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Archive for the ‘Children’s books’ Category

This is the final installment of my conference rehash.  If you’ve been following along, you already know what a fun, information-packed event it truly was and why I wanted to break this into several posts.

Sunday was no less info-packed than the previous two days, except by now my eyes are beginning to glaze over from all the amazing art I’ve seen and my brain is verging on overload.

The morning began with two outstanding panels. The first was the AGENT PANEL which included Jill Corcoran of the Herman Agency, Deborah Warren of East West, Linda Pratt of Wernick and Pratt, and Josh Adams of Adams Literary. As always, it is very interesting to hear the agent’s perspective, since their business is as much about devloping an author’s career as it is about selling content. As a group they encouraged authors to think strategically about their careers. (You mean we don’t just do this for fun?) Their advice: ask if each new book is moving your career sideways or elevating it. Ask if a particular project is worth your time and will show you at your best. It doesn’t help to take just any old job that comes your way. They said that a common mistake is not establishing a body of work and that there is a strategy to placing that second title. They also noted that if you are fortunate to publish a book and it sells well, be prepared to deliver year after year with subsequent titles. The time between book releases has become shorter and shorter. When asked what is a reasonable advance, the audience was informed that advances were never intended to cover living expenses. (Okay, this did not make me feel the love.) The goal for all authors now more than ever is to sell as many copies as possible to get to the royalties. They concluded with: think positively, cherish your gift, and remember the joy in what you do. Truer words were never spoken.

The second panel discussed THE DANCE BETWEEN PICTURES AND WORDSand featured the amazing Dan Yaccarino, Jon Klassen, Antoinette Portis, Lee Wardlaw, and Eugene Yelchin. It quickly became obvious to anyone present that as picture books become more visual, the illustrators’ responsibilities grow proportionally. I loved that they reminded us to write for the five -year-old within; we are the first audience. And whenever someone tells you to look for where the rules can be broken, you know you’re listening to a truly creative individual. They also recommended that we layer material in a picture book so that anyone–child-parent-teacher–can get something from the story. Finally they said to shoot for clarity . These were just some of the many gems offered by this pool of talent.

Perhaps one of the best presentations I saw all weekend was delivered by Matthew Kirby who spoke on VOICE. When you consider that voice cannot be taught and can barely be defined, you get aglimpse at the challenging topic Kirby had to tackle, and it is certainly something that has mystified me on more than one occasion. He contended that voice must be cultivated and that it is the intersection between the words you choose and character. It has to be approached indirectly and be derived in an organic manner. If it is forced, then it will come across as inauthentic. (Hey, and isn’t that the last thing anyone of us wants to be–inauthentic? Egads!)  He said since everyone chooses words differently, each person’s voice will  naturally be unique. Takes the pressure off, don’t ya think. His final bit of wisdom? Subscribe to A WORD A DAY.

Every year I look forward to the Golden Kite Luncheon. It is a chance to gather with others and share favorite moments. It is also a chance to hear from some of  the year’s most outstanding authors and illustrators. Awards are presented, cold rolls and pasta are consumed, and then everyone rolls out for the final sessions to be followed by the autograaph party. This year’s  luncheon did not diasappoint, nor did the honorees.

The final keynote was a riveting speech by Gary Schmidt. I had recently listened to his book TROUBLE and loved it. He reminded us that the authors job is to ask the reader, “What ails you?” Then we must ask ourselves, “Does the writing serve?” Above all else we must cherish our children and give them the best we have to offer. And isn’t that what it’s all about–the children.

All in all, this year’s SCBWI conference once again exceeded expectations. I came home re-energized, optimistic about prospects for the market, loaded (not with alcohol) with  ideas for new projects, and anxious to test out strateguies for salvaging old ones. More than anything, though I returned to my office knowing that I am truly fortunate to belong to such a wonderful community of people who dedicate themselves to providing children with only the best in literature. They deserve no less.

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Every year I look forward to the SCBWI (Society of Childrens Book Writers and Illustrators) Summer Conference, knowing it will be the highlight of the writing year. It’s an opportunity to reconnect with friends and hopefully meet new ones. Coffee is typically consumed in vast quantities and sleep is a rare commodity. Since I am now the illustrator coordinator for our region, this conference began early for me. At pre-conference meetings, I learned about the SCBWI website revamp. Let me sum up by saying that there are going to be some wonderful improvements, and if you’re reading this and not a member of SCBWI already, you’re missing out. Nowhere else will you be able to find a better resource for children’s book writers.

The main conference began bright and early Friday morning, August 3, with over 1200 in attendance representing 15 countries. It ran over three days with a fourth day of intensives. Although my brain is still downloading much of what I heard, I wanted to share some of my favorite take-aways. So here they are:

ARTHUR LEVINE, Vice President and Publisher of his own imprint, Arthur A Levine Books, led off with the first keynote, and spoke about some of his most memorable books and what in his mind makes them timeless.. He said that a book becomes timeless when the author and reader can share an authentic experience. He cited examples of books that do just that, including Lisa Yee’s MILLICENT MIN GIRL GENIUS, Shawn Tan’s THE ARRIVAL, and HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCEROR’S STONE by J.K. Rowling. He reminded the audience that great writers use anticipation instead of surprise, citing Peggy Rathman’s GOOD NIGHT GORILLA as a brilliant example.

TONY DiTERLIZZI, New York Times Bestselling author and illustrator, took the stage next. He is hilarious, by the way, freely covering the stage and at one point crawling on his knees to imitate a child. His pithy take away for me was that when an illustrator reads a manuscript, they are not reading the words; they are reading instructions.

As usual, it was difficult to choose between all of the notable workshops. I opted to sit in onLISSA PRICE’S talk on how to use screenwriting techniques to make your YA novel better.  Using her new novel STARTERS  as an example, she explained that High-Concept books are often an easier sell. She also stressed that a good logline creates emotion, gives an idea of what the protagonist wants, hints at the obstacles to be faced, and spawns an emotional response, often with irony. All this happens in one sentence! Sounds easy, right? Not so much, as was demostrated by many of the volunteers who offered up their loglines.

Following lunch, PATRICIA MACLACHLAN, best known as the author of SARAH, PLAIN AND TALL and winner of the Newbery Medal, the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction and the SCBWI’s Golden Kite Award,  entertained us with anecdotes about her grandchildren and how they influence her writing. She said that every concern we have now, we had in preschool. I would only argue that I appreciate naps much more now than I did when I was four. Her advice to writers was to remember that character is plot and all plot emerges out of character.

Earlier this year I read TROUBLE by GARY SCHMIDT and marveled at the way he was able to weave thematic significance throughout the book and to surprise me along the way. I was thrilled to see he was on this year’s faculty and made a b-line to his workshop on Layering a Character. What rung true most for me was when he said that speed is never the friend of the writer; we must embrace the time it takes to create. This prompted a giant “note to self,” since I find it a challenge to let ideas percolate and projects to ripen.  He also emphasized that setting should not be merely a stage; it should be a reflection of the character.

The speeches and workshops of the first day were followed by a social for traditionally published authors, and once again this year I had the pleasure of sitting beside Sue Fliess who had her new book, TONS OF TRUCKS, on display. Her energy, warmth, and generosity are contagious, and I am just grateful that our last names fall one after the other and the organizers saw fit to arrange us all alphabetically.

Me with Sue Fliess, and no, we are not in a brothel. It was just really funky lighting.

Imagine a hundred or more amazing and gifted artists all eager to meet more of the same and you get a glimpse of of the social for illustrators organized by the wonderful Priscilla Burris together with SCBWI board advisors Pat Cummings, David Diaz, and Cecilia Yung.  When it was all over , I collapsed back in my room to catch what I could of the Olympics and consume my daily ration of dark chocolate courtesy of Alexis O’Neil, our regional advisor extraordinaire and my roomie for the conference. By the end of the Day 1, my head was brimming over with ideas for new projects, ways to resurrect abandoned ones, and enough inspiration to last me the year. I realized that like the athletes in London, I would need to pace myself or I was never going to make it to the finish. (Read faculty party here.)

Next Week I will be posting Part Two of my conference takeaways. It will feature more insights from the conference along with some incriminating photos from Saturday Night’s festivities. Stay tuned.

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Recently I have noticed an alarming trend in children’s books. The words are gone. In many cases the illustrations now carry the brunt of the burden in telling the story, a huge change compared to most children’s books of thirty years ago. Not a problem unless you try reading a story aloud to a small group of children, and you find yourself having to ad lib to fill in the plot or the flow of words is so choppy each page feels unrelated to the previous one.

More and more I hear that picture book texts should be as brief as possible, that anything that can be shown in the pictures should be cut. No adverbs, few if any adjectives. But in my opinion, the balance between text and art has swung too far to one side. Texts have been whittled back until read alouds are often choppy and the reader finds they have to fill in the transitions. The writing is sterilize, the poetry in the prose slaughtered. That’s not to say less can’t be more, but it shouldn’t be at the expense of the oral presentation. Picture books, after all, are intended to be read aloud to a child. They should be pleasant on the eyes AND on the ears.

It’s no surprise really. That’s what publishers want because they claim that’s what buyers want. I understand that today’s children have short attention spans, but every child I ever knew was perfectly happy to listen to a story, or perhaps several, if it meant they could stay up longer or avoid another work assignment. So maybe it’s the parents, teachers, and librarians who have been crying out for shorter reads. I get it. Time in school is at a premium more than ever. Parents are tired after a long day doing the work of three people thanks to labor cuts, their time for parenting is over-taxed and full of demands. What has happened though is that the flow of texts and vocabulary has been dumped in favor of brevity.

Perhaps things will shift back again some day. Storybooks that emerged out of a strong oral tradition will return in popularity and the picture book market will once again tolerate the well-written but wordier story that is not only entertaining, but a song to the ear because of its rhythm, rich vocabulary, and thoughtful literary devices. There will be context to introduce listeners to new and marvelous words, and memories will be challenged to stretch in recalling favorite passages.

In my opinion there is a reason the words have traditionally come first and that’s coming from someone who started this business as an illustrator.

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This past weekend my son Ian and I spoke about writing and illustrating children’s books at the Central Coast Writers Conference, organized by the wonderful Judy Salamacha, and held at Cuesta College in beautiful San Luis Obispo, California. We were honored to be a part of an event that included such a talented and enthusuiastic faculty. Jonothan Maberry was a keynote speaker and Mark Coker, creator of Smashwords was another. Interesting bookends. On one hand you had a prolific author reminding us that with hard work and years of dedication to craft an individual can still make a living at this writing thing. On the other, you had someone telling us there is an alternative.  Everyone wins–or do they?

With diminishing sales of hardcover books, distributers like Ingrams cutting back on warehousing, and a rapid increase in competition amongst titles, there are some definite losers in the fray. For one, readers. I’m not hearing anyone discuss the need for self-publishers to employ copy-editors. I can personally account for several times when one has saved my publishing ass. Sure everyone seems concerned that self-publishers will be diluting the literary world with their babble, but what about the proliferation of misconceptions and falsehoods. On more than one occasion while researching for a project I have often found factual contradictions even amongst primary sources. Without gatekeepers, these lies will continue to reappear in new works. Ultimately the responsibility lies with the author as it always has, but fresh eyes can make all the difference. Without a fact checker literary credibility will suffer just as visual credibility deteriorated with the advent of Photoshop. It will be like the difference between a documentary and a movie “based” on a true story. Eventually a reader will be unable to tell what to believe–not that that isn’t already somewhat of a problem, but at least there are still factual watchdogs on the staffs of most publishing houses working to limit the proliferation of false information.

The other issue that seems to be the dark unknown is how authors and illustrators of books, particularly picture books, will continue to make a living? Twenty or so years ago a highly reputable editor told me that if you could maintain ten books in print, you could make a living off of your work. I’m hear to tell you that’s no longer possible. The shift began years ago and many authors found they needed to augment their incomes with speaking, teaching, and in my case painting murals. With the recent economic woes, shrinking advances, sluggish sales, the demise of Borders, it’s only become more challenging.

I do support the idea that all people should have a right to express themselves in print – digital or ink. But I also believe that it should be possible for the best writers and authors to make a satisfactory living from their work. I tend to be an optimist, so I’m going to cling to the idea that with time most of us will find a way to make it work. Why? Because most of us can’t imagine NOT writing or illustrating. Ultimately time will tell.

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Hey Diddle Diddle

Animals are often associated with very specific characteristics. We all know cheetah’s are fast, sharks are dangerous, dogs are loyal, monkeys are mischievous. But how do you choose the right animal for your story?

To begin, determine the primary characteristics of your story’s main character. Then examine which animal species best exemplifies those traits OR, to make the tale even more interesting, the animal which is completely the opposite. Let’s look at a few examples to show how this might work.

Let’s first look at an animal that fits the character’s arch-type.

Typically the main character in a story must  change or grow. If the protagonist  in your story starts out meek and timid, you might choose to make the protagonist a mouse.  Mice are particularly popular in children’s books because children can easily identify with them. Mice never grow beyond small. They are familiar. They are considered to be shy and mischievous. And mice are easy prey making them appear vulnerable. The great thing about working with a mouse as the main character is that it is the perfect foil for overcoming large obstacles.

Next, we’ll look at using an animal that is the anti-archtype.

If our story was centered around a character that is foolish, but must learn to think for itself, we might choose to use an owl. Typically owls are thought to be wise. In Western folklore, owls are commonly associated with studious scholars and wise elders. Perhaps the earliest known link between owls and wisdom is their association with Athena. The Greek goddess of wisdom is often depicted holding an owl. By using an owl as our protagonist we go against these common assumptions, but we also make the challenges for our protagonist greater and in effect make the story more interesting.

I.Q. Goes to School

Some animals are definitely more popular than others. My picture book I.Q. GOES TO SCHOOL was nearly rejected because my main character was a young rat and  the editor had a strong dislike for rats because so many inhabit the subways of  New York where she works. In the end we let people think I.Q. was just a mouse.

Dogs, on the other hand–or paw, pop up in many children’s books, but why? One reason is that people already treat them as human making it much easier for the reader to connect with the protagonist. Dogs crave attention and depend on  humans to provide their needs–much like children depend on others. They are as varied in breed as people are in looks. If you choose to adapt a dog to your story even the breed can alter the reader’s perception. A pit bull is going to be seen as a much different character than a poodle or a chihuahua. All of these associations come as baggage which you as a writer can use to your benefit or will have to at the very least acknowledge when writing. The fact that dogs are so common in children’s literature also means that you will want to make your character more original.

Also recognize that different people might see the same animal differently. It might be a cultural thing or the result of experience. Someone from Alaska who frequently has to deal with wild moose might see that animal in a way that is much different than someone from the city who has only seen them through popular culture (Bullwinkle, for example). It is not ever enough to simply plug an animal into your story in place of a human. You must understand how that selection will affect the reader’s perception of that character and then use that to your advantage. The important thing is to remember that in children’s fiction the animal is always the proxy for the child.

Which animals have you used in your stories, and why?

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Me with Juliet Marillier, Oh Happy Day!

This past Saturday I had the pleasure of attending a workshop conducted by fantasy writer, Juliet Marillier. She deftly demonstrated how writers can put new skin on the old bones of fairy tales to create completely new tales for almost any genre. I realize this is not exactly a new idea. Heck, as she put it, people have been dumping ideas into the story caldron and dishing out new ideas to serve for hundreds if not thousands of years. But what Ms. Marillier did was more than just hand us a recipe for our writing; she led us to the kitchen and set us loose. In a relatively short amount of time we were brewing up ideas all our own complete with characters, symbolism, themes, and maybe even a touch of magic.

It didn’t hurt, either, that I was also surrounded by a room full of creative and talented writers, or that the workshop took place at the beautiful Santa Barbara Mission, or that Gwen Dandridge, our organizer for the event, did some cooking of her own to provide us with a table full of goodies. There was not a poison apple in sight, just some deadly brownies and muffins and some of the best blood orange marmalade I’ve ever tasted. Best of all I went home ready to hit the keyboard. Now that’s a happy ending!

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In my last post I talked briefly about the long history of animals in children’s books. Although early  animal stories weren’t directed specifically at children, today they dominate literature for young readers and for several good reasons.

1) Children relate easily to animals.
What child doesn’t pretend to be an animal? I seem to recall crawling around the house and yard as a kid, pretending to be a wolf, horse, jaguar, and just about any other animal I could think of. Fortunately, my research confirmed that this kind of behavior is common. Whew!

2) Animals are a good substitute for children.
Animals can be a substitute for children, with or without appropriate animal species characteristics. Depending on how the manuscript is written, a story’s characters could be portrayed as either children OR as animals. It then becomes the illustrator’s decision as to what the characters should be.

3) You can tell a story without reference to age, race, or gender.
Animals can be the great equalizer. For example,  a book may have several kinds of dogs in it in order to portray diversity without having to portray specific races. Animals may be old or young, but other than that has no direct correlation to human age.  And, without pronouns, an animal can be gender-free–how liberating!
4) You can imply personality or lay a twist on personality.
Animals provide the opportunity for the author and illustrator to riff off animal archetypes. Or, even more interesting is when the author goes against the archetype altogether as in the not-so-wise owl or the fastidious pig. Stereotyping is always less interesting, though, just as it is for human characters.
5) You can provide children the opportunity to deal with scary situations in an non-threatening manner.
It is much easier for a young reader to deal with anxiety producing situations when they involve animals instead of children. For example, it’s a lot less scary if  an animal is alone and lost in the dark than if it’s a child.
6) You can safely get rid of adults.
Adults can be a distraction to the real issues conveyed by the story and using an animal allows the main character to solve the problem without the assistance or interference of an adult.

7) And my personal reason for using animals in children’s stories? They can be a lot more fun . They can do things children just can’t do like fly, swim deep underwater without clunky scuba equipment, hibernate, make loud noises while they eat…well, you get the idea. They are also a lot more fun to draw since they come in a wider range of colors, textures, and sizes while humans are pretty limited in those regards.
As you can see, there are many reasons animals feature so prominently in children’s books. In  my next post I’ll discuss how to match your story to the right animal character.

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