Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Author Perspective/A Visit with Lucine Kasbarian & The Greedy Sparrow

Thank you so much for asking me to submit an item to you for your blog in honor of the publication of my latest book, The Greedy Sparrow: An Armenian Tale (Marshall Cavendish, April 2011). I enjoy reading your blog a great deal and think you're providing a wonderful haven for readers and writers alike.
This folk tale has been handed down orally through the generations of my family and has also existed in the greater Armenian oral tradition for centuries. It has been gratifying to put this time-honored story to paper for posterity. I’m also very pleased that the book is releasing in April, which among other things, is genocide memorial month. For me (and many others), this symbolic release date signifies that in spite of genocide, a culture survives. 
I trust that I'll not be touching upon a hackneyed subject by sharing a few thoughts with you and your readers regarding prompts for beating writer’s block and procrastination. It’s an issue that plagues me from time to time, and so I’ve compiled five ways to meet it head-on. I hope that at least one tip is new and useful to you and yours!
1) Most often, my writing blocks occur because I have to confront something and don’t realize it yet. Is there something about the project or assignment that’s bothering you? Is there an inconsistency about the plot or character? Is the deadline you’ve set for yourself unrealistic? Once you "name it and claim it," you can resolve it.
2) Once too often, with a whole day ahead of me, I’ve sat at the computer and started out well, only to take a breather and launch the Internet -- which often results in letting precious hours slip by.  A timer, in my opinion, is the best way to make use of what would have otherwise been unstructured writing time. When I have a large parcel of time or am feeling reluctant to write, I set our kitchen timer for 15 minutes and write until the bell rings. If those 15 minutes successfully put me into the groove, I continue writing. If not, I hopefully got in a good 15 minutes of creative work. Either way, the timer can spur writing discipline.
3) One of my most effective tools has been to write down random word groupings that please the ear or palate. I also jot down aphorisms, fragmented thoughts, interesting episodes I’ve witnessed, dreams, and real conversations shared or overheard. These can and will come in handy in future writings. So that ideas don’t escape documentation, consider outfitting each room of the house (including the bathroom) with notepads. When you feel blocked, re-read what you've written on these notepads to conjure up ideas.
4) I read as much as I can by authors I admire. Sometimes I’m moved by the cadence of their word groupings, or the sensitivity with which a topic is addressed, or the flow of the narrative. The point is not so much to emulate other authors, but to be inspired by them. Many times I’ve read something so wonderful, it has conjured up a memory or emotion that has put me to work on a writing project almost immediately.
5) My most effective prompt for writing is to pretend I’m writing a letter to a close, trusted confidant. The language I use is nearly always more descriptive and intimate, and the product need not be sent (but sometimes is)!
Kindest regards,

Lucine Kasbarian, author
The Greedy Sparrow: An Armenian Tale (Marshall Cavendish, 2011)
The Armenian-Americans (Cobblestone magazine/ Carus Publishing, 2000)
Armenia: A Rugged Land, an Enduring People (Dillon Press/ Simon & Schuster, 1998)

Blurb about newest book:
The Greedy Sparrow: An Armenian Tale is from the ancient Armenian oral tradition and culture, which was nearly obliterated during the Turkish genocide of the Armenians, Assyrians and Greeks in 1915. The author learned the tale from her father, editor and columnist C.K. Garabed, who would recite it to her at bedtime. He had learned it from his own grandmother, a celebrated storyteller from the Old Country. The tale was first put to paper by Armenian poet Hovhannes Toumanian at the turn of the 20th  century.  The Greedy Sparrow is the first time this tale has been presented in the English language as a children’s picture book. The story begins in old Armenia with a sparrow who catches a thorn in his foot. As he asks for help, he sets off an intriguing cycle of action that transports him through the Armenian countryside, encountering people engaged in traditional folkways. The Greedy Sparrow ends with a surprising twist and conveys moral messages about greed, selfishness and using one’s judgment. To address the ethical and human components of the tale, a discussion and activity guide has been prepared and can be accessed here: 

Friday, April 1, 2011

Writing Tip / Celebrate Poetry Month with Leslie Bulion

Four Poetry Writing Tips from Leslie Bulion

1.       Read reams of poems. Learn which ones move your heart, tickle your funny bone, or sing in your ear. Do you like rhyme? Meter? Certain rhythms? Free verse? Shape poems? Your most successful poems will be those you’d love to read.
2.       If you’re working with a known form of poetry, learn the rules (see Tip #1). Be strict with yourself as you practice working within the rules. Once you fully understand how that particular poetry form works, you’ll know how to bend the rules (whee!) without compromising the integrity of the poem. For example, check out this great description of my favorite form, the double dactyl: then try one yourself—they’re addictive, tricksy fun! How to be sure your six-syllable double dactylic word in line 6 has never been used in another double dactyl? (See Tip #3.)
3.       Make up words! If you’re writing funny poetry, have at it—play with your language. How often have you read a clever article or poem where the author’s invention of a word adds juice, humor and new meaning to the writing? I might have had my fill of ice storms,  but I thoroughly enjoyed all of the “snowcabulary” invented in honor of the winter of 2011. Of course, there is a caveat to making up words and it is this: every single reader has to be able to infer exactly what your word means on first read.
4.       Read your poem out loud at least a million times. How does it sound? Do you trip over your tongue? Do you have to hurry to fit a word into your established meter? Does your free verse pause and flow at the places you want it to? Do your rhymes rhyme? Now give your poem to a million friends and ask them to read it out loud. Did each friend put the emPHAasis on the  right syLLAbles? If the answer is yes, then BRAVO! Your poem is done!
 ABOUT AT THE SEA FLOOR CAFE Odd Ocean Critter Poems:

This clever collection of poems describes the devious and sometimes surprising methods ocean denizens use to forage for food, capture prey, trick predators, and protect their young. The poems swim effortlessly from page to page, leading us from the snail shell home of the jeweled anemone crab on the ocean floor to a violet snail hanging upside down in its bubble house on the sea’s surface. At the Sea Floor Cafe includes science notes with details about each animal's behavior, a glossary, and an appendix explaining the forms of poetry that appear on each spread. Striking linoleum prints round out this title, which can be used across the curriculum.


Leslie Bulion teams a life-long love of poetry and her oceanography background in At the Sea Floor Café (Peachtree 2011), her second collection of science poetry. The first, Hey There, Stink Bug! (Charlesbridge 2006), is an award-winning book of gruesomely humorous insect poems. Leslie’s other books include the Bank Street Best Books 2007 middle-grade novel Uncharted Waters (Peachtree 2006), The Trouble With Rules (Peachtree 2008), and the Children’s Africana Book Award Best Picture Book winner, Fatuma’s New Cloth (Moon Mountain 2002). A former school social worker, Leslie has written and edited books in the education market and has been a regular contributing writer in national magazines and on the Internet. She gives writing workshops and presentations to students, educators and writers throughout the US. Visit Leslie’s website at
At the Sea Floor Café
ISBN: 978-1-56145-565-2
Total Pages: 48
Author: Leslie Bulion
Illustrator: Leslie Evans
Peachtree Publishers
April 1, 2011

In honor of National Poetry Month, Peachtree Publishers is inviting educators to post students' poetry on their facebook page. At the end of the month, Peachtree will hold a drawing. One winner will receive a skype visit with me, and five others will win a copy of AT THE SEA FLOOR CAFE.
Here's a link to the contest rules:

Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Lovely Blog Award

I'd like to thank Gayle Krause of The Storyteller's Scroll ( for the Lovely Blog Award. I am pleased to accept this award from Gayle, the author of Rock Star Santa (Scholastic).

For those of you I nominate, please accept the award, post it to your blog and nominate 5 other blogs that you enjoy or have just found.

In paying it forward I have nominated the following blogs:
Author Rob Sanders
The Visual Storyteller's Studio (of Lisa J. Michaels)
The Yellow Brick Road (of Lisa J. Michaels)
From the Mixed-up Files of Jennifer Bertman
Deborah Cuneo Illustration
Thanks again, Gayle, for the nomination. Happy blogging, everyone! 
Lynne Marie

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Illustration Tip/Keeping it Real with Mary Peterson

Keeping It Real (Or At Least Full of Life)!
by Mary Peterson

My favorite picture books to illustrate are full of action and expression. The two little piglets in PIGGIES IN THE PUMPKIN PATCH race around the farm, make a mess, get into trouble, jump, run, and skid. They are happy, startled, scared, mad and finally, exhausted.

Here's the problem--I'm a very tedious drawer. I tend to get bogged down in details so keeping the action fresh and lively is a challenge. If you love your sketches (as I do) but find the finished art looks over worked and static (as I did), try this: quick sketch from life. Go to places where there's lots of commotion, a swimming pool, train station, construction site, basketball game or dog park and draw as fast as you can. Sketch what you see on the television. Keep a small notebook with you to capture unexpected action. At first capturing the chaos will be frustrating but keep at it. Over time you will hold the memory of those quick responses in your hand and eye and learn to trust their authenticity. Of course, old habits die hard---so if you get bogged down in the studio, YOU be the mover! I keep a jump rope close by for when I need a little action.

Mary Peterson was born and raised in Iowa on a small farm surrounded by cornfields and lots of animals. Those early years in the company of critters large and small continue to provide inspiration for her art. These days she lives in Los Angeles with her husband.
Mary is the co-author and illustrator of PIGGIES IN THE PUMPKIN PATCH (Charlesbridge), which was included in the 2010 Society of Illustrators Original Art Show. She is the illustrator of OCEAN SOUP (Charlesbridge) and WIGGLE AND WAGGLE (Charlesbridge), a Bank Street College of Education Best Books of the Year and recipient of the Early Childhood News Directors Choice Award. Mary's other illustration credits include NO TIME TO NAP (Heyday Books) and CAT ON WHEELS (Boyds Mills Press).

mary peterson


Saturday, February 19, 2011

Writing & Illustrating Prompt/Animal Math with Illustrator Will Strong

My Writing Tip by Will Strong:

When speaking with both children and adults, the question I am most often asked about writing and illustrating is, "Where do you get your ideas?"  People are sometimes shocked when I answer them.  I tell them there is nothing magical about new ideas.  Ideas don't just happen; they don't just pop into your head unbidden.  Ideas are created and cultivated.

When I talk to kids about making stories I try to focus on simple concepts.  One concept that can work for pretty much everybody is what I call "Animal Math."  You take any boring old animal and add something new to it.

Animal + Object = An Interesting Idea   

It can be that simple.

And it's not just animals.  You can take any two dissimilar things and put them together to come up with a new idea.  Take a caveman and put him in space.  Take an ordinary bath time and add an invasion of sea creatures.  Take a hippopotamus and put him on a bicycle.  

Not all of your ideas are going to be brilliant but that's okay.  I create terrible ideas all the time.  Though I know that if I keep brainstorming and tweaking things around I will eventually come up with something great.

So, that's where I get my ideas.  Once I have an idea that I'm really psyched about then it's time to get down to the tough stuff.  It's time to actually write the thing.  

So, remember to make it fun (for you and the kids.)
My name is Will Strong.  I'm a recent graduate from the BYU Illustration Program.  I'm currently illustrating my first picture book.  It's a collaboration with author Rick Walton called "I'm Not Afraid of Bunnies."  It will be released as an e-book this summer.

I also run a non-profit website for teachers (and everybody else) called  Creative Kid Central is dedicated to making creativity a part of children's lives.  My favorite part of C.K.C. is the Creative Writing Prompts section.  It's full of open-ended stories and other ideas to get kids to enjoy writing.

My motto in all the work I do is "Make It Fun."  When you are working with kids, fun is always the key element.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Writing & Illustrating Tip/Developing Character with Leslie Helakoski

"We like this story, but we don't like the art."  I heard this comment for years. Each time I sold a picture book, I held out hope that I would be able to illustrate my own work. I knew I could draw, so what was the problem?

The problem was that good design and execution are not the same thing as good children's book illustrations. For me, the answer lay in better character development.

Just as we strive to develop strong characters when we write, we must develop them even further when we illustrate. We have to do more than show what the text is saying, we have to show something extra about the character than can be seen visually.

Authors often fill out character trait forms to get to 'know' their characters. I do the same sort of thing when I start drawing. I make many rough sketches until I start noticing specific character traits that come out as I work. Here are some questions I ask myself when I start
sketching a character:

1. How is this character different from others of his species. (What physical traits make him/her stand out? Big feet, nose size, crazy hair? Bowlegged?)
2. What does the character's stall/home look like? (Neat, messy, extravagant?)
3. What does she love/hate to eat?
4. What does she look like as he moves? (Graceful, clumsy, joyous? This can lead to showing her tripping in a scene or maybe wearing toe shoes and mooning over pictures of ballerinas)
5. What is the predominant emotion in each scene?
6. What fears/strengths does she have? (Does she shrink back from others? Tower over them? Have a nervous tick?)
7. Show attitude!
8. Will I know something personal about this character just by looking at her in this scene or is she a generic space filler?
9. Can I emphasize emotion from the way I place her on the page? If she's feeling uplifted, should I show her high up on the page? If she's feeling left out, maybe I can show her far from the others in the spread? Or,
using perspective, show her small and other characters large to emphasize how she feels?
10. Is she intentionally doing something contrary to what the text says?
11. Do I show different view points and vary the size of the characters?
12. Are there any bigger than life characters I can compare mine to, that help me amp up my character? (Is my wanna-be beauty more of a Zsa Zsa Gabor or more of a Phyllis Diller?)
13. Can I exaggerate a point or understate it?
14. Does something about my character change over the course of the story?
When I finally started developing my characters more on the drawing board, my art was picked up along with my text.

Of course, I also spent a lot of time viewing other's illustrations and learning just by absorbing--which sometimes just takes time. But I did find that as an illustrator, I have to do all the things I do as a writer.
Revise, develop strong characters, show changes, show humor and emotion. Include more information than you see at first glance. And I thought all I had to do was draw.

ABOUT LESLIE: Leslie Helakoski writes humorous picture books and sometimes (but not always) illustrates them. She lives in Michigan with her husband, three large (as opposed to small) children, and one literally small dog. Her latest book, Fair Cow, is about a dairy cow who dreams of winning blue ribbons at the state fair. She gets beauty advice from a pig but finds something is wrong with her shape, her hair, her hooves and even her walk. How can she compete?

Book trailer for Fair Cow:
Book trailer for Big Chickens:

Previous books:
Woolbur (Harper Collins, illustrated by Lee Harper) Nominated for 9 state
book awards.
Big Chickens (Dutton, illustrated by Henry Cole) Michigan Reads Award,
Great Lakes Great Books Award
Big Chickens Fly the Coop, 3 state book awards
Big Chickens Go to Town
The Smushy Bus

PERSONAL NOTE FROM LYNNE MARIE: I had known Leslie previously from an online critique group, but you can imagine what a pleasure it was to meet her in person at the Highlights Foundation Writer's Workshop at Chautauqua in 2001.  Just another example of the fabulous(!), talented(!) people you can meet at those spectacular(!) writing retreats, which you have noticed, I cannot say enough about (LOL).

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

ILLUSTRATION TIP/Capturing Action & Emotion with Layne Johnson

LAYNE JOHNSON, on Illustrating Action

Well I just found out my book OFF LIKE THE WIND! The First Ride of the Pony Express, written by author Michael Spradlin, won this year’s Western Heritage Award from The National Cowboy Hall Of Fame and Museum in Oklahoma City. How exciting! When I think back to working on that book, I recall certain ideas I had as I first read the manuscript, and later as I was designing each spread for the art. The first thing that made me really want to illustrate the story was a biggy. It had loads of ACTION. How many times have authors been told, “Give the artist something to illustrate!” What illustrators hate to see in picture book manuscripts are the dreaded “talking heads.” Or no change of location. With OLTW, that was definitely not a problem! The action varied from location to location with various perilous interactions. When I paginate a manuscript the question is what to illustrate on each spread or page. It was especially challenging but fun with OLTW, because there was so MUCH to choose from.

When faced with this most exciting phase of a book, I must look at what or what not to illustrate. A picture book doesn’t have the luxury of video where multiple thing can be acted out. I must choose that wonderfully magic “moment” which can relay the essence of the scene. Am I asking the reader to think, react, or simply be a part of a scene? Do I illustrate what’s about to happen, what’s happening now, or what just happened, i.e. anticipation, excitement, or reaction. These are all valid things to paint, but must be balanced throughout the book. This is where the true art comes in . . . pacing.

I don’t believe in talking or writing down to children. They are smarter than we give them credit for. And they aren’t delicate flowers, though we try to make them that at times, usually for our own overprotective reasons. The children of yesteryear knew more about life because they grew up with it. And the children of today deserve to know what the past was really like. Knowledge is strength.

Once I decide what to illustrate, I then look at how to build tension, create empathy, make a scene explode, or the opposite – how to create a resting point, something serene. Ultimately I want to make a child feel like he or she is there. Empathy is everything. Panoramic skies can make you feel like you’re really in an expansive environment. Dangerous critters or weather may threaten. There may be hostile people. This is GREAT! Stories must overcome real obstacles; otherwise it can be a boring read.

So look at the scenes below with these things in mind. Also, watch for point of view, perspective, directional elements that guide to focal points, color, etc. They aren’t accidental, but hopefully somewhat invisible. “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!”

Visit my website at
See my book trailers on YouTube!


Bottom Row: L to R, Layne Johnson, Jennifer Ward, Me!
I think one of the best things about the Highlights Foundation Writer's Workshop at Chautauqua (besides the fabulous mentors, invaluable learning experiences, wonderful opportunities, absolutely delightful staff and beautiful, quaint & relaxing location) is the people.

At Chautauqua 2002, I had the distinct pleasure of meeting Layne Johnson, Jennifer Ward and Matt Faulkner (not pictured) as attendees and becoming pals for the week. 

Here were are, admiring one of Layne's projects at the Welcome Center. I am still a great fan of his remarkable work and am pleased to be able to showcase it here.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Writing Prompt/Pondering Possibilities with PB Writer Samantha Vamos

Ask "What If?" by Samantha R. Vamos

I have an extremely simple “What if” writing exercise, which I typically perform several times a day.  Almost every day, I hear a little voice in my head pose the question, “What if _________” in response to a situation.  Here’s an example.  The other day I peered out my front door and discovered a box.  I neither recognized the labeling, nor the sender’s name, and the idea occurred to me – instead of opening the box to find an item I had ordered online, what if all that I found inside was a mysterious code and a cryptic note from a friend, or a telephone number and a photo of a friend in a setting I did not recognize?  Sometimes I answer my “What if” questions by writing my imagined responses and evaluating whether any of the answers evolve into threads that may be sewn together as a storyline. 

The idea for The Cazuela That The Farm Maiden Stirred occurred to me after performing my “What if” exercise.  I was in the kitchen gathering ingredients to make pancakes and realized I lacked both milk and eggs.  At the time, my husband and I lived in Chicago, Illinois and did not own a car.  That morning was bitter cold with gusty winds and the prospect of walking to the subway or waiting for a bus to the nearest grocery store was not appealing.  Suddenly, I thought what if I lived on a farm and I could simply call one of my animal “neighbors” for a pail of milk or a basket of fresh eggs?  Envisioning myself a farm maiden, I smiled and my story took off from there.  I never finished making pancakes that morning, but I did manage to write a first draft of our story!

One more thing:  there is a recipe at the end of The Cazuela That The Farm Maiden Stirred, but it’s not for pancakes!

Samantha’s Picture Books:
Before You Were Here, Mi Amor (Viking, 2009, illustrated by Santiago Cohen)
2010 Washington State Book Award for Picture Book
“Best for Babies” - Parents Magazine

The Cazuela That The Farm Maiden Stirred (Charlesbridge, 2011, illustrated by Rafael López)

Alphabet Trucks (Charlesbridge, Fall 2013)


Book Trailers:
The Cazuela That The Farm Maiden Stirred
Before You Were Here, Mi Amor

Book Contest:

More About Samantha and Her Books:

Samantha attended Georgetown University Law Center, and once upon a time, practiced law in Washington, D.C. and Chicago, Illinois.  Now she’s a full-time mom and part-time writer, who, upon moving to the Pacific Northwest, has added coffee to her already significant chocolate addiction!

Before You Were Here, Mi Amor (Viking, 2009), her first children’s picture book, won the 2010 Washington State Book Award for Picture Book and was featured as “Best for Babies” by Parents Magazine (May 2009).  Samantha’s second picture book, The Cazuela That the Farm Maiden Stirred (Charlesbridge, 2011, illustrated by Rafael López) released February 1, and is an amusing tale of five farm animals, their farmer, and a farm girl.  From the book jacket:

"When a farm girl starts cooking, all the animals want to help.  The cow contributes milk, the hen offers eggs, and even the duck makes a special trip to the market.  While the pot is bubbling merrily on the stove, everyone dances and sings - but who is watching the cazuela?  Samantha R. Vamos and Rafael López serve up a spicy tribute to the classic nursery rhyme "The House That Jack Built" in this bilingual celebration of community and food.” 

In The Cazuela That the Farm Maiden Stirred, as the action builds, the Spanish words repeat.  At the book's end, a glossary with pronunciation and recipe are provided.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Picture Book Marathon Update: Day Thirteen & Fourteen

My Picture Book Marathon tally spelled out "Sweet" success as I handed in my count of 7 completed picture book drafts on Sunday for the week, a total of 12 since the Marathon started on February 1st!  It hasn't always easy to find the time to write a complete draft each day.  I have given up some of my favorite t.v. shows, checked Facebook less, and as Lora and Jean recommended, made it a daily task to ponder and list three possible ideas to work on the next day.  I have noticed myself finding a rhythm, and more and more, doing productive work on my writing and storytelling has become part of my daily routine.
I think being in the holiday spirit got my creative juices flowing, as a holiday book poured out of me on Sunday, but it wasn't a Valentine's Day book!  Of the 14 picture book drafts I've written, there are 7 that I consider worth pursuing with more revisions, and this one is definitely one of them. 

One of Lora and Jean's recent blogposts discussed writing what you know. Monday's picture book draft was inspired by my little one, who has neurological tics and makes humming noises or perhaps something else, when the tic shifts over time.  It's about a little hippo who blinks, hums and flicks his tongue and his attempt to convince the other animals to let him play with them in the watering hole. I am happy that even in the first draft I feel it has humor, compassion, tension, and ultimately, understanding. I hope that after much thought and many revisions, it will one day be a GOOD story.  Read on, to see what I mean...

This weekend, I asked my 6-year old daughter (who has been reading picture books and chapter books unassisted for some time) what topics she liked to read about in picture books. She replied, "Well, just about anything that's good." I asked her what she meant by good, and tried to get her to pick some topics in particular. She titled her head and said, "Didn't you understand? Anything that's GOOD!" She gave me examples...FLORA'S VERY WINDY DAY (by Jeanne Birdsall), DESERT ROSE AND THE HIGHFALUTIN' HOG (by Alison Jackson), JULIUS, BABY OF THE WORLD (by Kevin Henkes), SUCH A SILLY BABY (by Steffanie and Richard Long). All these books are extremely different in style and topic, but I think I know what she means. A good story, well-told!

So keep on writing those drafts every day -- you're stretching your creative muscles, exploring new things (situations, characters, voices, places, conflicts). You're on the right path to creating that good story, well told!

Writing Advice from Illustrator Will Terry/How Not to Kill 'Em with Color

Ok -- I admit it. I am an author who is a wanna-be illustrator. I study art and pictures probably just as much as I study words and text. You might not even know that about me, so maybe I am a "closet" wanna-be illustrator.  Then, one of my favorite picture book illustrators, Will Terry, releases his video series "How to Illustrate Children's Books" and "Digital Painting in Photoshop" and I tell myself I must have him Guest Blog over at my blog pond so that other writers who are closet wanna-be illustrators can come out and stretch their wings along with me. But does sweet, humble Will mention it in the following post? No. So here's the link. Enjoy the creative process (and the color aspect - but in moderation, of course)!

And without further to-do, here are some enlightening anecdotes from Will Terry:
I feel like the brother of three sisters all over again sneaking into their bedroom with one mission – get to the barbie dolls, rip as many heads off as possible before their screams forced me to run and hide. Part of me feels that I don't belong here. I got horrible grades in school. I'll bet that most of you did well in school. I'll bet that most of you enjoyed writing as a child – I didn't. I'll bet most of you have no trouble with reading comprehension – I did and still do. I lived in the shadow of an older sister who over-achieved in school. Why am I confessing all this? Because it's part of who I am and I feel lucky to have found what I'm good at. It pains me to realize that the world is littered with souls like mine but who never found themselves or were never rewarded for their talents. I grew up feeling inferior to those who excelled in reading, writing, and math. I was afraid of you guys.

Ok, that was a very heavy way to start out but I feel I owe it to my counterparts to push this message whenever I can for awareness. The public school system is broken – it looks to strip mine a few skills from those who posses them while leaving the rest feeling unwanted and discarded.

I thought I would talk about a very important lesson I learned a few years ago. It was very painful but I'm so glad I allowed myself the opportunity to open up to new possibilities. Often we get to a comfortable place in our craft and we don't want to receive criticism – we stop practicing what we preach. I'm in a critique group called Brotique (a bunch of guys trying to write picture books) and I have no trouble accepting criticism on my writing. I think it's because I have very few hours writing in relation to the time I have spent refining my illustration style.

A few years ago I met David Small (caldecott winner for So You Want to Be President? ) at a writing conference out here in Utah. I had the chance to go to dinner with him after the conference and he started talking about professional critiques. He said most professionals don't really want an honest critique. I gulped because I realized that I was in that camp. Why would I want a professional critique? After all I'm a professional right? I know what's good about my work and I don't need anyone telling me different. As he talked I thought about it and one thing I learned early in life is that whenever you're confronted with an opportunity that seems painful or difficult it usually is followed by growth. Also life is too short to say “no” to new experiences – I know too many “no” people and they're boring – I don't ever want to be accused of being boring.

So I found myself volunteering for his critique – almost like I was hearing my voice from across the table. Mr. Small then looked through me - “Ok, but let me warn you.” Uh oh. “I'm too old and I've wasted my breath telling artists what they want to hear to long to sugar coat my feelings any more – in other words I'll tell you exactly what I think of your work.” GULP - ok. What had I got myself into?! Luckily he didn't do it right at the table so everyone could see me melt into my chair. “I want you to send me the book you're most proud of and I'll look it over and get back to you.” Sheesh – what a relief – I could still back out gracefully – at least nobody at the table would know that I chickened out.

This would be a boring story if I had chickened out so of course I didn't. That which does not kill me makes me stronger – so after a trip to the post office (I sent him “The Frog with the Big Mouth”) I waited to hear from David. A few weeks later I summoned the courage to call him and take my flogging. After the small talk I said so what did you think of my book? His response came with another disclaimer. “Ok, but there are illustrators I've lost touch with after I've commented on their work – some people can't handle criticism.” I assured him I was well prepped and ready for my lashes – not in those words but you get the point.

Anyway quite simply he said that I have beautiful illustrations but I don't give the reader any rest from my fully illustrated color spreads. He went on to ask, “Are you trying to kill your audience with color and visuals?” “Not everything is as important as you're making it.” “In order to have a crescendo you have to have rest – a place to build from.”

WOW! He was right. I was trying to kill the viewer with color. How did he see through me so easily. In fact I remembered looking at picture-books in college wondering why every illustration wasn't treated with equal value? I remember thinking that most books were lacking a consistency in image quality. But I was making a horrible mistake. I wasn't looking at the book as a project but more as an excuse to showcase artwork. I felt silly. Was I trying to kill the viewer with fully illustrated color spreads? I was trying to wipe out the planet with my color! “I wanted to blow the viewer off their chair with color – If you gaze upon my work I'll burn your retinas kind of color – and the funny thing is that I can't stand movies that have 20 min action scenes where the story fall apart. Talk about blind.

So I thank you David Small – I have to admit that it took me a few months to fully accept your gift but it has changed me in a good way. I'm trying to be more sensitive to the story. Ask myself more questions. What can I do to enhance the plot, characters, etc. When should I underplay the illustrations? When should I unleash my powers?

What did the author intend? Will the reader understand the text better if I put this or that in the pictures?

In the end I now look at each manuscript as the first half of the completed project. And I'm happy to share this experience with you – perhaps you too can improve your craft if you let go a little and allow for the fact that you just might not know it all.

I'm now working on another book (Senorita Gordita) for Albert Whitman by Helen Ketteman (a total sweetheart) and this time I'm going to get it right – or as right as I can with my current skills.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Picture Book Marathon Day Twelve / On the Twelfth Day of Marathon...

On the 12th Day of Marathon, my true love (my little sweetheart Kayla) gave to me...another great idea to pursue <3

And, to be truthful, I think this one is one of the winners!

Lora and Jean mentioned in their Day 11 Marathon Post that Katherine Paterson recommends to "Write what you know," or "would like to know." At the recent SCBWI NY11, Newbery award-winning author Lois Lowry gave similar advice. "Things that happened way back when. Then told and shaped, and told again." And "What if? What if? Alway there. So many answers. Be aware." Another snippet included: "a phrase and little more -- imagination, take wings, soar!"

So, be aware!

In my own writing, I often include overlay imaginative fiction upon factual events. Events that happen in my life. In my son's life. In my daughter's life. School events. This day's draft was no exception. In a left-handed way, the basis for my inspiration came from making Valentines for my daughter's First Grade Class.  Of course, realizing that so many books exist about Valentine's Day, I found a way to approach the school celebration from a different angle, focus on a learning aspect, add some fiction and fun and hopefully learn more about snails in the process! Got you intrigued? Hopefully it will be a book someday and you will get to read first hand what I am talking about.

But my point is that you can use real-life for inspiration and write about day-to-day things without really writing about those tired topics. Just be aware of the parts that work, then push the box a little further, and think outside of it.

So, go ahead, write what you know or what you want to know, and give it a twist <3