Floppy-eared rabbits

For PiBoIdMo, I decided to keep a small journal with me at all times, something I’d often considered, but had never done before. One page per idea. And I’d look to my own life for the seeds. Over the past few days, I’ve found that being attentive to, well, life and all its ridiculousness (or wonder or awkwardness or or or) is the best way to access interesting concepts for picture books. After I got my notebook, the ideas started coming like hot-cakes. Not all of them seem immediate winners.

A recent favorite: I just returned home from dinner with friends, one of whom shared a story about a bush airstrip in remote Alaska covered in floppy-eared rabbits. Now, it might take a more creative person than me to turn that into a viable picture book. But what a fantastic image! I wrote that one down, but if it inspires you, go with it. (Please send me your draft, if you do.) On a more serious note, my son has developed a fear of riding the school bus–there are so many angles to take on this theme. Katie once said that she’s got too many ideas, and I see what she means. The ideas are really every where. We just have to take them and run.

Registration for PiBoIdMo has passed, but I encourage you to check out the daily posts. I’ve gotten something from each of them, and maybe, just maybe, there might be something to help me write my book about the rabbits on the airstrip.

The Last Weekend of Summer

According to the Farmer’s Almanac, fall begins in the Northeast with the autumnal equinox on September 22nd at 10:29 PM EST. So we technically have one last weekend of the summer. The weather has already started turning cooler and the kids are back in school, but we can still claim a summer state of mind.

I know it’s hard – I find myself barraged on a daily basis with Halloween candy, Christmas layaway programs, and pumpkin spice lattes. I love the holidays more than a lot of people (my dad calls me a Christmas Nut), but this year I am resisting the push. Getting caught up in the mad rush just leaves me harried and exhausted on January 2nd, wondering what just happened.

I have decided no fall decorations until October – that leaves 2 full months to fully enjoy the season. It also means that any mums I eventually buy won’t have to try and hold on for an extended period of time. While I will still slowly work on all of the Christmas projects that I began over the summer (in an attempt not to be stressed in December), I will wait to fully embrace Christmas until Black Friday.

I am hoping this holding back approach will translate to other areas – a calmer approach to fall house cleaning and more time spent outdoors enjoying the crisp air. I’m also looking forward to its effect on my writing. I have so much that I want to accomplish – new novels to write, other work to revise, blog posts to write, contests to enter, and agents to get. Because I never have as much time as I would like, I sometimes feel paralyzed with what to do in the limited time that I have.

So I will take it one item at a time. This week I’m going to tackle the planning for my novel, and spend time with my son this weekend writing a picture book story we’ve been talking about. Maybe we’ll write it outside – and take lots to deep breaths to remind ourselves of what we loved about summer, and then open our hearts to autumn.

summer into autumn

Summer Here We Come!

It’s officially summer in our house: the weather’s warmer, the pool’s open, the kids are out of school, and the grill is fully operational. We’re working on some summer projects here that I thought I would share with you.

Summer Reading:

My kids love the reading program at our local library, and we have already stocked up our shelves with tons of books we are planning to read. I was inspired by a reading challenge that a fellow blogger does with her daughter, so I have challenged my son as well. I gave him a list of about 35 books, and I challenged him to read 20 of them this summer. I gave him a few weeks head start before school got out to get the momentum rolling. If he finishes all 20 this summer, he will earn a prize (likely a day out together – still to be decided by Aidan).

Aidan is stuck in a Geronimo Stilton rut (not a bad rut to be in, but still), so I designed the list to encourage him to read more high quality books and continue to advance his vocabulary and reading skills. Most of the books on the list are either books I loved as a kid or books I somehow missed, so we will likely be reading most of the books together. Having each of us read alternate chapter aloud seems to work well for us.

In case you’re interested, here’s the list (targeted to a soon-to-be third grader who loves to read and has a good vocabulary)

A Wrinkle in Time
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe
The Phantom Tollbooth
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
The Secret Garden
The Hobbit
Anne of Green Gables
The Mysterious Benedict Society
The Tale of Despereaux
Because of Winn-Dixie
Alice in Wonderland
The Invention of Hugo Cabret
James and the Giant Peach
The Lightning Thief
Black Beauty
Shiloh
The Adventure of Tom Sawyer
Little House on the Prairie
The Neverending Story
The Wind in the Willows
Stuart Little
The Boxcar Children
Where the Mountain Meets the Moon
The Indian in the Cupboard
Pippi Longstocking
Treasure Island
The Borrowers 
Charlotte’s Web 
Holes 
The Little Prince 
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
The Velveteen Rabbit 
Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH
The 7 books at the bottom are the ones Aidan has already read during this challenge, including Mrs. Frisby which we will likely finish tonight. The bonus in the challenge is that most of these books also have decent movies, so as we finish each book we reward ourselves with the corresponding movie. We have had some lively discussions about the differences in the storytelling between movies and books, why movies leave certain things out, and whether movie characters match what we have created in our heads.
I’ll keep you posted on how this challenge works out.
Summer Project
I am working on a project for the blog that will hopefully add another dimension and keep things interesting for you readers. I won’t spoil the surprise just yet, but hopefully we will have a periodic visitor who will share their thoughts with us on children’s books. Stay tuned – they may be ready to join us by the fall.
Summer Blog Schedule
Originally, I thought we would just plow through on the regular schedule, but now summer is underway and I am late posting for the second week in a row. A more realistic schedule is probably in order. Starting with today’s post, we will be moving to twice a month for new posts until the end of August. So we’ll see you again in 2 weeks!

Hard Work, Persistence, and a Little Luck

I double checked the content, took a deep breath, and clicked Submit. The first 50 pages of my middle grade novel and a synopsis went whizzing off to the inbox of an agent.

As you regular readers will know, I am referring to my beloved first novel that I have labored over for the last two years (ugh- has it really been that long?). Through hard work, persistence, lots of herbal tea, and much support from my critique group it is finally ready.

So now what? It is out of my hands and hopefully an agent will fall in love with it. All I can do for the next 4 weeks (their typical response time) is cross my fingers, pray, and hope. Any good thoughts you can send my way would be much appreciated.

Now that I have finally finished the synopsis and submitted the novel, I have no more excuses for putting off writing new stories. Sure, I have another novel to revise but what I really need is a creative jumpstart. My journals are bursting with ideas – perhaps the next book is just waiting to be freed from the pages.

 

When Books are Made into Movies

Recently, me and my children read a few books together that were eventually made into movies. We read the books first, and then we watched the movies. I’m a believer that most books are better than their movie counterparts. It is nearly impossible that the images I create in my mind can be recreated on screen. However, a movie adaptation still has a chance to wow me. If it makes a very literal translation to the screen, then the movie might be okay. But if the movie brings something new to the interpretation of the material- a new perspective, a creative visual twist, the intriguing portrayal of a highly complicated character- I might enjoy the movie just as much as the book.

The first book we read was The Borrowers, by Mary Norton. It is the story of a family of tiny people who live under the floor of a house. A teenage girl named Arrietty lives with her mom and dad under the kitchen. They “borrow” just what they need, and only those things the residents won’t miss. It was published in 1952 (and won the Carnegie Medal and other awards) but it has a timeless quality to it. There were several movies made from this book, including an American live action version with John Goodman. The movie we saw was The Secret life of Arrietty, which is a 2010 Japanese anime film dubbed in English.

We enjoyed both the book and the movie. It is a fanciful story, but set in everyday environments. It draws on a common human premise: where do things go when I can’t find them? The movie was different in many details and subplots from the book, but it deftly visualized the core elements. Each of the characters was presented slightly differently, but in most cases the changes smoothed over parts of them that I found mildly annoying in the book. For example, Arrietty’s mother is whiny and neurotic in the book, which is switched to concern and worry for the well-being of her family.

The second book we read was Holes, by Louis Sachar. This book tells the story of Stanley Yelnats, a boy who is always in the wrong place at the wrong time. He gets sent to a juvenile detention camp in the desert, where each boy is tasked with digging a large hole each day. It was made into a movie in 2003 with Shia LaBeouf in the lead role. The movie sticks fairly close to the book, but changes some of the details. My son was wondering why some parts of the movie felt so different from the book. The book is written in first person, from Stanley’s perspective. We get to hear his thoughts directly – how he feels about a situation, what he worries about, etc. I explained that if they directly translated it, we would be spending a lot of time watching Stanley think, or listening to an annoying voiceover. The film makers chose to use the parts of the book that had the most visual potential, and focused on those.

I especially enjoyed this book. There were details thoughout the book that seemed to be character or setting description. When you get to the end, you realize that everything the other has included is important to the resolution of the story. As a writer, I was amazed at how tight the writing was, while being so descriptive and creative,

I was also interested to see how each of these books were adapted, given that The Secret World of Arrietty is screenwritten by someone other than the author. The screenplay for Holes was written by the author, Louis Sachar. I was impressed with the restraint he showed with the source material, only including the parts that would best tell the story on screen. I was also impressed with his ability to write a screenplay, which to me requires a different skill set than writing a novel.

I would recommend both of these books and movies. Me and my kids are so enjoying this process, I think we’ll keep it going. We have already read Charlotte’s Web and seen the movie. I’m waiting until they are older for necessities like Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings. Any recommendations for other book and movie combos? Please share in the comments!

Returning to Page One: A Second Take on Rereading

A few weeks ago, Katie shared why she doesn’t reread books. Basically, there aren’t enough hours in the day–she’d rather expose herself to something new. That’s a completely valid point. In fact, it reminds me of a different friend’s opinion that movies should only be watched once. (Gasp!) I have a slightly different take. It’s not a rebuttal, exactly. My day is, unfortunately, just as hour-deficient as Katie’s, and there are many books I enjoyed reading but would never reread. Still, I can think of at least two reasons to return to page one.

Lately, the primary reason I have reread books–wonderful stories such as Graceling, The Fault in Our Stars and One Crazy Summer–is because I’m studying craft techniques as part of my MFA. In the past few months, I’ve read each of those books at least three times. It’s only by reading so closely that I was able to dig deep enough to see how subtle  writing can be.

The second reason to reread is to reconnect with an emotional journey. Sometimes I reread to snicker (Ella Enchanted), or to have a good, solid cry (aforementioned The Fault in Our Stars). I’m also a sucker for reliving the moments of hesitation and resistance and surrender that first love brings; at 38, I’m never going to fall in love for the first time again. Mostly, I love coming of age stories–I feel as if I’m constantly coming of age. And maybe I can learn from watching someone else struggle through her own journey, even a fictional one.

Both of these reasons could be boiled down to this: Rereading means learning.

Every time I reread, something different in the text pops out at me. Maybe it’s a character trait I hadn’t noticed, or the way an author sets up a series of tiered epiphanies. Whatever it is, rereading has strongly influenced how I’ve evolved both as a reader and as a writer, and arguable as a person.

Next question: Do you keep books or pass them on?

Halloween Sounds and a Contest

It’s only a few weeks until Halloween. Are you ready? Have you carved or painted your pumpkin? Have you bought candy for trick or treaters (only to have to buy more after you eat it)? Are you going to any fun costume parties?

No parties for us this year, which is a relief, after the so-called family party we went to last year. This year, we just have regular neighborhood trick or treating planned (if it doesn’t snow this year), and a school parade for each child. My daughter is dressing up as a fairy, which makes things easier since her Tinkerbelle costume is on regular rotation for dress-up. My son wants to be a bumblebee, so I have some sewing to do. I’ll share some pictures after the big day.

So in continuation of the last post, let’s have a little Halloween contest about sounds. Next week I will be reviewing Julia Donaldson’s book Room on the Broom. The winner of the contest wins their own copy of the book.

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Halloween is a season full of spooky, creepy, and scary sounds. Which one is your favorite?

Now write a short story of no more than 250 words, with your chosen sound as the first AND last word of the story. Use it as many times as you want (along with other sounds if you choose), but one sound must appear at both the beginning and end.

Here’s mine to get you started:

Creeeeek. I opened one eye. The room was pitch black, so I couldn’t see anything moving. I waited while my heart beat three times. Nothing. I closed my eyes again, and was dozing back to sleep when I heard it again. Creeeeek.

I sat straight up in my bed. I wasn’t imagining something in my room. Could I make it to the door before it got me? Maybe I could make it to the lightswitch instead. Creeeek. The sound was getting closer.

I felt inside my bedside table drawer for my flashlight. I squinted at the bright light as I switched it on, and then opened my eyes wide as I swung it back and forth across my room.

My desk covered in papers: check. My cars lined up on the block road I built: check. The pile of clothes mom keeps asking me to put away: check. Everything was where it should be.

I turned the light off and laid in bed looking out into the dark. Come on, whatever you are. I dare you. Make another noise. I counted to 20 and back. Nothing.

I grinned to myself. I must have scared it away! No sound is a match for me. I chuckled to myself. I bet my little brother would have cried.

I slowly drifted back to sleep, dreaming of lifting a car with my bare hands. Creeeeek.

Please submit your story:

1. In the comments

OR

2. Post it to your blog with a link back in the comments

by next Thursday, October 24th at 6 PM EST. Our panel of judges will choose the winner! Hint: We really like creativity, humor, and wit!

Good luck!

The Senses of Spring

BaseballSpring is a time of reawakening. New animal babies are born and buds pop out on the trees. I found that it is the time for my senses to reawaken, too.

At my son’s first baseball game of the season last night, I was acutely aware of the smell of the freshly cut grass while I watched the boys hold their caps over their hearts for the National Anthem. I could hear the boys laughing from the dugout, and the crack of the wooden bat successfully hitting the ball. My daughter was not watching the game, but was busily digging in the dirt next to the bleachers, bringing me handfuls of craggy, bumpy rocks. And we finished the evening off with a tasty celebratory frozen yogurt.

This inspired my idea for a writer’s exercise, or game to play with your kids (when you can’t possibly play another game of iSpy).

Family Version: At the park, on a car ride, at a sporting event, waiting for the doctor/dentist, taking a nature hike, or anywhere else you might be, challenge your family to describe where they are with all five senses. It may inspire some interesting conversations about WHY the doctor’s waiting room smells like bubble gum.

Writer’s Version: During similar situations as above, or sitting on the porch having a cup of coffee, or people watching at the mall (or wherever else you are), take out your journal and see if you can describe the environment with all five senses. Extra bonus points for the more descriptive and creative you are with your answers. This exercise also works as a “jump starter” for your writing day, or a break exercise when you are stuck while writing. Reflect back on a situation, and see what sensory descriptors you can conjure up. Don’t worry… even if “the smooth stickiness of peanut butter on the roof of my mouth” never makes it into any of your manuscripts, it WILL open your mind to the things that might pass by unnoticed.

Feel free to share your examples and what your senses revealed to you. Happy Spring!

Through the Eyes of Children

I spent this week on the dream vacation of most American children. My family and I travelled to Florida, went to the beach, spent 2 days at Disneyworld, and stayed at a fun hotel with waterslides and a pool. Between the hotel and Disneyworld, a parent could have felt overwhelmed with all the characters, from princesses to Mickey Mouse to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. It could really feel over-commercialized.

While my children loved meeting their favorite characters, what we really enjoyed was being surrounded by stories. There were stories everywhere, behind each of the rides and experiences. We immersed ourselves in Pooh’s Hundred Acre Wood. We flew on a Rebel Spy mission past the Death Star and back to base. My son was chosen to play the Beast in a special story with Belle. We even made some of our own memories and stories to share for years to come.

This trip has reminded me of the stories behind the places we experience everyday- both fantastical and ordinary. And it reminded me why I (and many of you) write for children: for the chance to give a child joy and laughter, and to help them dream.

Revisiting the Classics

I was reading a message board the other day concerning classic picture books that make you wonder how they ever got published. Part of the discussion centered around how the children’s book market has changed over the years. The approach to children’s education and the state of the children’s book market was quite different seventy, fifty, or even twenty years ago. I wrote a previous blog post on some of the classics, and how they hold up.

Classic Books

What was most interesting to me about this discussion was not the different opinions about why classics are classics, and why some hold up throughout the years, and some do not. What I saw when I read each post was this: Everyone likes something different.

Several specific books were mentioned, especially Madeline. There were some pretty strong opinions on why they loved the book, or not.  Some loved it, some hated it. I myself don’t get the appeal of Madeline. The character strikes me as a spoiled brat who is put into a variety of unrealistic (but not fantasy) situations.

Regardless, I may not like it, but clearly others do. Some people may find several of my favorite books annoying or dated. But we all, as readers (children and adults alike) like something different.

Editors and publishers today may focus primarily on what will sell the most copies. They must analyze and assess the market of today, and what meets the needs of the bookstore, online, and school markets. I don’t envy them the challenge of trying to float a ship on the changing tides of pop culture and educational theory.

As I writer, I have had many arguments with myself (quietly, I promise) about whether to ditch the story I really love in favor of something more commercially viable. As I advance my craft, I strive to create stories that meet both my personal requirements and the needs of the current market.

But I must start at the beginning: writing what is in my heart. Perhaps what I write will be sellable someday (hopefully!). But if I don’t write what is in my heart, I believe it won’t speak the truth or touch my readers in any way. And if everyone likes something different, perhaps instead of trying to speak to everyone, I should strive to speak to someone.

So in the end, whether a story meets the technical requirements of today’s market or not, it must start in a personal place. And that’s good news.  The joy of writing down the stories that are begging me to be written, those that occupy a special place in my heart and mind, are why I write in the first place.