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Results 1 - 25 of 105
1. Tough Guys Have Feelings Too


by Keith Negley (Flying Eye Books, 2015)

The kind folks at Flying Eye sent over a preview of this book, thinking it was right up my alley.

It’s right up my alley.

The theme: yes. The design: yes. The snappy, bold, in-your-face look at tough guys plus the snappy, bold, in-your-face look at feelings: yes.

I chatted with Keith Negley, and learned a lot about this debut effort. I hope there’s more from him, and I hope you enjoy this peek into the brain of a picture book creator.

toughguys-4 toughguys-7Hi Keith! Can you talk about where this story came from? And what the process was like for its creation?

It all started when my son Parker who was 6 at the time stole a soccer ball from a friend during soccer practice and his friend got upset and they fought over it. Parker was angry at first, but then felt embarrassed and ashamed because he knew he did something wrong. I could tell he was struggling with how to handle all these new emotions that were happening to him at the same time. He walked away from the group and sat down to be by himself because he didn’t want anyone to see him cry. Later that night, I explained to him that it was totally natural to cry and that everybody does it. I told him sometimes even I cried, and he looked up at me and asked, “grown ups cry too?

It blew his mind that even adults cried because he thought it was something only kids did. I wished I had a book I could read to him that let him know that frustration and crying is a natural thing not to be ashamed of. The next day the idea for the book popped into my head.

You’ve done a lot of editorial illustration, but this is your first children’s book. Can you tell us the how and why you got into books?

I always liked the idea of making picture books for children, but it wasn’t until I became a parent and started reading a ton of picture books to my son did I realize there was a lack of the kind of books we enjoyed. Honestly the books I’ve been working on were born out of necessity because I wanted to read them and no one else had made them yet.

Your tumblr tag line is spectacular: part man, part negative space. Can you explain where that came from and why it represents you so well?

Ha, I find tragedy to be the greatest muse. The subjects I enjoy working with the most are the ones that break my heart. It’s cathartic somehow, and I feel like I really get to put a piece of me into the work. What ends up happening is I have a portfolio of rather depressing subject matter. But I’m always striving to create beautiful images with it. That juxtaposition is challenging and rewarding for me.

Add to that I tend to utilize negative space as a compositional tool fairly often and so I thought it tied the content in with the image making nature of the blog.

toughguys-9Who are some of your story heroes?

I’ve been a huge fan of Lane Smith for years and years. Jon Scieszka is another one. Ezra Jack Keats. Jack Kent’s Socks For Supper is one of my all time favorites as a kid and it still holds up today.

What do you remember about picture books from your childhood?

I remember my mom reading them to me and how she would make different voices for all the characters. I try to do that for Parker but he’s not into it at all unfortunately.


What is your favorite piece of art hanging in your home or studio?

Not sure if this counts, but I like to make music in my spare time and I’m a huge nerd for vintage synthesizers. I currently have a 1979 Korg 770 sitting in my studio and just looking at it makes me very happy. I consider them works of art.

What’s next for you?

Trying to schedule some reading events for the fall/winter and I’m in the middle of working on my second book for Flying Eye which should be out in time for Father’s Day next year!


Thank you, Keith! And vintage synthesizers totally count as works of art.


PS: Congratulations to the winner of the The Story of Diva and Flea giveaway, Ashley! And thanks to Flying Eye for the images used in this post.

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2. The Little Gardener + an interview with Emily Hughes (part i)

The Little Gardener by Emily Hughesby Emily Hughes (Flying Eye Books, 2015)

Friends, I am beyond awe with this conversation with Emily Hughes. If you aren’t familiar with her work yet, I guarantee you will fall in love with it, with her, with a storytelling brilliance that is out of this world. Here, she lets us know both where stories come from and why they do.

And a note, you’ll definitely want to click on all of these images to enjoy them at their full resolution.


The Little Gardener by Emily Hughes The Little Gardener by Emily HughesCan you talk about where this book came from? And what the process was like for its creation?

Lots of things were swimming around in my head when The Little Gardener was being made. 
I was back home rereading a book I love, The Growth of the Soil, about a simple self-sufficient man dealing with societal pressures that seem unnecessary. He was the symbol of The Little Gardener, he’s not the personality powerhouse Wild is, he is really just a symbol for the everyman, the underdog, you, me, (my brother thinks the 3rd world) our place as a human. It’s not about him, it’s about his vision, his hopes.

There are a lot more nuances to that, but that is what it is in a very small nutshell. 
The process for Gardener was an outpouring, I drew and drew and drew. Because the images are so dense it was a meditative book to make- almost like making a mandala. The story process took a while, but with the images I worked on steadily through, and luckily they worked out with little drafting. That isn’t the usual, but this one felt natural to make, intuitive.

brainstorm001 gardeny 1

Why do you think your stories are best suited to the form of the picture book? What can you do in this form that you might not be able to in another?

If you look at my bedroom, my backpack, my email inbox, my general manner, you would be able to figure out a good deal about me. Totally scatter-brained.

It is an affliction that makes it tricky to get work done in general.  What makes children’s books an appealing medium for me is that there is text to dance with. There is the written skeleton to adhere to- oftentimes my stories have layers that I have built up depending on where I am or what I’ve been thinking of while I work. There is not just one story being told in The Little Gardener. Having text keeps my brain focused when there are other ideas floating about. Because I also draw, I am able to tell the other story lines as well- they are quieter, but are still present for others to interpret if they have patience. It is a good compromise for me.

Narrative has always been an interest, I think telling stories is what I like to do- so the things I’d compare it to would be film, theater, animation, etc. I like doing illustrations for picture books because it’s 2D and doesn’t move. However, if you are really invested you can move them within your head and expand it’s boundaries to a world you truly are interacting with.The Little Gardener by Emily Hughes

One of my favorite things is the cola can that says MADE IN HILO, HI on it. I know that’s where your roots are, and I wonder how that home has shown up in the work that you do? Or if there are other easter-egg-y things that you stick in your work?

Good spotting! Hawaii is always present in my work. I left home for university in England when I was 17, and at that time I was eager for new experiences. Nevertheless, absence makes the heart grow fonder, and I miss the Big Island always. Drawing things from home is indulgent for me- it is time spent reminiscing, it is a means for me to keep connected, grounded.

The cola can was initially modelled after a local company- Hawaiian Sun. The label looks nothing like the original (and I used the non-existent ‘cola’ because I thought it would be easier to translate), but the sun made a symbolic appearance. Those cans are always around- refreshments after soccer games, trips to the beach, the park with cousins. It reminds me of happy outings. I’ll add this bit to my advertising resume…

The house that the humans live in is based on my family home. It’s a plantation-style house that my Grandmother grew up in, as my siblings and I have also done. It’s a special place.


The Little Gardener by Emily Hughes

In the scene where the gardener is chasing away the snails, there’s a ‘rubber slipper’ (you guys would call it ‘flip flop’- Hawaii’s preferred footwear of choice) strewn about. It even has the ‘Locals’ tag on it which is the same kind you get at the grocery store. There’s lots of little things from home hidden. I like having the sentimentality there, even if it’s for my own benefit.

It seems like the girl in Wild and this little gardener have some sensibilities in common, like the hope and comfort in this un-tapped-into nature. Are there big-picture-stories you are drawn to creating, both in text and in art?

There are a lot of stories I’d like to tell. I think I start off with a general character and theme and it evolves- the writing is the last part, I think the feeling needs to be understood first. 
In my journal these are a few themes I’d written that I want to explore:

Does ‘evil’ exist? Really?

You can, will, should feel every horrible emotion and that’s fine

Kindness trumps all

Looks vs Expectations

It’s all chance for me I think- I might read something, or watch something, or sit blankly staring at the wall even, and most times it is nothing but a murmur. But once in a good while something speaks up.

As for Wild and Gardener, nature serves as a backdrop because it is an ideal to be in sync within our most natural of habitats. Something we all still strive for- a place where we’re needed.  Wild is about acceptance and tolerance, issues I was trying to practice myself. Gardener was about keeping hope alive when I was faltering with my own.

They are stories coming from a place of trying to understand, rather than a place where it is understood.

The Little Gardener by Emily Hughes

Carter, here.

You guys. I keep reading these answers over and over and feel like it’s such a gift to get this glimpse into a storyteller’s heart. Because Emily is fascinating and brilliant and our conversation gave me so much to wrestle with and enjoy, there’s more! Come back tomorrow for the second part. More pictures, more process, more book love.

Whatever you do, get your hands on this book as soon as you can, for hope and home and heart.

Huge thanks to both Emily and Tucker Stone at Flying Eye Books for the images in this post!


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3. Edmund Unravels

Edmund Unravels by Andrew Kolb

by Andrew Kolb (Nancy Paulsen Books, an imprint of Penguin, 2015)

A book cover nodding to old travel postcards feels like a good place to end up, right? Also, study that thing closely as you read, because I’m pretty sure you’ll find each of those locations in the letters inside the book.

There’s a moment in this book where Edmund’s parents reel him in and roll him up, and I relate so much to this right now. I’m about to bounce over to the other coast, from vacation and back to school, and I feel like my tangles are going to take a lot of reeling and rolling.

But like this book says, the end is actually a beginning, and like Edmund, I’ll try my best to keep it together.

This little ball of joy, Edmund, is yarn. And when Edmund grow bigger, he can sally forth to farther spots.

(click any images in this post to see them larger.)

Edmund Unravels by Andrew Kolb Edmund Unravels by Andrew Kolb Edmund Unravels by Andrew Kolb

This book’s shape is expertly constructed in order to explore what happens when the edge of Edmund is far from where his heart is, and a rectangle is perfect to fit so much of that journey. Note all the horizontal lines and the compositions that highlight that stretch.

And the shapes within that shape are simple, but tell such story. The cats are particular favorites of mine, how the slightest line adjustment for eyebrows soaks story into those black circles. Do you see?

Edmund Unravels by Andrew Kolb Edmund Unravels by Andrew Kolb

A tomato pincushion! A bust! An unfolded map and some modern art, all made up of shapes.

This book is bouncy and cheery and playful and brave, but it’s tender and bittersweet too. There are two sides to adventures: the one who leaves and the one who’s left behind.

Edmund Unravels by Andrew Kolb

Edmund Unravels by Andrew KolbAnd here, even the endpapers make us feel that. On my first read, I thought, “Oh, Edmund is heading into this book, into the pictures.” And at the end, he’s going back towards the book, back towards his travels. Perhaps this is what the team behind this story intended, but isn’t it also about going forward and returning home? There’s something especially beautiful here about the tug of home pulling you back.

Heading off to college soon? Get this for your parents. They might unravel a little at the sight of it.

This is Andrew Kolb’s first picture book. I hope he makes more.

PS: Speaking of yarn, have you heard about The Yarn, a new podcast from Travis Jonker and Colby Sharp? They are in the middle of an 8-episode season right now, investigating Sunny Side Up from the many hands who made it possible. Check it out!

And thanks to Penguin and Andrew Kolb for the images in this post!

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4. Pool

Pool by JiHyeon Lee

by JiHyeon Lee  (Chronicle Books, 2015)

Hello to you! And you! And you!

Here I am, ready to flip my g o n e  f i s h i n g sign back around.

First, have you had a nice summer? I have been away from the grind, sitting on a deck, writing books and reading them, and it’s been so very nice to be off the grid for a while. But I do miss my books.

You might have seen today’s floating around this summer, and I can’t think of a better one to celebrate the season.

Pool. The word itself conjures up both serenity and splashing chaos, and both of those things exist inside this book.

At its heart, this is a tale of a friendship. Even as grownups there’s a dance to the early moments of togetherness, and this story is that thing in book form.

A boy at the edge of a pool, all the hope of his day before him. A crowd, scary with its wacky floats and almost-tentacles.

Pool by JiHyeon Lee

(click to enlarge)

That’s when he dives, under it all and to the quiet, and that’s when he meets his friend. And that’s when things get weird. Isn’t that how it is with friendship? You see new things together, you name the new things together, you create a new kind of community together. The fish and plants and the world under the crazies is bizarre to us, but is it to them? Perhaps not.

Pool by JiHyeon Lee

(click to enlarge)

That’s the beauty of finding a friend in the quiet places, whether or not you were looking.

And at the end, when the crowd is exiting to the left, the friends leave to the right. Those two, going forward. Together.

Pool by JiHyeon Lee

(click to enlarge)

This is one of those books that I fell in love with when I first saw the cover. And it’s worth wondering why.

I love that the face could belong to either the girl or the boy. I like to think it’s after the magic, both because of the sweet smile and the still-dreamy fish, reflected and real. And I love that by staring at us, it’s almost an invitation. To play, to swim, to step away from the crowd at the edge of the pool.


Can’t get enough of this book? Me either! Here are some other places I loved reading about it. Danielle at This Picture Book Life paired it with the most adorable pool floats (ice cream sandwich!), and there’s still enough summer left to make that dream a reality! JiHyeon Lee is over at Picturebook Makers talking about the story behind the story and shares some process pictures, which I can’t ever get enough. And you can download some free Pool wallpapers at Chronicle’s happy home online. Enjoy the swim!

Thanks to Chronicle for the images in this post!

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5. The Skunk

The Skunk by Mac Barnett and Patrick McDonnell

by Mac Barnett and Patrick McDonnell (Roaring Brook Press, 2015)

The Skunk is a book I’ve been wanting for ages but I had no idea that I was.

I’m going to spoil this podcast interview for you, and you should still listen to it anyway, but when asked where he got the idea for this book, Mac said it was a writing prompt on an old poster in a school library:

A skunk won’t stop following you.

A fun thing is knowing Mac, and hearing his booming and contagious laugh, and picturing his long, lean self hunched over a desk with eight-year-olds hunched over their desks, writing about a skunk who won’t stop following you. I think Mac would love that too, because there’s a thing that resonates in all of his work for kids, which is a true and uncanny understanding of kid-ness, and a willingness to give them stories that grownups can’t observe in their own natural habitats.

(Sidenote: I wrote a whole thing about this recently, about honesty as a necessary thing in picture book writing and a necessary part of understanding the audience. Check it out here!)

I’m also going to spoil a big design piece of this book, so if you like to read things untainted, unspoiled, and fresh, bow out now. You’ve been warned!

But: the skunk and his man. A story you didn’t know you were dying for.

Mac Barnett and Patrick McDonnell didn’t collaborate on this book; rather, in publishing’s traditional sense, Mac did words and Patrick did pictures, and they didn’t speak of it until it was finished. In that same podcast, you’ll hear them speak of what an honor it was to work with lumps of clay the other had thrown down.

That, of course, is the very nature of a picture book. The text is incomplete without pictures; both parts are needed for the dance. 100

Here’s how I read a book.

First the endpapers.

The Skunk by Mac Barnett and Patrick McDonnellThen the case cover. (Have I told you how angry my students get when a book does not have a secret underneath?! Also, see Travis Jonker’s latest post on this for more. A treat for sure.)

The Skunk by Mac Barnett and Patrick McDonnellAnd the title page.

The Skunk by Mac Barnett and Patrick McDonnellThis is so interesting to me, this differently styled skunk here. His etched-ness gives me pause, and is a little bit dizzying. Because here’s the thing: this small moment gives the whole story true plausibility. This skunk, this real skunk, did all of the things in this book. But I’m seeing it through an artist’s lens who might have represented it in a way that I can understand, that I can see.


The Skunk by Mac Barnett and Patrick McDonnell The Skunk by Mac Barnett and Patrick McDonnellThe color palette here is a smart choice. It maintains this noir experience, but also serves to connect the duo physically: the skunk’s red nose, the man’s red bowtie. The skunk’s black and white tail, the man’s tuxedo tails. (Both of those with a flip and a flourish.)

There is no other color, save for a muted peach, a brightness in the shadows.

Soon, the man understands what’s really happening. His eyes speak fear.

The Skunk by Mac Barnett and Patrick McDonnell The Skunk by Mac Barnett and Patrick McDonnellThis standoff is one of my favorite parts. The offerings here–an apple, a saucer of milk, a pocket watch–are of no interest to a skunk. But it’s a moment of connection, the first time the man has turned to face his follower. That’s some bravery.

The Skunk by Mac Barnett and Patrick McDonnellThen things get dire and the pace quickens, and if you haven’t felt it by now, we’re talking some serious Twilight Zone stuff.

This man moves to a different part of the city, buys new things, and perhaps breathes a bit easier.

The Skunk by Mac Barnett and Patrick McDonnellThe Skunk by Mac Barnett and Patrick McDonnellThe man misses the skunk, because things like that worm and weasel and skunk their way into your routine, and all of a sudden, the missing it part is very real.

And here’s what else you probably noticed. The color!

Without the skunk, in a new house, with new things, the man is different. Transformed? Suddenly aware? What’s happening?

The Skunk by Mac Barnett and Patrick McDonnell

As he searches for his skunk, the colors mute. The world returns to whatever that normal was before.

My skunk.

And the endpapers again. Bookends, that duo.

The Skunk by Mac Barnett and Patrick McDonnell

There’s a thing that happens with books when your eyebrow wrinkles and you’re not quite sure where you are anymore. Those are the best kinds of stories–the honest and the daring ones and the ones that make you look at your own world with a mix of wonder and skepticism.


Thanks to Mary Van Akin at Macmillan for the images!

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6. A Lion in Paris

A Lion in Paris by Beatrice Alemagnaby Beatrice Alemagna (Tate, 2014)

A Lion in Paris by Beatrice Alemagna

First of all. This book opens the wrong way. I mean, it’s completely right, but it is unusual in all of the most wonderful ways.

Also, it’s huge. It’s the size of a cookie sheet or a throw pillow, which is also unusual in all of the most wonderful ways.

After all, how else can you contain a lion?

A Lion in Paris by Beatrice Alemagna

He was a big lion. A young, curious and lonely lion. He was bored at home on the grasslands, and so one day he set off to find a job, love and a future.

This is such a perfect picture book setup. We meet our leading man and instantly understand what’s he like and what he wants. Succint, confident, and interesting in both visuals and voice.

A Lion in Paris by Beatrice AlemagnaSomething about the massive white space for the text and the intricate illustrations on opposing sides of the gutter. It’s cinematic almost–reminiscient of that silent movie era where a title card precedes the action. The frame on each side of the gutter even approximates the golden rectangle of today’s high definition aspect ratio.

They are pleasing boundaries for storytelling. The pictures don’t need to leave physical layout space for the text, and the text gets a chance to stand alone and confident as well.

A Lion in Paris by Beatrice AlemagnaA Lion in Paris by Beatrice Alemagna

The people were hurrying around with a strange kind of sword under their arms, but nobody thought of attacking him. That surprised him.

A Lion in Paris by Beatrice AlemagnaA Lion in Paris by Beatrice Alemagna

When he went out into the street, it started to rain. That made him think of his lovely sunny grasslands and he felt sad. He turned all grey and shiny like the roofs around him.

So off course, things will get strange and sad for our gentle giant before his journey is through. But isn’t that true of many lionhearted luminaries?

This is a book for anyone who wrinkles a forehead and grins a little at smart design. It’s also a book for anyone who feels a little lost, a little rainy, a little roar-y.

It’s for anyone who is looking for that perfect place to be still and happy.

A Lion in Paris by Beatrice Alemagna


PS: Tate is a British publisher, not to be confused with the notorious scam-ish publisher in America of the same name.

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7. Once Upon a Cloud

Once Upon a Cloud by Claire Keane

by Claire Keane (Dial Books, 2015)

Here’s one to hand to any kid that still can’t get enough of Frozen. And when you do, give them a little wink-nudge that this book’s creator worked on what Elsa and Anna’s world looked like. And she worked on Tangled. And then they will see the lush purple cover anyway, and sometimes that’s all it takes.

Once Upon a Cloud by Claire Keane

(click to enlarge)

Meet Celeste. She wants the perfect gift for her mom. Big eyes. Big dreams. (Sweet bear expression. And do you see those little shoes she’s kicked off? Even sweeter.)

Celeste is stumped. When she’s about to fall asleep, the Wind carries her away.

She sparkles with the Stars and then meets the Moon and the Sun.

Once Upon a Cloud by Claire KeaneOnce Upon a Cloud by Claire Keane(click to enlarge)

There’s something musical about the pace of the pictures here. Sweeping and epic and enchanting. The colors wash over Celeste’s celestial quest, slowly spinning one into another.

And then, she’s home again. But her heart is new and her eyes are fresh, and the same things that have always been there shine a bit more than they did before once upon a cloud.

Simple in story. Arresting in art.

Once Upon a Cloud by Claire Keane



Review copy sent by the publisher. 

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8. Enormous Smallness


Enormous Smallness

by Matthew Burgess and Kris Di Giacomo (Enchanted Lion, 2015)

This book is the author’s debut picture book, and as a poet and creative writing teacher he found a perfect venue for these words. And here’s a great look at the illustrator’s work over at This Picture Book Life. (If you haven’t seen Brief Thief, RUN to the library. Now.)

Then there’s Enchanted Lion. Smart, beautiful, well-crafted books. This small Brooklyn publisher is fresh off a huge and deserved recognition in Bologna.

So. Let’s take a look.

Enormous Smallness

Layers of letters and piles of words make up some of the best endpapers I’ve seen this year.

Before I flip another page, I’m keenly aware of this texture. What an exceptional way to visualize the poetry of E.E. Cummings. It makes perfect sense. A jumble of words and sounds and feelings are the foundation for E.E.’s work.

Words as art themselves.

Enormous Smallness Enormous Smallness

Here’s a simple sentence, spare but lovely, stating facts and straightening out his family tree. Understated, but lively is for sure in that ensemble. Can you see rambunctious Uncle George there, turning a cartwheel or just plain standing on his hands?

The handwritten labels, the cattywampus text layout, the warm texture. All so inviting.

Enormous Smallness

A happy home for spilling words.

Enormous Smallness

A poet, catching words like a bunny through a hoop.

An author, echoing exactly what young E.E. loved.

Estlin looked around

as if his eyes were on tiptoes

and when his heart jumped,

he said another poem.

Enormous SmallnessEnormous Smallness

An illustrator, wrapping it all up in carefully crafted texture that smacks a bit of haphazard beauty.

It’s pretty. It’s intentional. It’s rich and wonder and a treat to take in.

Enormous Smallness Enormous Smallness

A remarkable slew of back matter includes a timeline, additional poetry, a fascinating author’s note, and another really great elephant illustration.


Lots to see and learn and celebrate here.

Out today.


I received a copy from the publisher, but opinions are my own.

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9. In

In by Nikki McClure

by Nikki McClure (Abrams, 2015)

In by Nikki McClure

This is one of those books where the cover convinces you that you’ll love it. It’s both bright and cozy. Spare and warm.

A teensy giraffe peeks out of this boy’s hiding spot and you can see its smiling face, but only eager anticipation in this boy’s eyes.


In by Nikki McClureIn by Nikki McClure

This is my kind of kid. It looks like a grownup is over his shoulder, offering an open door and a pair of shoes. But he’s got a tower of bricks, a colander kingdom, and the very best pair of pajamas.

In is best.

Until out is.

In by Nikki McClureIn by Nikki McClure

In by Nikki McClure

And when out is cold and wet, in you go.

In by Nikki McClure

Nikki McClure’s paper cuts are intricate and exquisite, but they are also all-embracing. Not common artwork, but a reminder of the universal comforts of childhood and play and home.

A stark black and vibrant yellow are perfect patches of color to explore these opposing wishes. They balance, they tug, and they leave enough room for us to journey with him. By day and until nightfall.

In and out.

A perfect choice to celebrate curiosity, imagination, and the way we explore our world.

Another Nikki McClure favorite is here!




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10. There’s This Thing

There's This Thing by Connah Brecon


by Connah Brecon (Philomel, 2014)

I fell hard for this book. Heart-itching, squeal-worthy, big time bulging-eyeballs-love.

The title is perfect, right? An ode to the impossibility of putting all of the teensy intricacies of a crush into words.

There's This Thing by Connah Brecon

A girl. A hunt. But she doesn’t really know how to grasp this thing.

Because it’s all . . . 

and . . .

Picture sparkles streaming out of a bottle and a warm kitty snuggle. Impossible for words. Only colorful bursts of feeling.

There's This Thing by Connah Brecon(click to enlarge)

I love her green dress/red hair combo. Strong complementary colors for a stronger girl. She says she’s not brave, but she’s doing just the opposite.

She leaves a trail of crumbs. Sets a trap. And waits.

It doesn’t work.

There's This Thing by Connah Brecon(click to enlarge)

There's This Thing by Connah Brecon(click to enlarge)

Good question, little girl. (I love that her love parade is marching down Hope Street.)

So when the rain drips down the sign and the marching band has marched on, she is sad. So sad.

I really want to share my heart but I just can’t find the right way to open it.

The thing is, she had. She did. This whole time. And that’s worth a bang-up ending. You’ll see.

Here’s a fun look at Connah and his creative process, and if you haven’t given the Let’s Get Busy podcast yet, start here.

This is a perfect thing for any Valentine of your very own.


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11. Just One Apple

Just One Apple by Janosch

by Janosch (NorthSouth, 2014; originally published 1965 in Switzerland as Das Apfelmänchenn.)

I love a good pen name, and Janosch has one. His real name is Horst Eckert, and he is one of Germany’s most beloved children’s book authors and illustrators. He was new to me until NorthSouth revived this classic in late 2014. I’m so glad they did.

This is Walter’s story. He was the poorest man in the entire kingdom and he only had one single apple tree. A strong and beautiful tree, a nice home for a solitary cardinal. But no fruit. No blossoms. No bending branches.

Walter wishes for an apple. Just one. And when you wish with all your might, things change.

And his wishes came true, as wishes sometimes do.

Just One Apple by Janosch

(click to enlarge)

The art is loose and fiery. Full of motion and an eery calm.

But I love how this book breathes.

A page of art, a page of text. A page of text, a page of art. The contrast between Walter’s colorful (and worrisome) world and the spare white space of the words sets a comforting rhythm to a familiar story.

And the apple grows. So Walter goes to the market.

Just One Apple by Janosch

(click to enlarge)

The very worst feeling in the whole world is when other people don’t believe in your wishes.

Walter loses interest in his apple and in his wishes and in his life.

Until the dragon comes to town.

Just One Apple by Janosch

(click to enlarge)

Here’s where the breathing hitches and the white space/art space tempo gives way to one glorious spread of Walter’s wish saving the kingdom. It’s startling and ridiculous and wonderful.

And after that, Walter was careful what he wished for.


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12. Personality Traits: Building a Balanced Character

Thesaurus PairIf writing the Positive Trait & Negative Trait Thesaurus books have taught me anything, it is that compelling characters are neither good nor bad, perfect or fundamentally flawed.

Instead, they are all of these things. Each has a set of good, admirable qualities, even while displaying frustrating or off-putting flaws. They have strengths and weaknesses in different areas, making them both skilled and inept at the same time. But that’s the point, isn’t it? The best characters are realistic and believable because they are just like real people. Like you or I. They have a balance of positive and negatives that give them a wholly unique viewpoint, attitude, belief system and personality.

Some writers want to create characters that ONLY have the best qualities, ones that prove they are good human beings that readers will admire and root for. They find it easy to create a blend of traits like loyalty, helpfulness, intelligence and determination, forming a true hero that can handle anything. But when it comes to choosing flaws, they pull their punches, worried that if they add a trait like selfishness, perfectionism, or impulsiveness, readers will view them as unlikeable.

Other writers EMBRACE the flawed character. They pile up flaws, forged by a hard past filled with emotional wounds that refuse to heal. They add layers of negative traits like suspicious, mistrustful and erratic, all carefully planned around an elaborate backstory that supports the necessity of emotional armor (flaws) that make them who they are.

But when it comes to admirable traits, they struggle. What positive traits would logically survive such a painful past? If say, the character was a victim of horrible abuse and to cope, they became a mistrustful, anti social liar, how can they also be friendly or kind? How can they logically be generous or carefree while harboring such deep flaws?

These are not simple questions to answer. Character creation, when done well, is not an easy process. Too many flaws (or even choosing the wrong type of flaw), and a character becomes unlikeable. Too many positive attributes, and they come across as altruistic, unrealistic or even (yawn) boring. So how can we achieve balance?

balanceUnderstand Who and What Shaped Your Character

Just like every one of us, your character has a past. And while yes, backstory turmoil and pain should be exploited to create conflict and tension in the present, there is always good mixed with bad. In real life, the good experiences (and people) are what keep us going no matter how bad it gets. So think about your character’s positive experiences and past influences along with negative ones as you dig around in their backstory. Understand what the character learned from both past trials and successes, and how each lesson will help to shape his personality.

Uncover Your Character’s Moral Center

Every character has a set of moral beliefs, even the villain. Think deeply about the moral code your character lives by, and what lines he will not cross. (HINT: the “why” of moral choices will be embedded in his backstory, and who/what helped shaped his view of the world.) Morals are the pulsing heart of motivation and action, so determine your character’s sense of right and wrong. (Read more about determining your characters morality HERE.)

Prod His Wound to See What Hurts

Nothing modifies behavior like pain, so understanding what deep emotional wounds your character carries is key to knowing what he also yearns for more than anything (Acceptance? Love? Safety? Freedom?) This wound and the fear that it can happen again is what causes deep flaws to form. They act as “false protection” to keep the hurt from reoccurring, and usually hold people at a distance. Here’s a helpful list of Common Wound Themes.

For example, a character who experienced rejection might close himself off from potential lovers because of his fear of being rejected again. How would flaws “help” him by pushing women away? Is he arrogant? Promiscuous? Uncommunicative? Dishonest?

And what attribute, if nourished, might grow strong enough to vanquish these flaws that hold him back from connection? Respectfulness? Honor? Loyalty? Empathy? Finding a major flaw’s opposite is the pathway to balance & resolving Character Arc through personal growth.

Give All Characters The Chance for Redemption

Some characters are intentionally unbalanced. If you have a character who leans one way more than the other (such as a villain or anti hero) by story necessity, then make sure you also build in something that suggests no matter how flawed or terrible, there is a chance they can change or be redeemed.

Every negative has a positive, and no matter how dark or skewed a character’s view is, or what he feels he’s better without, there will always be a flicker of light that can help him find his way back to becoming whole and complete. Show this to readers, be it a motive that is pure, a relationship with someone that is on some level healthy and good, or a positive quality that is admirable.

Balancing your character’s positive and negative sides means some deep brainstorming! If it helps, here are some more ideas on how to plan a character before you start writing.

How do you create balanced characters?

Image: Bykst @ Pixabay

The post Personality Traits: Building a Balanced Character appeared first on WRITERS HELPING WRITERS™.

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13. I Know a Lot of Things

I Know a Lot of Things by Ann and Paul Rand

by Ann and Paul Rand (Chronicle Books, 2009; originially published in 1956.)

I Know a Lot of Things by Ann and Paul Rand I Know a Lot of Things by Ann and Paul Rand

You might remember how much I love this pair’s Sparkle and Spin, and this one is just as playful and just as true. That case cover surprise is an a delight, and complementary-colored endpapers start this book with a bang.

I Know a Lot of Things by Ann and Paul Rand I Know a Lot of Things by Ann and Paul Rand I Know a Lot of Things by Ann and Paul Rand

Paul Rand’s graphic genius is so well-matched by the simple and spare words of his wife, Ann. The text and the pictures both glide through that magical reality of childhood. Things that might seem daunting to someone bested by time are small and accessible. Things that may seem obvious or forgettable are ripe for play and adventure.

I Know a Lot of Things by Ann and Paul Rand I Know a Lot of Things by Ann and Paul Rand

It’s a reminder to slow down, listen, and watch. The world is built of wonderful things. The big picture is as beautiful as the details.

I Know a Lot of Things by Ann and Paul Rand

Here, the sentiment is the whole of this person. I’m not sure there’s an ending more perfect, not for kids or their grownups. There’s so much more to know, but what you carry with you can stay.


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14. Martin Pebble

Martin Pebble by Jean-Jacques SempéMartin Pebble (Phaidon, 2006; first published in French, 1969)

by Jean-Jacques Sempé

I love this book.

I love the type on the cover.

I love the yellow.

I love the shape and the size and the story.

I love Martin Pebble.

He’s loveable.

(I picked this up on a recent trip to Once Upon a Time in Montrose, CA, which is exactly why shopping in stores is the greatest thing. I had to touch this thing to believe it, and I might not have seen this thing if it weren’t for the bookseller. Bookstores are like story petting zoos and museums that don’t give you the stinkeye if you get too close to the art.)

(Something like that.)

But poor Martin Pebble.

Martin Pebble could have been a happy little boy, like many other children. But, sad to say . . . he had something that was rather unusual the matter with him:

he kept blushing.Martin Pebble by Jean-Jacques Sempé Martin Pebble by Jean-Jacques SempéMartin Pebble blushes for all the usual reasons and for no reason at all. The brilliance of Sempé’s color here is hard to miss. Black and white line work contains the red of Martin’s face, and that red occasionally extends to the text as well.

Subtle. Striking.Martin Pebble by Jean-Jacques SempéThe contrast Sempé crafts between Martin’s red face and all that black and white makes that blushing even worse.

Martin is in a pickle. He’s tiny and nearly lost on the page save for his giveaway condition.

He dreamed of fitting in.Martin Pebble by Jean-Jacques SempéBut he always stood out.Martin Pebble by Jean-Jacques SempéThen comes a series of sneezes, some very loud A T I S H O O s, and there he is.

Roddy Rackett, the new neighbor.Martin Pebble by Jean-Jacques SempéMartin Pebble by Jean-Jacques SempéWhen the story changes, and the hardships knock at the door, Sempé doesn’t just use the suspense of a page turn. He stops the story cold.Martin Pebble by Jean-Jacques SempéRoddy Rackett’s family moves away.

When you are a boy, and when you are made normal in the quirks of another, you never really forget about it. You think about A T I S H O O s while you are doing grownup things like riding taxis and elevators.Martin Pebble by Jean-Jacques SempéMartin Pebble by Jean-Jacques SempéSometimes things get back to normal.Martin Pebble by Jean-Jacques SempéI won’t spoil past that pink-lettered page.

But I love it.IMG_1250 copy


Sempé himself sounds like a storybook character. He sold tooth powder door-to-door salesman! Delivered wine by bicycle! (More here.)

Click here for some of Sempé’s covers for The New Yorker. Lovely.

And this Pinterest board is a feast for the eyes, too. Enjoy!


Tagged: color, contrast, Jean-Jacques Sempé, line, Martin Pebble, Phaidon, shape, size

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15. Homer Henry Hudson’s Curio Museum and an interview with Zack Rock

Homer Henry Hudson’s Curio Museum by Zack Rock

by Zack Rock (Creative Editions, 2014)

Zack Rock and I haunt some of the same circles on the internet. I have a tshirt with his work on it thanks to Vintage Kids’ Books My Kid Loves (how cool is that header?), and I have long admired his work thanks to some tea time at Seven Impossible Things here and here. And once upon a time in 2012, Zack wrote a hilarious joke for a Hallowtweet contest run by Adam Rex and Steven Malk.

I remember that well, cause in fun-facts-here-at-Design-of-the-Picture-Book both Julie Falatko and I were runners-up in that contest, and the real prize was getting her friendship. Start of an era, for sure. (Although Zack did get an original piece of Adam Rex art, and we’d both admit to coveting that a little. See below!)

So. I’ve had my eye out for this book for years. Years! And I was so happy that Zack spent some time chatting with me about this smorgasbord of stuff and story. He also said he “answered the living daylights” out of these questions, so I sure hope you enjoy the living daylights out of them like I did.

Welcome, Zack! (That jovial picture is from his blog, where he has killer posts like this one on bad drawings and perspective. Check it out!)

IMG_9253breakerHomer Henry Hudson’s Curio Museum by Zack Rock

One thing I know that’s true of kids is that they love a billion teensy and scrutinize-able details in books. Your book starts out with such cool stuff on the endpapers, that I almost (only almost) don’t want to keep going! Do you have any kind of catalog for these curiosities, or did you just create anything and everything that felt right? Is there a backstory for each of these elements?!

I drew whatever felt right, “right” being subject to how exhausted my imagination was at the time. And though I’d like to leave the history of the curios up to the readers’ interpretation, I carry a backstory for each in my mind—some more convoluted than others.

For instance, in the museum there’s an antique, penny arcade cabinet inspired by the Musée Mécanique, which houses scores of these old contraptions in San Francisco. So to honor them, I fitted my museum’s machine with a tiny, top-hatted automaton of one of SF’s most curious citizens: Norton I, self-proclaimed Emperor of the United States of America (a real guy). So plenty of thought went into that curio.

On the other hand, another curio is an apple with a faucet sticking out of it because I was thirsty when I drew it.Homer Henry Hudson’s Curio Museum by Zack Rock

(I love the way this whole book starts. I feel like I’m in really good hands.)

Thanks! I like to consider myself the Allstate of illustrators.

What’s your studio like? Do you have trinkets and tschotskes or a cool window view?

Believe it or not, I’m allergic to collecting stuff, so my studio is bare as a monk’s cell. My mother, however, has a fondness/compulsion for antiquing in bulk; almost none of her massive collection of furniture and doodads got past the door of my childhood home without having first seen several generations of use. It lent the crowded house an air of the same well-worn nostalgia that permeates the pages of my book.studio

Surely you’ve hidden some easter eggs in these pages. Any hints? Any behind-the-scenes stories?

Now I regret not hiding an actual Easter Egg in the museum. Honestly, nearly everything in the book is an Easter Egg, since there’s a secret story encased in each curio. But instead of cracking those open, I’ll share a behind-the-scenes tour of the book’s present day setting.

I created the book while living in Seattle, and Pacific Northwest references are littered throughout it. The license plate on the VW Bug in the first scene reads “FRMTTRL,” an allusion to the massive concrete Fremont Troll lurking beneath the Seattle’s Aurora Bridge. The museum exterior is based on the old town hall in Bellingham, WA, and the fictional island it crashed on is named for Washington State’s notorious children’s writer, Sherman Alexie. A Washington State ferry, the Olympic Mountains, a totem pole from Pike Place Market, and a handful of other Puget Sound souvenirs also make an appearance in the book.Homer Henry Hudson’s Curio Museum by Zack Rock

This book has a real undercurrent of ignored things being a treasure with a story. Are you a treasure hunter or a treasure-leaver-for-somebody-else? (I think that’s what making books is, so you are that one for sure. I guess what I’m asking is why do you think HHH was such a collector of stories, and do you see any parallels in your own life of creative curating?)

Ooo, books as treasures to be discovered, I like that! Makes me sound like a pirate.

Homer is an underdog; nobody would look at him and assume his adventures extend beyond an expedition to the local sushi restaurant. He identifies himself with the object’s he curates, so he surrounds himself with the lost and neglected, and by exhibiting their rich history to the world he literally shares his own biography.

And I’ll leave the parallels with my own life to the armchair psychoanalysts.Homer Henry Hudson’s Curio Museum by Zack Rock

What came first to you in this story: words or pictures? Can you talk to being a picture book creator who deals with both parts? (And in case anyone’s wondering, my favorite line is this one: My luggage may be dusty. But my hat still fits.)

Ha, that’s the one line written entirely by my editor Aaron! He suggested it while editing the book, and I thought it was great too, so we kept it in.

Being an author/illustrator isn’t terribly different than being solely a writer, the main distinction is that you have a visual language to express the story as well. So I can employ the duel butterfly nets of text and images to capture the picture book ideas that flutter into view, jotting notes alongside small thumbnail sketches as I try to pin down plot/character/theme details. It becomes a balancing act of seeing which of the two, words or images, best conveys what needs to be communicated.Homer Henry Hudson’s Curio Museum by Zack Rock Homer Henry Hudson’s Curio Museum by Zack RockWhat’s your creative process like? Any weird routines? What’s your medium of choice?

My only real habit—creative or otherwise—are the nightly walks I take after work, allowing my legs and mind to wander. In fact, I got the original idea for Homer Henry Hudson during one of these constitutionals.

And for picture books I work almost exclusively in watercolor, though for other projects I work in pen and ink, digitally, or with accidental food stains.

Who are your literary and artistic heroes?

They’re all in the book! Along with Shaun Tan, Maurice Sendak and Lisbeth Zwerger—who I painted into a restaurant scene—there’s references to Søren Kierkegaard, Jorges Luis Borges, Franz Kafka, Renee Magritte, Herman Melville, JD Salinger, George Orwell, Ingmar Bergman, Charles Schulz, and of course, Homer. Even my favorite comedian, Paul F Tompkins, whose podcasts kept me company during the long hours of illustrating the book, has a cameo as a pipe-smoking painting.Homer Henry Hudson’s Curio Museum by Zack Rock

Do you have a favorite piece of artwork hanging in your house? Or a favorite tune that feels like art?

A few years ago, Adam Rex held a contest to see who could fit the best Halloween haiku into the constraints of a tweet. To my surprise he picked mine, and to my utter flabbergastination he went on to illustrate it and sent me the original art! It’s incredible. I framed it above my art desk as a reminder that, with hard work and dedication to my craft, I may one day hope to be the poor man’s Adam Rex.

Why books for kids?

One of the most valuable skills to possess is the ability to approach the world and its inhabitants with wonder, curiosity and interest. What’s great about kids is that they do this naturally and without being self-conscious. My hope is that Homer Henry Hudson’s Curio Museum and future books will be something readers carry with them as they grow older and are tempted to lose that wonder, reminders there’s so much more to the world, the things in it, and yourself to discover if you approach life with an open heart.

Plus, I have nothing to say that couldn’t be said by a talking dog.Homer Henry Hudson’s Curio Museum by Zack RockWhat’s next for you?

Another book for Creative Editions about the power of stories, this time from the perspective of an acrobatic pig.

How can we buy your book?

Through your local struggling independent bookseller. Or Powells.com. Or, sigh, Amazon.com.

What did I miss?

There are humanoid pears hanging in the first illustration of the museum interior, bottom of the page. Look past the table leg and Grecian urn. See that? It’s a butt!Homer Henry Hudson’s Curio Museum by Zack RockbreakerI’m pretty sure that’s the first butt mention on this blog. Have any treasure-hunters? Or fans of hidden picture art? Since we all love talking dogs, this book is a great choice for all readers everywhere.




Tagged: adam rex, color, creative editions, pattern, repetition, zack rock

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16. Fox’s Garden

Fox's Garden by Princesse Camcam

by Princesse Camcam (Enchanted Lion, 2014)

It’s hot in Los Angeles. Like, super really really hot. That’s why this book is an especially welcome reprieve. A book with snow in it? Please. A book with cool blues and winter scenes? Yes.

This is Fox’s Garden.

It’s a lovely little book.Fox's Garden by Princesse Camcam

A lone fox, stark red against the white forest. A house in the distance, swirling with the colors of home and twilight. Frightened grownups chase him away. A boy cloaked in red, watching and waiting and caring. Fox's Garden by Princesse CamcamFox's Garden by Princesse Camcam

This boy loves animals. They are in sketches, framed on his wall. They are in mobiles and stuffed friends, in bookshelves and toy chests. Fox's Garden by Princesse Camcam

This fox, followed by her brood, leaves blossoms of kindness right back for the boy. It’s a tale of sharing and growth and unlikely accomplices. No words, all heart.Fox's Garden by Princesse Camcam

And the pictures. My French is un peu rusty, but according to Princesse Camcam’s blog, these have got to be cut paper illustrations, lit and photographed. They are intricate and textured, perfect layers for this story of a fox and his friend.

Remember when we talked about complementary colors setting the tone and mood? The rich red of the fox is set apart so dramatically from the snowy scene and the stark greenhouse. It’s a mood, and it’s a strong one. It’s so pretty, too.Fox's Garden by Princesse Camcam

Keep an eye on Enchanted Lion, folks. They are in the business of making beautiful books.

Be kind to a chased-away stranger today.


Review copy provided by the publisher.


Tagged: color theory, complementary colors, cut paper, enchanted lion books, princesse camcam

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17. A Very Special House

A Very Special House by Ruth Krauss and Maurice Sendak

by Ruth Krauss and Maurice Sendak (HarperCollins, 1953)

School’s been back in the swing of things for a couple weeks, and it has been bananas. But I’ve got this beautiful new space and some read-in-me-for-hours lounge chairs and the kids named our bright new sitting area The Birdhouse. This week: shelves and books. The heart and soul.

The Birdhouse

That’s why I needed to visit a book that is about all of those things: comfort and wonder and imagination and a very special place.

A Very Special House by Ruth Krauss and Maurice Sendak

I love this little dancer-dreamer: dee dee dee oh-h-h.A Very Special House by Ruth Krauss and Maurice Sendak A Very Special House by Ruth Krauss and Maurice Sendak

This book is the hope of yellow and the broken-in-ness of blue overalls and the loose lines of childhood. This book started with two masters but belongs to the rest of us. It’s root in the moodle of our head head heads.

A Very Special House by Ruth Krauss and Maurice Sendak

And this is what I want for anyone who finds a story in our very special place: A Very Special House by Ruth Krauss and Maurice Sendak

They and I are making secrets 

and we’re falling over laughing

and we’re running in and out

and we hooie hooie hooie

then we think we are some chickens

then we’re singing in the opera then

we’re going going going going ooie ooie ooie.

The view


Tagged: color, libraries, maurice sendak, ruth krauss, stories

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18. On Neighborliness, “Balance,” and the Unpredictable Timing of Creativity: A Note to Myself (and You, Too, If You Need It)

The ideal circumstances in which you can create include ample free time, an absence of worries, and at least one enthusiastic supporter cheering you on. You might experience that lucky combination—or even two of the three components—once in a very long while.

In your actual life, things break, neighbors need help, and work-as-obligation fills up the hours and then the calendar. The concept of “balance” becomes a glittery myth.

You do what you can. You attend to the broken things. You take care of your neighbors (and we are all neighbors). Joyfully (or sometimes begrudgingly), you pay your dues. You wedge your creative spurts into the cracks, and you relish each happy slice.

You learn to recognize those glorious moments when everything falls into place in spite of the circumstances, and then you get busy. You make hay—or poems or paintings or pots—while the sun shines.

You do your best. And you know what, kiddo?

That’s enough.

The quarry road tumbles toward me
out of the early morning darkness,
lustrous with frost, an unrolled bolt
of softly glowing fabric, interwoven
with tiny glass beads on silver thread,
the cloth spilled out and then lovingly
smoothed by my father’s hand
as he stands behind his wooden counter
(dark as these fields) at Tilden’s Store
so many years ago. “Here,” he says smiling,
“you can make something special with this.”
Ted Kooser, Winter Morning Walks: One Hundred Postcards to Jim Harrison

Book Giveaway reminder:
Enter by September 26 for a chance to win an autographed copy of Barbara Krasner’s picture book biography Goldie Takes a Stand!

Today’s Poetry Friday Roundup is at The Poem Farm. Enjoy!

JoAnn Early Macken

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19. Emotional Description: 3 Common Problems with Show & Tell

Writing compelling emotional moments is the lifeblood of any story and the key to building a relationship between characters and readers. Yet steering clear of the show-don’t-tell pitfalls requires practice and skill. I’m reposting this from where it originally appeared at Romance University to shed light on three scenarios that challenge writers as they search for the right balance of emotional description.


Telling is a big issue, especially when writers are still getting to know their characters. Often they do not yet have enough insight into the hero’s personality and their motivation to really be able to describe how they feel in a unique way. Instead of using a vivid and authentic mix of body language, thoughts, dialogue and visceral sensations, writers convey emotion  in broad, telling strokes:


Bill had to steel himself emotionally before entering the church. He’d managed to avoid his family for seven years, but his father’s funeral wasn’t something he could blow off. Anger and jealousy welled inside him as he thought of his two older brothers, the ones who always impressed Dad by being just like him: athletic, manly, hard. Now he would have to face them, and hear once again how he was a failure, a disappointment, an abomination that should have done the world a favor and hung himself from the Jackson family tree.

What’s wrong with this passage?

While the above alludes to an unhealthy relationship between brothers and conveys that Bill is the family misfit, the emotions are TOLD to the reader.

Bill had to steel himself emotionally… What does that look like? Does he sneak a slug of whiskey in his car before going in? Shuffle around on the church step, tugging at his starched cuffs?  Something else? With emotion, the reader should always get a clear image of how the character is expressing their feelings.

Anger and jealousy welled inside him… This again is telling, simply by naming the emotions. What does that anger and jealousy feel like? Is his pulse throbbing so loud he can barely think? Are his thoughts boiling with brotherly slurs that show his jealousy: dad’s golden children, his perfect prodigy, etc. Does his chest feel stuffed full of broken glass, and with each thrum of the church organ, the pain drives itself deeper?

Showing and Telling

Another common snag is showing the character’s feelings (thoughts, actions, body language, visceral sensations, etc.) but then adding some telling just to make sure the reader ‘got it.’ This often happens when a writer doesn’t have confidence in their own abilities to get emotion across to the reader, or they question whether they’ve shown the character’s feelings strongly enough for the situation.


Dean Harlow finally called Tammy’s name and Lacy’s breath hitched. Her daughter crossed the stage in her rich purple robe, smiling and thrusting her arm out for the customary handshake. Warmth blurred Lacy’s vision and she swiped at the tears, unwilling to miss a second of the graduation ceremony. Her calloused fingers scraped beneath her eyelids, a reminder of long hours at the laundry, all to ensure Tammy would have opportunities she herself never did. 

When her daughter accepted her diploma, Lacy shot out of her seat, clapping and cheering. She had never been so happy and proud in all her life. 

What’s wrong with this passage?

Emotion is shown clearly through Lacy’s hitching breath, the warm rush signaling tears, her rapt attention and then finally jumping up to cheer her daughter on. But that last line: She had never been so happy and proud in all her life. This unnecessary explanation of Lacy’s happiness and pride is like hammering a nail long after it’s flush with the board.  In the book, Description by Monica Wood, there’s a great rule of writing called RUE: Resist the Urge to Explain. So when it comes to emotion, remember RUE.

Over Showing

Over showing is when a writer gets caught up in the moment and goes too far by showing everything. Too much emotional description can slow the pace of the scene, create purple prose or clichés, and come across as melodramatic.


Finn huddled behind the rusted oil drum, dripping with cold sweat as she tried to control her loud, rasping breath. The sound of Alex scraping the crowbar along the warehouse’s cement floor turned her heart into a jackhammer. A scream built up in her throat and she clamped her teeth tight, converting it into a nearly soundless whimper. Her body trembled and shuddered in the dark, and a cascade of thoughts piled up like shoreline debris– the odd things he said, the strange gifts and creepy poems, his interest in seeing blood—why didn’t these things didn’t send off air raid sirens in her head before tonight? 

What’s wrong with this passage?

Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000046_00058]In some ways, this is a great moment showing fear. Body language, thoughts and visceral sensations all work to bring about intensity, but because there is so much of it, it feels overblown. Emotion doesn’t just build here…it roars. As a result, clichés form (the jackhammer heartbeat) and purple prose emerges from too many fanciful ideas (cascading thoughts, shoreline debris, air raid sirens, etc.) The combination of too much description creates the flavor of melodrama, which can cause the reader to disengage. Showing is great, but in moderation. Sometimes an author can say more with less.

Getting the right balance of emotion on the page isn’t easy, so I hope this helps! And if you would like to read about these common problems in more detail (or the other issues with writing emotion), you can find in depth information in the “Look Inside” sample of The Emotion Thesaurus at Amazon. Feel free to take a peek!


Also, Becca’s at Rebecca Lyndon’s blog today talking about characterization techniques writers can steal borrow from the stellar cast of Finding Nemo. If you’ve got time, please stop by and say hello!

The post Emotional Description: 3 Common Problems with Show & Tell appeared first on WRITERS HELPING WRITERS.

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20. Sam and Dave Dig a Hole

Sam and Dave Dig a Hole by Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen

by Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen (Candlewick Press, 2014)

You know Mac and Jon. You love Mac and Jon. Now meet Sam and Dave. You’ll love Sam and Dave.

Don’t rush into the pages just yet. This is one of the best covers I’ve seen in a long while. If we weren’t so aware that Jon Klassen (that insta-recognizable style!) is a contemporary illustrator, I would wholeheartedly presume that it was some vintage thing in a used bookstore. A find to gloat about, a find that makes you wonder just how you got so lucky.

The hole. The space left over. The words, stacked deeper and deeper. The apple tree whose tippy top is hidden. Two chaps, two caps, two shovels. One understanding dog.

Speaking of two chaps, two caps, and two shovels, check out the trailer.

(I’ll wait if you need to watch that about five more times.)

The start of their hole is shallow, and they are proud. But they have only just started. Sam asks Dave when they should stop, and this is Dave’s reply:

“We won’t stop digging until we find something spectacular.”

Dave’s voice of reason is so comforting to any young adventurer. It’s validating that your goal is something spectacular. (Do we forget this as grownups? To search for somthing spectacular? I think we do.)

Perhaps the pooch is the true voice of reason here, though he doesn’t ever let out a bark or a grumble. Those eyes, the scent, the hunt. He knows.

Sam and Dave Dig a Hole by Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen

(click to enlarge)

And this is where Sam and Dave Dig a Hole treads the waters of picture book perfection. The treasure, this spectacular something, is just beyond the Sam and Dave’s reality. The reader gets the treat where Sam and Dave are stumped. Do you want to sit back and sigh about their unfortunate luck? Do you want to holler at them to just go this way or that way or pay attention to your brilliant dog? Do you root for them? Do you keep your secret?

The text placement on each page is sublime. If Sam and Dave plant themselves at the bottom of the page, so does the text. If the hole is deep and skinny, the text block mirrors its length. This design choice is a spectacular something. It’s subtle. It’s meaningful. It’s thoughtful and inevitable all at once.

Sam and Dave Dig a Hole by Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen

(click to enlarge)

And then – then! Something spectacular. The text switches sides. The boys fall down. Through? Into? Under? Did the boys reach the other side? Are they where they started? Is this real life? Their homecoming is the same, but different. Where there was a this, now there is a that. Where there was a hmm, now there is an ahhh.

Spectacular indeed.

I like to think that the impossible journey here is a nod to Ruth Krauss and Maurice Sendak’s collaboration, A Hole is to Dig. That’s what holes are for. That’s what the dirt asks of you. It’s not something you do alone or without a plan or without hope. Sam and Dave operate in this truth. They need to dig. There’s not another choice.


(image here // a first edition, first printing!)

Sidenote: I’m pretty thrilled that these scribbles live in my ARC.

Sam and Dave Dig a Hole by Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen

Look for this one on October 14th.

SAM AND DAVE DIG A HOLE. Text copyright © 2014 by Mac Barnett. Illustrations copyright © 2014 by Jon Klassen.Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.


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21. Firebird

Firebird by Misty Copeland and Christopher Myersby Misty Copeland and Christopher Myers (Penguin Young Readers Group, 2014)

Firebird by Misty Copeland and Christopher Myers

When you open a book to sweeping, fiery endpapers, it’s almost as if you can hear the symphony begin. The author, Misty Copeland, is a principal dancer with the American Ballet Theater. The illustrator, Christopher Myers, is a Caldecott Honoree for Harlem and the son of the legendary Walter Dean Myers.

We are in stellar storytelling hands.


(image here // Copeland dancing the Firebird)


(image here // Copeland dancing the Firebird)

Firebird by Misty Copeland and Christopher Myers

Christopher Myers’s art captures the lines and shapes of a dancer’s movement. Intricate, suspended, and dizzying.

Firebird by Misty Copeland and Christopher Myers

Misty Copeland’s words are fire and poetry to a timid youngster’s soul.

Firebird by Misty Copeland and Christopher Myers Firebird by Misty Copeland and Christopher Myers

I adore the anticipation in this spread, the dancer waiting for the curtain to rise, and I imagine a lump in her throat and a belly full of as many swoops as the folds in the curtain.

Firebird by Misty Copeland and Christopher Myers Firebird by Misty Copeland and Christopher Myers

Each page turn reveals a composition that is even more striking than the last. This is a pairing of musicality, movement, and a jaw-dropping array of colors and feelings. The way her words and his pictures create an animated harmony is exactly how music and movement do the same in the ballerina’s world.

A perfect pas de deux.

Firebird by Misty Copeland and Christopher Myers

For more on Misty Copeland, take a look at this. She is a lovely storyteller, both in her books and with her body.



Firebird by Misty Copeland and Christopher Myers


Review copy provided by the publisher.

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22. The Young Man Who Wouldn’t Hoe Corn

The Young Man Who Wouldn't Hoe Corn by Eric Von Schmidt

by Eric von Schmidt (Houghton Mifflin Company Boston, 1964)

Okay. It’s time for a teensy bit of name dropping. I have this cousin who is a brilliant singer and songwriter and he’s racked up a few Grammys as well. (Do you say Grammies? I don’t think so.) If you are into good, old-fashioned bluegrass and Americana, check out Jim Lauderdale. Musicians are such great storytellers, don’t you think? Sometimes I wonder if I can pack the same amount of heart and soul into a 500-word picture book that he can in a 3-minute song.

That’s partly why I was so drawn to this book, The Young Man Who Wouldn’t Hoe Corn. And that was even before I realized that there were all kinds of connections to song. That title begs to be picked and strummed, right?

The Young Man Who Wouldn't Hoe Corn by Eric Von Schmidt

I purchased this book a while back from Elwood and Eloise on Etsy. The owner, Mallory, also runs an excellent illustration blog, My Vintage Book Collection (in blog form), which is an incredible archive of gorgeous out of print materials. Thank goodness she sells some of her collection, cause I’ve added some sparkle to my own thanks to her shop. (Also, the images in this post are courtesy of her post here.)

This is the story of Jeremy Sneeze. Where he fails as a farmer he succeeds at making children laugh. (Which is to say by wiggling his ears.) He replaces fallen birds nests and makes pictures and poems. And so, of course, the elders of his town denounce his slack and shifless ways. A town meeting. A crow. A spell is cast. A sneeze. A surprise.

The Young Man Who Wouldn't Hoe Corn by Eric Von Schmidt The Young Man Who Wouldn't Hoe Corn by Eric Von Schmidt

This book’s design is reminiscent of a song. Here’s what I mean. That color—washes of analogous color in oranges and yellows and greens, those are the harmonies to the stark black’s melody. It’s steady and rhythmic like the downbeats of an upright bass. Unless they are splashed and chaotic like a mandolin’s intricacies.

The Young Man Who Wouldn't Hoe Corn by Eric Von Schmidt The Young Man Who Wouldn't Hoe Corn by Eric Von Schmidt

On top of stellar bookmaking, the story itself is a sweeping epic wrapped up in the short pages of a picture book. Listen to some of its lines:

Just about then he would get to puzzling about other things like “How high is up?” or “Who plants the dandelions?” or “Where do the stars go during the day?”

And every year all Jeremy had to offer was a big weedy field filled with assorted brambles and unchopped briars, bounded by dirty broken boulders.

Flap-flap, past bats that watched with eyes like razors, past lizards, toads, and laughing spiders, down past rats and rattlesnakes and monkeys dreaming evil dreams of moons.

We have specials today on stars that dance or boiling oceans, and a bargain rate for setting mountains into motion.

He hurled himself at the brambles and flung himself at the weeds with such speed you couldn’t tell which was hoe and which was crow.

True enough he is a sorry farmer. But in his head dwell pictures and in his heart are poems.

The Young Man Who Wouldn't Hoe Corn by Eric Von Schmidt

The listen-ability, the meter, the storytelling grumble. It’s all here. What a gem.

P.S.—A bit of poking around online still left me slightly confused about the history of this book and the similar-ly titled song. Did the book inspire the song? Did the song know about the book? I think the song inspired the nitty-gritty backstory of the young man who wouldn’t hoe corn. I can’t really tell, so I’ll just be sitting here enjoying both. Hope you are too.


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23. The Promise

The Promise

by Nicola Davies and Laura Carlin (Candlewick, 2014)

The Promise is on this year’s New York Times Best Illustrated Books list and I’m so glad it captured a spot. I imagine weeping and gnashing of teeth to pare down a year into a handful of notables, but they got this one so right.

The Promise by Nicola Davies and Laura Carlin The Promise by Nicola Davies and Laura Carlin

Here you have bleakness. Bare and raw. And a girl who doesn’t have much but the desolate things. The words themselves pierce the brightness.

The Promise by Nicola Davies and Laura Carlin

The people, too, dry and dusty.

And then.

Some seeds and a promise and a reluctant okay.

I pushed aside the mean and hard and ugly, and I planted, planted, planted.

The Promise by Nicola Davies and Laura Carlin The Promise by Nicola Davies and Laura Carlin The Promise by Nicola Davies and Laura Carlin

Everything works in this book. The text is exquisite. The pictures haunting and heartbreaking and hopeful. The paper is luxurious. The case cover differs from the jacket itself. Dig in. Look around. Don’t miss the endpapers that start as stone and end as spring.

There’s a little Frog Belly Rat Bone here, in this fragile world in need of color and life.

(Also, there’s a lot of great stuff about this beautiful book here, and this post is so, so lovely as well.)


And PS! Add a comment by Wednesday, December 3rd to this post for a chance at winning all ten of those books from Chronicle. Don’t forget your pledge to #GiveBooks this year!


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24. Snow

Snow by Isao Sasaki

by Isao Sasaki (Viking, 1982)

Snow by Isao Sasaki

I’m not too sure if this book is still in print or not, but I snagged it at a used bookstore in Seattle once upon a long time ago. It was the best six bucks I spent in the entire city. Maybe the best six bucks ever.

This book felt familiar, and I’m sure I’ve buried some memories of reading it as a kid somewhere deep inside my book-person-soul. Opening the pages again to a story both calm and busy was also the only way to experience any snow in these parts.

And so, Snow.

Snow by Isao SasakiSnow by Isao SasakiSnow by Isao Sasaki

The book itself is a square. It’s the soft gray of winter skies. Each illustration is framed within a border of a lighter shade of that barely gray. Maybe it’s its 1982-ness, but it also feels like looking at a slide. Remember those?

Because of this bit of framing, this story is told in snippets like snapshots—of a day, of a season, of a bustling platform, but it also feels like we’re watching from a distance, remembering something that was so simple and sweet.Snow by Isao Sasaki

And at the same time, Snow is intimate. All of the action happens in the foreground. That’s where the train rumbles and the station agent shovels.

Once upon another long time ago I wrote about the rule of thirds, and that’s beautifully at work here.

We’re looking in from the outside, thanks to the white space, but we’re right there with them, thanks to the foreground action. It’s a balance, a push and pull, and some inviting tension in the quietest of stories.

Snow by Isao Sasaki

Only one spread has an illustration that takes up the entire page. A wide rectangle becomes a perfect track for rolling in. (Or is it out? But does it matter?) A wide rectangle becomes the perfect break in the pace of this book.

Much like the snow, falling heavier at times, lighter at others. Much like the light of the day, changing from dawn to dark.

Snow by Isao SasakiSnow by Isao Sasaki


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25. Gifts: The Grace of Kindness

Hi folks, I'm ending the year with Gifts. This has been one of my most challenging years as a writer. I've struggled more professionally than at any other time in my life. My book PLUMB CRAZY is soon to go out of eprint. The paperback is cancelled. The book after it is cancelled. The small publisher has decided to go in a different direction. I put a lot of myself in that book and this wasn't the news I wanted. I turned 50 this year. I have the most mundane part-time job on the planet. I've slipped into depression, the real kind that takes some support. This week, to add insult injury, I came down with a skin infection that has left me soo tired. A bumpy part of this road of life, but I'm determined to find the silver lining.

So what gift do I have for you? Here goes. The Grace of Kindness.

I'm a person people tell secrets to. Some are small. Some are mighty. Some people I know, some I don't know. Sometimes in the grocery store or when I'm buying gas. Sometimes over coffee or on a walk.  I try to do little things every day that will help somebody. I build some margins into my life so that I can have time to listen and help whoever gets in my path .I'm nothing spectacular. I'm a small time kindness operator, but small kindnesses are as natural to me as breathing.

Kindness has been a part of me since I was very young child. Just like my flaws of a hot temper and my whining tendency (Hope I didn't whine too much above! Working on it.), I've had the grace of kindness. It's hardwired. I'm not perfect. My faults have spectacularly let some down when then really needed my grace. Still, in spite of me, the grace of kindness has generally reached out to others. And like all good grace has lifted me up in process and given me a sense of meaning when almost everything else has failed me.

I believe every person has some grace.  Some sing like angels. Some are the most long suffering folks that have ever lived. Some have the gift of gab and can say a perfect word at a perfect time. To me, grace means unmerited favor. Something in you that is just in you. It's hardwired like breathing. Sometimes in our life the things we've worked for get stripped from us. We lose our job. A relationship doesn't work out. Our dignity is taken away. We suffer great injustice. What should we do?

For me, I lean into grace in my life during these times. I'm a storyteller. I forge on.  I'm an organizer. I find something to organize. I'm kind. I find a place to pour that kindness.

Be aware of the grace in your life. For me all grace is a bit of the light of the divine, tucked away in the most flawed earthen vessel, I continue my journey to let it shine.

I will be back next week with more gifts.

Here is the doodle: The sun, moon, and the stars.

And a quote for your pocket.

You cannot do a kindness too soon, for you never know how soon it will be too late.
Ralph Waldo Emerson

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