Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Picture Books with Hooks

It's Writing Wednesday. Let's imagine that we have written a picture book manuscript, and we have sent it to a publishing house, and it arrives. The editor opens it, and she reads the very brief cover letter that includes the title of the story and a one sentence summary. She thinks, "Wow! That sounds pretty interesting..." Well, that imaginary manuscript is probably a story with a hook, aka a "high concept" story. These are stories that promise to be out of the ordinary. They often have snappy titles to pique the imagination. They are stories that are easily summarized in one intriguing sentence. Maybe it would be good for us to write ten titles and matching one line summaries that could make an editor go, "Wow! That sounds pretty interesting..." Who knows, we might find one so intriguing that we would have to sit down, right then, and write the story, just so we could read it ourselves! Enjoy a post from Editorial Anonymous about hooks here.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Jan Brett

It's Illustration Tuesday. Now, let's all say it together..."Envy is sinful and we are above it." After that preparation, we can enjoy looking at illustrator/writer Jan Brett's summer home (and her chickens.) It's a New York Times slide show here, and related article, here. It's fun to see the studio area where she works. In her long career, she has covered many subjects with her whimsical, detailed, and very popular books. Check out her extensive website here. We can strive to work hard, and enjoy our work, like she does. That's so much better than envy. Right?

Monday, September 28, 2009

Margaret Wise Brown

It's Monday--Picture Books Past. We all know Margaret Wise Brown as the author of Goodnight Moon. She also wrote hundreds of other stories, many of which were published as books before her death, at age 42, in 1952. A very interesting biography of her, Margaret Wise Brown: Awakened by the Moon, by Leonard Marcus, is available. Read that book and you'll know so much about Margaret, and also about the mid-20th century publishing business (and also some about the field of child development as it relates to books.) It's quite an entertaining book for picture book people. Also, look here at a fan site to see many of her book covers.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Re-do of Pooh

It's Friday--Book Business Day. Publishers and booksellers are there to put books out in the marketplace. When there's something as desirable and lucrative as A.A. Milne's Winnie-the-Pooh, there are always going to be new strategies to sell it. In an article in Publisher's Weekly, read about the new authorized sequel, Return to the Hundred Acre Wood, and the controversy over such books. There's some heavy marketing of it, along with the original Pooh books, going on. It's interesting to hear about the promotions, like Pooh themed parties, planned at many bookstores in the upcoming weeks. Read all about it here.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Mud and a Beat

It's Thursday, Real Kids Day.
A plank and some mud. That's fun if you are an American kid in Iowa or an Embera Indian kid in Panama. Watch how the boys gently tussle. That's certainly universal. It looks like the Embera kids must grow up to a beat. You can't go wrong with rhythm in your picture book writing. (And maybe a little mud, too.)

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Outstanding Nonfiction

It's Writing Wednesday.
Since Monday's post was about the original Orbis Pictus, today is a follow up with the NCTE "Orbis Pictus Award for Outstanding Nonfiction for Children." NCTE is the National Council of Teachers of English which "is devoted to improving the teaching and learning of English and the language arts at all levels of education." The award is "an annual award for promoting and recognizing excellence in the writing of nonfiction for children." The criteria for the books is given here. You might like to read them over as a reminder of what we're shooting for when we write nonfiction picture books. Look at the winning titles, too. It would be entertaining and inspiring to get some of them out of the library.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Terrible Yellow Eyes

It's Illustration Tuesday. Certainly one of the most enjoyable things about picture books is the wide range of illustration styles. There are so many artists and so many visions. Ever looked at a book and wondered how a different illustrator would have handled it? Corey Godbey's site, Terrible Yellow Eyes, is his collection of works inspired by Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak. He invited artists to do their own versions of the book's scenes and characters. The pieces are tributes to the original, each picture in the (dozens of) contributing artists' own unique style. It is amazing. Take your time looking here.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Orbis Pictus

Today is Monday--Picture Books Past. Let's go back to the very beginning. It's generally agreed that the first picture book for children was Orbis Pictus by Czech educator J.A. Comenius, published in 1657. The Latin title translates to, "The Visible World in Pictures." The book was very popular and served as a kind of encyclopedia for young people. Look here to see a English/Latin edition from 1777. Scroll down on that link and look at some of the charming little pictures. More background info is here. Children of 17th century Europe had a book made just for them. Quite a beginning.

Friday, September 18, 2009


Aye, matey, today it be Book Business Friday. And tomorrow's the big holiday! The 15th annual, internationally celebrated, Talk Like a Pirate Day! This event is the swashbuckling tale of making something out of nothing. And promotion. And enthusiasm for something wonderfully silly. And the power of humorist Dave Barry. You should read this from the pirate guys. And Dave Barry's article is here. And on Wikipedia here. Then you should definitely practice by watching the video below. After that, you'll be ready for tomorrow! does this relate to books? Well, first these guys self-published a book which sold enough to get a publisher interested, then they got books #2 and #3 published by Penguin and Citadel. Arrrrrr!

Thursday, September 17, 2009


It's Real Kids Thursday. What could be more appealing than a basket of kittens? Kids love their pets and it's fun to watch them together. In the video below, all that's there, but it's also a quick study in the difference between a boy and a girl. Maybe like the difference between a kitten and a puppy. Sure, it's a generalization, but listen to the girl coo, and the boy...well, you'll see. Picture books about pets are always in fashion. Maybe today would be a good day to write one.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Marla Frazee

It's Writing Wednesday. Marla Frazee is a writer and illustrator of picture books. She knew from childhood that she wanted to draw and make books, but it still took her quite a while to find her personal style and way of storytelling. Listen to her describe aspects of her books, her relationship with her editor, finding the right voice for her work, and her love of what she does. Click on the link to the Reading Rockets website here, then choose the video of Marla. Enjoy her perspective and insight. Visit her excellent website here.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Wake Up, Eyes!

It's Illustration Tuesday. Seeing is amazing. What a joy to be able to take in new patterns, shapes, textures, and colors. We benefit from seeing unfamiliar things. It helps stimulate our brains, and sparks new ideas and can make us feel inspired. That's one of the reasons why vacations can be refreshing--everywhere we look, there's a new image for the eyes and mind to process. Encountering art in museums, and looking at new books can do it, too. What will you do today to enrich your vision? It's true for writers, too. New input helps stimulate new output, don't you think? How about for starters, check out this video below, directed by Theodore Ushev, to wake up those peepers? Enjoy the subtle color and bold patterns.

Monday, September 14, 2009

The Caldecott Medal

It's Monday--Picture Books Past. As most children's book lovers know, since 1938, great picture books have been singled out for the Caldecott Medal, given each year to a picture book illustrator. Specifically, it's for "the most distinguished American Picture Book for Children published in the United States during the preceding year." It's interesting that in the ALA related definitions, it states, "A 'picture book for children' as distinguished from other books with illustrations, is one that essentially provides the child with a visual experience. A picture book has a collective unity of story-line, theme, or concept, developed through the series of pictures of which the book is comprised." Hmmm. "Essentially provides the child with a visual experience..." That's good to keep in mind when we start getting too wordy. Also, "a collective unity of story-line, theme, or concept..." No room for tangents in a great picture book. Find out more about the Caldecott Medal here.

Friday, September 11, 2009


It's Book Business Friday. If an editor likes the book manuscript that you've sent in, what happens next? There's a clear discussion on Harold Underdown's website here in which he outlines the whole acquisition process. Another, chattier, description by writer Nicola Morgan is here and it's not surprising how similar the two are. For the most part, acquisition meetings are where the fate of a book manuscript is sealed at that publishing house. Understanding this process helps remind us that the publishing company is a business and publishers need to acquire books that are going to sell. That's the truth. to make that book irresistible? We need a solid plot, a character children want to be with, and felicity. If you were in the editor's shoes, would you love the manuscript? Would children love it? We have to make it a wonderful experience for the reader. It's wonderful work to try.

Thursday, September 10, 2009


It's Real Kids Thursday. You know, we adults are pretty used to the way the world works. In general, we're on autopilot a lot of the time. Not young children. So much is new for them. That means that they frequently have to trust the judgment of others. When parents take children to the doctor's office, it is usually pretty stressful. A child has to trust his parents, even though it seems like a really, really bad idea. Imagine being clueless about health and preventive treatments and some giant person wants you to hold still while they hurt you. Ow. Sometimes, picture books can try to help make sense of this crazy world. And sometimes playing about it can help you cope. Especially when you have a trusting baby sister to bandage up.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009


It's Writing Wednesday. Having on earlier posts talked about the basic plot types, now it's time to turn the idea of the traditional writing patterns a little on its ear. Postmodern picture books do that. These are books, generally published in the last couple of decades, in which the expected plot structures may not be there and in which the reader may be challenged in new ways. Look at the library for David Wiesner's The Three Pigs. Even if our own stories take a more traditional story telling route, it's good to understand other ways of making a picture book. Read an article with a discussion of this here. In a related item, an interesting article was published in the New York Times about Spike Jonze and his upcoming movie version of Where the Wild Things Are. His vision for the film seems to have a lot in common with the postmodern approach. It's a longish article, here, but it has many interesting bits and pieces, especially if you like movies, Sendak books, or reading about the creative process. That should cover most of us, I think.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Charles Vess

It's Illustration Tuesday. Charles Vess is an illustrator well known in the fantasy comics world. His style has roots in traditional book illustration. He has done several projects with writer Neil Gaiman including picture books, most recently Blueberry Girl, a bestseller. Vess shows some of his art work for the new book they are doing together called Instructions on his website and discusses the choices he considered for the main character, since the text left it open. He's also trying out a new material-- watercolor pencils. Look at it here. (Find out more about Newberry winning author Neil Gaiman here.)

Monday, September 7, 2009

McLoughlin Brothers

It's Monday--Picture Books Past. The history of children's books is intertwined with the history of printing processes since technological developments gave publishers, and the artists working for them, more choices. The McLoughlin Brothers publishing company in New York produced many children's books from the 1850's to the 1920's. They are known for their advances in color printing, the broad range of materials they produced, and the large scale of their operation. Just like publishers today may develop other material like plush toys and novelties, McLoughlin Bros. also sold puzzles, games, and paper dolls. Their bold and colorful books were very popular. Read about this firm and their place in picture book history here and here.

Friday, September 4, 2009

A Day in the Life

It's Book Business Friday. Most writers and illustrators, unless they've previously worked at a publishing company, have a pretty foggy idea of what goes on inside one. When an editor speaks at a conference, it's interesting to hear about the process of book acquisition and editing. There is a desire to try to figure out the secrets to publishing success from an insider. On the bloomabilities blog, children's book editor "alvina" recaps her conference talk about "a day in the life of an editor" here. Even if we don't figure out the magic formula by reading this, we certainly can get a better idea of what an editor does and how hard she may be working! An editor can be kind of like a farmer--caring, and providing a location and support for the creative process to come to fruition. (Corny, maybe, but you get the idea... and doesn't that farmer look nice?)

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Don't Touch!

It's Real Kids Thursday. Remember how frustrating it was, as a child, when somebody messed with your stuff? "That's mine--don't touch it!" is a frequent childhood statement. Even if they don't take it, or break it, they aren't supposed to touch it unless you specifically give them permission. That's one of those unwritten laws of the world of kids. But some kids like to push people's buttons. Touching somebody's stuff can turn into power play and teasing. Check out the interplay in the video below and watch how scrappy the little guy is. In recent years, some children's books have tried to deal with the issue of bullying. When we set out to write a story, it's good to try to get a fresh angle on a topic. One way to do that is to turn things around--change the typical into the unexpected. In this case, the "bully" is a younger, smaller child. That could be the basis for a funny, interesting story.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009


It's Writing Wednesday. Renowned picture book writer and children's book editor Charlotte Zolotow (read about her here and visit her website here) was once quoted as having said that books for young children must have felicity. One of the dictionary definitions of felicity is "something that causes happiness." Seems simple, doesn't it? But it is so fundamental that it's worth musing about. Does your manuscript "cause happiness?" Is it joyful? Is it uplifting? Even books which have serious subject matter should leave a young child with hope and an understanding of goodness in the world. After writing a story, we need to be able to evaluate whether or not it is actually successful. Asking if it has a hefty dollop of felicity would be a good place to start. Felicity--we might want to put that on a sticky note and keep it handy.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Keeping Track

It's Illustration Tuesday. One of the challenges of making pictures for picture books is keeping track of what you're doing so that you aren't drowning in a swirling mass of source material, sketches, drawings, notes, dummies, paintings, correspondence, and art materials for the 32 or so pages of the final book. In other words, staying organized. Making sure that everything for one project goes on one shelf or in one bag helps. Using separate folders for each page also helps. Meeting deadlines is important to an illustrator's reputation. Look here to see how Mo Willems keeps track of his projects by using a production flow chart to check off the progress of each page. Now that's organized.