Point of Re-Entry

Two weeks ago I wrote about a picture book I have been working on for months, both researching and writing.

Since it’s not a text that has come easily I have shown it repeatedly to three of my fellow writers as I worked.  They each responded to my multiple requests with thoughtful and candid critiques.  “This is what’s working.  This is what isn’t.”

My friends were not consulting one another and didn’t always agree about what they saw, what they wanted from the piece, but that didn’t matter.  In fact, the places where one loved something that another thought I should take out became easy reentry points for me.  Clearly I had to find my own place to stand in what was, after all, my manuscript.

Finally I felt close enough to completion to show the manuscript to my agent.  But that was the best I could say.  It was close.

While he and I were discussing strategy, a delayed comment came in from one of my critics.  For her, the new ending didn’t work.  If the ending of any piece doesn’t work, the whole thing collapses.  But that is especially true for the delicate construction of a picture book

“Put it on hold,” I told my agent, and I went back to considering the ending.  That it worked for only two out of three readers wasn’t good enough.

I went back to the ending and back to pounding my head against my keyboard . . . or at least that’s what I felt like doing.

And then this morning on a walk with my dog—that’s when I often get my best ideas, when walking my dog—I remembered something I hadn’t thought about for a long time.  When I first began writing, I had no critics to turn to for help.  I had never met an editor, and I knew no other writers either.  I knew no one even interested in writing for children.  So needing some perspective beyond my own too-close one, I turned to Mary, a friend and a longtime teacher.

From time to time, Mary would stop by my house on her way home from school, settle on the couch in my study and read the pages I handed her.  I sat a few feet away, watching, waiting, holding my breath. Mary wasn’t an experienced critic, but she was a thoughtful reader and willing.  She would read and read until suddenly she would look up and said, “I don’t know why exactly, but at this point I’m beginning to itch.”

I would take the manuscript back, look to see where she was, and ponder.  After some time, I began to realize that Mary’s “itch” developed because my story was getting too talky, too teachy.  I soon discovered, too, however, that the problem didn’t begin at the point her discomfort surfaced.  It began earlier and became cumulative.  So instead of fixing the text where she named the problem, I learned to go back to find the place where the problem began and to rework from that point on.

“Ah!” I said to myself on this morning’s dog walk, suddenly remembering Mary and those long-ago reading sessions.  “Maybe it’s not just the ending.  Maybe the problem begins farther back.”

So here I am, ready to revise again, this time examining language that feels so solidly in place as to be untouchable, looking for a point of reentry, the point of reentry where the direction for my ending is set.

Credit: kakisky | morguefile.com

This is where I allow myself a bit of a sigh.  Which is what you’re reading today, a bit of  a sigh.

When I’m through sighing I’ll go back to work.

I want to be famous…

I want to be famous in the way a pulley is famous,
or a buttonhole, not because it did anything spectacular,
but because it never forgot what it could do.


Credit: godchild78 | morguefile.com

                                                                                           Naomi Shihab Nye

Only a Picture Book

It’s only a picture book, but years passed between getting the idea and finally knowing how I wanted to tackle it.  Once I’d figured out an approach, it took months to research. Not months of constant work, but on and off months of searching, digesting, searching again.  And though coming in at just over 400 words, the manuscript took weeks to write.

The Stuff of Stars is a creation myth based in science.  And next year it will be published by Candlewick with breath-taking illustrations by Ekua Holmes.

Credit: NASA

During the months of research and writing, my enchantment with my topic grew.  How could I not be awed by the vastness of space, by the power of the forces that brought our planet into being, by the serendipity that allows this piece of rock we call home to sustain life?  So awed that, though the manuscript has long been out of my hands, the topic has never quite left.

Once more I find myself searching, digesting, searching again.

Once more I sat down to write, concentrating this time on Earth, our Earth.  Not to write a sermon about how we aren’t taking care of it.  We have too many sermons masquerading as children’s books, sermons bent on making those who follow us responsible for the world they are inheriting.  Rather I wanted to write a hymn, something that would live in the veins of my young readers.  A hymn to honor a world that is precious beyond all singing of it.

The first step, return to my research.  I am not an astronomer or a geologist, which means I have to read and read and read before I can comprehend science well enough to make a few very basic statements.  When I’m describing the way the first land mass appeared, can I use the word rose?

And then, once more, I sat down to write.  Slowly, haltingly, turning science into poetry while remaining true to the science.

My concept began to take shape, but not quite the shape I wanted.  Something was wrong with the ending, something I couldn’t name. I showed my manuscript to three fellow writers.  They each had thoughtful comments.  Sometimes what one loved another hated, but that was fine.  I drew on their insights while the text remained mine.

I kept drawing closer to what I wanted the piece to be.  But still . . .   But still . . .  Something didn’t work.  Something none of us could name.

Finally, I showed the text to my daughter.  I don’t usually share my writing with her until it is finished.  She is not a writer.  In fact, having grown up watching her mother peck away constantly at a keyboard to little visible result, she long ago decided that being a writer must be the worst career in the world.  She is, however, a reader, and she is direct and honest.

She read my text once and said what the others had said before her.  “I love it!”  Then she said something more. “But it’s two separate books.”

Sometimes criticism that takes time to settle.  You have to carry it in a pocket—a pocket very close to your heart—for a long time before you know whether to make the insight yours.  Sometimes it strikes like a lightning bolt.

Beth-Alison’s comment was of the lightning bolt variety.

So today I’m back at the text again.  And slowly, slowly I am finding my way forward.  I believe I’ll find the shape this time.

It’s only a picture book.  When it’s done it will be around 400 words. But the process of capturing those 400 words . . . ah!  That’s both joy and despair.

If a poem is worthy…

If a poem is worthy at all, it isn’t tough—it is frail and exquisite, a mood, a moment of sudden understanding, a cobweb which falls apart at a clumsy touch.

Credit: takeasnap | morguefile.com

Jennings Thompson, editor of Silver Pennies

The Tale of a Picture Book

Jump, Little Woods Ducks is my fourth picture book to be illustrated by the naturalist, photographer Stan Tekeila.  While most of my picture books have been more traditionally illustrated by artists, working with Stan has been a privilege and a joy.

On our first book together, Baby Bear Discovers the World, Stan said, “You write the story.  I’ll make the photos happen.”  I did, and he did.

He borrowed twin black bear cubs from a wildlife reserve and took them in his truck to different locations.  There he set them up to perform the acts of the runaway baby bear in my text.  Stan used twins, as filmmakers often do when working with young human children, so that if one wasn’t cooperating he would have a chance of getting what he needed from the other.  He captured the photos, and we had a book.

The next two books, Some Babies are Wild and The Cutest Critter, were concept books, not stories.  I knew what I wanted to do, present baby animals in different kinds of behavior and then turn to a comparison with a human baby.  So once I had created the text and shown it to Stan, he presented me with multiple options from his rich stock of photos.  And in each case, we had a book.

When Stan and I decided to collaborate on a picture book about wood ducks, we thought it would be easy.  After all, Stan already had thousands of photos of wood ducks.  So we sat down and talked through their life-cycle, which is what I planned to base my story on.  Then I created the text, and he supplied the photos.  We both thought we had a book.  My text did what I wanted it to do, and Stan’s photos were, as always, technically superb and showed precisely what I’d asked for them to show.

One problem.  Wood ducks—all ducks, I suppose—are beautiful but . . . well, not exactly expressive.  They have a way of just standing there or just wading there or just floating there that falls short of compelling.  When I saw the results of our collaboration, for the first time I longed to return to working with an illustrator, someone who could tweak the images.  Lift a wing, cock a head, brighten an eye . . . anything to make these creatures more compelling.

The editorial staff at AdventureKEEN must have had a similar thought, because after a period of silence, they sent me an assortment of Stan’s most interesting, most active wood duck photos and said, “Can you start over again and make a story from these?”

In case you don’t know, that isn’t the way picture-book writers work.  We don’t begin with images and find a story, we begin with concept or story and the images follow.

However, in forty years of writing for children and 100 books published for different ages and in different genres I have learned a few things.  One of them is that pleasing editors is a useful skill . . . and that doing so usually results in a better book.

So I sat down with Stan’s photos and immediately fell in love with those jumping babies.  Here was a reason to work with a photographer, not an illustrator.  You can draw a baby duck doing anything you want it to do, including eating with a knife and fork.  But these babies are real!  And they are actually jumping!  From high up in a tree!  And watching them do it quite takes your breath away!

So I began again, following not the life-cycle of wood ducks, but the progress of three little babies who don’t want to jump, however much their mother down there on the ground cajoles.

And I did what I do best, came up with language and story.  And Stan did what he does best, filled in the blanks with more photos.  (Can you get me a photo of what the baby ducks see when they look down from that tree?)

And at last we have a book.  It will be out in April.  A long journey, but worth every step.

Thank you, Stan, once more.  What shall we explore next?