Tag Archives: picture books

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.

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?

I Am Not a Poet

icebergI am not a poet, but I do love to write verse.

I don’t make that distinction out of false humility but out of reverence for poetry and for those who create it.

True poetry requires a freshness of language, the kind of unexpected encounter with words that can make the hair rise on the back of your neck. A long-time friend of mine, the poet Barbara Esbensen, used to talk to children about bringing two words together that had never met one another before. I can do that once in a while, but the encounter requires a fair amount of serendipity.

What I can produce intentionally and reliably is work that is lyrical. I revel in rhythm and sound and the shape of the words on the page. I can write succinctly, too, and with close attention to what is left out, the unspoken that will resonate in my reader’s psyche.

Picture books, every picture book worthy of the multiple readings young children so often call for, use all of these techniques. And they are, of course, the techniques of poetry whether they reach the full status of poetry or not.

My most recent picture book, illustrated by John Shelley and published by Holiday House, Crinkle, Crackle, Crack . . . It’s Spring!, is a case in point.

Crinkle, Crackle, Crack ... It's Spring!I work with sound, lots of sounds. Not just the sounds that the characters pursue, trying to find their source: “crinkle, crackle, crack, rap, bap, tap, crunch, scrunch.” But I let the sounds of the more ordinary words telling the story flow for reader and listener alike: “You’d pop out of bed, / you’d creep to the door, / then you’d step outside to see . . . / mud, / rotten snow, /trees shivering in the dark.” Note the repetition of p’s followed by the sudden stop of “mud, rotten snow,” etc.

I toss in an occasional free-floating rhyme, too. “And oh . . . of course, / the bear. / The one standing there / in the middle of your yard.” When I’m writing board books for the very young, I usually work in a predictable rhythm and rhyme scheme: “How do I love you? / Let me count the ways. / I love you as the sun / loves the bright blue days.” (From How Do I Love You? illustrated by Caroline Jayne Church and published by Scholastic.) But for slightly older readers such as those for Crinkle, Crackle, Crack I prefer a more free-flowing line. “The bare bones of trees / stand on a hill / in the chill / breeze.” or “And together they’ll cry, / ‘Take care! / Beware! / Despair! / You can bet / you’ve just met / your worst nightmare!’” (From Halloween Forest illustrated by John Shelley and published by Holiday House.)

The fact that I was playing with rhyme in that unpredictable way seemed to disconcert reviewers until my editor had the wisdom to use the jacket copy to instruct. She referred to the text as “unmetered, rhymed verse.” Once given a name for what they were reading, reviewers quoted that phrase in their reviews and complaints fell away.

Perhaps the most important technique of poetry that picture books use is resonance. The iceberg effect. Ten percent above the surface and ninety percent below. Of course, the text must hold back, leaving room for an illustrator to bring his or her own magic to the story, but the text needs to do what any good poem does as well, leave room for the one who receives the words to feel.

Longest NightResonance is more difficult to demonstrate without giving the entire text, but I’ll risk a brief example from another of my picture books, The Longest Night illustrated by Ted Lewin and published by Holiday House. It opens this way: “The snow lies deep. / The night is long and long. / The stars are ice, the moon is frost, / and all the world lies still. / Bears sleep, as do the velvet mice. / A moon shadow lies by every tree, / thin as a hungry wolf. / “Sha-a-a,” whines the wind, the bitter wind. / “Cold and dark now rule. / Cold and dark now rule.”

If that text doesn’t induce an almost physical shiver, I’m not doing my job.

I’ll say it again. I don’t claim the name of poet for myself or call my work poetry, but the techniques of poetry enrich everything I create, especially when I am writing for the very young.

It is, after all, these techniques that make a story work through the multiple readings young listeners often crave. They do something more as well. They prepare those same listeners for the real thing.

This blog was first posted on E. Kristin Anderson’s site, “Write All the Words.”

To Market, To Market I Go

Crinkle, Crackle, Crack ... It's Spring!Crinkle, Crackle, Crack . . . It’s Spring! 

Well, not just yet, but soon . . . soon.

I have a new picture book coming out April 1 with Holiday House, Crinkle, Crackle, Crack . . . It’s Spring, wonderfully illustrated by John Shelley who also illustrated another of my picture books, Halloween Forest.

Having a new book out these days prompts some careful questions. How much do I invest in marketing? And what kinds? If I do decide to use my funds for marketing, will doing so make a difference in sales?

Halloween ForestIn the old days—I won’t call them the good old days because they were and they weren’t—no one really did much of anything that could be called marketing. Your publisher sent your book to various review sources. The primary buyers being professional ones—schools and libraries accounted for eighty percent of children’s book sales when I first came into the field—the great majority of purchases were based on these professional reviews.

If your book began to generate attention and sales, your publisher’s marketing department might push a little harder to get it out there. If the first sales didn’t come through in response to reviews, that was pretty much the end of any effort.

This isn’t really marketing, getting buyers to notice a new product. It is promotion, pushing a product once it has proven itself. And in defense of publishers, their funds are limited as funds usually are, so, of course, they concentrate what they have where they can expect the most return.

An author could make herself available to speak in schools, and speaking for professional organizations for teachers or librarians brought attention to your books. That was another success-breeds-success situation, though. You were only invited to speak once your book or books had received a lot of attention. Otherwise, no one had much interest.

These days institutional sales are way down as a proportion of sales, closer to twenty percent than eighty. Schools and libraries have more and more limited funds and the funds they have must, of necessity, be divided between books and electronic equipment and software. We who write for children and young adults have entered a world adult writers have been in for a long time. Our books need to be able to sell off a supermarket rack or, at the very least, call out to customers from a crowded shelf in a book store.

And the author is expected to be the marketing engine to make that happen. That’s not entirely bad, because we do have the Internet now. And having access to the Internet gives us a variety of opportunities for making our books known. I do this blog, for instance, partly for the pure pleasure of communicating with other adults without leaving home and partly to keep my name out there, to let the world know that I’m still here and still writing and that, by the way, from time to time I have a new book.

One reason for all this work is that publishers pay attention to our Internet presence. I know a longtime young-adult author whose latest novel was turned down by her publisher because she didn’t have enough of a following on Facebook. (She went on, incidentally, to self-publish the novel successfully, a whole new world.) So despite the fact that at age 76 I am inevitably approaching the end of my career, I’m still working at building an Internet following. And frankly, at this time of my life, sitting home and writing a blog is a whole lot more fun than climbing onto another plane.

But now, with a new book on the horizon, I have decisions to make. What can I do to help bring Crinkle, Crackle, Crack . . . It’s Spring! to the world’s attention? Winding Oak, the folks who manage my website, will do a fine and professional job of whatever I ask them to do. A trailer, perhaps? An interview to be published in Bookology, their new online publication? But whatever I choose will call for funds, my funds. And the real kicker, even if I do invest in promoting my new book, how will I know whether my investment has made a difference?

It’s a new world out there, and if I want my books to be part of it, I can no longer sit back and wait for the reviews to roll in and for the buyers to leap on the reviews.

But—confession time here—I would so much rather be working on my new book than supporting one long-since completed, a song just about every writer I know could sing.

I’d also rather keep paying my rent and buying my groceries than not, so . . . to market, to market I go!

My Beginnings

A friend of mine has recently decided to read her way through every book I have ever published. I was amazed that she wanted to do it, that anyone would, but, naturally, happy to supply her with reading material. She hasn’t only been making her way through a stack of picture books and novels, however. She does me the even greater favor of commenting on and asking questions about each of the longer works as she finishes it.

The last round of our discussion came down to one fundamental question: Why do you write about such hard topics? Especially for young readers. She wasn’t complaining, just asking.

Foster ChildWhich set me to examining the question myself. Why do I choose to tell the kind of stories I do? The very first novel I wrote, Foster Child (my second to be published and long out of print), was about sexual abuse in the name of Jesus. In the mid 1970’s you couldn’t get much more controversial than that! No doubt it would still be controversial if it were published today.

Despite the fact that “Where do your ideas come from?” is the most common question asked of writers, a question I’ve answered a thousand times in front of a gym full of kids, I found myself pausing when my friend asked. Why am I drawn to such heavy topics for a young audience?

Here’s the story of my beginnings and my journey to those hard topics. When I first began to take my writing seriously, began to sit down to work every day in an organized way expecting to produce something, I applied myself to picture books. I had young children and I had been reading picture books until they were coming out of my ears. And, I’ll admit it with some chagrin now … it looked easy. Until I tried it.

I persisted, though. I traveled back and forth to the public library bringing home armloads of picture books, reading and reading. Surely, I could do that!

But when I sat down at my typewriter—yes, typewriter, it was that long ago—nothing much emerged. I had few ideas. (And if I’d found some viable ideas I wouldn’t have known how to frame them as picture books anyway, because I knew nothing of the technicalities of producing such a thing. But that’s a different topic.)

Gradually, when I visited the library I began moving up the stacks, away from the bins of picture books, and into juvenile novels. I didn’t know contemporary novels for young people. I had grown up in a small town with a very small public library (my school had no library at all), and the books in our house were from my mother’s childhood. So I found contemporary novels for young people exciting. Much had happened since Louisa May Alcott and the Little Prudy series.

Slave DancerFinally, I stumbled upon a shelf set away from the rest labeled “Newbery Award.” I didn’t even know what the Newbery Award was, but somebody liked those books, so I took several home. And that’s when I fell in love. The two books that moved me the most deeply on that first round of reading were Paula Fox’s The Slave Dancer and William Armstrong’s Sounder.

I came away from that reading knowing what I needed to know. I could write about anything that might touch a child’s life, and if I wrote honestly and well it could be published for young people. It could even win awards! That was a revelation!

And with that understanding, I knew what I was meant to write. I would write what moved me, what would move my readers.

Now, I’ll admit that’s only a partial answer to my friend’s question. I might, after all, have fallen in love with humor or folk tales, high fantasy or nonfiction. But I didn’t. I fell in love with serious, realistic stories that made me feel.

Why? The answer to that one requires digging into a whole new layer of my psyche (or a whole new blog). But for this week, I’ll give it a one-sentence answer:

I found myself on a mission to be a truth teller.