Category Archives: Picture Books

Writing Home: From Page to Stage

I know most authors dream of a movie deal, but I got to see my book brought to life in a way I hadn’t even dreamed of.  This spring, I had the incredibly unique opportunity of working with an entire 4th grade to turn my picture book into a play.

If you are ever looking for fresh ways to combine author visit with teaching artist, I highly recommend this.  Both the kids and I had so much fun and learned so much in the process, and the product blew me away.  But like all good learning, it didn’t come without challenges.

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My book, Writing Home: the Story of Author Thomas Wolfe, is a picture book.  It’s short. It has no dialogue.  And it’s a biography, so it’s essentially a story about one person.  The task at hand was to have 82 students write the script and act it out.  And we had just five 45 minute classes to do it.

We got creative with it.  We broke it into 16 scenes, which was cool because Thomas Wolfe got to be black, white, and Latino, male and female, tall and short.  The students learned to extrapolate on what other characters might have been there, and what might have been said that wasn’t on the pages of my book.  What they came up with was clever and entertaining.

When Grover died on stage, the mother threw a sheet over him and the narrator comically tossed a bouquet of flowers on top.  When a circus rented out the boarding house, a student dressed in a clown wig stepped down from the stage to tell jokes to the audience.  To show that Tom won a debate, the students wanted to base it in something that was real for them, so they staged a debate about whether or not toys should be allowed at school.  And when Tom finally returned to Asheville, a British farm boy offered him “some milk, on the house!”

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For many of the students, this was their first time in a play.  In addition to figuring out how to adapt the book to script, we practiced staging, projection, and inflection.  All of that in addition to overcoming stage fright.

But seeing them on stage, they totally let loose and had fun with it.  And best of all, they felt successful.  They felt a sense of ownership since they wrote their lines and staged their scenes, then got to see it come to life as we put their scenes together in front of an audience.

 

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Happy Multicultural Children’s Book Day!

I’m a little late to the game in discovering that today is Multicultural Children’s Book Day, so I don’t have an exciting blog post prepared.  And even though kids and classrooms should be reading multicultural children’s books every day, I thought it was an occasion worth celebrating and that the Multicultural Children’s Book Day website, with book lists, giveaways, and kits for teachers and parents, was a resource worth sharing.

Thanks to Patricia Tilton for sharing this and reviewing a great multicultural children’s book today on her blog, Children’s Books Heal!

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An Oldie but Still Relevant Goodie

Although many people still hold the idea that children’s books are saccharine bedtime stories, they are actually often at the forefront of bringing into conversation controversial or complex issues facing society.  Sometimes they even take concepts that adults still tiptoe around and hand them openly to children to think about and discuss.

tuck_everlasting_1_largeA book that I remember loving as a 4th grader came to mind recently.  Tuck Everlasting, published by Natalie Babbitt in 1975, deals with the concept of immortality.  It tells the story of Winnie Foster, who discovers a family guarding a secret – that they inadvertently drank from a ‘fountain of youth’ – and the tragedies that come with their timelessness.

Of course, there are many stories – modern and ancient, for kids and adults – that take on the idea of immortality, but the relatable characters in Tuck Everlasting make the topic very accessible to young readers and the emotion in it is believable.

As crash-preventative self-driving cars are developed, fatal diseases prevented and cured, organs grown in labs, and mechanical body parts engineered, it’s obviously important to keep this topic of immortality in conversation.  Of course these innovations are noble and have already improved the quality of life for many.  But at what point is it okay to just let people die?

There’s a HUGE part of me that wishes a doctor could have stuck a robot heart into my dad so that he’d be around to meet my kids some day.  But I also know that my dad, wary of Aspirin and baffled by how to turn on a computer (… says his flip-phone wielding daughter), would have hated that.

And it’s not only important whether increasing lifespan is valuable for individuals, but how it affects life on earth.  If these innovations extend the lifespan by 25 years, then that’s an entire extra generation of people on this planet in addition to the already growing population.  Even if it’s widely agreed upon that extending life is a good thing, our innovative energy needs to go into systems for supporting the growing population without increasing hunger or homelessness or environmental degradation before we eliminate all the main ways that humans die.

Or maybe I’m just an old curmudgeon afraid of progress.  But to me, progress means a better life, not an endless one.

I didn’t mean to make this quite such a soapbox-y (or, you know, paranoid technophobe-y) post.

What I did mean to do was to recommend reading Tuck Everlasting.  It’s a great book.

And to ask your thoughts.  What is your outlook on immortality?  What’s your idea of progress?  Are there any books you recommend that take on an issue that’s been resonating with you lately?

Thanks for bearing with me.  And remember to try to live life in a way that, when it comes down to the end, you’ll be glad whether a doctor comes and sticks a robot heart in you or not.

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Tim Bowers & my dog who made it in the Children’s Book World before I did

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This is Emma.

She was my woods-romping, tug-of-war-playing, stick-her-head-out-the-car-window-and-eat-the-wind-until-she-broke-wind, ice-cream-eating, adorable-looking, snuggling best friend from 1998-2011.

She is also a famous children’s book character.

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Tim Bowers, whose awesome illustrations you might recognize from over 35 picture books as well as widespread greeting cards, lives in my hometown of Granville, Ohio.  His daughter graduated high school with me, and I remember when he visited our class and gave us a lesson in character drawing.

Shortly after, he needed some models for his own character drawing.  Dog models.  Since Emma clearly won the genetic lottery for cuteness, I auditioned her for the part.  Although Emma was very modest, I was a proud mama when I learned that she had won the role of the title character’s mother in Laura Numeroff’s book, Sherman Crunchley.

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Tim did not only capture Emma’s likeness, he managed to capture her entire personality from just a photo.  Emma, who jumped in fright if she stepped on a stick and who barked nervously when a pumpkin appeared on the front porch, was perfect for the role of the sweet yet emotionally frail mother.

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Although this post is mostly a chance to show off my cute pooch, I’m also sharing it as a reminder that we are surrounded by real-life resources to inspire our art and our writing.

Carry a sketch pad or notebook with you to capture them, use your friends, hold contests, and come up with other innovative ways to draw from the world around you.  Not only is it a wealth of subject matter, engaging the community allows them to be a part of what you’re creating too!

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Local KidLit Reading List: Part 2

And now, bringing you more awesome authors who double as awesome people… and who happen to live in my neck of the woods.  In case you missed it, here is Local KidLit Reading List: Part 1.

Middle Grade

Snakes and StonesSnakes & Stones

Why I’m excited to read it:

Another brilliant member of my critique group, Lisa Fowler has an incredible writing voice and sense of adventure.  While we got to see and give feedback on the first few chapters of this story, I still haven’t had a chance to see how it ends!

MaypopThe Maypop Kidnapping

Why I’m excited to read it:

Who doesn’t love a good kidnapping mystery?  C. M. Surrisi and I attend writers game nights together, and if her writing is anywhere near as clever as her Balderdash playing, then this book is well worth a read!

Saraswati

Saraswati’s Way

Why I’m excited to read it:

I love it when a book can transport me to a different part of the world.  And after hearing Monika Schroeder’s poignant keynote speech about when and how to authentically write about other cultures at last year’s SCBWI-Carolinas conference, I’m eager to see how she portrays culture in her own writing.

Diary from the EdgeMy Diary from the Edge of the World

Why I’m excited to read it:

The title alone is enough to make me want to pick this book up.  The fact that Jodi Lynn Anderson is so sweet and humble despite being a New York Times bestselling author and a killer pictionary player is just an added bonus.

Nine Pound HammerThe Nine Pound Hammer

Why I’m excited to read it:

Although this Hillsboro author is slightly less local than the others on this list, John Claude Bemis has a great regional presence, and his talks at Malaprop’s and SCBWI-Carolinas conferences have been lively and inspiring.  He just released the first book of his new series, Out of Abaton, but I have some catching up to do first.  Plus, I’m intrigued by the magical slant on this tall tale adventure.

Young Adult

Watch that Ends the NightThe Watch that Ends the Night

Why I’m excited to read it:

I have the feeling this book will have a lot to teach me about perspective.  Allan Wolf tells the Titanic story from 24 different points of view – including the iceberg’s!  Allan also happens to be an awesome supporter of Asheville Writers in the Schools & Community and an all around upstanding guy.

The Way I Used To Be

Why I’m excited to read it:

Amber Smith piqued my interest as a writer and as a person when I saw her speak on a YA panel last month.  This novel addresses the controversial but unfortunately relevant topic of rape, possibly opening the door a little bit wider for teens to feel comfortable talking about the subject.

BONUS: Adult

Fresh WaterFresh Water from Old Wells

Why I’m excited to read it:

No, it’s not kidlit, but I wanted to include this book on my list because it’s been way at the top of my reading list for many months, I am just a tragically slow reader.  This memoir not only tells about a tumultuous family dynamic during an important era of Southern history, it also tells of the author’s experience in writing it.  And because Cindy Henry McMahon also happens to be my good friend’s aunt, her story is one that I feel a special connection to.

It’s a good thing it’s summer, because it looks like I’ve got a lot of reading to do!  Please let me know if I’ve missed any great local reads, and I will get started on a Part 3.  Happy reading!

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Local KidLit Reading List: Part 1

When my first story was published in Spider Magazine, it was on the opposite side of a two page spread from a drawing by Quentin Blake and a few pages down from a Kate di Camillo story.  I was totally star struck.  But you know what’s just as cool?  Seeing my book on a shelf of regional authors in a local indie bookstore and personally knowing nearly every author whose books share the shelf.

A writer friend recently said to me, “You can’t throw a stone in Asheville and not hit a writer.”  And not just any writer.  Incredibly talented writers.  Overwhelmingly supportive writers who share their knowledge, root for each other, and even play games together.   I can’t wait to read some of their latest stories, and I recommend that you do, too!

Picture Books, Easy Readers, and Comic Books

 

Three SleepsThree Sleeps

Why I’m excited to read it:

A family therapist wrote this story that addresses issues of separation anxiety, which I see some of my students experience.  It is also available in Spanish, and the beautiful illustrations were painted by my friend’s wife, Shannon Cappezzali.

Carlos and CarmenCarlos & Carmen

Why I’m excited to read it:

Carlos & Carmen are twins from a Latino-American family.  They have all the adventures and challenges of typical American kids, but with a little more laughter and Spanish sprinkled in.  Kirsten McDonald, the author of this easy reader series, is a children’s librarian, so she knows what she’s talking about.  She is also in my critique group, so I got a sneak preview and even had some input on a few of these!

RSP 1Robot Samurai Penguins

Why I’m excited to read it:

J. Rutland is another writer from my critique group (yes, we are a very talented bunch), and he also paints the beautiful and extremely imaginative artwork in his Robot (Samurai) Penguins comic series.  And I have a few students in particular who I know are going to fall in love with the main penguin, Waddul.

Middle Grade

SerafinaSerafina and the Black Cloak

Why I’m excited to read it:

No list of Asheville kidlit would be complete without Serafina.  And yes, I am a bad person for being a local children’s author who has not read it.  It is a dark, suspenseful story set at the Biltmore Estate, and my students eat it up.  I’ll have to read it soon since the second book in the series is already out and a movie is on its way.  And although this is the first author on the list that I haven’t met personally, I hear that he is a nice guy with an interesting story of his own.

Puffball

Mr. Puffball: Stunt Cat to the Stars

Why I’m excited to read it:

I cheated on this one.  I’m excited to have already read it.  But I recommend it to you because it’s full of clever puns, cute cat pictures, and heart.  Plus the author and illustrator, Constance Lombardo, is one of the coolest cats in town herself.

 

How to steal a dogHow to Steal a Dog

Why I’m excited to read it:

I love books about dogs.  And this one was adapted into a film in South Korea!  The author of this one, Barbara O’Connor, looked fabulous in a feather boa and monocle at my book launch party’s photo booth, and I can’t wait to discover that her writing is just as fun.

 

Yound Adult

InvincibleInvincible

Why I’m excited to read it:

This novel about a girl’s struggle to fight cancer and, later, addiction to medication, is the book that I’m smack dab in the middle of right now.  I keep reading it at night to help me fall asleep, but end up staying awake longer because I want to keep reading.  Fortunately, when I get through it, I get to read the new sequel, Unforgivable.  My friend and mother of a sweet girl at one of my schools, Amy Reed, wrote this one.

Stay tuned… Local KidLit Reading List: Part 2 is coming soon!  I told you there were a lot of talented authors here.

 

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Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken

Wild thingsLast spring, a children’s librarian that I regard very highly recommended a book, whose author happened to be giving a talk at a local bookstore that week.  I went to the talk and read the book, and it is hands down my favorite book I’ve ever read about children’s literature.  The book is Wild Things! Acts of Mischief in Children’s Literature.

The book defies “fluffy bunnies,” or the misconception that all books for young readers are simple and sugary-sweet.  It is packed with examples, anecdotes, and author interviews that show instead the subversive side of kidlit.

The illustration, later published with a blank tombstone.

The illustration, later published with a blank tombstone.

For example, illustrator Trina Schart Hyman, who had recently been knocked in a Kirkus review, painted a graveyard scene for the picture book Will You Sign Here, John Hancock? that snuck in a headstone with an epitaph for Virginia Kirk.

Or how about when librarians, teachers, and parents objected to Charlotte’s Web including death, and the author, E.B. White, responded by telling his editor, “I am working on a new book about a boa constrictor and a littler of hyenas.  The boa constrictor swallows the babies one by one, and the mother hyena dies laughing.”

The book delves into many other controversial topics addressed in children’s books as well as some behind the scenes mischief in the lives of the writers themselves, and even a media uproar fondly referred to as “Scrotumgate.”  Needless to say, I recommend the book wholeheartedly.

The best thing about the book is that, while many of the stories are shocking, it’s not a book advocating for shock value.  Julie Danielson, one of the book’s three authors, said that when she gives talks on the book, audience members will sometimes remark that they should write more subversively.  “Don’t be subversive just to be subversive,” she said.  After all, there is a time and a place for fluffy bunnies, too.

“Don’t be subversive just to be subversive.”

Instead, the book advocates for children’s writers to be genuine.  It shows that children’s literature must adapt to the times, and that often it is even at the forefront of helping the times to adapt.  It shows that the most successful writers were not condescending, that they were good writers who wrote from the heart whose audience just happened to be children.

That takeaway was a good reminder for me when I received feedback from an editor on a picture book that I entered into a contest this summer.  It was a story based on an experience that was important to me, and he gave me high marks on my writing style and even compared me to *blush* a young Oliver Jeffers!  Yet he told me that the story was essentially unmarketable.

Should I scrap the story and write to the market? I wondered.  But with Wild Things! in mind, I determined to persevere writing from the heart and then trying to find my market, or tweaking my stories to make them marketable, but making sure never to lose the heart in them.

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An Eight Book Tribute

hite0000043ALess than a month ago, I lost my dad.  He was so many important things to me, and one of them was a storyteller.  I loved sitting in his lap in the evenings listening to the stories he made up as he went.  One of his favorite tricks was to create a main character that “just so happened” to have the same name as whatever child was his audience, and I always begged him for “Laura stories.”  Another of his tricks, as my brother explained so eloquently in his eulogy, was to:

…tell children “true” stories.  He would suck them in by including real life details and string them along with the most fantastic turn of events.  At some point the story line would transition into a familiar fairy tale, and he would love to see the moment of recognition when the kids would say, “Wait a minute… that’s The Three Bears!”

In addition to spinning his own tales, he loved to read, and so I wanted to share some of our favorite stories that we read together.  Instead of a 21 gun salute, I’d like to honor my story warrior dad with an 8 book tribute.

Peter Rabbit1. The Tale of Peter Rabbit, by Beatrix Potter

My dad read me this book so often, he had the whole story memorized word for word before I had my alphabet down.  While he read it, I rubbed the satin Peter Rabbit and Jemima Puddleduck appliques on my favorite blankie.  I found comfort in his repetition of the story and comfort in the fact that I knew Peter would narrowly escape mean old Mr. McGregor and make it back to his family to sip warm chamomile tea every time.

Don't_Forget_the_Bacon

2. Don’t Forget the Bacon, by Pat Hutchins

The boy’s blurry memory turning his mother’s grocery list from “six farm eggs” and “a cake for tea” into “six fat legs” and “a cape for me” never ceased to make us laugh.  My dad was a firm believer that funny jokes only grew funnier with age.

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3. Strega Nona, by Tomie dePaola

This book may have actually been a disguised biography of my Calabrian grandmother, Nani, who loved to cook pasta.  I would also not have trouble believing that in his youth, my father mirrored Big Anthony, the well meaning helper who didn’t pay attention.

Sambo4. The Story of Little Black Sambo, by Helen Bannerman

Well, this book sure raises a lot of controversy… which is perhaps why we never read it together.  Instead, my dad passed it onto me orally, like a traditional folktale.  In his tellings, it was sometimes the clever young boy and sometimes a girl whose name happened to be Laura that outsmarted the vain tigers.  We recently unloaded some of the often banned book’s history together, but all that mattered to me as a kid was that the tigers churned themselves into butter for pancakes.

Chicken Soup with Rice

5. Chicken Soup with Rice, by Maurice Sendak

Have you noticed a running theme of food in the books that we loved?  This was no coincidence.  It also didn’t hurt that we loved Carole King’s voice singing life into this story in the Really Rosie musical.

Owl Moon

6. Owl Moon, by Jane Yolen

Walking with me along deer trails in the woods behind our house on Sunday mornings and gazing out at our backyard from the deck, my dad instilled in me a tranquil appreciation for nature, which was reinforced every time we read this tale of a father and his daughter owling in the night.

Midsummer Night's Dream 27. A Midsummer Night’s Dream, by William Shakespeare

I remember my second grade rival bragging that he already read Shakespeare. When I insisted that I could do the same, my dad pulled A Midsummer Night’s Dream from his Complete Works of Shakespeare, and we divvied up the parts.  He patiently waited as I sounded out the iambic pentameter and explained the plot for me after each page.  Although I did not go on to read the rest of his complete works, I did make sure to laugh loudly after every line of Puck’s dialogue, because even though I didn’t understand a word of it, my dad had informed me that he was a funny character.

TheBFG8. The BFG, by Roald Dahl

Now, Roald Dahl, I could understand.  In fact, he spoke my dad’s and my language fluently.  Disgusting villains, mischievously clever heroes, and imaginative mishaps were just our speed.  We read and loved every one of Roald Dahl’s books, taking turns reading the pages out loud between laughs.  I could have filled this list with just Roald Dahl books, but The BFG was far and away our favorite.  Perhaps it was because the sweet, funny old giant and curious little Sophie’s relationship wasn’t so different from our own.  More likely, though, it was because “whizzpoppers” were the first time we’d ever encountered flatulence in a children’s book… and we were smitten.

Reading with my dad and hearing his stories fostered my love of books, my creativity, my sense of humor and, best of all, it brought me closer to him.  It’s part of who I am.

If you have any kids in your life, read with them and tell them stories.  It’s one of the greatest gifts you can give them.

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PB 14:14 Day 14 – The Heart and The Bottle

Woohoo!  But also Boohoo!  Today is the final day of the Picture Books 14:14 Challenge.  I’ve learned so much from studying these picture books in terms of their strongest story elements, and I’ve discovered so many new books from reading other participants’ PB 14:14 blog reviews.  Thanks, Christie, for putting it on, and for everyone who read my blog along the way and who shared their own picture book insights!

The Heart and the BottleI discovered that the story element I referred to the most was theme, and I think it’s because theme strengthens a book for me more than any of the others.  A book can thrive with lovable character, hilarious conflict, or innovative style, but theme is what the story is really all about.  The theme is the heart of the story.  And speaking of heart, here is one that’s all about heart, and that pulls at mine, The Heart and the Bottle.

Title: The Heart and the Bottle

Author & Illustrator: Oliver Jeffers

Publisher: Philomel Books, 2010

Once there was a girl, much like any other, whose head was filled with all the curiosities of the world.

The girl finds delight in the sea and the stars, until she experiences loss and finds herself alone in the world.  To protect her heart, she takes it out and places it in a glass bottle, which she hangs around her neck.

Her heart is safe, but the girl no longer delights in the world around her.  Plus, the bottle is awkward and heavy.

Older now, she comes across a girl who is curious about the world as she once was, and she decides she is ready to put her heart back where it belongs and talk to the girl.  The problem is, she can’t get the heart back out of the bottle.

The girl has an idea, though, that may just help.

The theme of this book is the very reason that I love books.  To remind us to take delight in and wonder at the world around us and to share our heart with others.  Even though sometimes it hurts.  A lot.

Keep reading and may your heart be unbottled.

 

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PB 14:14 Day 13 – The Arrival

With just two more picture books to review in the Picture Books 14:14 Challenge, I’m going to pull a bold move and review… not a picture book.  Technically a graphic novel for its length and paneled illustrations on some pages, The Arrival has one of the most beautiful, wordless depictions of plot I’ve ever seen.

The Arrival 1Title: The Arrival

Author & Illustrator: Shaun Tan

Publisher: Arthur A. Levine Books, 2007

The Arrival is the story of an immigrant traveling to a new land to find a better home for his family.  He leaves his wife and child behind in their home country, where the illustrations hint at the shadowy evils of oppression, and packs their photo into his one suitcase as he ventures off to brave life in a foreign territory.

The author’s portrayal of the characters experiences in a new land hit closer to home with my own time living abroad than any other book I’ve encountered.  His uncertainty through the complicated immigration procedures, his bafflement and mistakes with the different language, currency, and appliances, his isolation and longing for his family, his wonder at the beauty of the land and culture, the kind strangers who reach out to him, and the slow process of his assimilation are so real.  Yet the new land in the book is completely imaginary, filled with fantastical creatures and inventions so that readers of any background can relate to the foreignness of it.

The Arrival 2

The pacing of the plot through the pictures also helps us to fully experience every action in the story’s plot.  Some of the pictures are full two-page spreads, filled with intricate detail for us to take in all at once, like the overwhelming feeling of standing in a new place, surrounded by all kinds of beauty as well as ugliness that you have never seen before, for the first time.  On other pages, there are multiple small panels just to show a short scene.  A full page shows twenty frames of the character’s hands hovering over a conveyor belt to show the redundancy of his factory job.  Others show his range of facial gestures and hand motions as he tries in frustration to communicate.The Arrival 3

Although the book is long because of how fully the author portrays the plot, his use of wordless illustration allows you to breeze through it or linger on every experience.  It never drags… at least no more than life drags when you find yourself in a place where you don’t yet feel like you belong.

If you enjoyed this book, I also highly recommend Tales from Outer Suburbia, another of Shaun Tan’s incredible graphic novels.  I’m not a big graphic novel reader, but these are two of my very favorite books in the world.

 

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