Tag Archives: children’s books

Writing Myself into Old

Credit: diannehope | morguefile.com

It’s the secret of life, I suppose, discovering where our own deepest energy lies and learning to reach into it, to mine it, to live it.

It’s certainly the secret of any kind of writing that must be spun out of the substance of our own psyches.

When I was young, I overflowed with ideas, and I wasn’t surprised when I picked one up to find the energy to fuel it attached.  I never asked myself why I wanted to write a particular story.  I just knew I did.

The story called to me, and I rarely understood where it had come from until long after it had made its way into the world.  I only began to discover what my story had to do with me when readers, more objective and therefore more clear-eyed than I, told me what I had said.

And through their discernment and through the questions I asked myself fed by that discernment, I began to be aware of the sources that feed my work.

I have been writing stories for young people, from babies to young adults, for a long time.  I have, in fact, written myself into old.  Old is, curiously enough, a destination I never really thought I would reach.  Mostly because our society teaches us that if we just will it to be so, we will never truly age.

For those coming after me, I’ll offer this small piece of wisdom.  Old is real and, unless we’re rescued through an early demise, it is also inevitable.

Old finds me searching for energy, not because I have run out, but because the energy I possess is no longer spread across so wide a field.  I can no longer pick up a story idea and find the fuel to propel it to its conclusion automatically attached.  And yet, the energy itself is still there, just stored in a deeper and less conspicuous place.

Recently, I encountered the work of two different women ahead of me on the path who refer to their 80’s as a time of great passion.  Such a curious idea to hold against our society’s image of the withering of age!  Even I, standing on the edge of 80, couldn’t help but wonder what they could mean.

But I’m beginning to understand.  The passion they speak of is a core that goes deep, the distilled essence of a long life, stretching all the way back to early childhood.  And while it doesn’t stand up and call attention to itself the way younger passions do, once tapped into, it is rich . . . rich.

The trick, though, is to find the source to tap.

I have always fed my writing with reading.  I don’t know any writer who doesn’t do the same.  Stories, after all, aren’t truly an imitation of life.  They are an imitation of other stories.

Old, though, has turned me into a persnickety reader.  I approach each book with an almost too-discriminating hunger.  I find myself searching for something richer, deeper, less predictable, less ordinary than most of what falls into my hands.  I can almost hear my mother saying, “If you’re not willing to eat what’s on your plate, you can’t truly be hungry.”  But I am.  I am.

I order up samples of electronic books, books chosen because they were recommended by someone whose opinion I value or because they have won awards.  And time after time after time, I read to the end of the sample and turn away, still searching.

Old has turned me into a persnickety writer, too.  I keep reaching for a form I’ve never tried before, a thought I have never thought before, and with more than 100 books published, I can tell you that’s a reach.  I find myself longing for a voice that I can feel reverberating but cannot name, for a story that asks questions I have not yet formed.

And yet the energy behind that undiscovered story still burns strong.

The answer to having written myself into old?  I don’t have one.  Not yet anyway.

Only to keep searching for that perfect book to read, the one that nourishes so deeply that it will propel me back into my own work.

Only to keep searching for the perfect container for my words, the one that will draw out the fire buried in my soul.


Children have never been good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.

James Arthur Baldwin

Credit: sideshowmom
| morguefile.com

The End Lies in the Beginning

There are certain writing topics I return to in this space many times.  I return to them partly because I believe they are important and talking about them can be helpful to all of us who write.  But I return to them, also, because I keep rediscovering them for myself, year after year after year.

The end lies in the beginning is one of those topics that I have had reason to rediscover recently.

When I am preparing to write a story, any story, I know several things before I begin to write.  Who my main character is and what he or she struggles with.  (I prefer the word struggle to conflict, because struggle is active.  I have read too many manuscripts from developing writers where the main character sits around looking at/thinking about a conflict page after page.  I want that character to stand up and struggle.)

Who the secondary characters will be and what relationship they have with that character’s struggle.  Do they help or are they part of the problem?  That is character and plot in one package, even though much of it isn’t worked out yet.

Finally, I know what a resolution is going to feel like.

Usually I know the climactic moment that will bring the story to that resolution, too, but it is the feeling of the resolution that draws me forward when I sit down to write.  I want to get there so I can feel it, too.  And it is, not incidentally, the feeling accompanying that resolution that embodies my story’s meaning.

There is no one perfect way to create any story.  There is only the way that works for each of us individually.  I know writers who sit down and write, page after page after page, seeking their story.  And these are accomplished writers for whom the story eventually appears.  I am too much of a linear thinker to work that way.  For me, it would be like setting off on a trip without first deciding whether my destination is New York or California. I’d feel I was wasting a lot of miles/pages.

Even with my very intentional destination, though, I can sometimes get to the end and find it doesn’t snap into place.  Those final moments don’t move me and thus will not move my readers.

When that happens I don’t return to the chapter just before the end one to see what went wrong.  Always, I go back to Chapter 1.  Somehow I didn’t lay out this moment properly. And there I will find what’s missing, the piece that will allow the final chapter to fulfill its promise.


As I write this, I am concluding my work on a young novella called Sunshine.  (Concluding, that is, until it’s in an editor’s hands whose insights I’ll be grateful for.)   As usual, I had the ending in mind the whole time I was writing.  In fact, for the last several weeks I’ve been hurrying to get there, because it was going to feel so good to write it.  (Another of my linear traits, I never write scenes out of order.  If I wrote my ending before I got there, I’d have too little reason to finish the story.)  But when I arrived at that final scene . . . well, it didn’t quite click.

So . . . I flew back to Chapter 1, and there I found something missing, something I could imbed to carry forward to the final chapter.

You are my Sunshine,

my only Sunshine.

You make me happy . . .

Writing fiction is an organic process, one—whatever our method—that is spun out of our very bones.  Still, there are tricks of the trade useful to know, and that’s one of them.

The end lies in the beginning.

Truth of a different kind

Credit: kakisky | morguefile.com

Children who have been told the truth about birth and death will know, when they hear about Kris Kringle and Santa Claus and Saint Nicholas and the little babushka, that this is a truth of a different kind.

Margaret Mead

Riding Piggy Back

The best and most satisfying reason for writing a picture book isn’t just that they are fun to write, which they are.  They are sometimes enormously difficult, too, but still fun.

It isn’t that they are short, either, though short has its own blessings.  And its own challenges.  I am often reminded of Mark Twain’s apology for having written such a long letter.  He didn’t have time, he explained to his correspondent, to write a short one.

The best and most satisfying reason for writing a picture book, though, is to win the privilege of riding piggy back on a talented artist.

The first time an actual copy of one of my picture books arrives at my door always feels like Christmas, even if I have seen the illustrations through every step of the process, which I sometimes do.

Here are my words!  My words!  And look.  A person with talent beyond my richest imaginings has brought them to life on the page.

What a gift!

Winter Dance, my latest picture book, illustrated by Richard Jones, emerged into the world in October.  It has garnered three starred reviews, from Booklist, Kirkus, and Publishers Weekly.  (A starred review singles out a book as one of the best of the season.)  And it couldn’t be more clear that Richard’s illustrations are the primary reason for those stars.

I don’t say that out of false modesty.  My words are charmingly simple and even lyrical.  There is a touch of humor, too, something my work isn’t noted for.  And the text conveys solid information about animal behavior in winter.

But it’s Richard’s winsome fox, his appealing landscapes, his entire winter world that captures anyone who picks up this book, including reviewers.

. . .it’s Jones’ soft-lined, textured illustrations that steal the show, as they cast beautiful forest scenes across the page, using a cool wintry palette against which the fox’s orangey-red fur pops.  (Booklist)

Jones’ full-page illustrations, done in rich, muted earth tones, are stunningly designed and executed. (Kirkus)

Bauer’s verselike text pairs gracefully with smudgy and similarly understated scenes from British illustrator Jones: the text and artwork work in tandem to suggest the hushed onset of winter while carrying readers forward with the swiftness of a snow flurry.  (Publisher’s Weekly)

This particular picture-book text required weeks—even months—of writing and rewriting.  In fact, for reasons too complicated to explain here, I had to reconceive the whole thing after the editor had committed to my first version, a story about spring.  The editor turned down my first two, three, four attempts to revise before she and I together came up with the idea of a fox and the first snowfall and before I finally found a way to make those elements work.

I haven’t asked Richard how long it took for him to create his appealing paintings, but I’ll guarantee that despite the length of my labor, he labored longer and harder.

The writer has to come up with the idea, and the idea is key, of course.  But without the artist’s bringing another whole world of ideas to the page, the story would be only half born.

Thank you, Richard Jones, for your amazing work.  And thank you to all of the illustrators who, over the years, have brought my picture book texts to life.

I love riding piggy back!