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.
One of my perennial challenges as a writer is how much writing-related "stuff" I should take part in. There are blogs to follow, contests to participate in, forums to comment on, webinars to attend and a tremendous variety of online communities and activities to choose from. On one hand, I'd like to do it all. But if I did, I'd never do any of my own writing!
Perhaps this dilemma is why I'd never participated before this January in Tara Lazar's Storystorm - a brilliantly simply concept. Participants vow to generate at least 30 picture book ideas during the month of January. Each day, participants are asked to comment on the blog post by a a published author or other expert who shares tips on generating ideas.
I didn't quite know what to expect. I certainly didn't realize I'd learn so much about different ways to generate ideas for picture books. In the past, I'd honestly never given much thought on HOW to come up with ideas...which likely explains why I sometimes struggled to come up with them. With Storystorm, I can't believe how many tips I got on how to generate ideas! Most importantly, participating in this month-long activity got me much more in the habit of always being on the look-out for something that might spark a story.
I came up with at least 30 ideas, one of which I've already developed into a first draft. Some of the others have potential; some are simply silly.
Nonetheless, Storystorm helped make January a super productive month. I plan to stay in the habit of ongoing idea-generation with one small change: the process confirmed that my handwriting is illegible (even to me!) so I plan to record future ideas electronically.
Making and keeping friends is an essential childhood skill, which explains why there are so many picture books about friendship. For a book on friendship to stand out on the shelves, it must have something special. MAKING A FRIEND by author Tammi Sauer and (the aptly-named) illustrator Alison Friend fits the bill.
Beaver was good at making lots of things...begins this sweet book. But, like many children, he struggles with making friends. Beaver fails
in his attempts to befriend the other animals, perhaps because he's trying too hard or trying the wrong tactics, e.g., he gives birthday balloons to Porcupine!
When it starts to snow, Beaver sees the perfect opportunity to make a friendly snowman. He's soon joined by Raccoon, who's also in the market for a friend.
Can you guess what happens? It turns out that the snowman isn't as fun as Beaver and Raccoon had hoped. But in the process, the two animals discover they've made a friend in each other.
Aw! The adorable illustrations match the clever text and heartwarming message in this book about friendship that's perfect for young children between the ages of 3 and 7.
Resources for Teachers
Here are a few ideas for friendship-related classroom activities:
Say Nice Things. For younger kids, show a picture of each child, one by one, and have each of the other kids say something nice about that person. Compile the lists and hang them by each child's picture. For older kids, break the classroom into pairs and have sets of kids interview each other, using questions like: What am I good at? What could I help other kids with? What do you like about me?
We're Alike. Break classroom into small groups of about four kids. Ideally, kids who aren't already friends should be together. Have each group come up with four things they all have in common and then share with the rest of the class. For more great friendship ideas, see this article, which was the inspiration for the above ideas.
If you're interested in picture books and associated resources, check out Susanna Hill's Perfect Picture Books.
The Facts about MAKING A FRIEND:
I have to admit that I'm a bit of a sucker for the "fair trade" label, especially when it comes to my some of my favorite foods like coffee and chocolate. So, I'm predisposed to like the Dark Chocolate Mint Crunch Bar by Equal Exchange, which was founded to support small farmers and ensure they work for a fair wage and under fair labor practices.
However, I'm certainly not going to buy a fair trade product if it doesn't also taste good. Fortunately, the Equal Exchange Dark Chocolate Mint Crunch is quite delicious. I'm enough of a chocolate nerd to realize that my "sweet spot" (which in my case means it's not too sweet) is between 67% and 72% cacao. For me, the intense chocolate in this bar is just right, and the subtle crunchiness of the mint crunch is a pleasant surprise. Like other chocolate with this percentage of cacao, it's a bit dry, which is something I've come to like. The spearmint flavor nicely complements the dark chocolate.
I like that this bar breaks easily into bite-size chunks, although I'd be lying if I said I only ate one.
If you'd like some reading with your chocolate, there's always the inside of the wrapper, which lists the countries of origin of each ingredient and profiles a Latin American cacao farmer.
The Equal Exchange website bills this chocolate as "vegan, soy and gluten-free," a plus for anyone following a specific diet. For everyone else, this bar is a tasty treat you can feel good about eating.
The Stuff of Stars is a gorgeously written and illustrated exploration of the origins of the universe.
I was hooked on The Stuff of Stars from the moment I saw the stunning cover with its swirling images and vivid colors. The rest of the pages are as visually appealing. As I flipped the pages, I found myself using my finger to trace some of the colorfully explosive images that convey a sense of motion and emotion. Kudos to illustrator Ekua Holmes for creating a book that's truly a work of art.
The text of The Stuff of Stars is equally lyrical and evocative, beginning with the opening line: In the dark, in the dark, in the deep, deep, dark.. Author Marion Dane Bauer makes expert use of repetition, strong action verbs, concise text and some unexpected words (hippopotami, mitochondria) to trace the origins of the universe, the earth and then YOU, the reader. With lines like Waiting, waiting, dividing, changing, growing. Until at last, YOU burst into the world, The Stuff of Stars is poetically playful, the type of book that begs to be read and re-read.
On her author page, Marion Dane Bauer has a link to a Pinterest page with STEM resources related to the topics covered in the book.
I discovered The Stuff of Stars at the library, but definitely tend to make it part of my permanent picture book collection.
For more great picture books, see Susanna Hill's Perfect Picture Books.
I am a chocolate snob. There, I've admitted it. One of my favorite pleasures is an after-dinner treat of really good dark chocolate. Even better if it has a bit of a twist...in this case, sea salt.
If you haven't tried dark chocolate with sea salt, you're in for a treat and I think Mindo's 67% Sea Salt bar is one of the best.
Like many artisanal chocolates, it has a hard, almost crumbly, texture. The chocolate is strong, intense and not too sweet. The sea salt both brings out the chocolate flavor and adds to the flavor profile without being too salty...something that other chocolate makers seem to struggle with.
Better yet, Mindo is a brand based in Dexter, MI, one town over from where I live. Mindo bills itself as producing "bean to bar" chocolate sourced from family farms in Ecuador. Clearly, the company focuses on sustainability and environmental protection -- even the packaging is compostable!
If you're a chocolate snob like me, I'd strongly suggest giving Mindo's 67% Sea Salt bar a try.
You sit down to write, determined to make real progress on your work-in-progress. But, your ideas aren't flowing as freely as expected, you can't figure out the perfect word to replace the one that doesn't work or your character is simply not speaking to you. You get distracted. Before you know it, you're on Facebook...and then way too much time has slipped by.
I know this happens to me. That's why I've been brainstorming some strategies on how to defeat distraction:
1. Make lists. Wherever you're stuck in your book, make a list: possible character names, of ways for your character to solve her problem, a list of action verbs to replace the bland placeholder. Brainstorming is a way to get your creative juices -- and your story -- moving again.
2. Read. I constantly have various piles of picture books strewn about my office. When I'm stumped on my own writing, I'll often take a break and read several. Sometimes, this will spark an idea. If nothing else, it will spark a smile...and I've got to believe that a happy writer is a better writer!
3. Connect with other writers: You're likely part of one or more online communities of writers, e.g., the 12 x 12 Picture Book Challenge, where you can go to ask for help on a vexing issue in your manuscript. Likewise, you can peruse posts and offer assistance to others. Just make sure that you don't spend so much time with your online friends that it becomes a distraction from your writing!