It’s no foolin’! April has arrived and with it, blooming flowers, singing birds, and the shining sun. Plus – Poetry Month! AND for 12 x 12 in 2012 participants, it’s not just one but FOUR opportunities to win prizes to improve your writing craft.
That’s right. April features four multi-published authors, all of whom are participating in the 12 x 12 challenge. I asked each of them to answer four questions about writing and publishing picture books. 4 questions, 4 authors, 4th month. (I’m sorry I can’t help myself!).
First allow me to introduce these generous and accomplished authors in alphabetical order by first name — Jennifer Ward, Linda Ravin Lodding, Sandy Asher and Susannah Leonard Hill. Then keep reading for their valuable insights into the craft of picture book writing.
Jennifer Ward is the author of numerous acclaimed books for children, including, Way Out in the Desert, Somewhere in the Ocean, and There Was an Odd Princess Who Swallowed a Pea. She’s also written parenting books including, I Love Dirt! 52 Activities to Help You and Your Kids Discover the Wonders of Nature, Let’s Go Outside: Outdoor Activities and Projects to Get You and Your Kids Closer to Nature, and, It’s a Jungle Out There: 52 Nature Adventures for City Kids. Forthcoming titles by Jennifer include What Will Hatch? (Bloomsbury/Walker Books), Mama Built a Little Nest, (Simon & Schuster/Beach Lane Books), The Sunhat, (Rio Chico), and, There Was an Old Pirate Who Swallowed a Fish, (Marshall Cavendish). You can find Jennifer on her website and Facebook Jennifer is offering one 12 x 12 participant a manuscript critique.
Linda Ravin Lodding is the author of The Busy Life of Ernestine Buckmeister (Flashlight Press, 2011) and the upcoming Hold That Thought, Milton! (illustrated by Ross Collins) and Oskar’s Perfect Present (illustrated by Alison Jay) both from Gullane Children’s Books, London. Linda is originally from New York, but has spent the past 15 years in Sweden, Austria and now The Netherlands. Today she lives in a one-windmill with her wonderful husband and daughter (who is, at times, as busy as Ernestine) and their sometimes-dog Nino (who speaks Dutch, Swedish, Spanish and a smattering of English). She loves dreaming up stories, biking along the canals, taking photos, doing pottery, traipsing through quaint towns, playing the flute…and sometimes just playing. You can find Linda, on her website, Facebook and Twitter, Pinterest, LinkedIn and located (in person!) at 52°9’7″N , 4°23’05″W. Linda is offering one 12 x 12 participant a manuscript critique.
Sandy Asher’s first book for young readers, SUMMER BEGINS, was published in 1980. Since then, she’s written 25 more. Her latest picture books are all about Froggie and Rabbit, Too Many Frogs!, What a Party!, and Here Comes Gosling!. Sandy has also edited five anthologies, including, DUDE! Stories and Stuff for Boys, coedited with her friend David Harrison. Her latest anthology is WRITING IT RIGHT: How Successful Children’s Authors Perfect and Sell Their Stories. Sandy and her husband are the proud parents of two grown children, and have three small grandchildren. They live in Lancaster, PA, with their cat Friday. You can find Sandy at the website she co-founded with David Harrison – America Writes for Kids, their blog and on Facebook. Sandy is offering one 12 x 12 participant a copy of her book, WRITING IT RIGHT!
Susanna Leonard Hill began writing as soon as she could hold a pencil, but her first published book was The House That Mack Built, released by Little Simon in 2002. Since then, she has published eight more books, including: Punxsutawney Phyllis (Holiday House, 2005), No Sword Fighting In The House (Holiday House, 2007), Not Yet, Rose (Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, 2009), Airplane Flight! (Little Simon, 2009), Can’t Sleep Without Sheep, (Walker Books, 2010) and April Fool, Phyllis! (Holiday House, 2011). In her spare time, Susanna is also a chauffeur, housekeeper, laundress, reader, rider-when-she-gets-the-chance, gardener-wanna-be, and former teacher. You can find Susanna on her website, blog (where she hosts the popular Perfect Picture Book Friday, and Would You Read It? series), Facebook and YouTube. Susanna is offering one 12 x 12 participant a manuscript critique.
1. What, in your opinion, is the most important element of an outstanding picture book? Please name one picture book that executes this well.
Jennifer: The most important element found in an outstanding picture book is the ability to transcend the reader’s thoughts and emotions. The story isn’t simply read by the reader, but processed on a variety of levels. This happens during the book’s creation, when many-many thoughtful, technical and artful elements are woven into the book’s design, seamlessly: language, characters, concept, text placement, illustration, tone, composition…
The result is a book that not only resonates with each individual reader on some personal level, but also stands the test of time, becoming a classic.
Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, written and illustrated by William Steig, is an example of a book that executes this perfectly.
Linda: Only one element? There are so many important ones. Great character! Rich text! Read aloud rhythm! Strong narrative! Sense of playfulness! (See how I worked in more than one?) But if I had to choose, I think I’d linger on the word “picture” in “picture book”. Ultimately, an outstanding picture book is a “pas de deux” between words and pictures; each without the other isn’t complete. So for me, (one of) the most important elements of a picture book is the way the text and illustrations dance together — each relying on the other to create something magical.
There are so many books that do this brilliantly but one that pops into my head is Officer Buckle and Gloria by Peggy Rathmann.
Sandy: As Sue Alexander told me long ago, an outstanding picture book works on three levels: Very young children understand and enjoy the events. Older children understand and enjoy the connections between the events. Adults understand and enjoy the universality of the connections between the events. Example: Very young children laugh at Max’s antics at home and with the Wild Things in Where the Wild Things Are, by Maurice Sendak. Older children realize that Max’s misbehavior has gotten him sent to his room, where he’s angry and imagines the land of Wild Things until he’s ready to calm down and everything’s okay again. Adults appreciate the depiction of a world in which a child can misbehave and get angry and wild but still be surrounded by his knowing parent’s love as symbolized in the waiting dinner. Those levels are a lot to accomplish in only a few words, but that’s what makes a picture book truly outstanding.
Susannah: Someone (sorry, I forget who) said that picture books are big emotion for little people. To me, the most important element of an outstanding picture book is the emotion, the connectedness, the “I know exactly what that feels like” rush of understanding you get when a character experiences something that you’ve experienced. A picture book that does emotion well – whatever the emotion is – speaks to kids. It brings comfort, or reassurance, or relief, or a laugh, or a feeling of common humanity to small people who have yet to learn that everyone sometimes misses their mom, or feels sad, or gets angry, or thinks a joke is funny, or is afraid of something. Owl Moon by Jane Yolen shows the quiet happiness of a father and his daughter sharing something special together. The Kissing Hand by Audrey Penn and Llama Llama Misses Mama by Anna Dewdney help children feel the depth of parental love even when kids and parents have to be apart. Z Is For Moose by Kelly Bingham is laugh-out-loud funny because every child understands impatience and not wanting to be left out. Where The Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak lets kids know that even when they’re bad, they’re loved. To me, it is this depth of emotion that resonates with children and makes them ask for a book over and over and over.
2. What is your number one piece of advice for improving in the craft of picture book writing?
Jennifer: Read, read, read. Don’t ever stop reading in the genre you’re writing. I also believe it is important to give each manuscript time for subconscious processing – you know, that time you think about your work while doing the mundane, day-to-day stuff? During this time, don’t ignore the “aha” elements that may surface: a new twist, a different ending, another level or layer that adds to the reader’s enjoyment of the book. Often these thoughts surface as nothing more than a fleeting whisper in your mind and could easily be ignored. But latch on to them and give them attention. There might be a shy bud of thought that blossoms into a moment of genius.
Linda: It’s been said before, but I’ll say it again… Read! On Linda Sue Park’s website she quotes an editor who once said, “Read a thousand books of the genre you’re interested in. THEN write yours.”
Sandy: Read, read, read. We learn language by hearing it spoken. We learn the elements of storytelling by listening to storytellers. Read, read, read picture books until their rhythms become a natural part of your own storytelling voice.
Susannah: I guess my number one tip for improving in the craft of picture book writing is two-fold. First, read a lot of picture books to get a feel for the length, the rhythm, and the language, to get a feel for what is in the story and what is in the pictures, and to learn what works and what doesn’t. Second, write. Every day. Practice your craft. The more you write, the more you will find your own rhythm and language – the kind of stories you can make work well, the voice that is yours and yours alone.
3. What is the one thing you know now that you wish you had known starting out?
Jennifer: I’m going to spin your question around, because today finds me grateful for what I didn’t know back when I started out. I suppose it is true on some levels: ignorance is bliss! In the beginning, I had no knowledge regarding the “business” aspect of being a writer. I didn’t know about reviews or sales numbers or marketing. I was green!
Back then, I wrote because I loved children’s books, words as a medium, and writing. I sent off my first manuscript to one publisher, it was accepted, it was successful, and continues to sell very well today. Back then, the process of writing was pure bliss and joy. My focus was solely on craft.
Fourteen years and many books later, I am a full-time writer who makes a living as a writer. Today I find it’s quite easy to get consumed with the business aspect of making books: the marketing (a whole world in and of itself), traveling, speaking and promoting. I will spin all of those plates on my fingers, and since there’s no finger left to spin the writing plate, I’ll try to spin that one on my toe.
So to answer your question, I am glad to know what my experience was like in the beginning, because it serves as a reminder that craft needs a place in my day-to-day realm of existence: to ensure success in this business, and to provide me with some balance. The fact of the matter is – writing/creating – brings me the greatest joy.
Linda: To refer back to Q1, I wish I had known how to write with the illustrator in mind. Ten years later, and, by George, I think I got it! It took me awhile to learn to let go of my manuscript and trust that a savvy editor, wonderful illustrator and a child’s imagination would “tell the rest of the story.”
Oh, and I also wish I knew that I’d have to be patient (but I’m still working on this).
Sandy: I wish I’d known how to study the market. A story is art when you create it and art when readers receive it, but everything in between is business, and you can’t get your story to readers if you don’t understand how that business works. Basic rule: If a publication, publishing house, or contest offers specific guidelines, believe them! Sure, people break the rules and get away with it. But not often!
Susannah: The one thing I know now that I wish I had known starting out… hmmm… that is a tough question! I’m not sure I have an answer. I’m glad I didn’t know how long it would take to get published, or that I would have to do my own marketing, or that even once I was published I would have no guarantee of future publication. I think those things would have made the process more intimidating than it already was. I have certainly learned a lot along the way, but I can’t really think of something I wish I’d known. I’m sure when the other authors post their answers I’ll think, “Oh, yes! Of course! I wish I’d known that too!” 🙂
4. Why, as a multi-published author, did you decide to participate in the 12 x 12 in 2012 challenge?
Jennifer: My reason relates to Q3. The 12 x 12 served as a vehicle to allow Craft to jump back into my work days and elbow Business out of the way a bit. As a bonus, being part of the 12×12 challenge has allowed me to meet many wonderful people who share a passion for children’s books and creating. So thank you, Julie, for providing such a rich place for picture book lovers to converge. I have drafted four complete manuscripts so far, and I am “loving” the momentum!
Linda: For the past two years I participated in Tara Lazar’s PiBoIdMo and, while I ended up with a list of ideas, they stayed seeds buried under a pile of dirt (or laundry as the case usually is). The 12 x 12 challenge seemed like the perfect opportunity to tend to those seeds – give them a bit of water, a ray of sunlight, coo to them and see if they actually could grow.
But the number one reason for jumping on the 12×12 bandwagon with all you wonderful participants, was because I wanted to get back to writing.
In the run-up to the debut of my picture book The Busy Life of Ernestine Buckmeister, I threw myself head first into marketing and promoting the book — built my website, organized bi-continental book launches, signed at bookstores, posted on blogs, solicited reviews, prepared school visits – everything that writers do….except I wasn’t writing. In addition, I’d been working on edits for two new picture books due out in 2013 (more like sitting on them and waiting for then to hatch but still…).
While this doesn’t diminish the thrill of all the things that happen post-book, it got me wondering if I had any books left in me. I wanted to find that spark again, make writing a priority and feel the buzz of a new book project. Nearly four months into 12 x 12, I have four new picture book drafts! Thank you, Julie!
Sandy: Quite frankly, after 40+ years in the business, I’d reached a place where I wasn’t sure I had anything more to say — and that was bothering me. I’d completed WRITING IT RIGHT, an anthology of other authors’ work, I’ve been working on several plays that are centered on bringing other people’s stories to the stage, and I’m helping my husband with his blog America — The Owner’s Manual (http://americatheownersmanual.wordpress.com). Obviously, I’m deeply committed to helping other people share their stories, but I never intended for that to be all my work for the rest of my life! I read about the Picture Book Marathon in the SCBWI Bulletin and signed on, but weeks passed and I didn’t hear back from the organizers, so I figured it wasn’t going to happen. Then I heard about 12 X 12 via a Facebook posting and decided that’d work just fine, so I signed on. About the time I finished my January draft for 12 X 12, I heard that the PB Marathon was indeed on for February! What the heck, I thought, I’ll do them both. And sure enough, the more I’ve written picture book drafts — one in January, 26 in February, one in March so far — the more ideas I’ve discovered for writing picture books. Rather than an exhausting double dare, it’s all been wonderfully invigorating! Have I thanked you recently, Julie? THANK YOU!
Susanna: I have been lucky to be published, but I know I still have a lot to learn about writing. For me there is always room for improvement. I joined 12×12 partly to learn what I could learn, and partly for the motivation – to help me make sure that at the very least I would have 12 new MSS by the end of 2012. But I also joined largely for the camaraderie. I like being part of a community of picture book writers. I love the guest posts on this blog. I’ve enjoyed getting to meet so many wonderful people. We all have things to teach each other, and it’s nice to have a place where everyone understands the ups and downs, the joys and frustrations, of being a writer. I’m so glad you had this idea, Julie, and I’m really enjoying participating!
It is truly my honor to host these four inspiring authors on my blog this month. PLEASE help me thank them by visiting their websites and social media networks and, especially, BY BUYING THEIR BOOKS!
12 x 12 Participants – to enter to win one of the four prizes, you must be an official challenger and leave a comment on this post (INCLUDING YOUR FIRST AND LAST NAME) any time during the month of April for one point. On April 30th, l’ll put a check-in post on the blog. If you completed a picture book draft in April, you can let us know in the comments of that post for another point. I will draw winners using Random.org and announce them on May 2nd.