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My observance of Picture Book Month is ending on an unexpected note. These stories of the realities facing picture book authors coming one after another like this are inspiring/reassuring for people well into a writing life. But I'm left wondering if people outside writing realize this is the way publishing can work. I think there's an understanding that it's a hard field to break into, but I'm not sure how many people know that just breaking in isn't necessarily getting you "in" to anything. At any stage in their careers, writers can find themselves with a decade or more of work and hurry up and wait on one project or another.
So my Picture Book Month is ending with a detour away from picture books themselves to a little coverage of the picture book writing life.
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New Yorkers are singularly single minded. It’s not enough that our city be rich, popular, and famous. We apparently are so neurotic that we need to see it EVERYWHERE. In movies, on television, and, of course, in books. Children’s books, however, get a bit of a pass in this regard. It doesn’t matter where you grow up, most kids get a bit of a thrill when they see their home city mentioned in a work of literature. Here in NYC, teachers go out of their way to find books about the city to read and study with their students. As a result of this, in my capacity as a children’s librarian I make a habit of keeping an eye peeled for any and all New York City related books for the kiddos. And as luck would have it, in the year 2013 I saw a plethora of Manhattan-based titles. Some were great. Some were jaw-droppingly awful. But one stood apart from the pack. Written by an Aussie, Herman and Rosie, author Gus Gordon has created the first picture book I’ve ever seen to successfully put its finger on the simultaneous beauty and soul-gutting loneliness of big city life. The fact that it just happens to be a fun story about an oboe-tooting croc and deer chanteuse is just icing on the cake.
Herman and Rosie are city creatures through and through. Herman is a croc with a penchant for hotdogs and yogurt and playing his oboe out the window of his 7th story home. In a nearby building, Rosie the deer likes pancakes and jazz records and singing in nightclubs, even if no one’s there to hear her. Neither one knows the other, so they continue their lonely little lives unaware of the potential soulmate nearby. One day Rosie catches a bit of Herman’s music and not long thereafter Herman manages to hear a snatch of a song sung by Rosie. They like what they hear but through a series of unfortunate events they never quite meet up. Then Herman gets fired from his job in sales and Rosie’s favorite jazz club goes belly up. Things look bad for our heroes, until a certain cheery day where it all turns around for them.
You can know a city from afar but never quite replicate it in art. I do not know how many times Gus Gordon has visited NYC. I don’t know his background here or how often he’s visited over the course of his lifetime. All I know is he got Manhattan DOWN, man! Everything from the water towers and the rooftop landscapes to the very color of the subway lines is replicated in his pitch perfect illustrations. Maybe the medium has a lot to answer for. I love the map endpapers that identify not just where Herman and Rosie live, but also where you can find a great hot dog place. I like how the art is a mix of real postcards showcasing everything from Central Park (look at the Essex House!!) to the Rose Reading Room in the main branch of New York Public Library.
But the art is far more than simply a clever encapsulation of a location. It took several readings before I could see a lot of what Gordon was up to. Here’s an example: Take a look at the two-page spread where Herman is leaving his office for the last time with all his goods in a box, while on the opposite page Rosie trudges home from the closing club, her high heeled red shoes sitting forlornly in the basket of her bike. The two images take place at different times of the day, but if you look closely you’ll see that they’re the same street corner. Yet where Herman’s New York is filled with loud angry voices and sounds, Rosie’s is near silent, a black wash representing the oncoming night. Note too that while Herman’s mailbox was a mixed media photo, Rosie’s is painted in a black wash with some crayon scribbles. It’s a subtle difference, but I love how it sort of represents how objects become less real when the lights begin to dim. And the book is just FILLED with tiny, clever details. From the pictures and instructions that grace Herman’s cubicle at work to the fact that Rosie clearly washes her clothes at home (the clothesline the runs from her bike to the old-fashioned vacuum tube television was my first clue) to Herman’s bed in the living room, Gordon is constantly peppering his book with elements that give little insights into who these two characters really are.
And that right there is the the crux of the book. Time and time again Gordon returns to this idea of how lonely it can be to live in a busy place. The idea that you can be surrounded by hundreds of thousands of people and feel as alone as if you were on a desert island is a tricky concept to convey to small fry. Herman’s whole personality, in a way, hinges on the fact that he’s terrible at his job as a telecaller because all he wants to do is talk to people on the phone, not sell them things. He longs for connection. Rosie, meanwhile, finds a certain level of connection through her singing gig. Once that gig leaves, her feelings of extreme loneliness echo Herman’s with the loss of his job. Their sole lifelines to the outside world have been severed against their wills. If this were a book for adults we’d undoubtedly also get a couple scenes of the various failed dates they fine themselves on (well, Rosie certainly… I’m not so sure that Herman’s the serial dater type). Kids understand loneliness. They get that. They’ll get this.
The book also plays on the natural inclination for a happy resolution, and the near misses when Herman almost meets Rosie and Rosie just barely misses Herman can be excruciating. You are fairly certain the two are made for one another (the natural tendencies of crocs to eat deer notwithstanding) so it can be particularly painful to see so many almost wases. This feeling is, admittedly, partly diluted by the fact that you’re not quite sure what will happen when the two DO meet. Are they going to fall in love? Well, not exactly. There may be a kind of child reader that hopes for that ending, but instead we’re given a conclusion where the two just learn to make beautiful music together, and in the course of that music happen to find financial success as well. This is New York, after all. Love’s great but a steady paycheck’s even better.
The truth of the matter is that Herman and Rosie could be set in L.A. or Minneapolis or Atlanta or even Sydney and I’d still love it as much as I do with its New York flavor, tone, and beat. It wouldn’t be exactly the same, but it’s the bones of the book that are strong. The setting is just a bonus, really. With original mixed media, a text that’s subtle and succinct, and a story that rings both true and original (for a picture book medium anyway), this is a city book, a true city book, to its core. Author Markus Zusak said the book was “Quirky, soulful and alive”. Can’t put it any better than that. What he said.
On shelves now.
Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.
Santa Claus and the Three Bears by Maria Modugno is, as you might guess from the title, a Goldilocks retelling in which the role of Goldilocks is played by none other than Santa Claus. Apart from that difference, and a northerly setting, it's pretty much a straight-up version of the story. The porridge is replaced by chocolate pudding, and there are Christmas decorations around the house. Santa apologizes for intruding and breaking Baby Bear's chair. He also leaves presents at the end, unlike that ungrateful Goldilocks. But overall, the rhythms of the story will be familiar to young readers.
I honestly wasn't sure about this blending of Goldilocks and Santa. But it actually works quite well. There's a cozy winter feel to the book, and honestly, Santa is a lot more appealing than Goldilocks any day. My three year old adores this version, and I anticipate reading it many, many times between now and Christmas.
Modugno's text, while it carries the repetition of the original story, is not sing-songy, and uses a bit of moderately advanced vocabulary. Like this:
"Papa bear was bringing in a tree from the forest,
Mama Bear was preparing Christmas pudding,
and Baby Bear was busy getting in the way.
Even though he was a baby, he was still pretty big."
"Meanwhile, Santa had finished delivering presents to everyone in the Southern Hemisphere, and he was halfway through the northern part of the world when his sleigh landed on the roof of the three bears' house."
The watercolor and gouache illustrations by Jane Dyer and Brooke Dyer are warm without being cloying. The bears are polar bears, and they are in fact pretty big (Mama and Papa are both bigger than Santa). They are quite expressive, too. Their house is lovingly decorated for the holiday, inside and out. There are some nice details, like "Papa", "Mama" and "Baby" written on their bowls, and a cozy patchwork quilt on Baby Bear's bed. My daughter's favorite picture is one that shows Baby Bear "getting in the way" while Mama makes pudding, chocolate all over his face and arms.
Santa Claus and the Three Bears would make a nice addition to anyone's collection of Christmas-themed picture books. The outlines of the story are familiar, of course, but the Christmas details lend variety, and the illustrations stand up well to repeat reads. Recommended!
Publisher: HarperCollins (@HarperChildrens)
Publication Date: September 24, 2013
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher
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Some days it seems that everything just goes wrong. That is exactly what happened one Thanksgiving for the Tappleton family. Like many families, the Tappletons look forward to a special turkey dinner with all the trimmings that they enjoy sharing with other relatives.
Unfortunately, the meal preparation doesn’t go as planned. First thing in the morning the turkey slides out the back door and plops into the pond – so no turkey! Next, the bakery runs out of pies – so no dessert! The salad vegetables have all been taken and fed to the classroom rabbits and a blender mishap ends with the mashed potatoes splattered all over the kitchen. So no trimmings! Dinner is a disaster with a capital D!
What will the Tappletons serve their hungry relatives? It could it be they discover that Thanksgiving is a whole lot more than just the traditional foods we eat.
This humorous, yet heartwarming, book is sure to be a family favorite year after year.
Yes, she's notable for that reason. But what I found interesting about her was this bit from Marcus: "The two most celebrated Argentinian writers of the twentieth century--Jorge Luis Borges and Julio Cortazar--share with Isol what the artist, in a conversation I had with her in Stockholm this May, spoke of as an Argentinian obsession with the role of chance in every aspect of life."
There's something I don't hear about at many SCBWI events.
Today I will be sending out the new issue of the Growing Bookworms email newsletter. (If you would like to subscribe, you can find a sign-up form here.) The Growing Bookworms newsletter contains content from my blog focused on children's and young adult books and raising readers. There are 1771 subscribers. I send out the newsletter once every two weeks.
Jennifer Rush: Erased (Altered series). Little Brown Books for Young Readers. Young Adult. Completed November 15, 2013. Review to come (closer to publication).
Robin Benway: Going Rogue (An AKA Novel). Walker Children's Young Adult Fiction. Completed November 23, 2013. Review to come (closer to publication).
Victoria Thompson: Murder in Chelsea (Gaslight Mystery). Berkley. Adult Mystery. Completed November 22, 2013, on MP3. This is far and away the best of the series so far. It's extremely rare for me to have to keep listening to an audio book to find out what will happen next, but I did with this book. Quite a clever ending, too. Fans of the series will not want to miss this one.
I'm currently listening to Takedown Twenty (the latest Stephanie Plum novel by Janet Evanovich) and reading Just One Evil Act, a Lynley Novel, by Elizabeth George. The latter is quite long, so I will most likely mix in some middle grade fiction and/or adult nonfiction before I'm through. (The Kindle conveniently tells me that I have ~8 hours of reading time left.)
Johanna Hurwitz: Busybody Nora (Riverside Kids). HarperCollins. Completed November 18, 2013. We read this one over several weeks, in little bits, and it is at just the right age level. I wish that the other books in the series were still in print. They are available in Kindle editions, but I prefer to read print books to my daughter at this point. We do have some checked out from the library, but because they are ones we read more slowly, I would rather own them. Perhaps a trip to the used bookstore is in order...
Wishing all of my readers from or in the U.S. a wonderful Thanksgiving holiday. I am thankful for many things this holiday season, especially for books and all of the magical things that they offer to children. Thanks for reading the newsletter, and for growing bookworms. Enjoy your holiday!
Years ago, I met a guy in a hiking group whose wife had just had a baby. When he heard I wrote children's books, he said his wife was considering writing some children's books while she was home childrearing, to generate some extra income. I didn't know how to respond to that.
Keep in mind that Melissa has written and published many books. Many, many. And many of them were written and published during the ten year period she was working on No Monkeys, No Chocolate. Projects must be juggled. Sometimes for a long time.
Last month I posted here about Barbara McClintock's presentation at UConn on the imbalance between the number of women illustrators in children's publishing and the number of women who win the Caldecott Medal. They dominate the profession but have only won 22% of the Medals, according to McClintock's figures.
Today author Laurel Snyder has a post at her blog relating to the Goodreads Best Picture Book of 2013 nominees, which are almost all written by men. (In defense of the list, this is the final round. There were more titles originally, though I have no idea how well women were represented.) She points out that the Goodreads' final round list was made by Goodreads' readers (after voting on that earlier list.) The earlier list that the final round list came from may have been determined through some kind of popularity figures available to Goodreads from its readers.
Laurel asks, "WHAT’S GOING ON? Do men actually just make better picture books than women? Do men get better marketing and publicity budgets than women for picture books? Or… as I’m beginning to fear… do we, the (largely) women who buy and blog about picture books have a tendency to elevate books by men?"
She then lists picture books published by women this past year, recommended to her by readers posting in comments.
If you are a children's litblogger who belongs to the Kidlitosphere community, that group has been discussing this issue today at its listserv.
“Mommy,” asked Rilla, “how do illustrators make books?”
She knows how the writing part happens, or at least the part of it that involves someone stalking down the hall into the kitchen, muttering, staring abstractedly into the open fridge, oblivious to questions, and then disappearing back behind a closed door in a room with books piled all over the place. She wants to know about the important part, the pictures.
I start to answer with words, as is my way, but I think better of it and, on a hunch, Google “Eric Carle interview video.” As I hoped, treasure awaited us at the other end of the search button.
ThingsI didn’t know: that Bill Martin Jr (author of Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?) couldn’t read until he was twenty! And he wrote the rhythm of his stories first, then put in the words? Astonishing.
Eric Carle speaks of his own struggles in school under a strict disciplinarian teacher. “Back then, they didn’t recognize whether you were learning disabled or whatever. But I’m sure I was.”
And all the while we’re watching him make a bear in collage. I love how he cuts out circles for the bear’s eyes and turns them into ears.
With the lightbulb logo as inspiration, I thought I’d quote Thomas Edison: “Genius is one percent inspiration, and ninety-nine percent perspiration.” So get out that deodorant and sweat away!
Now that you have a bunch of ideas, it’s time to play with them, and fail. Most of the time, we have to fail before we can succeed. Let’s face it, failure sucks. I hate failing. It’s painful. I go through cycles where I feel like a fraud and a complete loser. Some days I still want to give up. But I can’t—it’s in my blood, and yours. Writers, Artists, Scientists, Musicians, Inventors, all creators, more often get it wrong before they get it right. Failure is integral to the creative process.
Giving ourselves permission to fail is very liberating. How can we fail at writing a sh*tty first draft? The only way we can truly fail is by not writing. Not drawing that first line. Not trying. Being too afraid.
So jump right in and fail! Here are some ways to embrace failure:
Keep Kneading: Change genres/formats
I had my first close encounter with a coyote on a moonlit night in January 2007. I became obsessed with coyotes. I researched—I even interviewed a biologist for the nonfiction article I’d be submitting to Highlights. I subbed. I waited. I hoped…REJECTION. But the coyotes kept howling in my head. This failure was an opportunity to begin anew. I re-worked the article into a poetic nonfiction picture book manuscript. I submitted, got rejections, revised. Three years later it received a Barbara Karlin commendation, and helped me land the incredible Ammi-Joan Paquette as my agent. In May 2013, COYOTE MOON sold to canine lover Emily Feinberg at Roaring Brook Press—six years after the early version failed.
Marinate: Let It Sit a Bit
I’ve love raptors, especially red-tailed hawks. In 2009, Highlights rejected “Highway Hawks” because they had too many bird stories. It sat for three years before re-surfacing as PiBoIdMo idea #21 last year: convert hawks article to a haiku picture book! It didn’t end up in haiku form, but it also sold to Emily at Roaring Brook this past summer—four years after the initial rejection. And even better—it will be illustrated by the phenomenal Brian Floca!
Fold in: A New Point of View
“Terrific Tongues” began as a poem in 2004 when my then 2 ½-year-old daughter became obsessed with tongues. Tongues everywhere were greeted with the German word “Zunge” since we were then living in Berlin. Inspired by her fascination, I penned a poem for Highlights, though I never submitted it because it felt incomplete. I toiled, researched creature tongues and it evolved into a nonfiction picture book. I revised, incorporating a second person interrogative refrain that gave the story an interactive feel. Though I received some nice comments from editors on its originality and kid appeal, it continued to be rejected.
In 2008, I submitted it to the PEN New England Susan Bloom Discovery Award contest. I received the form rejection letter and filed it away. A month later I received a phone call from Judge Susan Goodman explaining that my manuscript had been a contender, but for the failure of a too-technical ending. Grateful for her encouragement, I re-worked the ending and re-subbed it to the contest in 2009 when it was one of the winners! Though the award didn’t lead to acquisition, it was how I first met Joan. This manuscript sold to Rebecca Davis at Boyds Mills Press in June 2013—nine years after the initial inspiration.
Set Aside: Take a Break and Procrastinate!
One of my all-time favorite movies is “High Fidelity,” starring John Cusack. It’s one of those rare movies that’s actually better than the book (no offense Nick Hornby!) The main character, Rob, is a charming cad who owns a record store and confesses to the camera like he’s our friend. He and his musical snob sidekicks, Dick and Barry, make “Top 5” lists for: Mondays, memorable break-ups, death. Watching the movie inspired me to insert lists into the picture book I was then revising. PENNY AND JELLY was my first sale, acquired in a two-book deal by the lovely Cynthia Platt at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt! Newcomer Thyra Heder’s humorous and warm illustrations will accompany the text.
Find inspiration in creative procrastination: watch a movie; go to a museum; explore nature; read poetry; listen to/play music; dance; garden; bake; craft. If you’re an artist, try another medium: switch sketching for sculpting; exchange knitting for painting; choose collage over clay.
Here are a few other ingredients to spice up your failing manuscripts:
Render your MC from human to animal; female to male; animate to inanimate object (or vice versa)
Mince previous PiBoIdMo ideas together to form something new
“Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time,” said Thomas Edison.
Give yourself the permission to fail—you never know what you might discover in the process! It will take time, but don’t give up! You will get there! If you’re completely passionate, perhaps even obsessed with your manuscript, all the better. This energy will give you the momentum to glide over bumps in the road.
So try that picture book text, those illustrations, just one more time. Embrace failure, and you will surely find success!
Maria is currently failing on 2012’s PiBoIdMo idea #29. She is a nature, creature and dog lover who grew up near a farm in New Hampshire climbing trees, smelling maple syrup clouds, and slapping cow patties. She now lives in northern Virginia with her German-scientist husband, Niko, their artist daughter, Anya, their Dixie Chick rescue dog, Becca, and two rescue rats, Lucia and Nera. She has three fiction picture books forthcoming: two PENNY AND JELLY books (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) as well as OFFICER KATZ AND HOUNDINI (Aladdin); and three non-fiction books: COYOTE MOON & HIGHWAY HAWKS (Roaring Brook Press) and TERRIFIC TONGUES (Boyds Mills Press). To learn more, check out her website: MariaGianferrari.com.
Maria is giving away a picture book critique!
One winner will be randomly selected at the conclusion of PiBoIdMo. You are eligible for this prize if:
Sometimes you just want a book that makes a kid belly laugh. From the moment Baby Billy makes his appearance, mustachioed from the get-go, Huck and Rilla were in stitches. As Billy grows, his mustache makes it easy for him to assume a variety of roles: cowboy, cop, painter, circus ringleader. But beware the toddler with a long, twirly, Snidely Whiplash mustache: you might have a wee villain on your hands. The surprise ending generated the biggest guffaw of all from my small fry. When Huck discovered the book had gone back to the library, he very nearly grew a bad-guy mustache on the spot. Don’t worry—just like Billy, he recovered his good-guy wits before any dastardly deeds were done. Mustache Baby will be making a repeat visit very soon.
I don’t want to talk about feelings. I don’t want to pamper you. I’m not gonna nurture your spirit. I’m not gonna help you find your happy place where ideas grow like flowers.
I want to make you work.
I want to talk about just how hard you are going to have to work if you really want to create children’s books.
I’m gonna get real here, folks. I could try to inspire you with lots of spiritual mumbo jumbo, but I’d rather kick you in the tuchus.
‘Cause that is what you need. I’m gonna be tough. I am gonna go all medieval on that butt.
I wish I could get Samuel L. Jackson to read this post to you…but this is just me, the voice of experience..sending you some tough love today.
You now have one week left of PiBoIdMo. You’ve taken on the challenge. When the month is over – don’t put down the pencil.
Never put down the pencil.
I am talking commitment on a new level.
Ten minutes a day is not going to lead to getting a book written or drawn or dummied or submitted. If that’s what you have managed to do everyday for three weeks, making children’s books may not be the job for you.
I know, I know….you’re calling me some choice words right about now. Hear me out.
This month is about coming up with ideas. Which is an important first step. What are you going to do with those ideas?
An idea is just a spark. You have to cut down the trees and chop them into logs until your blistered and bleeding and collect kindling and learned how to build the right wood pile tee-pee…to make a fire…to make that spark ignite into a blaze.
You aren’t gonna get warm with just a spark.
You are gonna freeze like a motha #$%&#%.
Don’t stop after ten minutes. Don’t stop after a month.
This is hard work. This is hours and hours of work.
If you want to get published, want it more than anything or want it more than everyone else, than this is the job for you.
Job. Not dream. Not hobby.
If you are in this for the long haul, start your haul now. You want a career in this? Act like you already have one.
Fasten your seat belts while you have your “Butt in Chair,” folks, and only get out of it to go to the john!
If you really want this, keep reading. If you think you may get to that book dummy you have had on your desk for the last two years or you might write down that idea you had four years ago that you know is genius and a best seller and the next Fancy Nancy or Diary of a Wimpy Kid and you’ll get around to it after you’ve decided “you’re ready” and you’ve taken 24 more writing workshops….you may want to stop reading now.
I’m about to get meaner.
I said you need to want this more than everyone else.
I wanted this more than you.
I wanted this so badly I was like a pitt bull. Jaws of steal clamped down on this career.
Who do you think of as the people successful in publishing?
Those people wanted to be in it more than everybody else.
They had the drive. The determination.
They were like dogs on a bone.
They write to write and draw to draw, day after day, after day.
They don’t just consider it a hard job that they love….but also consider it oxygen.
You can’t exist without oxygen. You can’t only breathe for ten minutes a day.
You are dedicating the month of November to generate picture book ideas. Dedicate the next 12 months to turning your ideas into manuscripts and book dummies.
Ideas are not delivered under your pillow by the Idea Fairy. Ideas are generated, manufactured by work. You need to be an idea factory. A word factory. An image factory.
You have to grind these ideas into something. You have to pound them into shape. You have to process them into something useful, intelligent, imaginative and appealing.
You have to billow steam and pollute your life to make something that matters.
The biggest pieces of the 1000 piece puzzle to publication are hard work, passion, believing in yourself, perseverance, persistence, patience and opportunity.
Talent—or a better word, SKILL—is the last and smallest piece of the puzzle. When all other pieces have been put in place…you need the the skills developed and ready for when opportunity knocks. Or YOU kick down the #@$@%*$ door.
You had better have the goods and be ready to work. You can only be ready if you are ALWAYS creating new work.
That’s in like, everyday.
I now work 7 days a week. 10 hours a day.
I worked hard to get here but I had no idea how much harder I would work once I got books.
So work that tuchus off this week. Don’t half-ass it.
What you have come up with this month will not be brilliant. But what you think has potential should not sit on your desk until the next PiboIdMo.
Finish it. Really, finish it. Finish one. The next one will be easier. And the next. Just finish.
Polish it. It’s no good until you rework it, over and over……..
Send it off. To a crit group. To an agent. To a editor. If you don’t submit, nothing will ever happen. Nothing. Ever. Nada. Zip. Ze-ro.
Believe in it and yourself. You are as much a work in progress as your work. Own your work where it is right now. Make no excuses for it or where you are in your development at this very moment.
The Beatles could never have made “Hey Jude” without first making “I Wanna Hold Your Hand”.
Take your work in hand and hand – it – over – to be looked at by many people who know more than you.
Move on. NEXT! Next challenge, next idea, next month, next story, next project… you are factory now, remember? DO NOT PRESS THAT BIG RED STOP BUTTON. DO NOT SHUT DOWN THE LINE.
Lather. Rinse. Repeat.
Think of me. By next PiboIdmo, I will have met 4 book deadlines working 10 hours a day, seven days a week.
I wanted it more than you. Now YOU go—beat ME at wanting it.
My inspirational foot is kicking your backside. Go to work.
Don’t make me come over there.
No Samuel L. Jacksons were harmed in the making of this post.
Kelly Light has a lot of books to work on. She is illustrator of “The Quirks” series from Bloomsbury. “Elvis and the Underdogs” from Balzer and Bray, her picture book “Louise Loves Art” is out next Fall 2014 from Balzer and Bray with more Louise books to follow, “just Add Glitter” comes out 2016 from Beach Lane Books and the hits just keep on coming…
The entire article deals with the issue of Hey, Al being signaled out for an award for children's books when its protagonist is an adult. Horning says, "...I'm not sure it's a completely satisfying story for children. Essentially, it's a retelling of their mentor's masterpiece, Where the Wild Things Are, told from the perspective of a middle-aged man."
It's not a definitive article on picture books for adults, in general. Think of it more as a variation.
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Ah, the life of an author. Writing, creating…it evokes images of stretched legs and hammocks by the sea.
Yeah, right. Sometimes I’d rather clean the toilet. Let’s face it. No matter how much we love what we do, and no matter how easily words may flow, there are days when it’s still work. To be a good writer, nay, a great writer, we are faced with days and days of less fun and more work. But hey, it’s still fun. And usually better than grabbing a scrub brush.
With an easily-distracted brain (IS THAT CHOCOLATE?), my biggest challenge is focus. When faced with a deadline or obstacle, my mind tends to freak out. It wanders about like a baby that’s just learned to crawl. (“Oh, I need to see that up close. Oh wait, there’s something shiny, was that always there? Can I eat it?”) Sometimes it sprints like an escaped prisoner and doesn’t come back for days.
When I *have*to focus, I usually can’t.
I figured I could better harness that energy by creating a blog. After all, writing is writing, right? In July I created a WordPress account and literally went live within five minutes. Then I spent 105 minutes picking out a font. Background color? Agonizing. Theme? Changed it four times. I could easily spend five hours a day refining and fine tuning to get it just right. And not one minute would be spent writing. That recently-sprung prisoner called distraction would be laughing all the way to the bank.
Creating or maintaining a blog isn’t the same thing as writing one. But you can’t do one without the other, not if you want to do it well. All the time I spent obsessing over managing formatting ate away at the time I could have spent writing it. Or better yet, working on a manuscript. There’s only so much time in a day, and we need to spend it wisely. (Oh, crap, did I just turn into my grandfather?)
Some of you are very good at writing a pithy post, hitting enter, and going back to your regularly-scheduled program. You impress me. But my brain won’t let me off that easy. “Was there an extra space after the fifth sentence? Would this look better in blue? Maybe I could take a few pictures to post along with it…hang on, I’ll grab my camera…” Next thing you know I’m knee deep in gifs and jpegs and have completely forgotten the purpose was to write.
Here’s the deal: WordPress ISN’T WHAT I DO. It’s not what defines me. Sorry, blog, I mean I like you and all, but you are not what I wake up in the morning eager to work on. You are not what I think about all day and can’t wait to work on again once the kids are asleep. You are not what kept me from falling asleep last night because of all those great story ideas resulting from an otherwise painful trip to the mall. Yes, I will tend to you, dear blog, but not at the expense of my other writing progress. I can’t hand you the steering wheel.
I set the blog up only to walk away because it aggressively detracted me from my one true love: working on my manuscripts. (To think they just waited patiently for my return! They are so good to me.) My blog is imperfect and I hate that. But sometimes “good enough” has to be, well, good enough.
Bottom line: if there is only enough time in the day to get one thing right, it’s gonna be my manuscript, not my blog. I won’t be a better writer if I use the blog as a distraction away from my “real” writing, the way I use my writing to distract me from cleaning the bathroom (honestly, you’d think it’d be spotless by now).
Maybe you can replace the word “blog” with “Facebook” or “crying baby” or something else from your own life; we all have that one big distracter that keeps us from staying on track. The trick is to fight the temptation, tame the beast, focus focus focus.
Make time for yourself, no one is going to give it to you.
Now I’m off to finish those revisions my editor needs next Thursday. Sorry, bathroom and blog, you’re gonna have to wait.
Bitsy Kemper is author of six educational picture books and one nonfiction YA that’s due 2014. Interestingly, her passion is humorous middle grade and creative, fictional picture books, but real life (or is it her blog?) has a way of interfering with finding their perfect publisher…
Busy with three kids (four if you count her husband), Bitsy has stayed focused long enough to present at writer conferences and schools from NY to CA. She’s enjoyed using her corporate background to create custom business plans for fellow writers who would rather clean toilets than market themselves. Follow her at @BitsyKemper or BitsyKemper.com.
I have read many picture books aloud to my daughter over the past 3 1/2 years. Prior to that I read books to my nieces and friends' children here and there. But until last weekend, I'd never done a read-aloud for a larger group. But when the organizers for my church's Mommy and Me group asked me if I would do a little storytime for the kids as part of one of our regular monthly playdates, I said "Of course!" How could a determined bookworm-grower refuse such an invitation?
I sought out input from my Facebook friends (many of whom are librarians and teachers). With their help, I settled on Sophie's Squash by Pat Zietlow Miller and Ann Wilsdorf and Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus by Mo Willems. (It seemed especially fitting that our copy of the Pigeon book was a baby gift from Donalyn Miller, Book Whisperer and co-founder of The Nerdy Book Club.)
The reading took place at a local park, with the kids and their moms gathered around a picnic table. And I thought that it was quite successful. The kids ranged from 18 months up to about 8. One of the older girls recited Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus along with me, line by line, which was fun. And the 18 month old hung on to every word, however much he actually understood. With Sophie's Squash, we talked about what happens when one keeps a vegetable around for too long, and I think that at least the older kids and their moms appreciated the clever and heart-warming ending. I had some good talks about children's books and reading with a couple of the moms afterward, too.
Bottom line: I do believe we'll try this again! Fun was had by all, especially me. My thanks to the Social Club of the St. Andrew Armenian Church for inviting me to read, and to Ani Yeni-Komshian for the above photo.
This is one of my older son’s favorite books right now. When we went to read it the other day, he said “Oh, I love that one!” It is good book to share with children with new siblings in the house. Unfortunately, they can relate to parents being busy with the new little one. In this story, Ruby finds ways to stay amused while mom is busy with the baby. Eventually, she gets tired of waiting and starts dreaming up ways to make her little brother disappear. Either by selling him at a yard sale or hiding him in the cabbages at the grocery store, she is determined to find a new home for him. Eventually, mom has time to play with Ruby and her new brother. Then Ruby decides that he is not so bad to have around after all. The sweet illustrations make the story even more enjoyable.
Welcome to your 19th day of PiBoIdMo, everyone! Wow, you guys are amazing, and maybe a tiny bit crazy! You’re going through with this thing! How are you doing? Are ideas coming to you? Has the well run dry? If so, here’s one I was saving for a rainy day: “alpaca inherits disused windmill.” You can have it. Don’t tell Tara!
Now freshen up your coffee because we’re going to talk about…
It’s a scam. That’s my honest two cents. I don’t even know why I put it in bold type. Here are some reasons it stinks.
The shenanigans start with a young lady in Ancient Greece. She’s 14—high time she married the aging polygamist down the road, says dad! But our girl is a step ahead of the game. She just got a job relaying divine messages from Apollo, and she has to remain a virgin for him! I don’t know about you but I’m already suspicious.
Does girlfriend get to have clandestine sex with gods? Maybe. Does she hang out in a cave breathing intoxicating fumes? Once a week, which is a good thing or a bad thing, depending on how you feel about vaping. She’s the most revered figure in ancient Greek society. That means gold jewelry, fancy dinners and spa days. And she’s free to speak gibberish, which handlers translate for her credulous visitors: “She said ‘you may never not defeat the Spartans/why does this lamb stew taste so amazing?’”
Sure, Apollo told her to say that. I almost forgot: she gets three months’ vacation. No surprise oracles started popping up on every corner. I’m declaring it the world’s first really great grift.
If you’re picturing the rock band from Detroit with a singing drummer, I’m not talking about them. They’re legit. I’m talking about the artists and writers of late 18th and early 19th-century Europe. They were obsessed with finding inspiration, especially after a juicy excerpt from William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience ran in Marie Claire’s September 1794 issue.
According to the Romantics, artists harness the divine when they create their work. Not everyone can do it, though. God only talks to geniuses! How did that theory serve our creative forebears? It justified chronic procrastination. It was also good for starting drunken fights about who’s a genius and who isn’t. And it was a compelling argument when begging your dentist for opium, as you see in the following historical exchange:
PERCY SHELLEY: I wish I had more opium.
SHELLEY’S DENTIST: I’m sorry, Lord Shelley, I cannot responsibly give you any more opium.
SHELLEY: I guess you don’t want me to realize my genius.
(SHELLEY’S DENTIST sighs, gives SHELLEY more opium.)
I apologize if I’m bursting anyone’s bubble with this. I just want you to be aware that a person who goes on about inspiration is hoping to rob you or use you to get drugs. Does this apply to my fellow guest-bloggers? I don’t know them all personally, but I’m going to say yes. Maybe not Jane Yolen, she’s a hard worker. It’s certainly true of the illustrators. You’re better off trusting a carney.
So where does this leave you? At your desk, where you belong! And when you lack an idea? My advice is, have a sandwich. Take a nap. Try again tomorrow. Stay away from gods and dentists. Listen to Jane Yolen.
I received It's a Book by Lane Smith for my birthday. I recall it getting a lot of attention when it was published in 2010, and I can remember something else, too, though I'm having some trouble putting my finger on it. Was there just a little bit of controversy over this thing? Maybe because of the text on the last page? Because some considered it too adult?
I think the whole book is kind of adult. It's all about a monkey trying to get through to a jackass that a book is a book, not an electronic device. The whole issue of children being too plugged in too early seems to be a very adult concern to me, not one that children are even aware of. You could make the argument that that is the point, to make children see this before they become too enamored of electronics. But if kids haven't yet become enamored of electronics will they understand terms like "text," "tweet," and "Wi-Fi?"
There's an overt message in It's a Book, I think, one that adult readers concerned about keeping reading a traditional book-centered activity will embrace. That's okay. I'm a big fan of picture books for adults. In fact, it could be a fun read-aloud for them with their little ones. I don't know how many young picturebook readers will get this on their own, though.
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I call the agents who participate in PiBoIdMo “agent prizes”, but let me make one thing clear: you do not get to bring them home with you.
Oh, sure, I know how you’d love to cuddle up with an agent, dress them in adorable footie pajamas and read them bedtime stories, but alas, they are remaining in their respective homes. For now. Who knows? If they really LOVE your ideas, maybe they’d like to snuggle beside you? But I digress…
At the conclusion of PiBoIdMo, on December 1st, I will post the “PiBo Pledge”. Leave a comment on the pledge post if you have completed the challenge with at least 30 ideas. You do not have to submit those ideas to prove that you have them. You’re on the honor system. It’s OK, I trust you.
If you have “signed” the pledge by commenting AND you had also registered, then you are eligible for an “agent prize”—a.k.a. THE GRAND POOBAH OF PRIZES. You will get your 5 best ideas evaluated by a kidlit agent. They’ll tell you which ideas might be the best ones to pursue as manuscripts. (Or not.)
Don’t worry–you’ll get a few days to pick your 5 best ideas and flesh them out before sending to your assigned agent.
This year we have EIGHT EXCELLENT AGENTS participating! This means there are EIGHT GRAND PRIZES! I hope to add more, but these are who we have thus far.
Now…let me introduce you…let me make you smile… (wait, that’s let me entertain you…oopsie…but I bet you’re smiling anyway)…
Joan is a Senior Agent with EMLA, working from her home office in Massachusetts as the “East Coast branch” of the agency. She represents all forms of children’s and young adult literature, but is most excited by a strong lyrical voice, tight plotting with surprising twists and turns, and stories told with heart and resonance that will stand the test of time.
An EMLA client herself, Joan is also the author of numerous books for children, most recently the picture books Ghost in the House (Candlewick, 2013) and Petey and Pru and the Hullabaloo (Clarion, 2013), and the novels Paradox (Random House, 2013) and Rules for Ghosting (Walker, 2013). When she is not on the phone, answering email, or writing, you will most likely find Joan curled up with a book. Or baking something delicious. Or talking about something delicious she’s baked. Really, after books and food, what else is there worth saying?
You can read more about Joan’s writing and agenting process here.
Tricia is the “Pacific Northwest branch” of EMLA—born and raised in Oregon, and now lives in Seattle. After 18 years of working as a developmental and production-based editor (from kids book to college textbooks, but mostly college textbooks), she joined the EMLA team in March 2011 as a social media strategist.
As associate agent, Tricia represents picture books/chapter books that look at the world in a unique and unusual way, with characters that are alive both on and off the page, and middle grade and young adult fiction and nonfiction that offers strong worldbuilding, wounded narrators, and stories that grab a reader and won’t let go.
Tricia loves hiking, camping out in the woods, and collecting rocks. She loves BBC America and anything British. She has way too many books and not enough bookshelves. You can find Tricia’s writing about blogging, Tweeting, Facebooking, and other social media topics (for authors and the publishing industry at large) here and here.
Marietta Zacker, Nancy Gallt Literary Agency
Marietta has experienced children’s books from every angle—teaching, marketing, publishing & bookselling. She thrives on working with authors who make readers feel their characters’ emotions and illustrators who add a different dimension to the story. She is also book curator at an independent toy store/bookstore. Read a recent publishing industry piece by Marietta here.
Danielle Smith, Foreword Literary
Danielle Smith began her agent career at Foreword Literary Agents in 2013 where she represents picture books and middle grade authors and illustrators. Her enthusiasm for children’s literature began as a young child, but grew exponentially when her own two children were born and shortly thereafter she began reviewing books at her top rated children’s book review site There’s A Book. For more than five years she’s been involved professionally with books through print and online publications such as Women’s World and Parenting Magazine, as a member of the judging panel for The Cybils awards for fiction picture books, as well as locally by serving on the board of The Central Coast Writer’s Conference.
Danielle is also a writer, represented by Pam van Hylckama Vlieg for her middle grade novel The Protectorate. She’s a member of SCBWI and can frequently be found on Twitter talking about anything from children’s books to the BBC’s Sherlock to her own parenting woes & joys.
Mira Reisberg came to launch Hummingbird Literary following a 25-year history in the field of children’s literature working as an award-winning illustrator, a writer, editor, art director, designer, a children’s literature and art education professor, and a teacher/mentor to many now successful children’s book creatives.
Her mission is to successfully represent all age-levels to create wonderful books that bring meaning and/or joy to children’s and young adult lives. Hummingbird Literary will have a limited number of clients so that Mira and her team can focus on building long-term careers and fruitful relationships.
Susan Hawk represents authors who write for children of all ages, babies to teenage.
Susan comes to TBA from Children’s Book Marketing, where she worked for over 15 years, most recently as the Marketing Director at Henry Holt Books for Young Readers, and previous to that as the Library Marketing Director at Penguin Young Readers Group. She’s also worked as a children’s librarian and a bookseller.
Susan handles books for children exclusively: picture books, chapter books, middle grade and YA, fiction and non-fiction. She wants a book to stay with her long after she finishes reading, and she’s looking for powerful, original writing. She’s open to mystery, scifi, humor, boy books, historical, contemporary (really any genre). Her favorite projects live at the intersection of literary and commercial. In non-fiction she’s looking for books that relate to kid’s daily lives and their concerns with the world. In picture books, she’s looking particularly for author-illustrators, succinct but expressive texts, and characters as indelible as her childhood favorites Ferdinand, Madeline and George and Martha.
Lori Kilkelly is an agent with Rodeen Literary Management, founded by Paul Rodeen, formerly of Sterling Lord Literistic, in 2009. After working in sales for a number of years, Lori decided to follow her passion for books. She attended the Denver Publishing Institute, subsequently joining the agency as an intern in early 2010. Ascending the ranks from intern and reader to assistant, she worked with current and potential clients as well as editors and publishers. In early 2012 Lori took on the role of Social Media Manager, creating and maintaining the Rodeen Literary Facebook page as well as Twitter and Pinterest accounts, to provide promotional opportunities for RLM clients as well as keep interested parties informed about books, news and events involving RLM. In December 2012 she began representing her first client, Toni Yuly, and has subsequently taken on an additional four clients. She represents authors as well as illustrators and is actively seeking talented Middle Grade and Young Adult writers.
Please visit here for more on Lori and Rodeen Literary.
Sean McCarthy, McCarthy Literary
Sean McCarthy began his publishing career as an editorial intern at Overlook Press and then moved over to the Sheldon Fogelman Agency. He worked as the submissions coordinator and permissions manager before becoming a full-time literary agent. Sean graduated from Macalester College with a degree in English-Creative Writing, and is grateful that he no longer has to spend his winters in Minnesota.
He is drawn to flawed, multifaceted characters with devastatingly concise writing in YA, and boy-friendly mysteries or adventures in MG. In picture books, he looks more for unforgettable characters, off-beat humor, and especially clever endings. He is not currently interested in high fantasy, message-driven stories, or query letters that pose too many questions.
You can visit Sean here and follow him on Twitter here for his thoughts on publishing news, the inevitable hipsterfication of Astoria, and the Mets’ starting lineup.
Yay! So those are our agents, folks.
Now I should end on a humorous note, but you know, running PiBoIdMo just wipes the witty right outta me sometimes.
For me, ideas rarely spring to life like Athena leaping from Zeus’s forehead. When I intentionally push my imagination up against the wall, patting it down for inspiration, I get nowhere but frustrated. But I have discovered five ways to slip into the back door of The House of Inspiration.
I was delivering the annual library orientation to my primary classes. That involved repeating the same lesson 23 times. “I wish there was a book we could share that detailed the procedures in a fun way,” I thought.
Weeks later, we were acting out the choruses of We’re Going on a Bear Hunt when it struck me. I could write an orientation book called We’re Going on a Book Hunt! The structure of the classic rhyme was a ready framework for my own bouncy tale about a class of bears who learn to use the library, complete with original choruses.
You aren’t likely to think of ideas no one has ever considered before. But you can tweak the tried-and-true to make them your own. Library shelves are home to a plethora of piggy-backed productions—Little Red Cowboy Hat and The Wolf Who Cried Boy are two more.
2. Get Emotional
My two-year-old granddaughter wanted to help make a shopping list. As I said peanut butter, eggs, bread, she made a squiggle for each. When I added tiger toes, monkey milk, and boo-boo fruit, she calmly added each to the list. Her bit-lip intensity and self-confidence charmed me. That emotional *ping* signaled to me that this incident was worth writing down.
Negative emotions *ping* as well. Recently, we received a fancy invitation to the anniversary party of a couple I didn’t know. But my husband said he was a great guy, new to their golf group. So we went. We gave them a gift, signed their bridal book, and shared a lovely dinner with a table of strangers. When we finally asked someone to point out the special couple, we realized that neither of us knew them! How did we get invited?! As we slipped out undetected, I was confused and embarrassed. *Ping!* I converted this emotional incident into a nugget for PiBoIdMo.
Build a stockpile of emotional *pings* in your notebook. Cull them from real life and from your memories. An emotional connection helps kids identify with your character. But it can be difficult to generate while pressured by a blinking cursor. Stored episodes of affection, anger, admiration, embarrassment, etc. can be the yeasty starter for developing similar emotions in your work.
3. Mother of Invention
One January, my first grade teachers asked if there was a book about making New Year’s resolutions. I searched area libraries and publisher catalogs without success. Then it dawned on me that I could write that book. Two years later, I was able to supply them with Squirrel’s New Year’s Resolution in which a rookie squirrel learns about making resolutions from her friends.
Necessity is the mother of books about gluten allergies, bullies, gay parents, and overseas adoptions. Be alert when you hear (or think) “I wish there was a book about…” When I told my grown daughter I was working on this post, she said, “I wish there was a book about an Advent calendar that came to life.” I may never write it, but I added her wish to my notebook. My husband still wishes I would write a book about famous brothers. It’s in there.
On the last page of every issue of The SCBWI Bulletin, Libby Nelson compiles a librarian wish list of fiction and nonfiction topics. One of those needs could become the mother of your next brilliant inspiration.
4. Carry a Net
One year I was coaxing my kindergarteners to guess what special day was coming up. They made random incorrect guesses, so I gave them a clue.
“It’s the day when an animal pops out of its hole to look for its shadow.”
Blank looks. These were Texas five year-olds. There are no wild groundhogs in the entire state. Then an earnest little boy waved his hand, blurting, “I know this one!”
“Great! What animal pops out of his hole next week?” I asked.
“The armadillo!” he proudly announced.
Not quite. I went on to explain about Groundhog Day, but as soon as the class left the library, I scurried into my office to record the exchange. Three years later, that conversation inspired my first children’s book, Substitute Groundhog.
My new smart phone takes dictation, but I find small tablets to be more versatile. (It’s creepily obvious if you dictate into your phone while eavesdropping.) I have little tablets in my purse, my gym bag, my car, and my kitchen. I even have a waterproof one in the shower—my best place for getting ideas. Tablets help me capture inspirations before they fly away.
5. Plant Bulbs
I read a great gardening tip about using golf tees to mark where you plant bulbs so you don’t accidentally plant over them. Bulbs look like rocks. You plant them. Water them. Then wait. And wait. Eventually you forget about them (hence the golf tees), and go about your life. One day–surprise! Leaf tips, followed in quick order by stems, buds and gorgeous flowers.
We were touring the Boston harbor when our guide waved his arm vaguely to the north and said, “Over there is the grave of the guy who invented the doughnut hole.” I jotted that fact in my little purse notebook. Later, I transferred it to my Idea Notebook where it sat for two years until I took it to the Highlights Nonfiction Workshop. There I began my research. Six months later, I wrote the manuscript as my first for Julie Hedlund’s 12×12. Her February agent requested to represent it. In July, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt acquired The Hole Story of the Doughnut.
How easily I could have let the tour guide’s remark fly away on the wind off the harbor. A quick jot in my notebook, and it was safely planted. You never know which homely idea will germinate when least expected, nurtured by future life experiences or eyes that see it in a different light later.
Reinvent the books or songs that you love. Record emotional situations and capitalize on needs around you. Keep your mental nets ready. Stash your tablets. And faithfully plant your ideas. Then you’ll gain ready admission into The Big House.
Pat was a school librarian for 22 years—the perfect job for a children’s writer. Her Substitute Groundhog received 33 rejections before the euphoric phone call from Albert Whitman. It went on to become a Junior Library Guild Book, a Scholastic Book Club selection with CD, an e-book hybrid from Weigl, and translated into French for Canadian Groundhog Day. Besides her books for children, Pat has written 20 for school librarians and is Contributing Editor for LibrarySparks magazine. Pat loves doing school visits as an author and storyteller. Visit her at PatMillerBooks.com and check out her blog at PatMillerBooks.com/blog. Comment there on her latest post to win another chance for a critique.
Pat is generously giving away two prizes!
The first—pick one of her three children’s book—with audio CD. If you win, it will be personalized to your favorite reader.
The second is a picture book critique.
Two winners will be randomly selected at the conclusion of PiBoIdMo. You are eligible for this prize if:
When Picture Books and Adult Literature Collide at Cultivating Culture deals with the issue of picture books for adult readers, which I was talking about yesterday. It doesn't go into the subject very deeply, covering mainly parodies (I have a copy of Goodnight iPad) and adult writers writing picture books. It doesn't address straight picture books written on subjects of interest to adults rather than children or using vocabulary or a voice that adults will appreciate more than children will.
I hope that before the end of Picture Book Month I'll find some more on this subject.
I can’t really begin to pinpoint where my inspiration comes from. When people ask where I get my ideas, I don’t tend to have an answer ready. Ideas just seem to leap into my head out of nowhere. My best guess is that there’s some faulty wiring in my brain. That’s most likely due to the regular “thumpings” my older brother gave me on a daily basis as we were growing up. Perhaps he knocked a few screws loose.
I can get inspired by all sorts of things. Some of my best ideas pop into my mind when I’m driving down the highway with no music on, just daydreaming. Or when I’m laying in bed drifting off to sleep. If I had music blaring inside the truck, the lyrics would be too distracting and I’d just end up singing along with them. At home, when I’m locked away in my studio, I do listen to music. But it’s usually jazz, classical or new age. Anything that doesn’t have words blasting into my mind. I want all of the words that are rushing through my head to be my own.
I OBSERVE. By that, I mean I tend to truly look at everything around me. If I’ve hiked miles away from civilization and I’m sitting on a mountaintop watching a hawk fly above me, I’m usually thinking “Oh….THAT’S how their wings are shaped when they’re drifting!” and I incorporate that into my work later. You may sometimes see me sitting in a mall somewhere, and it will appear that I’m gawking at people passing by. Sometimes I stare. But what’s actually going through my mind is “So, that’s how the wrinkles on a coat look when someone bends their arm” or “What a crazy hat! I need to remember that and draw it later.”
I also LISTEN. When other people are talking, I really want to hear what they have to say. Their problems, their frustrations and the things that make them laugh. Because, after all, any of those conversations can be the foundation of an idea for a book or a cartoon. Inspiration is all around us, and we just need to learn how to harness it in our own way.
For instance, a friend was recently telling me that he was concerned that his wife was thinking of getting rid of him. On my ride home, the idea for a cartoon about that popped into my head and I drew it the next day.
Yet another acquaintance was complaining about having trouble getting to sleep. As I was approaching my cabin later that night, a raccoon darted across my path. Those two subjects merged in my mind, and another cartoon was born.
The process of creating books and cartoon ideas are very similar. It’s just that cartoons are compressed into images and thoughts that can be expressed quickly, while books use pictures and words to give a longer, more complete story.
But, like everyone else involved in creative endeavors, there are those days where I’m stopped dead in my tracks by a severe case of “writer’s block”. What do I do then? Well, sometimes I give myself a break, walk away from my work and let my batteries recharge. But if I’m faced with a tight deadline, whether it’s self-imposed or from contractual obligations, I do have a backup plan. I use a technique taught to me by another successful cartoonist when I was young. I take a sheet of notebook paper and divide it into columns. The columns are labelled “Main Character”, “Setting”, and “Supporting Characters”. I fill the columns with all sorts of possibilities, then either close my eyes and randomly circle sections from each column or I simply pick combinations that I think might work. This creates unique combinations I may not have thought about otherwise, and can help trigger new ideas and possibilities.
Cartoonists, like authors, are doing the same thing as a movie director. They created a cast, give them their lines and put them in the right surroundings.
Here’s an example of the chart:
Once one of the combinations begins to trigger ideas, I roll with it….trying to think of what the characters might be saying to each other or how they would be interacting. This method would probably work just as nicely for inspiring writers as it for helping cartoonists. I ask myself what the characters would have in common, or what issues they might be struggling with. And here are the results of combining a dog, a restaurant and a woman on a date:
So, my creative process is very similar to approaching a railroad crossing. Stop. Look. And listen!
Sometimes it results in wonderful inspiration. And other times it results in a train wreck. If the latter happens, I just dust myself off, tuck that idea away for a different time and start on another.
As the late great cartoonist Gil Foxx once wrote in a book he signed to me, “Persist. Over…..and over….and over…and over.” Just keep chugging away, and eventually you are bound to end up on the right track.
Another great source of inspiration can be your editor. (Or an agent, if you have one.) Something I think that many writers and artists tend to forget is that your editor is your best friend. They’re your teammate. You both have the same goal. You are both trying to develop the best product possible. I know quite a few people who like to argue with their editors when they’re given input, because they feel a bit insulted that someone is trying to change part of their creation.
I’ve never looked at it that way. I have been blessed with the opportunity to work with some of the finest editors in the field, and I would always listen to their suggestions because I knew they had my best interests at heart.
Do you know that Maurice Sendak had originally intended to call Where the Wild Things Are something totally different? Yup. He was going to title it Land of the Wild Horses. But when he started working on the illustrations, he realized that he wasn’t very good at drawing horses. It was his editor’s suggestion to change it to “WIld Things”, inspired by a Yiddish expression that referred to boisterous children.
Can you imagine the world of children’s literature without Where the Wild Things Are in it? I can’t. And it may never have happened if he hadn’t been willing to collaborate closely with his editor.
Christina Richards, my editor at IMPACT Books, edited my books perfectly and seamlessly. By the time I received the galley proofs for Draw Crazy Creatures, I could not tell which words were mine and which ones were hers. She had removed unnecessary and redundant text during the editing process, and had made minor changes to some of my sentences that had a major impact on them. A major impact that made them better. She made the book flow smoothly.
So I’d highly recommend that folks in the creative end of this business open themselves up to constructive criticism, helpful suggestions and any input from the editorial staff they are working with. These people are in the positions they are in because they know what they are doing. They are the inspiration behind the scenes, and when they’re done helping you, they will have played a huge role in making you and your work shine.
Steve’s cartoons have appeared in a variety of newspapers and magazines, including “The Complete Idiot’s Guides” and the “Chicken Soup for the Soul” series. He’s also done a lot of art for a wide variety of educational products and publications. You can take a peek at some of his work on his website SteveBarrCartoons.com.
Steve is giving away two signed copies of Draw Crazy Creatures!
Two winners will be randomly selected at the conclusion of PiBoIdMo. You are eligible for this prize if:
I must confess that when I first received Back to Bed, Ed! by Sebastien Braun, I didn't fully appreciate it (and didn't review it). This was back in early 2010, when I was pregnant with my daughter (my first and only child). A picture book about a boy (well, a mouse) who keeps getting into his parents' bed, and the solution that his family finds for the problem, well, it seemed a bit ... slight to that pre-parent me. But NOW, 3 1/2 years later, I have come to consider Back to Bed, Ed! necessary and relevant. Now that I have a child who climbs into my bed multiple times a night, I can appreciate how spot-on Braun's work is. (Or at least I would be able to appreciate it if I wasn't so tired all the time.)
In fact, my plan for tonight is to copy Ed's parents' solution. Since this is a picture book, I'm not going to worry too much about spoilers, so I'll tell you. After many nights of being woken up (and kept awake) by Ed, his parents hang a "Closed" sign on the door. When he gets out of bed, he is stopped by the sign from entering their room. His dad walks him back to his room, where he gathers up all his stuffed animals into his bed and tells them "There's no need to be scared. I'm here now." (Image created by me, though similar to the one in the book.)
My daughter loves Back to Bed, Ed!, and she was actually the one to suggest the "Closed" sign (she's much braver by daylight than she is at night). We're going to bring all of her stuffed animals up from the playroom, and put them nearby, so that she can gather them into her bed, just like Ed does. I can only hope that life will imitate art.
For those of you facing a similar problem (or anticipating the possibility of facing a similar problem), Back to Bed, Ed! is an essential book for any preschooler's home library. The reactions of Ed's (tired) parents are spot-on. Braun's illustrations are a mix of realistic (groggy parents spilling cereal on the table) and fanciful (the monsters that Ed imagines following him into the bedroom).
Nothing in Back to Bed, Ed! is actually scary. The monsters look like friendly dinosaurs, and the night-time background colors are blues and purples, rather than the inky blacks of Lemony Snicket & Jon Klassen's The Dark. Jammie-clad Ed, clutching his stuffed bunny, is determined, then sad, and then, ultimately, pleased with himself.
I kept Back to Bed, Ed! around, even when I didn't really anticipate needing it, because I found Ed a likeable character. Now, he's practically a member of my family, and I highly recommend this book for anyone struggling to keep a preschooler in bed. It is still in print, with a paperback coming out in February, which suggests that I am not alone in my assessment.
Wish me luck!
Publisher: Peachtree Publishers (@PeachtreePub)
Publication Date: February 1, 2010
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher
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