A Writer’s Guinea Pig


Picturebooks are simple, right? I mean, they’re short and they’re full of pictures. Couldn’t anybody just slap one together?

Wrong.

Well, not completely wrong. They are often short, and they’re filled with pictures, and anyone could attempt to write one, but creating a picturebook is not as easy as it seems. The process is actually quite complicated.

I’m currently earning a Master’s degree in Writing for Children, and last semester I had the opportunity to work on my  first picturebook – my guinea pig, you could say – with a well-known publisher in the Boston area. The point of the mentorship is to learn how to get a book as close to submission as possible.  The process was grueling, and I have some grey hairs to prove it, but it was well worth it. I thought I’d share my experience with all of you in hopes that it might give you a better understanding of the picturebooks I share on this blog.

So first of all, there are rules. The rules aren’t etched in stone, but they’re pretty universal in the world of publishing. Most beginners can’t get away with breaking them, but you will occasionally see well-known authors bending or breaking them. The first major rule is that the book needs to be 32 pages long, not one more or one less (including copyright and title pages). Truthfully, publishers just want the book to have a page count that is a multiple of eight because that’s how they bind the paper, but the standard length is 32 pages. Another rule is that you need to watch your word count. Publishers first and foremost want a good story, so if you think cutting words will devalue your story don’t cut them, but the trend in picturebooks is the fewer the words the better. Many of the books currently being published have 100 words or less. Books with no text at all are called wordless picturebooks and are also quite popualr. Those are the two main rules I’m going to throw at you now, but that’s not where they end.

Before you start writing you need a good idea. Good ideas are hard to come by and you need to be careful not to be cliché. For example, many beginning authors create stories with little animals as their protagonists because they think that’s what kids want. But your characters shouldn’t be animals unless there’s a reason why they are animals. If the character can be a human, try that. There are thousands of picturebooks with cute fuzzy creatures as characters, don’t bore us, try something new.

I’m not saying that my idea is necessarily good, but it’s the idea I thought was best to work with. The idea came to me while I was driving home from Boston one night. I was thinking about my old guinea pig, and how many of my students have guinea pigs. Kids love guinea pigs and there aren’t too many books out there about guinea pigs, so I thought why not (and I know I’m being hypocritical here, because guinea pigs are cute fuzzy creatures, I obviously have to work on this too)? But what about a guinea pig? What’s the story? Story is the key.

The first idea I had was to write a story from the guinea pig’s point of view. I stuck him with a kid who wasn’t too great of a pet-owner, and the guinea pig decided to fight his way back to the pet store. I thought I was brilliant, until my editor read it and said “but, why would a pet want to go back to a pet store?” My character seemed very confused, so my editor gave me this great activity to do that would help me figure out who my characters aer, what they want, and why it matters. The activity was just a list of questions that you answer for each character: what matters? What is the matter? Why does it matter? What are the stakes? What does the character do/want and what are the consequences? What are the moral lines of your character? What is “home” for your character, where does he/she feel safe? If you google “character sketch” you’ll find a whole bunch of activities that can help you too. If one doesn’t work, try another.

So after some character studies my editor told me to come up with a few different story ideas. She wanted me to play with a few ideas and then pick which one I thought was the best. I came up with about four different stories and finally decided on one that was completely different from the original story.

The next thing I did was write my whole idea out. I didn’t write it as the story would read later, I just wrote out what happened the way I envisioned it. I wrote out what the plot and the emotional arc were.

Next, I practiced writing the manuscript. There’s a lot to keep in mind when writing a manuscript for a picturebook. You need a great first line to hook your reader. You need to make sure the reader (usually the child) will connect with the character (usually children connect more with child and animal characters and not adults, but there are exceptions such as in last year’s Caldecott winner “A Sick Day for Amos McGee”), you need to make sure it reads well, that every word fits logically, thatyou’re constantly prompting the reader forward (this can be done with the  illustrations as well as the text) the in the story, and don’t forget that you have to reach that 32 page mark. I handed in my first manuscript only to have it handed back dripping with red ink. I revised it twelve times, and it’s still nowhere near perfect. The truth is, you can revise forever and it will never be perfect, eventually you just have to stop when you don’t think there’s anything else you can possibly do to make it better. When you’ve done your best then it’s time to submit it and let the editors and agents help you from there.

                                                                               From “A Sick Day for Amos McGee” by Philip and Erin Stead

Once you have the text as tight as possible, then you have to think about the illustrations. Are you going to be the one illustrating? If so, then you’re like me, and I’ll show you what some of the next steps are. If you are not going to be the illustrator then submit your text making sure to be as clear as possible that you are not going to do the art. Do not include any notes on how you imagine the illustrations. The art director and illustrator will take care of that, and the last thing they want is input from someone who doesn’t know anything about art. Also make sure you don’t have a friend whip up some sketches for you, editors hate that! If you’re going to have a friend do the illustrations, make sure they’re committed to the project. They should have as much input in the story as you do and they should work with you from the start.

So, I plan on being the illustrator for my project, so then next step was to do some character sketches. You need to think about design, texture, medium, etc. See my post “Caldecott in the Classroom” and its comments for information and suggested reading to help you think about picturebook art.

When you think you know what your characters are going to look like begin some thumbnail sketches. I make my own thumbnail sheets by dividing a standard sheet of paper into 33 1/2″ x 1″ rectangles. Leave the first two spaces for the title page and the copyright pages (you can always start the illustrations on these pages) and then space out your story. Make sure you’re thinking about what text will be on each page and where you are going to place it. I have about seven revisions of my thumbnails, and still plan on doing more.

Once you’re satisfied with your thumbnails, it’s time to make the dummy. This is my favorite part because it’s when all your hard work finally begins to resemble a book. A finished dummy will give you a real sense of accomplishment. Here are some pages from the dummy of my book “Felix & Gadget: A Mixed Up Story of Friendship”:

The dummy is most likely what you will send to an editor or an agent, along with a copy of just the text. Although, obviously you should always check submissions guidelines which can be found on most publishing houses and agent websites.

When you’re pleased with your dummy you should do some finished art work. You’ll send a copy of your finished art work in your submission package (make sure it’s a good copy, spend the extra cash and go to Staples). Here’s a piece of my artwork (of which I’m not exactly satisfied, I plan on revising this whole story when I’m done with my second mentorship).

I still have a long way to go before I’m ready to submit this. The process of creating a book takes years, no matter how long or how short they are, but don’t give up. The key is to keep plugging away. Keep those characters alive. You breathe a little more breath into their two-dimensional lungs each time you give your project another try, so keep going. Pick up your pencils, papers, and pens, your laptops, your tablets, your crayons and paint, and get writing!

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Caldecott in the Classroom


One thing that gets me through the (usually) dark cold winter months are the award ceremonies. January is a month to view films, check out books, and pick your favorites. Although I love the magic of the red carpet, the Oscars is not the award ceremony that I look forward to most. The award that keeps me biting my nails at the edge of my seat are actually the awards that go out to the most distinguished picture books for children: The Caldecott Medals.

I think most teachers are able to tell you that the Caldecott goes to the “best picture books” but I’m not so confident that they know what makes them the “best”. Well, the truth is, there are an infinite amount of arguments one could make about why they think one book is better or more distinguished than another. In fact, just because a picturebook wins a Caldecott doesn’t actually mean that it’s the best. It merely means that a panel of teachers, authors, publishers, professors, librarians, and other kid lit folks discussed and argued and voted and finally decided upon a book, or books, that they personally believed was the most distinguished books. Another group of people could have looked at the same books and come up with a completely different choice. So, does winning the Caldecott really matter? In retrospective, no it does not. Which is why teachers, parents, and children should not just pick books that have awards stuck to them. There are hundreds of distinguished books sitting on shelves that haven’t won any awards at all. However, the reason I look forward to the Caldecott award is because it’s something that really lends itself to the classroom. One of the most multipurpose projects that can be done in a classroom is a mock Caldecott committee.

A mock Caldecott committee will give students practice in the following areas:
Reading
Art
Design
Making Predictions
Evaluating
Forming Conclusions
Debating
Making Decisions
Math
Leadership
Persuasion Skills
Writing

I’m sure that list could go on and on. Here’s how to do a mock Caldecott in your classroom.

Believe me when I tell you I know first hand what it’s like to have an air tight schedule and being asked to squeeze in another five minutes of something. But I promise that the Caldecott project is not as invasive to your schedule as it may seem. Most of it can be weaved into what you’re already doing.

First things first, you’re going to need the books. The American Library Association, the Horn Book, and some other children’s literature related websites will offer lists of books published in the previous year (however please know that they’re never full lists). If your school library books don’t have them then your public library probably will. Most public libraries allow teachers to keep books longer than regular members, just ask for the teacher card. Get as many of the books as possible (even the books not on the ALAs website!). As this is obviously a long list of books, you might want to check over them before and see if you can narrow them down to a manageable number for what suits the children in your classroom. Once you get the books bring them into your classroom and keep them in a segregated location, then explain to your students what you’re going to be doing over the next few weeks.

For the first week just let the kids get accustomed to the books. Read some aloud to them (morning meeting, after lunch, at the end of the day are all great read aloud times). Let them read them during silent read, at recess, when they’re done with their work. At first just tell them to read them and to look at the pictures and to think about what they see. Let them be free to explore without adding your opinion to any of the books. Remind them to return them to the location when they are done. If you have time to make one, also give them each a check list of the books, and encourage them to try to read all of them.

During the second week have some conversations with your students about art and design. Read them examples of past winners and discuss why the students thought they won. Read and share the book Picture This: How Pictures Work by Molly Bang with your class. Make a class list of what elements they think make a distinguished book i.e. character placement on the page, using color to show mood (like blue for sad), if the picture adds to the text, etc., and post it in the classroom. Afterwards, explain to them that they should apply what they’ve discussed to the books they read the week before. That Friday have each child write down their three favorite books on a piece of paper and collect them. Tally them over the weekend.

The third week is when the fun really happens. Make a list of books according to what the students voted on the previous Friday. These will be the books you will focus on that week. Remove the other books or put them in your library. Keep the ones that were voted for on display. Use Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday to debate. Have each child write three reasons why they chose each of the books they voted for so they have something to reference (if you’re teaching a lower elementary class then modify this by making a class list).  Have the students sit in a circle or a “U” and let them debate. Encourage them to defend the ones they chose by articulating their reasons why. Give some input, but mostly be a mediator. Let the kids get a little wild.

On Thursday let the voting begin. Have each child vote for three books: one winner and two honor (the real Caldecott committee can choose as many honors as they want, in fact they don’t have to choose any if they don’t want to!). Here’s where it gets confusing. They pick three books. They put a 3 next to the one they want to win, a 2 next to their second choice, and a 1 next to their third choice. When you tally it up, which ever book has the most points wins the gold, and the others win the silvers. If there’s not a clear winner do a little more debating and another round of voting the following day. At the end of Friday you’ll have your winners!!! It wouldn’t hurt to have a Caldecott party! Cookies with yellow frosting and a special guest read aloud (firefighters, police officers, the principal are all great choices!).

When the real winners are announced compare them to your class’s choices. The Horn Book and ALA are always discussing these choices online. Share their explanations and arguments with your class. You can also have your students participate in the online Horn Book mock Caldecott committee (www.hbook.com). They can debate with other lovers of picturebooks and even people who have sat on real Caldecott and other ALA committees in the blog and then cast their votes. The kids will feel proud to be able to connect with such a prestigious award.

Here is a list of books that are getting some Caldecott buzz this year. Check them out. What do you think of them? When the winners are announced I will be back to discuss them.

Me…Jane by Patrick McDonnell

Blackout by John Rocco

Grandpa Green by Lane Smith

I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen

Balloons Over Broadway by Melissa Sweet

Where’s Walrus? By Stephen Savage

Stuck by Oliver Jeffers

Neville By Norton Juster Illustrated by G. Brian Karas

Naamah and the Ark at Night by Susan Campbell Bartoletti Illustrated by Holly Meade

Blue Chicken by Deborah Freedman

A Ball for Daisy by Chris Raschka

The Artist Who Painted a Blue Horse by Eric Carle

Can We Save the Tiger? By Martin Jenkins Illustrated by Vicky White

(The list of picturebooks published in 2011 is obviously a trillion times longer, but at least this will give you a start! Have fun!)

On a final note, please do not believe that this project is only intended for young children. This project is appropriate for Kindergarten through post-graduate level students. You are never too old to examine and evaluate art. You are never ever ever too old for picturebooks! Don’t deprive your children or students of picturebooks, encourage them to include them in what they read.

Book Review: The Artist Who Painted A Blue Horse


A simple book with a profound message, Eric Carle’s latest masterpiece  The Artist Who Painted Blue Horses is a book that everyone will benefit from reading.

Sometimes I get worried about authors who have been in the business for decades, especially someone like Eric Carle who’s design is practically a brand. When I see them come out with another book I usually roll my eyes and keep walking. Not that I discount them as authors. I’m aware that some of there stuff is fantastic. You can’t sneeze at books like Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?  or The Very Hungary Caterpillar. But I get worried they get caught up in the politics of publishing books for the name on the cover instead of the content or quality of the book. When I first saw The Artist Who Painted A Blue Horse I thought this, rolled my eyes, and kept on looking around the bookstore. But when I heard about the book getting some Caldecott buzz I knew I was going to have to crack it open. And I’m glad I did.

The book is very short, it’s only about 50 words long. It begins with the introduction of a boy who says he’s an artist. Then the artist makes a list of the things he paints: a blue horse, a red crocodile, a yellow cow, etc. And then it ends with the boy saying “I am a good artist.” Seems pretty simple right? But then Carle adds a bit more in the back of the book that makes you realize how important a blue horse, a red crocodile, a yellow cow, and other nonsense is. He includes this image:

It is a painting entitled Blue Horse I which was painted in 1911 by Franz Marc. Carle then includes a paragraph about Marc and a paragraph about himself. He explains that Franz Marc was a German artist during the turn of the century who painted unconventional paintings that were often unrealistic in color. Many critics objected to his ideas but others did not, and eventually he was very influential in the modern and expressionist movements. Carle then explains that he also spent his childhood in Germany; Nazi Germany. He explained that the Nazis forbade modern and expressionistic art. However an art teacher secretly showed him some of Marc’s paintings, which changed the way Carle thought about art for the rest of his life.

Carle’s book encourages kids to think outside of the box. He’s telling them that it’s okay to be different. He’s saying that the way we express ourselves is important and is special, no matter how unconventional it is. Everyone can benefit from this message. As parents and educators, it’s important for us to celebrate the individuality of the children that are around us, no matter how far out it is. I once had a boy in my class who was the definition of unconventional. Not only did he love purple, hum the songs from “Hairspray” while he worked, and pranced around singing “I’m a little girl”, but he also flapped his hands when he was excited, would look around the room with one eye closed and one eye opened, and would start writing a sentence with his left hand and then switch to his right hand half way across the paper. The kid was strange.

But then one day, during morning meeting, I showed that class a stick. I said, “today we’re going to pretend. This stick is no longer a stick, it’s whatever your imagination says it is.” So I pretended to brush my teeth with it and said, “see? It’s a toothbrush.” Then I handed it to the boy sitting next to me. He stared at it. “Well?” I said. “What is it?” He looked up at me. “It’s a stick.” After some pulling of teeth he finally mumbled “it’s a pencil.” The next few kids did pretty much the same thing. I was astounded at how second graders could be so unoriginal, so boring! But then my little oddball got hold of that stick.

“It’s a rainbow maker.”

“A what?”

“A rainbow maker. See?” He put the stick on it’s side and turned it in the air in the shape of an arc. “See the rainbow?” Then he got up and walked around the room making rainbows with his rainbow maker.”

He’s the kind of kid that’s going to do something special with his life. We need people to think like him, otherwise we wouldn’t have things like ipods, yo-yos, airplanes, pogosticks, computers, shape-ups, mousetraps, microwaves, cupcakes, sparklers, saddles, or  picturebooks.

Think what would happen if I said “no kid, you’re a boy so you can’t make rainbows with that stick.” Then he might be afraid to speak openly about his ideas forever. And that awesome thing he was going to do in the future would never happen. He’s a kid that needs a book like The Artist Who Painted a Blue Horse. And so are the kids who said the stick was a stick. And so did I for reminding me that weird kids are special. Get a copy of the book and share it. Share it with your kids, share it with your friends, and share it with yourself.

I give the book five huge rainbow makers.

Watch Eric Carle talk about the book here:

Book Review: An Annoying ABC


A perfectly peculiar picturebook for practical use. I can’t think of a better book to use for older kids. Yes, older. I know, I know, it’s an alphabet book, but this book doesn’t simply state that a is for apple. This book lends itself to lessons on verbs, proper nouns, alliteration and even natural consequences!

Before you can get a kid to learn anything you need to make them excited about the subject. This is especially important when you’re teaching something as dry and dusty as grammar.  Bottner and Emberlley’s book is a perfect way to spark their interest and to give them some practice. It’s a rather small book, so I wouldn’t necesserily suggest that it should be read alloud to a whole class. I would use it in small groups. The first day I would read it aloud to the group. They will meet the characters on the end papers and title pages as they march to their classroom. Each character has an individual and unique personality that is evident through their wardrobe. My personal favorite is Flora (who is seen under the letter F) because she looks like I did as a little kid, with jeans, a sweatshirt, and a backwards baseball hat. If I had seen a kid that looked like me as a kid I probably wouldn’t have felt so weird all the time.  The children are very politically correct. They are of every color, gender (and sex) (little Clyde holds flowers, Eloise has a big pink hat, Olivia wears a jersey, etc.), and ability (with little Ida sporting a pink wheelchair). And on page two they will see the annoying day unfold when Adelaide annoys Bailey. This causes Bailey to blame Clyde, which causes Clyde to cry, which causes Dexter to drool, and so on. The illustrations are lively and the content is unique and thrilling. Most students will connect well with it (especially if you, the teacher, read it with expression) which will make them more willing to work with it later on in the week.

I’ve seen some very boring lessons on verbs: “a verb is an action word, circle the verb in the sentence. Blah blah blah.” And these worksheets always use some really creative verbs like “run, walk, sit, bring, went.”  The only action these worksheets make me do is snore. An Annoying ABC  is a great tool for you to use to show them that verbs can really be fun. It shows them that verbs can be what we are. Bottner uses verbs like drooled, elbowed, fumed, howled, exploded, rumbled, stumbled, and tumbled. And she makes finding the verbs easy, which would have been very helpful to me as a kid, because she pairs a verb with each child and each verb begins with the same letter as the child who it’s paired with (with the exception of X), which is a perfect place to interject a mini lesson on alliteration. After explaining what verbs are and pointing them out and having the students find the verbs in the story, have each child write down the first name of everyone in the reading group (or you could do everyone in the classroom) and have them pair an annoying verb with each one of them. Don’t forget to have them share their favorite one!

There are so many other mini lessons you could do with An Annoying ABC. It can be used to teach your students that names are proper nouns. The capitalized first letter of every name is highlighted with a different color. It can be used to show how chain reactions work since each child is so irritated from the person who annoyed them that they annoy somebody else. And, of course, it can be used to teach the alphabet.

Whether you’re looking for an excellent book to read with your child, or a book that lends itself to a plethora of lessons, I highly recommend An Annoying ABC to you!

http://www.michaelemberley.com/

Book Review: America is Under Attack: The Day the Towers Fell


Don Brown’s straightforward explanation of the events that happened on the morning of September 11, 2001 is a title that I’m personally relieved to see. To many of us adults, that horrible day seems to have happened just yesterday. To some of us it still feels so close that we forget that children today are too young to remember it. Many of them understand very little of why there has been a war during the majority of their lives. I know I was shocked when the anniversary approached and my students didn’t know what the World Trade Center was. The only tool I really had was to share my personal experience of that day with them. Don Brown has created a book that appropriately invites children to make a connection with the most devastating and destructive day in American history. He doesn’t shy away in his text or in his illustrations. He shares the truth tactfully and compassionately. For example, he explains what it might have been like for the people at the point of impact. “People were hanging out of the building, gasping for air… heavy smoke and intense heat from the fire made rescuing people from the roof impossible. Some of the trapped people jumped.” The accompanying illustration shows a close up of people standing in the shattered windows at the point of impact waving out for help. The illustration on page 24 explains the bravery of the firefighters in a way text could not. It shows a stairwell with a line of civilians walking down the stairs to safety past a line of firefighters walking up the stairs to the horrifying chaos. I highly recommend this book to any teacher or parent who wants their children to have an understanding of that fateful day.

“Illustrated on every spread with line-and-wash pictures that are forthright but never sensational, the book is superbly focused and completely honest.” —Horn Book Magazine, Starred review

One of School Library Journal’s best Nonfiction titles of 2011.

http://www.booksbybrown.com/

America is Under Attack: The Day the Towers Fell By Don Brown