Monday, August 31, 2009

So Last Century

It's Monday, Picture Books Past. Remember all the fuss about Y2K? Aside from all that hand wringing at the end of 1999, one of the other popular topics of conversation was reflecting on 20th century culture and making "best of" lists. Now is a good time to review one for picture book lovers and creators. School Library Journal compiled, "One Hundred Books that Shaped the Century." Take a look at it here and see how many of the picture books included you have read. As you read through the list, notice how the stories are summarized and what is mentioned about why they are outstanding. There are a lot of lessons in what makes a good picture book tucked inside those brief statements. How about getting a few of these classics out of the library for inspiration and fun?

Friday, August 28, 2009

BookScan and Book Scanning

It's Book Business Friday. When one reads about the book business these days, it isn't long before the topic of Nielsen BookScan comes up. In a nutshell, it's a service which publishers and media outlets pay for so they can find out (approximately) how many books are being sold by other companies. There is a lot of discussion about how accurate the numbers are, what retail outlets are used to compile the figures, and how the numbers are used by editors to decide the sales potential of an author they are considering signing. Here is a clear discussion by Editorial Anonymous. And as a follow-up to last week's post about the movie, "Julie & Julia," here is an article from the NY Times about how the movie has affected book sales. Notice that they quote BookScan.
Now, for a completely different angle. I have been vaguely imagining the large scale book scanning that goes on to create digital libraries as being kind of like me standing at a copy machine at Staples. The scales have fallen from my eyes. Check out this video below.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Real and Pretend

It's Thursday, Real Kids Day. Many young children, especially boys, find garbage trucks fascinating. It's interesting to think about why. Probably part of the attraction is their immense size and power. How many things of such hugeness and destructive force come so close to our safe home lives? And once a week, too! Children don't take that for granted. Below are two videos in which the boys are experiencing trash day--one real and one imagined through play. They'd probably love to read about garbage trucks. What other kinds of books would these boys also like to read? What would you write for them?

Wednesday, August 26, 2009


It's Writing Wednesday. Sometimes, it's a good idea to get fresh inspiration from another place. There are a lot of connections between picture books and folk songs and children's music. One person who had an important role in the rival of folk music, and in performing music for children, is Pete Seeger. Take a look below at short video on him which was a promo for the American Masters series on PBS. Then consider listening to an audio show made by the Smithsonian Institution about Folkways Records. It's a great series. Click here and you will see the menu of the podcasts which you can listen to on your computer by just clicking on the segment you want. Episode 12 is all about Pete Seeger. Episode 16 is about children's music. Enjoy, and think about the rhythm and rhyme in the music, and in picture books.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009


Picture book creator Chris Gall has a new book out called Dinotrux. It's already on the road to becoming a movie. Visit his website here to see his other work and read his bio. Here is an online interview in which he talks about the process of making his books. In the video below he talks about getting the idea for Dinotrux. He seems to really enjoy doing his work. We have to enjoy the process because that's where the time goes. Next time we go to the bookstore, I bet we're gonna see Dinotrux prominently displayed.

Monday, August 24, 2009


It's Monday, time for Picture Books Past. Wanda Gag (1893-1946), the author-illustrator of numerous books, is best remembered for creating Millions of Cats. Many people consider that book to be one of the most important landmarks of American picture books. Wanda was only in her mid teens when she had to start helping to support her six younger siblings. She used her art talent to make money and to get into art school. She did fine art as well as illustration. Here's a short biography. You can see her home here and start planning your visit to Minnesota. Here's a sort of overview about Wanda. There are good reasons why Million of Cats has sold hundreds of books, thousands of books, over a million books. Shouldn't we read it again and learn from it?

Friday, August 21, 2009

Julie, Julia, and Book Deals

Go see the new movie, "Julie & Julia." It isn't just about cooking. It's also about a writer getting her heart's desire--a published book. Actually there are two writers: Julie Powell, a blogger, and Julia Child, the famous cook/TV personality with this wish. At one point in the film Julia Child is terribly disappointed when her book deal falls through. It's a wonderful and telling moment that any seasoned book creator can relate to. She says, "Eight years of my life. It just turned out to be something to do, so I wouldn't have nothing to do. Oh, well. Boo-hoo. Now what?" The film shows us that the truth is that those eight years were a rich time of experience and growth. The heartbreaking set back didn't stop her and she went on to find another publisher. "Boo-hoo" is how we feel sometimes, right? Then it's back to work. (Warning: This movie is going to make you want to cook with butter. A lot of butter.)

Thursday, August 20, 2009


It's Thursday, Real Kids Day. Children love playing outside. They love being noisy and jumping around. And isn't there something deeply refreshing and primitively reassuring about a good rain? It makes children want to whoop it up, especially if there are other children to share the fun. It's universal--just look at these kids in the Philippines. Children are fascinated by nature and eager to learn about, and experience, their world. Children are also exuberant and they like to find exuberance in the books they read!

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Cumulative Stories

It's Writing Wednesday. Let's think about cumulative stories. They're stories which are formed by an accumulation of successive elements. The pattern adds new characters or events, building so that the main character eventually arrives at a final situation or resolution. Cumulative stories can be pleasurable for the reader because there's built in anticipation. It's interesting to see what the next addition will be and how that will affect the main character. If you want to write a cumulative story, perhaps it's a good idea to think of a main character, and then think of the end point of the story. Next build the accumulation of other characters or events which will be troublesome (or helpful) through the middle. They are all links on the chain which repeat as the story progresses. Remind yourself, if you'd like, by reading the story of The Old Woman and Her Pig here. The end point is the old woman succeeding in getting home. Glimpse The Gingerbread Man here. The end point is when he is eaten by the fox. In the lovely Bringing the Rain to Kapiti Plain, the dry African plain is described and the end point comes when a boy pierces a cloud with an arrow, bringing much needed rain. Look here. That book was inspired by the familiar, This Is the House That Jack Built. Check it out here. A list of more cumulative books is here. How about trying to write one?

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Illustration Videos

Picture book writers and artists need to stay motivated and learning. If you are an artist, you probably have some techniques with which you are comfortable because you've developed your skills using them. But you also might like to explore and experiment--that's a good way to keep things interesting and fresh. It's amazing how many tutorial videos there are on the web--from low tech to high tech. Watching them can inspire you to try new tools and media. You just need to google some key words to find a world of art ideas waiting for you. What might you look for? Pastels? Gouache? Photoshop? As examples, check out the videos below--one low tech, one high tech. The first uses markers and colored pencils. The second uses computer software. If you aren't an artist, you might find them even more surprising and interesting!

Monday, August 17, 2009


It's Monday--Picture Books Past. Thought about Beatrix Potter lately? Her book, The Tale of Peter Rabbit, stands as as icon of children's literature and Peter's certainly one of the best known characters. In the story, he was "very naughty" and soon he's in mortal danger. It's an exciting story and full of vivid details. No wonder it's lasted. Her other books are a pleasure to read, too. Check out a virtual exhibit here from Princeton's Cotsen Children's Library. Visit England and learn more about Beatrix's life and her bequest to the National Trust here. Want to visit her home in the Lake District? Start planning here with the help of the Lake District National Park. And finally, did you see the movie, Miss Potter, when it came out? Check it out and be sure to watch the special features on the DVD to see a biographical film. Have a nice cup of tea, and a scone, and enjoy.

Friday, August 14, 2009


It's Book Business Friday. So, what's the deal with book packagers? Well, for starters, they're also called book developers or book producers. They do the work of putting the book together-writing, editing, etc.-- through freelancers or their own staff. They may originate the story or series concepts which they sell to a publisher. Or, a publishing company may outsource the work involved in putting together a book or series, which they have created, to a book packager. Basically, the book packaging company creates the book, like a Sweet Valley High product, and then they sell the book to the publishing company which then puts it out into the marketplace. A nice overview is here on A more personal "here's-what-happened-to-me" discussion by an author can be found here on Read these and you'll have a pretty good idea about this rather large component of the book business.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

I'm Human!

It's Real Kids Thursday. Young children often have a hard time getting taken seriously. They're full of ideas and understanding, but sometimes have to put up with being bugged. What's one of the worst insults a kid can hear? The powerful, "You're a baby." Yikes--that's cold! In the video below, watch two year old Sadie giving a book report. She's discussing (somewhat unintelligibly,) and trying to read, a picture book at her podium. Then her three year old brother chirps up from off camera. She defends herself, and her status as a full human being. She tries to maintain her self esteem and dignity and won't even accept being called a girl. "I'm human!" Isn't it nice to know that when children like Sadie read our stories they get can vicarious satisfaction from the main characters' triumphs and successes? Sometimes everybody needs a little boost.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Title Search

It's Writing Wednesday. Have you ever had a problem finding just the right title for a story you have written? That's a title problem, right? Maybe not. It may actually be a story problem. If you're really stuck finding something that fits, it may be that there is something missing in the story. It may need more focus. It may need a stronger "hook" to intrigue the reader. It may need stronger emotional content--maybe it's a little bland. Titles often are based on the character, the story conflict, and/or the setting. (The Man Who Walked Between the Towers seems to hit all three.) In a picture book we need to have strong elements in the story to be able to pull out a title that draws readers in. When they see the name of your book, they should think, "Gee, I wonder what happens in that book?" So if you're having trouble with a title, look again at how you can intensify the story itself.
Can you think of a picture book that has a really good (reader motivating) title?

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Simms Taback

It's Illustration Tuesday. Simms Taback won a Caldecott honor medal for his version of There Was An Old Lady. Later he won the Caldecott gold medal for Joseph Had a Little Overcoat. In an interview he gave after he won that award, he tells about his early art experience, how he pursued art as a career, and how he succeeded. He said, "A lot of people are talented, but not many take it seriously enough or work at it. I applied myself seriously over a long time. It took persistence. An essential part of being an artist is finding ways of supporting one's self. You just have to keep at it." Read all the interesting things he had to say, including advice for people interested in writing for children, here. Another rich perspective on Taback is given in an article in the Horn Book written by a friend who shared a studio with him for many years here. Enjoy learning more about this inventive artist.

Monday, August 10, 2009

A Select Twenty

It's Monday, Picture Books Past. How about a selection of picture books that hit the highlights and milestones of our favorite art form? Leonard Marcus helped "Reading is Fundamental," the literacy organization, put together a list of "Picture Books Through Time." They picked books that had had a particular impact and for each of these twenty books there's a short commentary about its significance. From these great books we can absorb lessons about plotting, character, language, and subject matter. Check some out at your library. Can you notice the basic plot types? Why are the characters in these books especially appealing? Enjoy this historic overview here.

Friday, August 7, 2009


It's Book Business Friday. We know we should support local independent book sellers. They are great places to visit and they help authors get known. Retail book selling these days is more of a challenge than in the past. Independent book shops keep closing as they have even more problems getting customers in and buying. When the Cook's Library book store in Los Angeles was closing this spring, owner Ellen Rose was quoted in the LA Times as saying, "Sales have been sliding. The economy is terrible. The Internet is as active as it has ever been; we'd work with someone for 30 minutes talking about books, and afterward they would ask if we could write down the books and authors and you'd just know they were going to buy it on the Internet." That hurts. Some independent stores are remaining and fighting for business. They argue that keeping them thriving contributes more to the local economy and the local culture. Check out IndieBound's recent bestseller list here. And watch this fun video made by The Regulator Bookshop in Durham, North Carolina, which adds another angle, helping the environment, to pitch the benefits of buying locally.

Thursday, August 6, 2009


It's Real Kids Thursday.
Remember when the world was new? Children are literally seeing things with fresh eyes. So much is unfamiliar and without context. That can make what they encounter more intensely beautiful, or funny, or frightening. For a child, opening a picture book can be a time of discovery--a rich experience. They are looking to explore a world inside that strikes a balance between the familiar and the surprising. Why are bubbles so interesting to children? They shine, they have an elegant wholeness, and they're somewhat unpredictable. Like a picture book.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Wish Fulfillment

It's Writing Wednesday.
The last basic plot type is the story of Wish Fulfillment. The main character has something she wants but cannot achieve. Events occur, but the character isn't working directly towards this goal. She doesn't succeed through her own efforts (like in Purpose Achieved) but rather she gets her wish (or something equally good) because of who she is. The classic fairy tale example is Cinderella. She wants to escape her miserable situation. Because she is so good, she is helped by her fairy godmother, goes to the ball, and eventually gets the prince. For other examples, check out Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, Corduroy, and the simple, but wonderful, Owl Babies. Try doing a little plotting in your head. What might your good hearted character wish for but not be able to get without help?

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Personal Stories

It's Illustration Tuesday.
One challenge many children's book creators face is trying to take material from their own lives and turn it into a book. There are minefields ahead when this is attempted. Often it is hard to mold the real events into art. What has universal significance? What should be left out? Should real events be altered for the sake of a story? In The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain, Peter Sis took up this challenge in trying to express, both in words and pictures, what his early life was like in a communist country. He found expressing himself through his illustrations especially revealing. Read his interesting acceptance speech for the Boston Globe–Horn Book Award here. You can look at a few of the illustrations from the book on Amazon here. Check the book out from your public library system. (Sorry I can't give you that link--but you do have it bookmarked, don't you? So handy to have!)

Monday, August 3, 2009

Dear Genius

It's Monday, time for Picture Books Past.
Have you read Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom? Children's book historian Leonard Marcus collected and edited this well respected children's book editor's letters from the HarperCollins achieves. The book gives us a great look into the author-editor relationships of lots of top notch picture book creators of the past. You feel like you're peeking over her shoulder as she writes to them. Here's what she wrote to Crockett Johnson in 1954, "The dummy of Harold and the Purple Crayon came this morning, and I've just read it. I don't know what to say about it. It doesn't seem to be a good children's book to me but I'm often wrong--and this post-Children's Book Week finds me dead in the head. I'd probably pass up Tom Sawyer today." Of course, she was being modest. She was most often right. And a short time later she wrote to him saying how very much she liked Harold. Read Dear Genius to know more about picture books past (and, perhaps, working with editors today.)