about this actual Clarice Bean book…

This book was sent to lots of PUBLISHERS
Some people liked the words
Some people liked the pictures
Not many people liked them both together
Hardly anyone liked the t y p e
A few thought it shouldn’t be written from a child’s point of view
No one thought it would work as a book
the way it was
I DIDN’T WANT TO CHANGE IT

I waited for five years

I STARTED MAKING LAMPSHADES

I MIXED PAINTS FOR AN ARTIST

I BECAME A RECEPTIONIST

NOTHING happened. . .

F  i  n  a  l  l  y   I got a letter
It said, Yes
I still have it
It was one of the most exciting things
that has ever happened to me


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8. Editing Yourself – Find and Replace

We’ve been talking about editing this month on the Children’s Book Hub. Even though I myself am a freelance children’s book editor as well as an author, I rely heavily on my collaborations with editors – at our publishing house, as well as on a freelance basis.

My mother and I are fortunate to work with truly gifted editors at our publishing houses – but for my own independent projects I always seek feedback from a freelance editor (such as Emma D. Dryden, whom I interviewed this month for the Hub).  You see, I’m not very good at editing myself.

There are many good reasons to work with a freelance editor in today’s publishing world – but here is perhaps the most compelling one:  Once a manuscript has been rejected, it will seldom be reconsidered by that same publisher… even if you rewrite it.  So it’s very important to get it as polished as we can be before the submission process begins, and the best way I know to do that is to hire a freelance editor.

That said, there are a number of things we can do to become better self-editors, to get our manuscripts into the best possible shape even before we submit them to a freelance editor… and I thought, given this month’s focus on editing, I’d explore some of them. Here’s one for those of you who use Microsoft Word:

Use the Find and Replace and Thesaurus tools.

“Find and replace” is the most efficient way to replace overused words. For instance, I tend to overuse the word “wonderful”. It crops up all the time in what I’m writing and it drives me insane. What I do is write, write, write – and when I’m done, I click “Find” (under the Edit tab), type in the word “wonderful” and each time the tool pulls it up in the manuscript I choose a better word to replace it with (using the “Thesaurus” tool – or the real, bound Thesaurus if I get stuck!)

If you want to change a character’s name, you can use the find and replace tool to pull up all the “Mickey’s” and change them to “Mikey” in one mouse click. You can click “find next” and walk through the manuscript word by word, or you can click “find all” and do a global replace on a word or name.

Among the things you might want to ‘find and replace’ (with better choices from your Thesaurus!) are:

  • Cheap or cheesy modifiers (very, just, etc.)
  • Passive verbs / tentative or weak sentence construction (was going, been having, seemed, felt etc.)
  • Words you use too often (wonderful, like, suddenly, little)
  • Adverbs that prop up weak verbs
  • A character’s name (Replace All)

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9. Mapping Your Plot

In my “Just Write for Kids” course, we spend quite a bit of time exploring different ways to develop plot.

We look at basic three-act storytelling structure:

Act 1 – Set-up/Intro to character(s) and problem

Act 2 – Problem escalates to crisis or turning point

Act 3 – Resolution/Character solves problem and/or learns something, grows or changes in process

Another great way to develop or measure your plot is against the following story structure, or plot sequence:

  • Something happens to someone
  • Which leads to their wanting/needing something, and/or making a goal
  • Which needs a plan of action
  • But forces try to stop the protagonist (obstacles occur)
  • Yet they move forward (because there is a lot at stake)
  • But then, there’s a crisis! Things get as bad as they can
  • And they learn an important lesson
  • Which helps them overcome the final obstacle
  • Thus satisfying the need created by something in the past.

Here’s an example of how this might work as measured against our recent picture book, The Very Fairy Princess:

  • Something happens to someone – Gerry learns she will be part of a new ballet, The Crystal Princess, at her ballet school
  • Which leads to their wanting/needing something, and/or making a goal – She wants to play the lead – the Crystal Princess!
  • Which needs a plan of action – she offers all the reasons why she is perfect for the part (already has the costume, accessories, is a natural etc.)
  • But forces try to stop the protagonist (obstacles occur) – she is cast as the Court Jester instead. Worse, she hates her costume, which makes her look like a boy.
  • Yet they move forward (because there is a lot at stake) – She really wants to be in the ballet, so she swallows her pride, and plays the jester. She also hides her crown under her jesters hat, so as to still be a fairy princess underneath.
  • But then, there’s a crisis! Things get as bad as they can – When it comes time to perform the ballet, everything that can go wrong, does… Gerry steps on Tiffany’s (who plays the Princess) toes, trips over her stick, and her crown slips out from under her hat. She is in serious danger of losing her ‘sparkle’ altogether. Then, Tiffany’s crown falls off and gets crushed – and the ballet mistress expects Gerry to give Tiffany HER crown!
  • And they learn an important lesson – Gerry realizes that a Crystal Princess REALLY needs to sparkle, and by lending her crown to Tiffany, her own sparkle comes rushing back.
  • Which helps them overcome the final obstacle – By saving the show, and the day, Gerry makes friends with Tiffany. She also gets to be seated in the front of the company photo, and to keep her jester’s stick and hat. Plus, her own crown feels ‘extra-sparkly’ when Tiffany gives it back.
  • Thus satisfying the need created by something in the past. – Gerry ends up being a star after all — in a different way than she imagined, but perhaps an even more satisfying one.

This tool can be used to develop an initial plot, or

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10. Story Radar

Here’s another jewel I picked up from Peter H. Reynolds’ workshop last summer:  “Story Radar.”  This is a term Peter uses for the technique of always being on the alert for ideas and inspiration.   An expression, a character, an event, a question, an image – anything can ‘wave’ to you on any given day as an idea for a story, one that can then be filed away in your “Books Not Yet in Print” folder.  Peter has incredible story radar. I can’t tell you how many times in class he said, “…And that’s a great idea for a story!”   He also said that when the idea comes from someone else, he says (good-naturedly, of course), “I’ll give you one year to run with that idea, and after that it’s mine!”

Here’s a question: can we fine tune, or improve the frequency of, our Story Radar?  I think the answer is yes, but it has to do with whether we’ve got ours pointed in the right direction, first of all, as well as how regularly we tune into it, and the degree to which we are able to tune out other, non-useful input.  Like any fine instrument, the more one uses it, and the better one cares for it, the more likely it is to hold its tune.  Let it sit there and collect dust, or be subject to interference, and it’s unlikely to work as well.

Any other ideas out there about ways to fine-tune our Story Radar?

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11. Illusions of Progress

One more gift from Peter H. Reynold’s workshop last summer:

I.O.P, or “Illusions of Progress.”  Now, for some this may have a negative connotation.  An illusion of progress, as opposed to the real thing… could sound like busywork.  But it’s Peter’s view (and I agree) that I.O.P. can be a great motivator.

Look! I already have a…

- Chapter done
- Page written
- Outline drafted
- Book jacket idea

… I’m halfway there!

Well, maybe not halfway – but far enough along to make it worthwhile continuing.

Here are a few of my I.O.P’s…

- A rough draft
- A title
- Notes compiled on a subject
- Research on other books on the subject
- A few lines that establish “voice”
- A related list of any kind

What I.O.P.’s keep you going?

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12. National Picture Book Month

November is National Picture Book Month, and I thought I would contribute to the celebration with a list of ten of my favorite picture books. This is by no means a definitive list – I have hundreds of favorites! – but for our family, these books have stood the test of time and continue to delight, even after multiple readings. Many of them also ‘break the rules’ of picture book writing and publishing, and remind us that a unique idea, an original voice or a magical complement of story and art make it possible to venture beyond formulas and create something surprising and enduring:

Bark, George! (Jules Feiffer) – The giddy tale of a puppy who speaks every other animal’s language but his own – with superbly spare text and Feiffer’s brilliant, classic line-drawings.

The Dot (Peter H. Reynolds) – A child who thinks she has no creative talent learns how simple it can be to express oneself creatively and to take pleasure in the ownership of one’s efforts.

Goodnight, Moon (Margaret Wise Brown/Clement Hurd) - A little rabbit preparing for bed says goodnight to everyone and everything in his world. The perfect, classic bedtime story.

Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus (Mo Willems) – A brilliant tribute to the often dramatic and unreasonable behavior of preschoolers, with simple but hilarious illustrations and text.

Harold and the Purple Crayon (Crockett Johnson) – Harold takes a memorable journey with a simple purple crayon… First published in 1955, a tribute to the power and wonder of imagination.

I Stink (Jim and Kate McMullan) – A hilarious ode to the humble garbage truck, reminding us that everyone has value and something to contribute.

Miss Rumphius (Barbara Cooney) – Alice Rumphius has three life quests – to see faraway places, to live by the sea in her old age, and to do something to make the world a more beautiful place.

Olivia (Ian Falconer) – The “Eloise” of pigs! Ian Falconer’s hilarious series about an unforgettable (if a tad precocious) porcine heroine.

Owen (Kevin Henkes) Owen and his beloved blanket are inseparable, until the first day of kindergarten. Can his parents find a solution that suits everyone and helps their son transition?

Tell Me Something Happy Before I Go To Sleep (Joyce Dunbar/Debi Gliori) – A thoughtful bunny calms his younger sister’s nighttime fears by encouraging her to think happy thoughts.

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13. The 3 Little P’s of Picture Books

Writing a good children’s book is hard. Selling one to a publisher is even harder.  Getting it bought, and read – by librarians, booksellers, and most of all, kids – is the hardest of all.  The best children’s book authors are masters of economy and action, which can take a lifetime of study and practice to achieve.  Here, then, are my votes for the three most essential rules for good writing when it comes to picture books – which, in homage to a familiar fairytale or two, I’ll call the “3 Little P’s.”

1)    Protagonist – The hero of a picture book, whether human or anthropomorphic animal or object, should be the same age or emotional spirit as its intended audience. Kids have no interest in reading about grown-ups, and publishers generally won’t acquire picture books that make this mistake. I confess to having learned this lesson the hard way on more than one occasion. This is actually true of middle grade and YA novels as well. The exceptions to this rule are folk and fairy tales, where children are accustomed to reading about princes, princesses, woodcutters, ogres and other generally disadvantaged adults.

2)    Pith – Standard picture book length is 32 pages, including title, dedications and acknowledgements, and ideally no more than 1000 words. It is essential, therefore, that they be truly pithy – all meat, and no fat. Here are a few useful ways to pare the narrative:

  • Start the story immediately, and with action – don’t take up time with settings or descriptions.
  • Don’t write what the illustrations will show.  Art should advance the story, not just mirror it.
  • Avoid adjectives and adverbs. Use juicy verbs, and distill the storytelling into as few words as possible, artfully chosen.
  • Reveal through character action and dialogue, as opposed to through narrative description.

3)    Point – What do you want to leave your reader thinking about? What questions do you want to raise for further dialogue with a parent, caregiver, or teacher?  What’s the point of a child reading this book? The best children’s books have themes with emotional resonance for kids. They aren’t preachy or didactic, but they resonate in a way that a child can relate to and identify with.

As with some other familiar commandments, these three rules can essentially be distilled into one ‘golden’ one: do unto your readers as you would have other writers do unto you.   That means no boring, preaching or talking down to young readers.  Craft compelling characters and tell your story with juicy, pithy narrative, ultimately making a point that leaves the reader somehow better off than he or she was before – and having taken one satisfying step deeper into the reading life.

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14. What’s His Problem? (Your hero, that is)

When writing fiction of any kind,  the main question with respect to plot is always this:

What is the problem?

The problem, also known as the conflict, is the thing, or things, standing in the way of the hero/protagonist getting what he or she wants or needs, and as such, it sets up his or her journey.  When that problem is compounded, it raises the stakes, creating tension and compelling the reader to turn the page to find out “what happens next?”

Generally speaking, literary problems/conflicts fall into one of four classic categories:

  1. Hero versus someone else
  2. Hero versus society
  3. Hero versus nature/natural events
  4. Hero versus him or herself (conscience, or inner struggle)

Sometimes these overlap, or the problem encompasses more than one category.  Let’s look at some examples from a few well-known children’s books:

Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus by Mo Willems – Hero vs. someone else (the bus driver has told us not to let the pigeon drive the bus), hero vs. society (like the child reader, the pigeon is too young to drive), hero vs. himself (the pigeon is desperate to drive!)

Madeline by Ludwig Bemelman – Hero vs. nature/natural events (Madeline has a burst appendix)

Owen by Kevin Henkes – Hero vs. someone else (Mrs. Tweezers, the nosy neighbor, persuades Owen’s parents that their son is too old to have a blankie); Hero vs. society (Owen is starting school, where blankies are not allowed)

The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Erica Carle – Hero vs. himself/Hero vs. nature (no matter how much he eats, the caterpillar is still hungry)

The hero’s problem can be circumstantial, or it can be informed by character.  Ideally, it’s both. The pigeon is desperate to drive the bus (character) but he’s too young (circumstantial).  Madeline’s appendix bursts (circumstantial) but how she, her fellow students and Miss Clavell handle the problem is informed by character.  Owen’s neighbor, parents and school want him to give up his blankie (circumstantial) but he is unswayed in his devotion (character).  The caterpillar’s appetite is never satisfied because he is a caterpillar (character) and has only so much time before he has to cocoon and transform into a butterfly (circumstantial).

So… what’s your hero’s problem?

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15. SCBWI Highlights

I had the pleasure of spending this past Saturday at the SCBWI Winter Conference in NYC.  Wow!  For those of you remotely interested in writing for children, the SCBWI conferences are a must.  The information, networking opportunities and resources are invaluable.

The venerable Lois Lowry gave a superb keynote on finding ideas (during which I suddenly had a brainstorm for a new picture book idea!).  There was a very informative picture book panel led by Jane Yolen, Mark Teague and Patricia Lee Gauch. Jane shared ten words every picture book author must know – lyricism, compression, child centeredness, focus, hook, words, ‘illustratability’, motion, emotion and resolution (thank you, Jane – this gives me weeks worth of blog topics!). Mark spoke about art that has depth, and provokes wonder and a sense of mystery for the reader as to what might be going on beyond the borders of the page.  Patricia talked about “letting go to story,” the miracle of page turns and the dramatic arc as a wave, that must rise and crest and resolve itself.

The breakout sessions with editors, agents and art directors were hugely informative, and provided attendees with rare opportunities for manuscript submissions.  There was much discussion about the opportunities as well as the challenges being brought about by new technology, and there was general agreement that most editors have seen enough manuscripts about dystopian societies, vampires and psychic teens, thank you very much.  Everyone agrees that strong, simple premises, compelling and true characters and beautiful – or witty – writing will always be in demand.  Hilarious keynotes by R.L. Stine and Jules Feiffer rounded out the day’s delights.

Thank you, Lin Oliver, Stephen Mooser and everyone at SCBWI for forty years of unmatched service and support for children’s book authors and illustrators!

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16. Compression: Getting Down to the Essence

The second word in Jane Yolen’s list of ‘ten words every picture book author must know’ is Compression.  It’s a good word, and can be defined as “the reduction of the volume or mass of something by applying pressure” (an apt description of the editing process!)  Among the words I might choose to describe the same concept are distillation, reduction, concentration, and essence. I like these words because they are all cooking terms, and bring to mind the act of enriching something (like a sauce) by reducing it… thereby ending up with something better.

With picture books, one must, by necessity, tell one’s story in 1000 words or less, and within 32 pages. While some may view this as a constraint, I actually see it as an opportunity – an invitation to be creative.  I can be paralyzed by freedom… if there are no boundaries or guidelines, if anything goes, then where do I begin? But if the parameters are clearly defined, then I can get to work, and creativity can flourish.

Here’s what this means in practical terms: how best can you say what you mean, using the fewest, yet most evocative, words?

In the editing section of my “Just Write for Kids” course, we explore a number of techniques for streamlining text.  Here are a few ways to trim the excess fat (sticking with those cooking terms!):

  • Watch out for “cheesy modifiers” – such as “really,” “very,” or “just.”  Perhaps you don’t even need a modifier. Instead of describing someone as “very tall,” try “towering.” Strong adjectives don’t need modifying.
  • Eliminate unnecessary adjectives and adverbs – Be mindful of what the illustrations will show, and focus more on verbs. Also watch out for adverbs that are being used to prop up weak verbs. Find a better verb!
  • “Show” through dialogue and behavior rather than “telling” through description.
  • Be careful of repetition.
  • Jump into the action and wrap it up quickly – Don’t take up time with exposition or hammering the point home. Jump straight into the action at the beginning of the book, and let the reader draw the final conclusions rather than hammering any ‘morals of the story’ home at the end.

The bottom line with picture books these days is: less is more. Become a master of creative economy. Mo Willems is the poster child for this skill.  I wonder if he cooks?

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17. The Circle of Focus

When Jane Yolen speaks of ‘focus’ with respect to writing picture books, she specifies that it should be sharp and small.

There’s an acting term originally coined by the great acting teacher Stanislavski called “Circle of Focus.”  During his career as a young actor, Stanislavski often experienced tension on stage. He discovered that he could better focus by concentrating on a small circle – just himself and one other actor or prop.  Once focused on this small circle, he could extend his attention to a medium-sized circle that included more actors or larger props, and then to a larger circle, encompassing the entire stage, ultimately even the audience. This technique, he felt, enabled actors to achieve ‘public solitude.’

Dr. Stephen Covey, author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, teaches the concepts of Circle of Concern and Circle of Influence – thus leading to Circle of Focus.  He describes our Circle of Concern as encompassing all that is of concern to us, our Circle of Influence as all that we actually have any direct control over, and our Circle of Focus as where best to direct our energies for maximum effectiveness.

Young reader’s circles of concern are necessarily small, just as their world is. They do not yet have the ability or experience to cope with politics, history, tragedy or economics – items that are usually within the circle of concern of most adults. Young people’s circles of concern and influence are narrower and more immediate – home, family, friends, and school – and their circle of focus is generally trained on the daily challenges of growing up: learning to tie one’s shoes, for instance, or whistle, ride a bike, or apologize.

Picture books are most successful when they maintain the same small Circle of Concern and Focus as that of a child. It’s best to leave epic tales involving multiple characters or tackling large themes to the novels that will be enjoyed in later life.

Nevertheless, within that small circle of concern, we want to keep the focus very sharp. We want to minimize wide angles and zoom in on the important. We want to choose words, images and ideas that are clear, strong, and compelling – and to avoid the blurriness of excess description and unnecessary details. We don’t need to embellish. Too many characters, references or changes within a picture book will confuse at best, and bore at worst.

Keep it simple, keep it small and keep it sharp.

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18. Get the Hook!

No, I’m not talking about pirate captains, or fishing.  But I am talking about capturing something – and that is the interest of your reader.

As always, with the necessary economy of words in a picture book, the ‘hook’ needs to happen on the first page – ideally in the first sentence or two.  You have only this much time to draw your reader in, to engage them in the story, in the drama unfolding.  Time was, we could begin with “Once upon a time…” (or “Once there was…” or any variation thereof), and weave a world for the reader before establishing the characters, plot and conflict.  Not any more.  Now, we must begin with a bang – with an action that immediately suggests the issue at hand and the character grappling with it. Only in this way can we expect our modern young reader with a thousand and one things competing for his interest to want to read more.

Here are a few examples of what I consider to be great hooks in picture books – great opening lines that establish character and conflict and hook the reader from the get-go. See if you can recognize their source (answers below).

More importantly, see if you can sense why their ‘hook’ is successful:

  1. Art class was over, but Vashti sat glued to her chair. Her paper was empty.
  2. Oh, good. It’s you.
  3. This is my room, before I made it fancy.
  4. One day, Lilly’s teacher, Mr. Slinger, announced to the class that he was going to marry Ms. Shotwell, the school nurse.
  5. The night Max wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind and another his mother called him “WILD THING!”
  6. David’s Mommy always said, “Oh, David!”
  7. Amos McGee was an early riser.
  8. What do you have there?
  9. One day, Olivia was riding a camel in Egypt.
  10. Who am I?

Answers:

  1. The Dot, Peter H. Reynolds.
  2. Don’t Let the Pigeon Stay Up Late, Mo Willems
  3. Fancy Nancy, Jane O’Connor
  4. Lilly’s Big Day, Kevin Henkes
  5. Where the Wild Things Are, Maurice Sendak
  6. Oh, David! David Shannon
  7. A Sick Day for Amos McGee, Phillip C. Stead
  8. It’s a Book, Lane Smith
  9. Olivia and the Missing Toy, Ian Falconer
  10. I Stink! Kate McMullan
19. Words, words, words.

Polonius: What do you read, my lord?

Hamlet: Words, words, words.

– William Shakespeare, “Hamlet,” Act 2, Scene 2

And so we come to #5 in Jane Yolen’s wonderful list of “10 Words Every Picture Book Author Must Know,” which she shared at the SCBWI Winter Conference a few weeks ago: Words.

Here are the three things Jane said about words – and I shall elaborate a bit on each.

1.  Pick them as carefully as a poet – Language is a fundamental part of children’s literature. Word play, rhythm, alliteration, parallelism, refrain, patterns, echoes, onomatopoeia – it’s all about being imaginative and creative with words.  Personification can be effective too – for instance, instead of “the leaves rustled in the breeze,” you might try, “the leaves whispered,” or “the leaves danced.”  Children’s imaginations are often fired by their senses, so incorporating what can be seen, smelled, tasted, heard, or felt to the touch is a powerful way to engage young readers in descriptive narrative.

Above all, look for juicy verbs.  Verbs are a writer’s best friend. They keep the story moving forward, and help us to show through behavior and action rather than tell through description.  Be as creative as you can be in your use of verbs. Keep a list of favorites – and always keep a Thesaurus handy to find better options for the ones that are common, tired, or overused.  Finally, remember that it’s all about economy with picture books. Three words, artfully chosen, will achieve far more than ten general, rambling ones.

2. Children love big words – don’t ‘dumb down’ your language. While we have to keep the age of our reader in mind in terms of what will engage and be relevant to them, we should never talk down to them.  Their focus may be narrow and their vocabulary limited, but their brains are like sponges, expanding with every drop of information we give them.  Using a sophisticated word here and there invites children to ‘stretch up.’ Whether they infer the meaning through association or context – using the surrounding words to understand the meaning of that one – or whether they pause to ask a grown up what a word means, once that meaning is absorbed it becomes part of the ever-expanding vocabulary and is unlikely to be forgotten.

3.  Words can be made up – just do so with care. Harry Potter, Winnie the Pooh, The Hobbit and virtually every book by Dr. Seuss all contain made-up words unique to their worlds and characters.  Shakespeare, in fact, made up thousands of words and phrases that have since become part of our everyday language. Most education scholars and child development specialists would agree that the creative use of words helps a young reader appreciate the power of expression. In seeing the rules of language being bent or challenged, children learn critical-thinking skills and develop their own imaginations. It’s important, however, to use this tool with care. Don’t overdo it, and make sure that if you are using invented words, their intended meaning can be clearly inferred by the reader.

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20. Illustratability

Picture books tells their stories in two ways: 1) via text, and 2) via illustrations (hence the name “picture book.”)

Occasionally a story will rely more heavily on art than text, or vice-versa – but more often than not, the balance is equal.   Great illustrations do not simply mirror or reflect the story – they further it. They inform and elaborate in ways that the necessary economy of text in a picture book cannot.  They reveal details about character, behavior, setting and plot that enrich and expand upon the narrative, making for a reading experience that engages aurally, visually, cognitively and emotionally.

While many picture books are enjoyed by emerging or independent readers, they are designed to be read aloud, adult to child. The primary intention behind writing and/or publishing a picture book is for the parent, grandparent, caregiver, teacher, librarian or other loving adult to share the storytelling experience with the child.   As the child listens to the adult read, he or she looks at the pictures, thus absorbing as much of the story through the art as through the text.  Therefore it is essential that picture book authors (especially those that are not also illustrators themselves) learn how to write with illustrations in mind.

When Jane Yolen spoke at the SCBWI Winter Conference about the 10 words every picture book author must know, she referred to this concept as “illustratability.”  She described it as “thinking visually” when writing – making sure that there is action on every page that invites illustration, and avoiding talking heads and internal dialogue.

A character’s thoughts and feelings are not inherently illustratable. Nor are extended discussions between characters. The most successful picture books aalmost all involve a story that is active, and that unfolds with a number of different visual events, locations and experiences.  They are visually progressive, as well as being dramatically and/or emotionally progressive.

This, by the way, is one of the reasons I am such an advocate for picture books, and why I don’t buy into the argument that picture books are dying or agree with parents who push their children into chapter books too early at the expense of the picture book experience. Picture books offer the young reader so much more than just a reading experience. The visual stimulation they provide nurtures and develops the imagination in different ways than the decoding of text does. Picture books teach young readers how to absorb story and information visually as well as cognitively – an invaluable skill in later life for everything from understanding and appreciating film, theater and the visual arts to reading body language in negotiations and relationships, interpreting maps and developing a personal aesthetic.

 

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