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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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l-r Lisze Bechtold, Nancy Hayashi, Anita McLaughlin, Marla Frazee, Naomi Howland, and Me

I have belonged to at least one critique group since I first began writing, including one group in of picture book  author/illustrators for over seventeen years. The benefits have been enormous.  In addition to the camaraderie–which by itself has been worth the price of admission–there has been an endless source of objective, positive criticism, encouragement, and support. Yeah, I know. hard to believe someone would  relish the idea of criticism, but the way I look at it I would rather hear it first from a group of people I trust than to hear it from an agent or editor and blow my chance for a sale.  The truth is I can think of no better way to learn how to objectively judge your own work than to practice on the work of others. When it comes to our own work we all view it with our own biases. Learning to listen to how others view it forces us to consider that it may not be as glorious as we first thought.

In addition, attending a regular critique group keeps you accountable. It’s expected that you will have something to show each time you attend. Sure, life is going to get in the way, but knowing you have a meeting means you always have at least some kind of deadline. For those writers who tend to procrastinate, don’t underestimate this benefit, and hopefully the other members will call you to the mat if time after time you are showing up without work. Just remember they are doing you a favor.

Here are some basic suggestions I would offer to anyone beginning a group.

1. Look to work with others who can readily accept CONSTRUCTIVE criticism.  There is nothing that will kill a group faster than someone who is overly defensive.

2. If possible have someone else read the work other than the author. Writers tend to read their own work the way they think it sounds instead of how it really reads. This is especially true of poetry.

3. The creator should not talk until everyone else in the group has had a chance to comment. This encourages serious listening instead of defending or explaining.

4. When you present your work, introduce it with just the basic information, title, genre, what draft it is.

5. Do not offer apologies or excuses.

SCBWI (The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) is a great resource for children’s book writers and offers even more information about how critique groups function, how to join an existing one, or start a new one at  Critique Groups and Critiquing.

If you are truly serious about your craft, consider joining a group. Whether you meet in person or share work over the internet is your choice. Either way it beats sitting in your office and wondering if your work is ready to be sent out into the world.  With the insight of a good group you’ll know and your work will steadily improve–I guarantee it.

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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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What is it about nature that frees up our brains? Is it the shock to our systems of breathing in smog-free air? Is it time away from anything remotely resembling a keyboard, boob-tube, or phone? Maybe it’s our over-stimulated psyches reaching for a fix. I’m not sure. All I do know is that self-imposed time to commune with the wild is always the best medicine when I’m suffering from a creative brain-drain.

This past weekend my husband and I retreated  to Sequoia National Park for a little R & R. I’ll tell you there is nothing like standing beside a 1200 year old giant redwood to make you feel infinitesimally small and a whole lot younger. We were blessed with gorgeous 70-degree days and moonless nights where the stars outnumbered the wildflowers, but barely.  Each day we hiked about 8 miles through ferny meadows and ancient groves of trees, past trickling cascades and thundering falls, and over granite domes with far-reaching vistas. One morning I woke to five deer, their antlers plush with velvet, nibbling away at the brush in our camp. Another day fuzzy caterpillars clustered  near their egg sacks in a bush outside our tent waiting in anticipation of their approaching metamorphosis, and a brazen woodchuck mocked us from his stoney perch.

The beauty of this place was almost overwhelming at times. The original goal was to just take it in, but that never felt enough. No, I needed to do something with it–anything that could capture and interpret this miraculous place. I took photos, found inspiration for future stories, and unlocked doors to projects that were stumping me (excuse the pun) back at home. I even did two plein air sessions after hauling my supplies four miles each time, so you know I was motivated if I was willing to do that! And now days later I still feel compelled to write about it.

So, this is my mental note to self – and to those of you have stopped by for a visit (thank you, by the way). Next time I feel like I’ve lost my  juice or need to crank up the creativity, I’m taking  a Redwood Re-boot. If that’s just not possible, than at least I’m going to take a walk on the wild side. I hope you’ll do the same, even if it’s just a little R&R in the backyard. Focus on what’s changed from yesterday– a flower bud that has opened, a peach that has ripened, a bird that just can’t help but sing.  Leave the cell phone and lap top somewhere where you can’t see them or hear them. I promise  you’ll survive, but more importantly you’ll give creativity a chance to find you instead of you having to go look for it.

Happy Trails.

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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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Whether I’m writing a non-fiction book as in WHERE ARE THE NIGHT ANIMALS or fiction as in I.Q. GOES TO THE LIBRARY or PET SHOP FOLLIES, it’s  often the animals that headline the show. It’s not by accident.  In addition to a lifelong fascination with all creatures both furry and scaly, animals are the perfect vehicle for telling a story. It’s a tradition that can be traced back thousands of years, and one that has it roots firmly planted in oral tradition.  Why animals? They were thought to be closer to nature and to have a direct relationship with the creator.

Perhaps some of the best known animal tales come from Aesop, a slave and storyteller living in ancient Greece between 620 and 560 BCE. He used animals to teach morals and lessons. Although originally not  intended for children , today his The Fox and the Grapes, The Tortoise and the Hare, and The Ant and the Grasshopper  continue to be popular with young people throughout the world.

Aesop’s fables were followed by medieval bestiaries which added to the list of known creatures and introduced the fantastic and unreal. Stangely, these have more or less disappeared  with such exceptions as maybe Dragonology.

During the time of world industrialization, man’s focus turned to more scientific and literary concerns and animals fell out of favor until the 1800’s when animal tales made a shift in the way beasts were incorporated into stories for the young. Many of those stories have been lost through the years, but some have become classics. In kindergarten I launched and ended my acting career in a production of Three Billy Goats Gruff which was first published between 1841 and 1844 by Asborrsen and Jorgen Moe in  their Norske Foleeventur. It has an “eat-me-when-I’m-fatter” plot. Sounds like an endorsement for procrastination to me, but, hey, I love it just the same.

About the same time  Hans Christian Anderson gave us The Ugly Duckling,  a tale about personal transformation for the better. Since then a number of variations have been published along with innumerable spin-offs. How could anyone forget Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith’s version of the ugly duck in The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales.  Now that was one ugly duck!

When Anna Sewell wrote Black Beauty in 1877, she gave the world a new kind of animal story –the realistic animal story. In her book the noble animal suffers at the hand of man. For years, many  books followed in this tradition, but this genre has apparently lost some of its appeal in recent years. Now we have books where not so noble people suffer at the paws of animals — Marley and Me by John Grogan.

With the publishing of Sir Charles G.D. RobertsEarth Enigmas at the end of the century, a third genre  was born the super realistic animal story . Usually devoid of humans, the animals in these stories acted out of habit and instinct.

Today animal books draw from all of these past sources, but many take the animal story to an entirely new level with characters vying with children for the lead roles. Think Olivia by Ian Falconer and  Diary of a Worm by Denise Cronin. My own I.Q Goes to School and Pet Shop Follies fall into this category.  These books are entirely character driven and the animal is clearly the understudy to a child.

This is the first in a series of posts I will be doing on the subject of animals in children’s books. Much of this material comes out of a workshop I offer called LIONS and TIGERS and BEARS, OH MY! Bringing Your Animal Characters to Life. In the next post I will look at the advantages of using animals instead of people as the main characters in books for children.

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