By Annie Cronin Romano
“Where’s Papa going with that ax?” said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.
“Out to the hoghouse,” replied Mrs. Arable. “Some pigs were born last night.”
“I don’t see why he needs an ax,” continued Fern, who was only eight.
As you probably know, the above excerpt is the opening of E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, a classic in children’s literature. When I was a child, it was one of my favorite books. When I read the first page and realized those cute little piglets could be in danger, I kept reading. Fern’s concern about a threat to the piglets is established right away, and I had to find out if and how Fern could stop this horror from occurring. I was hooked. The same goes for picture books I love. I’m compelled to read past the first page in picture books whose openings create a strong curiosity about a situation:
On a cold afternoon, in a cold little town,
where everywhere you looked was either the white of snow
or the black of soot from chimneys,
Annabelle found a box filled with yard of every color.
In these first lines of Mac Barnett’s Extra Yarn (illustrated by Jon Klassen), I was pulled in by my wonder of how this colorful yarn was going to affect the plain little town.
Although both these examples of opening lines grabbed me quickly, others may need to read further to know a book is a keeper. In novels, authors have some time to lure the reader in. A writer of longer works can take a few paragraphs to set the tone, or even a few pages to a chapter or so to bait the reader into the character’s voice or world. But in picture books, you have the first page. You’ve got to hook ‘em fast and come out swinging. It’s vital to the life of your story. Be it picture books or novels, if the author doesn’t capture the reader early on, the chance of losing the reader increases. A lot.
But what elements make a strong hook? What is it that pulls the reader in? To help you with examining your openings, I am going to give you an assignment. Don’t worry. There’s no exam at the end. I’ll use the honor system!
This exercise can help clarify what makes a strong hook and what doesn’t. Study the first pages of other works to help make your book’s opening the strongest and sharpest hook it can be. Then reel ‘em in!
~ By Amanda Smith
February 24 was World Read Aloud Day. As part of my second grader’s class activities, parents and other guests were invited to read to the students. Even though I had only 15 minutes, I arrived with arms full of my favorite picture books to share with these excited little ones. What a glorious start to my day!
I had a diverse selection of books, but it soon became clear which ones got the kids’ attention. This caused me to ponder: What makes a great read-aloud book?
Josh Funk, author of LADY PANCAKE AND SIR FRENCH TOAST, and PIRASAURS! once said that a picture book is actually a performance piece. If you think about it, most picture books are read aloud by adults to children. And following this logic, picture books should thus have clear stage directions. As writers, how do we cue our readers?
We have all read books where the voice of a character is so clear, you know exactly how it is supposed to sound. How can one read SKIPPYJON JONES ( Judy Schachner) without one’s muy muy mejor Spanish accent? Or not use one’s Mr. Miyagi voice for Master Zutzu in WINK, THE NINJA WHO WANTED TO BE NOTICED ( J.C. Phillips) ? “The Loudest cricket is the first to be caught.” The cadence and rhythm of the language itself directs the reading.
Sometimes, as in UNICORN THINKS HE’S PRETTY GREAT (Bob Shea), the typography gives clues as to where the accent should be. Printing Unicorn’s words in rainbow colors with little sparklies around them, brings out the sweetest of voices from the reader and helps distinguish between Unicorn and Goat’s voices in places where dialogue isn’t tagged. In WOLFIE THE BUNNY (Amy Dyckman), Dot’s desperate “He’s going to eat us all up!” is emphasized by using bigger capitalized words. Even a non-reader will look at that text and know Dot is yelling.
Punctuation is another tool a writer can use to direct the reading. Tara Lazar’s THE MONSTORE starts like this: “At the back of Frankensweet’s Candy Shoppe, under the last box of sour gum balls, there is a trap door.
Knock five times, hand over a bag of squirmy worms, and you can crawl inside…
All those commas, those stacked phrases, the ellipse, and the use of the power of three (times two) masterfully build so much tension on the very first page, that by the page turn, your kid will be in your lap. And you will be reading in your very best horror-movie trailer voice.
Other times the stage directions come in the form of negative space. Negative space in language is created by pauses and silence. In RAGWEED’S FARM DOG HANDBOOK (Anne Vittur Kennedy), the humor of the delivery lies in the variation of long and short sentences. The short sentences (“Pigs lie in the mud all day and get bigger and BIGGER. That’s their job. That’s not your job. Don’t lie in the mud. Mud is lovely.”) allow for a deadpan delivery. As we know, comedy is all about timing and Kennedy brilliantly helps her readers deliver that timing with her sentence structure.
Whether it is voice, cadence and rhythm, typography, rhyme, negative space, or punctuation, these tools help readers read our books the way we intended. This is why it is so important to read our works in progress aloud. And to read books in print aloud. And to read aloud to children, bringing printed language to life.
I will be more aware of these tools as I work on my own manuscripts and hopefully, one day, they will become great read-alouds. In the meantime, is there a job where I can just read aloud to kids?
by Francine Puckly
24 Carrot Writing welcomes picture book writer Donna Mae, author of MARSHMALLOWS GALORE (illustrated by Brandon Fall) and THE WOOLY ADVENTURES OF PURL (illustrated by Valeria Issa).
Thank you, Donna, for taking the time for this interview and congratulations on the release of your second book, THE WOOLY ADVENTURES OF PURL. Can you start off by telling our readers a little bit about the development of this story idea?
Certainly. The idea for the story blossomed while I was knitting. It’s a very focused and present-moment hobby, almost like meditation. I recalled how difficult knitting seemed when my Mom taught me. When I got the hang of it, I didn’t want to stop. I loved it. The idea of a little girl being obsessed with knitting (as most knitters can be) seemed like such a fun idea for a children’s book. So we see what happens when a little girl receives knitting needles and a pet lamb for her sixth birthday!
Why did you choose self-publishing over the traditional publishing route?
I am in the 6th decade of my life, and I knew getting traditionally published could be a lengthy process. Actually, someone at my critique group said she knew an older writer who wanted to get published but decided to do it herself because “she needed a book before she died”! It was funny but at the same time it resonated with me.
Self-publishing isn’t for everyone. What do you feel has been the key to your success as a self-published author?
People want to try self-publishing because they think it’s an easy road. Print on demand gets them on Amazon without a lot of out-of-pocket expenses. My intention, however, was to have a hardcover children’s book with jacket. I knew Barnes & Noble could pick it up if it was worthy and looked professional. On-demand sites only print paperback, so that was not an option for me.
I really believed that for me, taking fear and doubt out of the equation would make everything work smoothly. I took a whole visualization approach--I visualized my book on the shelves of Barnes & Noble. Together with my intention as well as meeting the requirements, it has worked for me.
But self-publishing is not for everyone. You have to be willing to do the work. Staying open to possibilities is key. I think my thoughts and attitude jettisoned me through the process. One example is that this fall I was part of a vendor/craft fair at a school in Holden. My sales were so-so, but I looked at it in a positive way. I accepted the day and knew anything could come from it. One of the teachers from the school bought my books and loved them, and a week later I got an opportunity to showcase my book for an author visit! Put yourself out there. Don’t allow frustration to stop you. Keep a positive attitude. Believe in yourself.
How did the publishing process for THE WOOLY ADVENTURES OF PURL differ from that of MARSHMALLOWS GALORE?
I took the same steps with both my books, yet different illustrators and their expertise made each process unique. My first book, MARSHMALLOWS GALORE, was illustrated by Brandon Fall, an experienced, talented illustrator from Colorado. His work background had been in film illustration at Disney. He had illustrated many children’s books before mine and was able to give me some much-needed advice and direction. I learned about page turn and illustrating excitement and all about single- and double-page spreads. My second book, THE WOOLY ADVENTURES OF PURL, was illustrated by Valeria Issa, a young professional woman living in London. The language, of all things, created a little challenge. We did a lot of laughing as some of the terms we use are not translated the same in England versus the United States. Also, the five-hour time difference was a little tricky. Additionally, sending my books to print proved a different experience. When you, your illustrator, and the printing company are all on different time zones, it takes patience and persistence to get the product finalized.
How do you market your books? And do you have any marketing advice for other authors?
Out-of-the–box thinking is crucial. New and unique ideas for events and school visits make the difference. True, being shelved in Barnes & Noble has given me access to in-store readings and posted events, but the possibilities to market a book are endless. Here’s a short list of what I’ve done and would recommend:
You have to be creative and take risks if you want to succeed. Stay positive! Miracles happen in common hours!!!
How is your writing week structured? Do you set weekly writing goals or targets?
I take a very gentle approach to my writing and try not to beat myself up if I don’t meet a target goal. Meditating helps me focus and come up with story ideas. When I get ideas I write them down, and I revisit them often to see what might make more sense to me this time compared to last. I come up with ideas often. I write weekly. And I’m always working on the next project. Staying focused has become second nature. (Finally!)
You said in a recent radio interview that you had an epiphany in 2005 to “make your life work.” Can you tell us a little bit about how that impacted your life and your writing?
As a person, I was quiet and shy on the inside but a little loud and bold on the outside. My inside and outside didn’t match. My epiphany was the realization that my life needed fine-tuning. I needed to make my life work. I wasn’t sure what that meant but I was so filled with joy that I started writing. I wrote every day. I wrote sweet rhyming poems about my husband and my children and everything in between. I wrote a funny poem about the Red Sox and it got published. I wrote a poem for a famous roadside lobster shack in Maine and sent it to them. A year later, the senior editor at Downeast magazine emailed me to ask if they could put my poem in a book. It was at that moment I revisited an old dream of mine. A “knowing” that had been told to me when I was a young mother. “Someday you will write children’s books.” Just like that. I know it sounds crazy but that is exactly how it happened for me.
I joined SCBWI, read books on writing for children, read blogs and turned to social media to see what other authors were doing. I was welcomed into my critique group. I felt like a duck out of water but forced myself to keep at it no matter what. My new self was blossoming and I needed to find where it might take me. So, thanks girls for believing in me when I wasn’t sure I believed in myself!
I know that you are a member of SCBWI and participate in an SCBWI critique group. How does peer feedback factor into your writing process?
My peer feedback is essential to my writing. They offer up all their years of knowledge and expertise. So, from having zero books to self-publishing two children’s books, you can say they are my lifeline.
I get so much more than I can give. I’m still in awe of the fact that they have welcomed me into the group. We all come to this wondrous world of writing with many different backgrounds. Some have been writing for 10 years while others have been writing as far back as they can remember. But we all have something of value to offer.
Which picture book writers have inspired you and your creative work?
As a young mother reading to my own children, we loved Shel Silverstein, Dr. Seuss, and anything that rhymed. For whatever reason, it’s rhyming that I write and love. It’s comfortable. It’s like putting a puzzle together—you have to make the pieces fit.
What advice do you have for beginning writers?
Read, read, read. Join SCBWI, go to conferences, listen and learn. Know that everyone has his/her own special voice in which to tell a story. But most of all, remember there’s room for everyone. Stay positive, work hard, believe in yourself and never look back!
Find out more about Donna Mae at www.donnamaeauthor.com.
Donna will be back later this spring to talk about book videos and trailers and other forms of book promotion. Check out her MARSHMALLOWS GALORE video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8F7AMRRsRCc
by Annie Cronin Romano
So often we start a project with an idea, a glowing nugget of inspiration, and we decide immediately the kind of book it will be. It's going to be a picture book. Yes, definitely a picture book…about flying sandwiches. Excellent! Off we go!
We brainstorm, diagram, scribble, and plot. We develop our characters, our setting, and our pacing. We draft a beautifully crafted 550 word picture book about sandwiches that fly and submit it to our critique group.
And they tell us it should be a middle grade novel. About a food fight.
Why should we turn our picture book draft into a novel? Do we have to? Our critique group is not the boss of us, after all! True. True. But consider the reasons behind the suggestion. Is it because the setting or topic would appeal more to the older age group? Maybe the characters would present more strongly with an older voice? What about the plot? Perhaps it is one that is better suited (or even needed) in the older market. Or maybe your critique partners thought there was more to explore than you could do justice to in a shorter format. What if you played around with it, not as a middle grade, but as a chapter book? What if…
As participants in critique groups, we often expect the critiques to focus on the story itself. Would our character really say this? Are we showing or telling? Watch the pacing. This is working. That is not. What we don’t usually expect is for critique partners to suggest changing the target audience. But sometimes it's an insightful idea. A middle grade story may work better as a picture book or a young adult novel. A young adult draft may be better suited as a new adult story. What the writer has in mind for a story often can benefit from considering all possible audiences. The first instinct may still be the best. But give it due consideration.
Always ask, "What if…"
So the next time you sit down to work on a story, be it a fiction picture book or young adult science fiction thriller, look at your idea from all angles. It could be that your flying sandwich would make an excellent food fight.
by Annie Cronin Romano
Josh Funk resides in New England and is a writer of children’s picture books. His debut picture book, LADY PANCAKE & SIR FRENCH TOAST (Sterling) came out in September 2015. Josh has kindly agreed to talk with 24 Carrot Writing about his books and writing process.
Congratulations on the publication of your debut picture book, LADY PANCAKE & SIR FRENCH TOAST (Sterling 2015)! Can you tell us a bit about your journey to the printed page? How long was your process from idea to print?
Thank you! And thanks for inviting me to 24 Carrot Writing!
I wrote my first picture book manuscript in the summer of 2011 (not Lady Pancake, a different story that will never see the light of day). My wife found a class in the adult education catalog taught at our local high school by author Jane Sutton and signed me up. I quickly realized that I had a lot to learn, but I was excited and the members of the class became my first critique group. Through the class I was introduced to SCBWI and I attended the 2012 New England SCBWI Conference. As soon as I walked into the conference center in Springfield, MA, I knew that this was the place for me.
By 2013, I felt that my writing was in a pretty solid place. I even had the courage to read an early version of Lady Pancake at the NESCBWI Spring Conference Open Mic. But I was getting virtually no response from queries to agents. So that summer, I decided to send my manuscripts directly to publishers.
And I got a few hits. Scholastic was interested in PIRASAURS!, DEAR DRAGON garnered interest from a couple of small publishers, and in early November of 2013 I got an email from Sterling Children’s stating that they’d like to publish LADY PANCAKE & SIR FRENCH TOAST. By mid-January, 2014, I had signed with an agent, PIRASAURS! was acquired by Scholastic, and my agent sold DEAR DRAGON to Viking/Penguin. It was quite an exciting two months!
Did you always want to be a writer? What led you to focus on picture books?
No. I used to write poetry when I was very little (like 6 or 8). Apparently my play-by-play poems about Larry Bird and Roger Clemens were a hit in my family. In college I played guitar and wrote songs – however, the lyrics were more fun and quirky than ‘poetic.’
When I began reading picture books to my children, I found some really awesome ones that I loved. I often credit the following four books as my inspiration to be a writer:
Aspiring writers often are unsure whether to submit to agents or editors. What advice do you have for writers wrestling with this submission decision?
My advice is this:
b. They have access to all publishing houses. A good agent will know what editors are looking for which types of stories and try to match your manuscript with the right home. No more unsolicited submissions. No more slush piles.
c. An experienced editorial eye. A good agent will be able to help round your manuscripts into the right shape before sending off to editors.
I recommend querying agents for at least six months to a year before you...
3. Send directly to publishers. If you don’t have success finding an agent (like me), use SCBWI’s The Book, The Children’s Writers’ & Illustrator’s Market, and Google to see who is accepting unsolicited submissions and go from there.
Many children’s writers are discouraged from writing in rhyme. You have had success with rhyme in Lady Pancake & Sir French Toast. Were you ever encouraged to write a non-rhyming version? Why do you prefer to write in rhyme?
I was never encouraged to write a non-rhyming version. For a while, I thought that my stories were only any good because of the rhyme. But I have branched out a bit and I have started writing in prose lately.
I do think that rhyme, when written well, adds a certain element of charm to a picture book. But it’s very hard to rhyme well – which is why many people are discouraged from writing in rhyme. Frankly, I could talk about this all day, but if you want more of my thoughts on rhyme, check out this page in the ‘References for Writers’ section of my website.
You are a participant in PiBoIdMo and a contributor to the PiBoIdMo daily posts. Have you turned any of your PiBoIdMo ideas into full manuscripts?
I just looked back through all my lists and the answer is actually, no. For some reason, November is not my best month for coming up with ideas.
At 24 Carrot Writing, we discuss setting writing goals. Do you set writing goals for yourself?
Hmm, I don’t think I do. (Note: these last two questions are certainly making me question myself. Ha!)
I think for me, and this goes back to the PiBoIdMo question, too, that I write when I’m inspired. When I have an idea that I love, I’ll spend a ton of time working on it. November hasn’t traditionally been that month for me, I guess. But when I do think of something good, I’m all in until it’s finished.
There are times when I feel like I haven’t written a new picture book manuscript in a few months. Then a few weeks later I’ll have first drafts of a couple new ideas, and maybe even something worth sharing with critique partners or my agent.
The children’s writing community is wonderfully supportive and offers many resources to aspiring and published writers. You are actively involved with The Writers’ Loft in Sherborn, MA as well as NESCBWI. How important has your involvement in the writing community been to your writing success?
The kidlit community is awesome. Not only have I been able to learn a lot from the Loft and SCBWI in regards to both the craft and the business of writing, I’ve made incredible connections with people that have helped me on personal and professional levels.
At SCBWI conferences, I’ve met critique partners as well as authors who’ve given me valuable and timely advice about querying and submitting. I met my agent through a referral of one of her existing clients, a friend I met at NESCBWI. I also met Heather Kelly, founder and empress of The Writers’ Loft.
I joined the Loft about two months after it opened in the spring of 2013 and helped start its first critique group. Now I’m on the executive board, helping to plan events, run the website and newsletter and more. I’m also co-coordinating the 2016 and 2017 New England SCBWI spring conferences (alongside Heather Kelly in 2016). So, yeah, I’d say NESCBWI, The Writers’ Loft, and the kidlit community have been pretty critical to any success I may be having.
Kids can be our toughest critics. Can you give one or two examples of your favorite kid feedback on your debut book?
In the small amount of fan mail I’ve received, I have to say that there are a lot of kids who would like to know if Lady Pancake and Sir French Toast ever get married. I’m going to be honest in saying that I haven’t really thought that far ahead in their lives yet. But one student made the wise suggestion that if they were to get married and have children, it would probably be a crepe (as it is a French pancake).
Crepe! That is one clever student. I love it!
Any final words of wisdom for aspiring children’s book authors?
My best piece of advice is to keep writing. My first book is never going to see the light of day. So don’t get hung up on the first one. Write a second. Then a third. Assuming you’re taking workshops and getting feedback from critique partners, each story you write will be better than the last. So keep on writing.
Thanks, Josh! Please share with us any events where readers (and writers!) can meet you in the upcoming weeks!
Thank YOU again for inviting me!
On December 5th at 10am, I’ll be at Wellesley Books for a Pancakes & PJ’s event.
And all the rest of my upcoming events for December can be found on my schedule of appearances page here.
Josh Funk is the author of LADY PANCAKE & SIR FRENCH TOAST (Sterling), as well as the forthcoming picture books DEAR DRAGON (Viking/Penguin 2016), PIRASAURS! (Scholastic 2017), THIS ISN’T JACK AND THE BEANSTALK (Two Lions, 2017), and more.
Josh grew up in New England and studied Computer Science in school. Today, he still lives in New England and when not writing Java code or Python scripts, he drinks Java coffee and writes picture book manuscripts. Josh is a board member of The Writers' Loft in Sherborn, MA and the co-coordinator of the 2016 and 2017 New England Regional SCBWI Conferences. Find Josh Funk at joshfunkbooks.com and on Twitter at @joshfunkbooks.
by Kelly Carey
Alicia Potter is an award-winning Boston-based author who has published both fiction and non-fiction picture books. Mrs. Harkness and the Panda, garnered Potter the Cybils Award for Best Nonfiction Picture Book 2012 and Jubilee! One Man’s Big, Bold, and Very, Very Loud Celebration of Peace, published in 2014 by Candlewick Press, was part of the “One Story Draws Another” exhibit at the Burns Library at Boston College. On the fiction side, the clip-clomping antics of a goat in Fritz Danced the Fandango, published in 2009 by Scholastic Press, and winner of the Oppenheim Toy Portfolio Gold Award, was followed by this year’s Miss Hazeltine’s Home for Shy and Fearful Cats.
This talented author graciously agreed to share her thoughts on writing and her insights into how to go from “almost published to actually published” with the readers of 24 Carrot Writing.
You have a copy of the first story you ever wrote, about a sailor cat, that you illustrated with cut outs from a Meow Mix box. Many people will say, in a wistful way, I want to be a writer, and some may even write a first story, but only a few will actually become published writers. How did you make the jump from dreaming about being a writer to becoming an award-winning published author?
Enrolling in the MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults Program at Vermont College of Fine Arts (VCFA) was definitely the turning point for me. Up until then, I had been writing for a few years and received a fair share of personal rejection letters. But I had no idea how to unravel a story and make major changes. Pretty much, if I wrote it, then that was it – I was “done.”
But in my first semester of the program, my advisor set forth a rather formidable goal: I was to write two new picture book manuscripts and revise two picture book manuscripts a month. Needless to say, I became way, way more productive than I ever was on my own. Through sheer practice and smart feedback, I became much more comfortable with true revision; that is, jettisoning good chunks of a story or even starting from scratch.
I began to understand the types of questions that I needed to be asking to create a more polished piece of work. After my two years in the program, I was finally ready to go from being almost published to actually published. Within a year of graduating, I sold my first picture book, Mrs. Harkness and the Panda, to Knopf. It was one of the stories that I wrote during my first semester at VCFA and that I continued to revise (and revise!) throughout my time there. My second sale, Fritz Danced the Fandango (which ended up coming out before Mrs. Harkness), also was written during the program.
You have written and published both fiction and non-fiction books for children. Can you talk about how the writing process for those two differs?
Not all that much, really! I tend to hand write the first third of any manuscript, so that I’m not going back and editing every five words. Then if it feels solid enough, like I’m not going to immediately get stuck, I start typing out a rough draft.
For a nonfiction book, I might also do an outline to see how the essential scenes will flow within the picture book format. But I outline for fiction stories too. I plot out the main scenes or emotional beats or I sketch them out as spreads. I use outlining throughout my writing process, both as part of early drafting and revision.
Midway through, once I have a strong draft, I also create a version of the story in which I isolate all the sentences that reflect emotion. I can then see if they build in a way that’s logical and moving. I do this for both types of manuscripts since true stories need to have all the same storytelling elements as fiction. For my nonfiction books, I’ll also do several rounds of fact checking. But I’ll check facts for fiction too – I recently needed to find out if my depiction of a hermit crab’s house-hunting habits was correct.
For a fiction writer, the thought of the research required for a non-fiction book is intimidating. Can you offer a pep talk to the research wary?
One reason to love research: you can be productive without writing a word! I work on my nonfiction and fiction stories at the same time, so it’s nice to have something to research when I’m mulling next steps for a fiction manuscript. Still, I should add that I’m not researching huge topics. I tend to gravitate toward more obscure events or people, so I’m not facing the same daunting mountain of source material as, say, a writer researching George Washington.
But there are still plenty of small, exciting moments. It sounds kind of corny, but I actually get a little burst of adrenaline when I uncover some strange or funny detail or great emotional moment in the research. I’ve learned to really pay attention to my own reactions, because, ultimately, I hope that the reader will interact with the material in the same way. And there’s something satisfyingly nostalgic about sitting in a library and taking notes. When I visit schools, I show kids that my research process hasn’t changed since third grade – I love taking notes in regular old spiral notebooks!
Picture book word counts are very tight. How did you approach the task of whittling down Patrick Gilmore and Ruth Harkness’s life stories to those essential moments that told their whole story in a picture book format?
A lot of it again comes down to paying attention to those moments of emotion, because those are going to lead to a better story. As I put together the key story arc, I look to keep any moment that I find surprising, funny, or moving. Also anything that speaks directly to kids’ own experiences or their sense of empathy — for example, Ruth Harkness wanting to cry because her boots were blistering her feet, or Patrick Gilmore having to deal with lots of people telling him “no.”
If I am really torn about a fact, I cut it and move it to a separate document for possible use in the book’s author note. In Jubilee!, we ended up having to chop some text from the main story and it became part of the back matter. And what doesn’t survive the author’s note often turns into school visit anecdotes. Usually there’s one child who wants to know about a fact that didn’t make it into the book. I’m now able to share that, on the day of the National Peace Jubilee, President Grant enjoyed a lunch of salmon, peaches, and grapes.
You had initially envisioned Miss Hazeltine differently than how illustrator Birgitta Sif drew her. Can you talk about that experience and perhaps comment on how you release control to an illustrator? Have you ever stopped yourself from popping in an illustrator note?
When I was drafting the story, in my head, Miss Hazeltine was this expressive, bendy old lady with long, skinny legs who was spry enough to climb trees and pounce — sort of the cat lady version of Granny from “The Beverly Hillbillies.” But I love that Birgitta imagined her as childlike and whimsical in her high tops, because it gives kids another strong point of identification in addition to the kitten Crumb.
The young Miss Hazeltine makes for a much better book. She’s less expected, and therefore, subverts the stereotype of the cat lady. I’m probably much too literal when it comes to imagining the illustrations, so I’m fine to say goodbye to a lot of the images that have been floating around in my head while writing. The illustrator brings so, so much to the story — just this incredible level of detail and meaning and another layer of humor. And for this, I’m extremely grateful!
In Fritz Danced the Fandango, the illustrator, Ethan Long, added a recurring red bird character. Kids always zero in on the bird during school visits, but it wasn’t mentioned at all in my manuscript.
For Mrs. Harkness and the Panda, Melissa Sweet traveled to China and went on to incorporate real coins and vintage postcards and maps into her gorgeous collage illustrations.
But perhaps my favorite illustrator backstory for my books is for Jubilee!, a picture book biography about Irish-American bandleader Patrick Gilmore and his efforts to put on the world’s largest concert in the 1860s. I did a school visit with Matt Tavares and he showed this funny photograph that he took of himself in bed wearing a nightcap, with the sheets pulled up to his chin and an expression of intense anxiety on his face. The photo became the basis for the illustration of Patrick “wide awake with worry.” When the photo and illustration are shown side by side, you can see the exacting level of detail Matt achieves, right down to the creases in the linens.
As for art notes, I try to use them sparingly and mostly when I’m pretty sure that a reader isn’t going to otherwise understand some element of the plot or humor. Running a manuscript by my critique group helps me find the places where the notes are absolutely necessary.
Your published works have been inspired from your work in an animal shelter to a chance reading of an article about Patrick Gilmore in a local newspaper. As a writer, do you see stories everywhere? Can you talk about how you collect your ideas?
I live right in the city and there’s always something strange or funny or quietly amazing to see. The other morning, I saw a man riding to work on a unicycle, then later on, a West Highland terrier wearing a hot pink derby. I collect the most interesting of these, as well as ideas for titles and characters and plot scenarios, in pretty notebooks (nicer than my research notebooks) or “story scrap” files (usually filled with little torn-out pieces of paper with a few words on them). Sometimes I add a drawing or a few sentences that will later help me recapture the moment that made me write the idea down in the first place.
How do you balance your work as a freelance writer, a book reviewer and a picture book writer? And the big question for every writer, how do you make sure you make time to write?
It can be tough! But I find that my different roles inform each other. I might interview a person for an article who gets me thinking about a different perspective on the world. And as a reviewer, I’m getting boxes and boxes of new books delivered to my doorstep (there are so many, I have to keep some in my kitchen). Reviewing also allows me to really analyze another picture book creator’s stories. I learn a ton from this process, as well as which houses are publishing what.
Because I’m juggling a lot, I may not work on my own children’s stories every day. But I certainly think about them, which is important, as writing is essentially thinking. I get ideas or work through story problems when I’m out running or walking or on the subway or bus. This thinking time helps me when I do sit down to write – I find that my ideas are more formed.
I also love writing while traveling, whether it’s local or a vacation (I know, not really a vacation, right?). Being out and about and going somewhere makes me feel very connected to the world — a feeling I hope to reflect in my books.
To get more connected to Alicia and her books, please visit her website at http://www.aliciapotterbooks.com/ and read her latest blog. You can find a review of the fabulous MIss Hazeltine's Home for Shy and Fearful Cats in the book pick section of this blog. Even if you are allergic to cats, like I am, you will love curling up with this picture book!
~ by Amanda Smith
Tara Lazar, the wonderfully talented picture book author, queen of kid-humor, and coordinator of Picture Book Idea Month (PiBoIdMo) released her second picture book early in August. I THOUGHT THIS WAS A BEAR BOOK is a fractured fairy tale filled with bright illustrations, colorful speech bubbles and laugh-out-loud silliness. Tara graciously granted 24 Carrot Writing an interview.
I THOUGHT THIS WAS A BEAR BOOK is your second picture book. In what ways was the publishing process easier the second time around? How was it harder?
I don’t think it was necessarily easier or harder, just different. I changed the resolution after Benji had already created his initial sketches, so he had to figure out a way to draw it all over again in only one spread. It was probably a lot harder for him than for me! (Sorry, Benji.) I said I wasn’t going to dictate the look of it with the text and that he could do whatever he saw fit. If I needed to add text later, I would. (But I didn’t!) What also made this book different was that it’s told all in dialogue, so you have those pesky speech bubbles taking up a lot of space. I had to drop a few jokes because they just wouldn’t fit without blocking all the characters!
As pre-published writers this is our conundrum: We often look at books with minimal text and story revealing illustrations and wonder “how”? How did the story and the pictures come together so well? How many art notes did the writer include? In I THOUGHT THIS WAS A BEAR BOOK, you use only dialogue. Could you give us some insight into that process? What did your manuscript look like? Did you use any art notes (“Prince Zilch shakes hands with bush” – my favorite illustration) or did you completely trust the illustrator to catch those moments from your manuscript?
I always have very minimal art notes. I did write that Prince Zilch shakes hands with a bush, but that might be one of the few notes I included. I didn’t even know what a “Zoopfoop” was! Benji figured it out from the text: “Whoa! Please do not tickle my Zoopfoop, sir!” I knew he would make it funny.
My manuscript looked more like a screenplay than a picture book. I don’t know WHY I wrote it all in dialogue, it just came out that way and I trusted the process.
You have to remember that your illustrators are seasoned professionals, real geniuses when it comes to visual storytelling. You have to trust them. And believe me, they will blow you away every time.
Listen, with my upcoming book NORMAL NORMAN I didn’t even specify what kind of animal Norman was! I just didn’t know and I thought the illustrator, S.Britt, would come up with something far better than I could. And he did! NORMAN is a purple orangutan.
In what way did Benji Davies surprise you? Did he add something you didn’t expect or intend?
He surprised me in just about every way! The most exciting part of the process is seeing the illustrations come to life.
I love the “Far Side” tourists taking photographs of the bears and Prince Zilch meeting for the first time and Mama Bear’s formidable tush sticking out of the spaceship. He decided what books fall off the shelf and he made one of them Monstore-like. He figured out how to draw a book-within-a-book, too. Every page is a delight to me and I hope to the readers, too.
Where did the idea for this story come from? Is it a PiBoIdMo baby?
I had been working on another story that wasn’t going well. I wasn’t “feeling it.” So I looked over at my nightstand and saw a post-it note. It read “character who doesn’t belong in the book he’s in”. I don’t think it was a PiBoIdMo idea—but it could have been, I just don’t remember. But I immediately thought of an alien, because kids love aliens and an alien is already foreign! Then I thought about the opposite of an alien and decided upon furry, cuddly bears. With the first few drafts it wasn’t the bears from Goldilocks, but when she snuck into the manuscript, I realized this was a story about two books colliding on a shelf.
You have such a quirky sense of humor, which is a handy thing to have when you are a picture book writer. How did you develop this ability to see the quirky and funny in ordinary things?
My father has a very dry, witty sense of humor. He’s always coming out with these pee-your-pants one-liners. I definitely think my sense of humor is derived from his example. I was raised on Pink Panther movies and Saturday Night Live. I married a very funny man, too. I love to laugh. It’s the key to a happy life.
You often use funny sounding names and words, both in THE MONSTORE and in I THOUGHT THIS WAS A BEAR BOOK. Do you keep a list of words?
I enjoy playing with language. If you can get the right combination of words, they sound delightful on the tongue. Remember that a picture book is most often read aloud. You have to make it interesting to say!
I do have a list of “fun, cool and interesting words” on my website. They’re crazy and unusual words like cockamamie, akimbo and whippersnapper. http://taralazar.com/2014/06/09/list-of-200-fun-cool-and-interesting-words/
At 24 Carrot Writing we are big on goal setting. Do you set detailed writing goals, broad yearly goals or do you fly by the seat of your pants?
I am totally a flying pants girl. I like to sell two picture books a year and that has always been my broad annual goal. But I don’t like to put undue pressure on myself. This job is supposed to be fun. It’s no fun for me if I’m adhering to a strict schedule. I’m no A-type personality. I let ideas take their time to marinate. I might not write for a few weeks at a time but then BAM!, feel that the time is right to sit down and get something out.
This is the process that works for me and I encourage other writers to find the process that works for them. No two writers are the same.
Do you have a mission statement for your writing career? What do you want to accomplish through your books?
“I love children’s books. My goal is to write children’s books that you’ll love.”
I want children to have FUN reading. Their first experiences with books should be highly enjoyable so it instills a life-long love of reading. That’s why I’m not about teaching lessons or spreading messages, although you can find those things in my books. They’re just subtle. They come from the telling of the story, organically. I don’t begin by saying, “Now I’m going to write a book to teach kids to cooperate.” No, absolutely not. I say, “I’m going to write a hilarious story.”
You motivate and inspire countless writers through PiBoIdMo. For me participating in PiBoIdMo was life changing as it confirmed to me that I do can do this. How did PiBoIdMo change your life?
PiBoIdMo completely surprised me with its popularity. I never set out to “establish a platform,” like so much authorly advice circulating online. I just thought it would be fun, so I did it. The fact that thousands of people have participated is something I never expected. I receive letters telling me how inspiring the event has been, how it has changed writers’ lives. That’s the best reward, knowing I have helped someone on their journey, to their goal, their dream of being published.
What have you learned through running this annual challenge?
That I’m more organized than I think I am! LOL.
I’ve learned more about the creative process and how it differs for every single artist. That’s always interesting and inspiring.
Why picture books? Do you write other genres too?
I’ve always had a natural tendency to write short. I’ve always loved short stories. I read them and I wrote them in college and I still write them today. Right now I’m reading an adult short-story collection by Roald Dahl. It’s marvelous. As was the one I read before it. More people should know his work for adults, which is how he started in the publishing business.
I remember being 8 years old and being pushed toward chapter books, most of which had no illustrations. I was devastated. I loved the art! I loved the pictures! You can’t take them away from me!
I am thrilled to be writing in a genre that is artistically stimulating. The illustrations are the best part.
I have begun middle grade novels and abandoned them, mostly because I feel like I get lost in the woods without breadcrumbs…or I’m meandering too much. One day I’ll get the courage (and the organization skills) to do a novel. It’s a goal of mine. It’s a challenge.
Kids can be our toughest critics. Can you give some examples of your favorite kid feedback on your books?
Just last week I did a library appearance and almost everyone there bought a book. A boy named Max came up to me, shook my hand and said, “Looks like your book’s going to be a big hit!”
LITTLE RED GLIDING HOOD will be out in October. Congratulations! Would you share with us about the development of that story idea?
My critique partner, Corey Rosen Schwartz, had recently sold THE THREE NINJA PIGS and she was wondering what to do next. I said, NINJA RED RIDING HOOD!...which is exactly what came next. Then, one day she said to me, “I have this great title and I can’t do a thing with it. So I’m going to give it to you because I know you can write it.” That was LITTLE RED GLIDING HOOD. And the rest, as they say, is history! Corey and I plan on doing appearances together without two LITTLE RED books! It’s going to be the most fun ever!
When does registration open for PiBoIdMo 2015?
I typically open it the last week in October and let it run through the first few days of November.
What’s next is more stories, always more stories. I just revised something I have been tweaking on-and-off for three years. Hopefully this latest revision is THE ONE.
Thank you, Tara, for giving us insight into your process, for reminding us this is hard work even though it is spectacularly fun, and for making us laugh along the way.
Be sure to visit our Book Pics here for a review of I THOUGHT THIS WAS A BEAR BOOK.
~ by Amanda Smith
Earlier this year I participated in an online picture book competition where the notion was to enter the first fifty words of your manuscript. I knew just which manuscript I wanted to enter and I eagerly prepared the other requirements of the competition. Then I added my First Fifty.
There, all by themselves, on a lonesome page, those fifty words, were so, well, blah! They were well written, they were important to the story, but as the only part of my story these judges would see, they were so absolutely inadequate. They did not showcase my feisty female character. They did not reveal my interesting premise. They did not hint at the conflict. They offered nothing but a setting.
As writers we have the privilege of knowing the whole story. We even know the back story. We know the characters. We know the inspiration behind the story – the part that initially stirred our passion to write that particular story. This is also our handicap. Because we rely on how good the story is, how deep the passion runs, we don’t always start in the strongest way possible. We know we’re getting to the good stuff.
What this competition taught me is the beginning needs to be the very best stuff. If readers aren’t captured by my First Fifty, they might not hang around to get to the good stuff.
In my case, with some editing, I was able to flip my first and second paragraphs. This simple move brought the heart of my story to my First Fifty.
What should your First Fifty highlight?
2. Main character
6. Universal theme
Let’s look at a few new picture book examples where the authors grabbed my attention with their first fifty words:
STEVE, RAISED BY WOLVES by Jared Chapman (Little Brown and Company 2015)
Steve was raised by wolves. He loved wrestling and hunting and chasing campers. Then one day Steve’s mom walked him through the woods, past the lake and to the bus stop.
“Steve,” his mom said, “I know you’re anxious about going to school. It’s not always easy to get along with humans, but just be yourself…”
The First Fifty in this book unfold across three spreads and give the reader voice, character, setting, conflict, a foreshadowing of the dry humor to come, and a smidge of the universal theme.
TO THE SEA by Cole Atkinson (Disney Hyperion 2015)
This is Tim. One day after school Tim met Sam. Sam lived in the sea, but took a wrong turn and got stuck here. He didn’t know his lefts from his rights. The other kids were too busy to notice the big blue whale. Sometimes Tim felt no one noticed him either.
Here the First Fifty run across two spreads. Can you find which elements are established here to draw the reader in?
I DON’T WANT TO BE A FROG by Dev Petty, Illustrated by Mike Boldt (Doubleday books for Young Readers, 2015)
“I want to be a cat.”
“You can’t be a cat”
“Because you are a FROG.”
“I don’t like being a frog. It is too wet.”
“Well, you can’t be a cat.”
“I want to be a rabbit.”
“You can’t be a rabbit.”
“Why not. Look, I can hop.”
In this book three spreads are used for the First Fifty. The text is entirely in speech bubbles. I know you want to read the rest. What drew you in?
After my excursion to the bookstore and piles and piles of picture books, I noticed a trend. Many books started in a less stellar way, and I had to make a choice to hang in there and get to the good stuff. And honestly, with some, I didn’t hang in. However, the books that grabbed me with their First Fifty held my attention all the way through. They were so delightful I had to read them again. And then again to pour over the illustrations. If your First Fifty shine, your book will shine!
by Annie Cronin Romano
As writers of children’s books, we are told to read the latest works out there in our genre to be aware of what’s selling, what topics might be saturated, and what areas are lacking. However, this past week I read two middle grade novels that were published about twenty years ago: Freak the Mighty, by Rodman Philbrick, and Tangerine, by Edward Bloor. Both books had been recommended to me numerous times by young and old alike. It took me a while to get to them as I have been doing what is recommended: reading more recently published children’s books to keep up with the current market. But the last time I saw my sister, she asked me if I’d read those books yet. “I loved them! So did the kids! Read them!” Because I’m smart, I don’t argue with my sister, so off to the library I went.
I am so glad I did! I thoroughly enjoyed both of them. Freak the Mighty particularly touched me as I work with special needs kids. And Tangerine won over my heart as this young boy stayed true to his passion of soccer while struggling to discover the truth about a family secret (I’d say more but I don’t want to give it away!). But what struck me the most about both of these novels was their timelessness. They are as relevant today as they were twenty years ago.
This made me consider my own writing. Will the stories I’m writing be relevant down the road? It’s a vital question. Some books can be dated and may not carry over well in the future. Others have a timeless quality to them and can be appreciated long after their initial publication. While longevity is not necessarily a prerequisite for publication, it’s something to think about when writing. So while it is important to keep up with the current children’s market, don’t ignore those oldies but goodies. They have a lot to teach us about the craft of writing.
~by Amanda Smith
Recently I have heard a lot of chatter about award winning picture books that do not seem to follow agent and editor guidelines. Some yet-to-be published writers try to reduce the sting by giving each other condescending, there-there, terrible, horrible, no good, very bad advice:
" Ignore word count. It is just a suggestion."
"Submission guidelines don't really matter."
"Editors and agents don't know what they want."
I am all for writing from the heart (http://www.24carrotwriting.com/-blog/what-is-in-your-heart), but that does't mean we can ignore the rules.
So why can I not just pull an Elsa?
Because I have done this. And I blew an amazing opportunity with a dream agent.
Four years ago at the NE SCBWI conference Dan Yaccarino shared “the recipe” for successful picture books. He urged us to study story arc and write fifty stories following the recipe. Once we had published some “recipe” books, we could start experimenting with form. But learn the basics first and learn to do it well.
I hated the recipe. I rebelled against the recipe. I was above the recipe. So the following year at the conference, I submitted a story for an agent critique. I wrote from the heart. As a matter of fact, it was ALL heart. The agent called it "not marketable". She was too kind. She urged me to study story arcs and practice writing that way. (Did I really just waste a whole year?). She advised me to learn my craft and read in my genre and research the market and follow the guidelines.
I am learning to love the recipe. I still work at that story arc and all its elements. I see it as a challenge to get under the 500 word mark and celebrate it as a victory when I do. I constantly ask myself, “How can I say this more concisely? Is there a better word?” You see, writing from the heart is the easy part. Creating a picture book with compelling characters, lilting language, engaging action, high stakes, a satisfactory conclusion, quirk and humor and room for illustrations is the hard work.
So what about all those books out there that did not follow the recipe? Were they written by new authors? Most likely not. I have heard several different agents admit that authors who have published multiple successful books “can get away with more”. But first get in the door!
In a recent workshop agent Ammi-Joan Paquette advised us to read exactly what we are writing. If you are, like me, a pre-published writer, do not use the award winning author-illustrator books as your mentor texts. Oh, read them for inspiration, but understand these authors are further along the road than you are. They also started by following the recipe and the submission guidelines.
My grandfather had a relevant, yet slightly irreverent expression: “You cannot outfart thunder.” The book industry is thunder. It is so much louder than your heart and the children. It is about librarians and teachers. It is about those in charge of acquisitions in book stores. It is about publishing houses and bottom lines. It is about market trends and what parents will buy. For you to place your heart into the hands of eagerly awaiting children, you have to successfully jump through all these hoops. And agents and editors are the people who help you get there.
Because agents and editors know exactly what they want. They want your heart. With an arc. In under 500 carefully chosen words.
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