"Evan and his dog did everything together." The first line of THE ROUGH PATCH by Brian Lies sets up the deep friendship between Evan, a fox, and his dog.
In this book, Evan especially enjoys sharing his love of gardening with his canine friend. The two friends did everything together, until..."
one day the unthinkable happened."
The author doesn't come out and say that the dog died. Instead, an artful two-page spread explains that "Evan laid his dog to rest" and shows the fox, dejected, digging a hole in his garden. The art on the right-hand page shows a swirling cloud with the text "and nothing was the same" surrounded by moody, dark colors. Any child (or adult) who has lost a pet would be familiar with the emotions elicited by this powerful combination of words and images.
This book depicts Evan angry and sad about the loss of his friend, until gardening eventually is his salvation...and the path to a new canine friend. I love how this book shows that getting over grief takes time and that it ends on a hopeful note.
It's not easy to write about death in a way that's both moving and accessible to children. New York Times-bestselling author/author Brian Lies has done a fabulous job with this book, which I'd recommend to any child who's ever lost a pet.
The Rainbow Bridge has a worksheet that kids can complete to help them work through the grief of losing a pet. Younger kids can be helped by a parent or teacher or can only complete the appropriate parts.
This article from Psychology Today also has some tips, including the idea of creating a "Bowl of Memories" with scraps of paper with memories (written or drawn) about the pet.
The Rough Patch
by Brian Lies
Published by Greenwillow Books (HarperCollins), 2018
Ages: 4 and above
For more Perfect Picture Books, please see Susanna Hill's blog.
My son's third-grade teacher has a classroom poster that I love. It's called "10 Ways to Be a Better Reader." It then goes on to list the 10 ways, each in a different color. The part I love is that #1 to #10 all say the same thing: READ.
It's the same with writing. To be better writers, we must read...
1. Published picture books: I've known this for years, but have only recently taken it to heart and begun regularly checking out and then reading bags and bags of recent picture books. I'm also currently participating in Reading for Research Month (ReFoReMo), which has been a fantastic way to discover new books.
2. Other people's manuscripts: Everyone says that you need critique partners to help you hone your writing. After all, other people can see problems and solutions that you can't in your own writing. But, there's also benefit to critiquing other people's work. When you do so, you see what other writers do well (and where they need work), which can inform your own writing.
3. Blogs: There are so many blogs out there about writing, by writers and for writers that it would be impossible to keep up. Two that I especially enjoy are Susanna Hill's Blog (for the book reviews, contests and other community-building activities) and Literary Rambles (for the informative interviews with agents). Pick at least a few and try to read and comment regularly.
And of course, while you're reading, don't forget the most important thing: keep WRITING!
Ada Rios grew up in a town made of trash." So begins the moving and inspirational true story: Ada's Voiolin, the Story of the Recycled Orchestra of Paraguay.
I don't read a lot of non-fiction picture books and discovered this one through my participation in Reading for Research (ReForReMo). And what a fantastic discovery!
The story takes place in a slum town in Paraguay, where the inhabitants' main source of income is picking and selling trash from a landfill. In this environment, Ada struggles to stay out of trouble and focus on school.
One day, a new person comes to town and starts offering music lessons to the local children. But, he only has three instruments and 10 students. And that's not that only problem. In a town "where a violin is worth more than a house," it's not safe for the children to take the instruments home to practice.
Fortunately, the teacher comes up with an extremely innovative solution: making instruments from the materials at hand: recycled trash!
Over time, more and more children join the "recycled orchestra," which began to improve...so much that the orchestra of kids from one of Paraguay's poorest towns go on to perform around the world!
This tale of hope, creativity and the power of music is lyrically written by Susan Hood and beautifully illustrated by Sally Wern Comport. A Spanish-language version is also available.
If you're interested in the fascinating, real-life story behind this book, here's an interesting YouTube video.
Title: Ada's Violin the Story of the Recycled Orchestra of Paraguay
Author: Susan Hood
Illustrator: Sally Wern Comport
Published: 2016 by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
Age range: 7-10
To read more reviews of Perfect Picture Books, check out author Susanna Hill's website.
Since yesterday, I've read at least 20 books. Mind you, they were all picture books that averaged less than 500 words. But, lest you think I just zipped through them (like my 9-year-old son does), let me explain: I read them for research, not merely for pleasure.
This year, for the first time, I'm taking part in Reading for Research Month (ReFoReMO), an annual online activity that challenges participants to read a daily list of five to 10 books, along with a blog post about them from an expert in the kidlit field. On the first day, I read a wide range of books defined as "bibliotherapy," a term I didn't even know existed for the type of book that can be used therapeutically to help kids deal with different experiences.
It's only day 2, but I've already discovered a few new books that I love and likely wouldn't have read otherwise. One such example is Planting Stories: The Life of Librarian and Storyteller Pura Belpré.
I know that picture book biographies, especially of lesser-known figures, are hot right now...but I don't usually enjoy them. Planting Stories is different. It's lyrical, engaging and written like a fictional story with sparse, carefully-chosen text.
Beyond discovering good books, Reading for Research is about using mentor texts to "truly understand the form, the market, and the craft of writing them." I've come to realize the value of reading many picture books in order to grow as a writer. While I've been reading a lot of picture books on my own (and tracking them in my handy-dandy spreadsheet), Reading for Research gives me a focused way of reading a curated list of books throughout March.
I'm excited to keep reading and discovering books that will help me along my path to publication. And now if you'll excuse me, I have another 30 or so books to pick up from the library!
Yesterday in spin class, I had a revelation: spinning is a lot like the path to publication. Both activities require a commitment to continuing to work hard even when you're not sure you're going anywhere.
In spinning, I pedal, I sweat, I check the clock wondering when class will be over. I look at other people in the class and wonder how they are pushing the pedals so much faster than I am. I know I'm doing something that supports my fitness journey...even though I'm staying in place.
Trying to get published as a children's picture book author feels similar. I work hard. I sweat, even though my perspiration is more mental than physical. I get distracted. I become jealous when I hear that other writers are getting agents, getting published, getting further along their own personal paths to publication. As in spinning, I try to use that envy to push myself harder rather than giving up.
Sometimes, I do wonder if I'm really making progress on my path to publication. But, as with spinning, I tell myself that I'm doing the right things: improving my craft, connecting with the kidlit community; researching agents, and most importantly, writing...and eventually it will pay off.
So here's to continuing to push both the bike pedals and the computer keys!
Sometimes, I feel that picture books have become too snarky and comic book-esque. While there's a place for humor and brevity, I sometimes feel that the current market undervalues lyrical, truly well-written books. Sometimes, I feel that the stories we read to our young child have become almost too simple. That's why I was so happy to discover Whale in a Fishbowl, a book that to me is everything a picture book should be.
It's lyrical. It's beautifully written. Gorgeously illustrated. And it conveys a message in a non-didactic way.
Whale in a Fishbowl begins with a compelling hook: Wednesday lived in a fishbowl. It was the only home she knew.
As we read more, we discover a fishbowl (which turns out to be in an aquarium) is not where Wednesday should really be. In this tale of self-discovery, a child helps a fish realize that the sea is where she belongs.
I loved this book, which I got from the library. I plan to buy my own copy from my local bookseller because this is a book that belongs on my bookshelf.
The Facts: Whale in a Fishbowl
This weekend while in northern Michigan, my son and I stopped into the Grocer's Daughter, a local chocolate shop. I immediately felt at home among the gorgeously displayed truffles and chocolate-inspired decorations, including two my nine-year-old son noticed: a "molinillo" for making Mexican hot chocolate and cacao pods used as business card holders.
The chocolate samples we tasted were delicious. Originally just planning on buying a coffee, I left with a green bag full of treats, including the Mimi Bar, which features cacao nibs and one of my all-time favorite spices: ginger.
Based on my experience in the store, I was prepared to be awed as I peeled open the environmentally-friendly paper wrapper, which proudly states that the chocolate is "handcrafted and Michigan made. Locally sourced and fairly traded." My first impression was visual: the chocolate bar truly is a thing of beauty with ginger, cacao nibs and salt artistically layered on top.
Of course, nobody buys chocolate to look at it, so I eagerly took a bite. Fortunately, the taste lived up to the visual appeal. The Mimi Bar features a deep, dark, robust chocolate that begs to be savored. The candied ginger adds a burst of spicy flavor. (In fact, I could have used more ginger.) I didn't really taste the cacao nibs but they likely added to the chocolate bar's texture.
If you ever find yourself near northern Michigan's Sleeping Bear Sand Dunes, I'd definitely make time for a trip to the Grocer's Daughter Chocolate shop. If you're there at the right time, you can even take a chocolate-making class. If not, delicious, artisanal chocolates like the Mimi bar can be purchased online.
What does a short story for children in which somebody feels guilty have to do with Valentine's Day? If you read children's author Susanna Hill's blog, you already know. It's time for the 2019 Valentiny Writing Contest, which involves writing a maximum 214-word, Valentine-themed story for children featuring the concept of guilt.
Here's my entry, loosely inspired by events in the news:-)
The Year without Sweethearts
Maddie pressed ON. Cranked the colormaker. Pumped the sugarpopper. The SweetheartCreator whirred into action. Within seconds, heart-shaped candies slid down the chute. MINE BE. YOURS I’M. ME HUG.
Oh, no! Kids wouldn’t eat sweethearts with mixed-up messages!
OFF! Maddie started over.
She pressed ON. Cranked the colormaker. Pumped the sugarpopper. The SweetheartCreator clanked to life. Moments later, candies dropped. BE MINE, I’M YOURS, HUG ME. Each kidney-shaped candy had the perfect message.
Oh, no! Kids wouldn’t eat Valentine’s kidneys!
OFF! Sigh. Maddie began again.
She pressed ON. Cranked the colormaker. Pumped the sugarpopper. The SweetheartCreator sputtered. Nothing. Maddie rattled the rollerwriter. Finally, heart-shaped candies tumbled down the line. BE MINE. I’M YOURS. HUG ME.
Sweet success! The candies looked perfect, so perfect that she tried one.
Yuck! Splat! Kids wouldn’t eat salty hearts!
Without the perfect treat, Valentine’s Day would be ruined!
Suddenly, a crowd of kids entered the room.
Oh, no! The 3:00 factory tour.
“Can I try a sweetheart?” asked a girl.
“I’m sorry. The machine is broken. There won’t be any sweethearts this year.”
“How can we have Valentine’s Day without sweethearts?”
“I don’t know.”
The girl put her arms around Maddie in the perfect Valentine’s treat: a hug.
Wow! What a weekend! I was lucky enough to be one of 788 people from 44 states and 14 countries participating in the 20th Annual Winter Conference of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). Being around so many talented children’s book writers and illustrators was motivational, inspiring….and exhausting.
Over a packed day and a half of intensive, keynote and panel sessions, I heard from agents, editors, authors and illustrators representing multiple facets of the children’s book world. While each presented specific tips and insights from their personal perspectives, I heard some common themes that especially resonated with me as an author on the path to publication:
It’s all about community: In several sessions, agents and editors talked about the importance of building community: online and offline. Community-building activities include interacting with others in the kidlit industry on social media; getting to know writers, librarians and booksellers in your area; supporting other authors when they are in your town by showing up at their book signings and other events. It's the right thing to do...and it makes it more likely that you'll have a supportive network when it's your turn in the spotlight.
Remember who your audience is: This sounds obvious, but the audience for children's books is children. Therefore, it's important for writers to be around kids as much as possible to understand what they like and what's important to them. I heard time and time again that if your book doesn't strike an emotional chord with children, it
Expect and accept rejection: At one point, the legendary Jane Yolen (who at 80 just published her 370th book!) asked if anyone in the keynote session had submitted something and not been rejected. Nobody raised a hand. As I can personally attest, getting published and getting an agent is a path lined with reams of rejections. It's a competitive, subjective business not for the thin-skinned.
One thing I hadn't thought about until this weekend was that agents also experience rejection when the books they try to sell are not purchased. One of the agents who spoke said she often thought of the song with this line, "I get knocked down, but I get up again."
Me, too. And I plan to keep on doing so until I see my name on a book cover.
In the beginning, there were three colors: reds, yellows and blues. So begins the seemingly simple but deceptively deep MIXED A COLORFUL STORY by author/illustrator Arree Chung. This tale of acceptance begins with the three primary color groups living a life of "color harmony" until a disagreement breaks out and the colors decide that segregation is the answer.
Of course, this solution doesn't last because the colors start mixing. Before long, yellow and blue get married and end up with a little green baby. The book ends with everyone living together in a "new city full of color."
I love how this book takes the complex concepts of interracial marriage and acceptance and explains them using colors, something that all crayon-coloring kids can relate to.
Interestingly, this book reminded me of an older, Spanish-language book that I used to read to my son when he was younger: Alma Flor Ada's Amigos.
RESOURCES FOR TEACHERS:
Please see this article from Education World for five great classroom activities designed to teach tolerance.
For more picture book recommendations, see Susanna Hill's Perfect Picture Books.