By Chana Stiefel
Recently, I had the good fortune of winning a manuscript critique with children’s author Miranda Paul through the 12 x 12 Picture Book Challenge. In addition to the critique (which was enormously helpful), we had a wonderful conversation about the importance of writing the books that are “true to you”—the books that come from your own life experience, your unique interests, and your heart.
Miranda has two new books out this year (check out TRAINBOTS & 10 LITTLE NINJAS, which arrives in stores August 9th). What are the keys to Miranda’s publishing success (besides being an all-around kind and generous person)? For starters, she stretches her creativity by writing in a variety of genres—both fiction and non-fiction. “Most of my books are a crossover between trade and school library,” Miranda says. “They are both educational and commercial. You can read my books at school or at bedtime.”
In addition, she describes her stories as “more than just books.” How so? After all, they look, feel, and smell like books (especially when you buy them fresh from the store). I decided to dig deeper into some of Miranda’s books to find out what sends them soaring beyond the book zone.
ONE PLASTIC BAG
Miranda’s debut picture book is the true story of Isatou Ceesay, a young woman from Njau, Gambia, who came up with a brilliant solution for cleaning up piles of plastic bags that were causing pollution, attracting harmful mosquitoes in pooling water, and choking livestock. ONE PLASTIC BAG is a gripping story. But what makes it “more than a book”?
WHOSE HANDS ARE THESE? A Community Helper
As the subtitle suggests, this book is more than an interactive read-aloud. It’s a guessing game! With lively rhyme, each alternating spread displays pairs of hands doing a specific task (sketching, healing, keeping score…). Readers are asked, “Whose hands are these?” The book works on many levels. Yes, it ties into lessons on careers, community helpers, and STEAM, but it also raises the stakes by adding suspense and fun! I can imagine kids reading the book at home or at school and having a blast creating their own unique books based on WHOSE HANDS ARE THESE?
WATER IS WATER
With gorgeous illustrations by Jason Chin and Miranda’s lyrical rhyme, WATER IS WATER teaches kids about the water cycle throughout the four seasons. Kid-friendly details like hot cocoa, snowballs, and sloshing in mud puddles are interwoven into this heart-warming book that softly drizzles the science about cycles in nature. Beyond being a book, it’s also a song by Emily Arrow! Listen here: https://youtu.be/vzJwNGo-7HY
By Chana Stiefel
We’re so excited to welcome Sylvia Liu to KidLitTakeaways! Sylvia and I connected through her website KidLit411.com—a great hub for kidlit resources—which she co-runs with her critique partner Elaine Kiely Kearns. KidLit411 had an awesome birthday bash last year, which included several amazing giveaways for authors & illustrators. I hit the jackpot, winning a year’s supply of debut picture books, including…A MORNING WITH GRANDPA, Sylvia’s beautiful debut picture book! Sylvia not only agreed to an interview, but she is also offering a signed copy of her book to one lucky winner (details below). Enjoy!
KLT: How did the story of A MORNING WITH GRANDPA come to you? Is it based on personal experience?
SL: Yes, sort of. My father was teaching my daughters breathing techniques for qi gong, a Chinese mind-body practice, and that inspired me to write a story about a grandfather teaching his granddaughter tai chi.
KLT: Mei Mei and Gong Gong—are these names in your family?
SL: Gong Gong is what my girls call my dad. It’s Chinese for grandfather. Mei Mei means younger daughter in Chinese, and I grew up as a Mei Mei. We don’t call my younger daughter Mei Mei, though.
KLT: When did you write your first draft? How similar is it to the final book?
SL: I wrote it during the summer of 2013. I went through many revisions with my critique group, and then I signed up for a paid critique that came with a Writer’s Digest course. The original story had Gong Gong teaching Mei Mei both tai chi and qi gong, and she was teaching him how to make lemonade. With the help of my critique group and a professional critique, I pared down the plot and introduced yoga into the story. The fun and caring relationship between the two characters remained the same.
KLT: How does the writing process work in your critique group?
SL: I have an amazing online critique group of six other picture book authors. We live on three continents and formed three years ago. We have a secret Facebook group where we interact and share our stories. Each of us takes turns sharing one story a week. One of us posts a story on a Sunday and the rest of us have the rest of the week to provide comments. Our turn comes around every seven weeks, and if we don’t have a story to post, we can use our turn to discuss any writing or career-related issue (for example, which stories should we submit to an agent, what do people think of this idea, etc.).
KLT: I love that the back matter of A MORNING WITH GRANDPA includes instructions for yoga and tai chi movements and postures. This seems unique for a fiction picture book. How did the back matter come about?
SL: I have been writing back matter for several of my fiction stories because most of my stories are inspired by some real life component. Because tai chi is not as well known as other forms of exercise and meditation, it felt natural to explain it. I did the same with yoga.
KLT: Describe the submission process for A MORNING WITH GRANDPA.
SL: I submitted the story in late October 2013 as a submission for Lee & Low’s annual New Voices Award, a contest to identify new authors of color. I won the grand prize that year, which included a publishing contract for A MORNING WITH GRANDPA. I signed the contract in early 2014 and the book came out in May 2016.
KLT: Congratulations! You are also an accomplished illustrator. Was illustrating A MORNING WITH GRANDPA an option? Are you planning to illustrate your own books?
SL: The New Voices award is geared towards finding and promoting new authors, so Lee & Low planned to hire a different illustrator from the beginning. I would love to illustrate my own books eventually.
KLT: Lee & Low is a publisher known for its multicultural books. Why is it important to share diverse books with a young audience?
SL: We need diverse books for young people (and everyone) so that we can learn from, understand, and experience the full and amazing multiplicity of stories out there, which show both our common humanity as well the fascinating distinct forms it takes. Reading diverse stories opens people's minds and hearts to the "other" so we realize that we are all essentially the same. Reading diverse stories helps us appreciate that we also have very distinct histories and cultural influences that make each person unique and interesting. Reading diverse stories helps us realize there is not one monolithic story about how we got here, what our country is about, and why we are here.
KLT: So true! What are you working on next?
SL: I’m developing several new stories, both the words and illustrations and revising other stories.
KLT: What’s your takeaway for other aspiring authors?
SL: Keep creating and don't compare yourself to others. Work on your own timetable and don't stop!
Thank you Sylvia! Sylvia is generously offering a free signed copy of A MORNING WITH GRANDPA. (Must be a U.S. resident.) Check out the Rafflecopter below Sylvia's bio to enter!
Sylvia Liu is a picture book author and children's illustrator. Her debut picture book, A MORNING WITH GRANDPA, illustrated by Christina Forshay (Lee & Low Books) came out in May 2016. Her portfolio can be found at enjoyingplanetearth.com and she co-runs the successful kid lit resource website, www.kidlit411.com. She lives in Virginia Beach, Virginia, with her husband, two girls, cat, and guinea pig. She is inspired by cephalopods, aliens, kraken, grandpas, robots, and more.
By Donna Cangelosi
I recently won a copy of THERE WAS AN OLD DRAGON WHO SWALLOWED A KNIGHT by Penny Parker Klostermann, Illustrated by Ben Mantle (Random House, 2015).
This book is nothing short of perfection! The catchy description says it all: "A knight, a steed, a squire, a cook, a lady, a castle, a moat, plus one very hungry old dragon add up to a hilarious and rollicking tale about a dragon who just can't keep his mouth closed... at least not until he eats almost everything in the kingdom. It's not polite!" How is that for a pitch? And that's only the beginning!
The picture book has some great takeaways for aspiring authors:
. Clever title. There Was an Old Dragon Who Swallowed a Knight- a fun spin off of the classic, There Was an Old Woman themed books.
. Words, words, words! Penny introduces words like savory, shady, tassel, guzzled, gulped, bloat, perchance, billow and amass. The book is so much fun to read that kids don't even realize they're learning new vocabulary words!
. "Clippity, clippity, clippity, clop. It's not polite!" Penny adds to the humor, charm and page turns of the book by using this fun refrain. Her writing dances off the pages. She incorporates onomatopoeia and rhyme, and her meter is spot on.
. Story Arc. The dragon starts out slow, eating just one knight but from there he gets carried away. The conflict builds and then... You'll have to read the story to find out about the resolution!
. Illustrations. The illustrations are hysterical and work perfectly with the text. You'll have to re-read the book several times to take them all in. They are hilarious!
. Satisfying conclusion. This is a must read! Treat yourself and enjoy!
. Huggable! In her author biography, Penny writes, "Penny is a hugger of picture books and hopes this book will gain huggable status with readers everywhere!" As one picture book hugger to another, THERE WAS AN OLD DRAGON WHO SWALLOWED A KNIGHT is without a doubt, HUGGABLE!
Penny Parker Klostermann taught school for 26 years before she began writing. Her second picture book, A Cooked-Up Fairy Tale, also illustrated by Ben Mantle will be published by Random House, Fall, 2017. Penny lives in Abilene Texas with her husband.
By Chana Stiefel
Get out your cape and put on your goggles! MR. PARTICULAR (aka Jason Kirschner) is here at KidLitTakeaways to share his publishing journey. Plus he’s offering a SUPER Giveaway (details below)!
KLT: Congrats on the debut of your first picture book, Mr. Particular: The World’s Choosiest Champion! What was your inspiration for this particular story?
JK: I was a really picky kid. Supremely picky. And I can be a pretty picky grownup too. And then I had kids and found out that they’re all picky in their own ways. Mr. Particular was a funny nickname I came up with. The more I thought about it, it seemed that Mr. Particular was the funniest name for a picky superhero. After that, the story came easily enough.
KLT: You’ve had an illustrious career as a set designer for TV shows, including 14 years (!) with The Late Show with David Letterman. How did you take the plunge into picture books?
JK: First off, I’m not sure how illustrious it’s been, but thank you. Anyway, I had always wanted to animate or illustrate…basically to tell my own stories. When my kids were born and we started reading books together, I saw something that I really, really wanted to do. I started attending SCBWI conferences and getting a portfolio together. It took years of drawing and writing daily to get my craft to a good place, but it’s an industry full of the nicest, most supportive people so it was a pleasant journey.
KLT: Your story features a Super-Duper Group of mini superhero friends, including Mr. Particular (the world’s choosiest champion), Dr. Slimyhands, Super Pooper, and more! Which character are you?
JK: I am Mr. Particular with out a doubt. You can ask anyone in my family—I like things the way I like them and ONLY the way I like them.
KLT: Your book reads like a Little Kid Intro to Comics or Graphic Novels. Was that your intention?
JK: It was not necessarily my goal to introduce kids to comics, but I do think it’s awesome if this book fills that roll. I was (am) a giant comic book nerd. With that sort of background and a superhero main character, it just seemed natural to tell it in a comic book format. And once I decided that, I tried to include as many comic book elements as I could—from the old style ads I adapted for endpapers, to the giant hand lettered “BOOM”s and “ZAP”s, to the color halftones I tried to sprinkle in the backgrounds. There are many comic book “Easter eggs” in the book.
KLT: How did you submit Mr. Particular—as text, in sketches, or storyboard? Was it complete?
JK: I submitted a pretty tightly sketched dummy. I’m not sure anyone would have understood what my vision was without actually showing them. And I’m probably a stronger illustrator than writer so it felt easier to let my pictures help sell the story.
KLT: Tell us about Mr. Particular’s journey to publication.
JK: It is thankfully a very brief story. I wrote the manuscript and revised until I had the words where I wanted them. Then I started to draw. Four months later I came out of my cave with a sketched dummy. There were a few rounds of revisions based on comments from my agent and my critique group. When we agreed it was ready, we subbed it out to a few houses on a sunny Monday in April. Against all expectations, we had an offer that Friday and contracts were signed the following Monday. It was fast!
KLT: Super fast! How did you find your agent?
JK: I had met my fantastic agent, Rachel Orr at Prospect Agency, a few times at SCBWI events. She represented some friends of mine. Unfortunately, it was always at the bar when I had no portfolio or dummy to show. Thankfully, she was a guest speaker at a CBIG (Children’s Book Illustrator Group) meeting and I had a portfolio review with her. I thought her comments were really insightful so I followed up with her and signed soon after.
KLT: The endpapers brought me back to hours spent reading comic books and begging my mom to order sneezing powder and sea monkeys. Now I want a Zing Ring! How did your hilarious pages come about?
JK: I tried to cram as many comic book elements and homages as I could into the book. Originally, I had the ads as a back cover but because of blurbs and UPC symbols it didn’t work. My art director asked if I could do another page of them and make them endpapers. They were SO MUCH fun to write. I just wrote things that made me laugh.
KLT: What was the most challenging part of illustrating this book & why?
JK: Because the story is told in panels, there was a lot of drawing. It was very time intensive but fun to draw. I was also a bit nervous because it doesn’t look like most other picture books on the shelf. It was sometimes work to not second-guess myself.
KLT: Since you say you’re pretty particular, which spread is your favorite & why?
JK: Wow. What a question. There are things I love about most of the spreads. I tried some weird and unconventional layouts that I think somehow succeeded. Having said that, I like the spread where all the kids are in the sandbox and on the swing set. I also like the one where he discovers the bees. The little character on the bottom left makes me laugh every time.
KLT: Best takeaway for aspiring author-illustrators?
JK: It’s not anything new but draw and write every day. EVERY DAY people. Once I started doing that, I think I took a healthy leap forward. There’s always room to grow as an artist.
KLT: Is MR. PARTICULAR vs. THE INCREDIBLE SULK a reality? What’s next?
JK: See what I did there? Very few picture books get to drum up interest for a sequel on the last page. It’s yet another comic book convention that I snuck in. I’d love to do another one. Sterling hasn't ordered a sequel yet but I’ve got a great story planned and ready to go when they do. Right now, I’m working on a dummy for another picture book I wrote with a whole different cast of characters and developing a few other manuscripts. Hopefully, you’ll see another picture book from me soon.
And now for the Super Giveaway!
Jason has generously a free signed copy of MR. PARTICULAR to one lucky winner! Leave a comment and enter the Rafflecopter below. (Must be U.S. resident.)
About Jason Kirschner
By day, Jason is a set designer for television, with credits that include The Meredith Vieira Show, Late Night with Conan O’Brien, and The Late Show with David Letterman. By night, Jason is an author and illustrator of children’s books, including his debut picture book, Mr. Particular: The World's Choosiest Champion. He lives in New Jersey with his finicky veterinarian wife, persnickety twins, and ridiculously choosy cats. He is a member of United Scenic Artists Local 829, The Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, Society of Children's Books Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) and Children’s Book Illustrator Group (CBIG). Visit him at jasonkirschner.com.
By Donna Cangelosi
One of the many fantastic workshops I attended at this year's NJSCBWI conference was THE EDITING PROCESS-FOR REAL! with Katie Bignell, Senior Editor, at Scholastic. The session was a gem. Katie showed us the original manuscript of HOW TO BEHAVE AT A DOG SHOW written by Madeline Rosenberg and Illustrated by Heather Ross and took us though the entire editing process, line by line. We then looked at finished samples of the book. The transformation was truly remarkable.
In her discussion, Katie noted that writing picture books requires good problem solving skills. We must find a way to:
Keep the word count low
Show action on each spread
Leave room for the illustrator
Keep the reader engaged
Include fun words and phrases
Build an emotional arc
Build a story arc
Add complications that lead to a strong climax, and
End with a fun twist!
This list can be daunting, especially when you have to accomplish all of this in less than 500 words. But the reward will be worth it.
The Takeaway: If you need encouragement, look at a finished picture book that you love and remember, that author had to edit too!
By Ariel Bernstein
Please welcome our guest blogger, Ariel Bernstein, a debut picture book author whom we met in person for the first time at NJSCBWI.
I attended the 2016 NJSCBWI Conference this past weekend. I was excited about almost everything – seeing friends, the presentations, the food. Okay, maybe not the food. The one thing I was nervous about was a critique I’d signed up for from an editor. I had been feeling pretty good about the picture book I submitted. While I told myself I wanted the editor’s honest opinion about ways to make it better, I also worried about what she’d say.
When I entered the critique room, the editor smiled and offered her hand. Then she showed me her critique notes. A very, very short paragraph discussed ways in which the story worked. Did I mention it was short? The rest of the three-page document detailed all the ways she felt my story needed improvement.
During the 15 minutes we talked, there were a few suggestions I immediately agreed with. But for everything else, I listened in a daze. Maybe she just didn’t “get it.” This is a subjective business, after all. And my wonderfully honest critique partners all loved it. They tell me when they don’t love something (in a nice way).
I left the conference feeling unsettled. I respected this editor and the books she worked on. But how could I be so wrong about my story?
The next day I found the books she recommended I use for mentor texts. As I read them, I had my story in the back of my mind. I started to think of ways to change it, and realized I was starting to understand how to write the big overhaul she suggested.
I went home and rewrote my story. I must have kept only 30-40% of the original. It still needs revising, but I really liked the direction the story taking. I showed my draft to a critique partner. Her response? The previous version was good. Really good. But this version was SO MUCH BETTER.
The editor hadn’t been telling me that most of my story was awful (or maybe she was), but she was definitely telling me that the story wasn’t good enough. It could be better. And she was right. You don’t always have to agree with everything in a critique from an editor, agent, or fellow writer, but being open to criticism and suggestions is only going to benefit your writing.
I’m so glad I signed up for that critique.
Ariel Bernstein is a picture book, chapter book and short story writer. She has been published in Scary Mommy and Atticus Review. Her debut picture book, I HAVE A BALLOON, will be published by Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman Books in Fall 2017 and will be illustrated by Scott Magoon. Her chapter book, WARREN AND DRAGON’S 100 FRIENDS, will be published by Viking Children’s. You can learn more about Ariel on her website: arielbernsteinbooks.com.
Donna & Chana will both be at #NJSCBWI June 3-5! Please say hello! And follow our tweets @kidlittakeaways @chanastiefel @DonnaCangelosi2 Our message to our author-illustrator friends this weekend: Be bold! Be brave! Be determined!
By Debbie LaCroix
Welcome to our first guest blogger, our friend and picture book critique partner, Debbie LaCroix!
I love conferences! Not only am I surrounded by people who get me, I always come back with my head and heart full of great information that I can apply to my writing. I was recently at Wild, Wild Midwest SCBWI in Naperville, IL, and here are a few things I learned.
I found myself attracted to the picture book first pages breakouts. Though I didn’t submit anything, I love getting inside the heads of agents and editors to see how they feel about the beginning of a story. By the end of the second seminar, I was trying to predict what the feedback would be, and I was getting really good at it. Here are five takeaways to apply to your stories:
1) Start the story sooner. Many of the stories began with fanciful descriptions, backstory, or information dumps that didn’t add to the story. So ask yourself: Is this first sentence/paragraph necessary? If you are unsure, delete it and see what happens.
Debbie LaCroix is a book addict and published author in South Dakota. She also sells Usborne Books & More. Visit her at www.debbielacroix.com
By Chana Stiefel and Donna Cangelosi
This month, we met our critique partner Nancy Anton at the MOseum, the New York Historical Society’s exhibit, “The Art and Whimsy of Mo Willems.” Mo is the creator of some of our favorite picture book series, including KNUFFLE BUNNY, ELEPHANT & PIGGIE, & of course those cranky PIGEON books! Don’t worry, we didn’t let the pigeon drive the bus. But we did come away with lots of great takeaways to share with you.
Creating EMOtional Characters
CS: As children’s book authors and illustrators, we know that we have to heighten the emotion of our characters. Readers should experience that emotion on every page. Mo’s lovable characters are filled with emotion. How does he do it time and time again? The best way to create characters with emotion, Mo says, is to “get inside” your characters. To quote Mo, “Because my characters have big feelings, I have to have big feelings…I’m kind of like an actor. If I’m drawing Piggie being excited, I have to be excited. My family has to watch out because if I’m drawing Pigeon being angry all day, I’m probably gonna be a little angry.”
DC: Mo’s characters have big personalities too. He says, “All my characters are thoroughly neurotic and have very deep emotional lives.”
CS: Yes, they have a lot of attitude too. As Mo’s characters grow in his imagination, they start to make demands of him. “These characters get to decide what they want to do,” he says.
DC: I love his story about Knuffle Bunny’s makeover. In original drafts, Knuffle Bunny was a stuffed bear. But Mo felt that this inanimate bear couldn’t show enough emotion. With a bunny, however, he could use the bunny’s ears to present feelings. If the ears stood up straight, the bunny was surprised. If they drooped, the bunny felt sad. If the ears were “wiggly waggly,” the bunny was freaked out.
DC: Living in New York fueled Mo’s imagination. “[Pigeon’s] personality came from New York,” he says. “There is no way I could have created the pigeon if I had spent my life living somewhere else.”
CS: So true! Our best stories come from our life experience. KNUFFLE BUNNY is a “photo album” of Mo’s reminiscences of raising a child in Brooklyn. Trixie grows from story to story.
MOlding Words and Images
CS: Mo doesn’t see himself as an author or an illustrator, but rather as a cartoonist. He uses words, drawings, and shapes to create one work. His words are a type of illustration. “If the letters are big, you’re gonna yell them, if they’re small, you’re gonna whisper them,” he says. He wants his books to be “played,” not just read.
DC: And he wants his illustrations to be expressive enough to stand alone. He says, “The true test of success is if the reader understands the character’s emotion through the silhouette alone.” I love this example of Pigeon.
DC: Mo crafts heartwarming stories about friendship, attachment, sacrifice and love. He does this through facial expressions, body language and simple language.
CS: Totally! Mo’s deceptively simple stories include so many big themes: understanding yourself in relation to society, controlling selfish impulses, wrestling demons of self doubt, feeling alienated and finding acceptance—“weighty issues faced by Pigeons, five-year-olds, and adults alike,” he says. The exhibit explains how Mo tackles the big questions with empathy and a wacky sense of humor. “He maps behavioral ideals in his books without finger-wagging, an approach summed up by his motto to ‘always think of your audience, but never think for your audience.’”
Getting MO’ Done
CS: “I can’t make a book. It’s too hard,” moans Mo. But he can break up his work into small, manageable chunks—write text, make a drawing, ink a drawing, and so on. Mo manages his productivity with a workflow chart that looks like this. For each completed step, he colors in a little box. Coloring the squares is like getting a cookie for a job well done, he says.
DC: Speaking of getting Mo’ Done, Here are some inspiring quotes by Mo to get you back to your writing and illustrating:
“The inability to write merely means the ideas growing in your mind are too fragile to be transplanted onto the page, which is easily solved by being patient. The only way to get ‘blocked’ is by trying to write too much too fast.”
“This stuff for kids, it’s a great responsibility. I’m making something that has to hold a story. It has to be something that can be read a billion times. It has to be a kid’s friend. You don’t just knock that out.”
MOst of the quotes in this blog post come from the exhibit’s fabulous audio tour narrated by Mo Willems. Please take a MOment and share your favorite Mo Willems’ books and your own takeaways in the Comments below.
By Chana Stiefel
Do you love reading—or writing—picture book biographies (PBBs)? Got an idea for a biography, but you're not sure where to go with it? Please check out my guest post on this week's Reading for Research (ReForReMo) Blog:
Let me know what you think! Please share your favorite PBBs here.
Donna Cangelosi and Chana Stiefel are picture book critique partners & friends who are passionate about kids' books & are eager to share tidbits from their writing journey with other aspiring writers.