Friday, December 20, 2013

Book Giveaway, Author Interview with Greg Pincus & Poetry Friday!

Howdy, Campers!  
There's lots going on today, including a funny math poem (fractions!) for Poetry Friday--so let's get started!

First of all, thank you, Buffy, for hosting PF!

It is my absolute pleasure to introduce you to my friend,
Greg Pincus.
Greg's a poet, novelist, screenwriter, volunteer elementary school librarian, and social media consultant. He’s also a blogger, writing about children’s literature and poetry at GottaBook (including his annual Poetry Month feature, 30 Poets/30 Days.) 

Through the wonders of social media, he’s sold poetry, helped himself land a book deal, ended up in the New York Times (!), the Washington Post, School Library Journal (multiple times), and spoken to students all around the U.S.

Greg's poems for children can be playful, deceptively smart, and tender, too.  They are always well-crafted--his rhyme is pitch perfect.

But more important than all of this: Greg Pincus is a compassionate and incredibly giving person, both personally and professionally.  There is never a time Greg posts on our Los Angeles SCBWI listserv that he isn't sharing a link about our industry or practical tips on using social media or something equally helpful.  He's constantly lifting up all of us.  It's never about Greg; it's always about what he can give to you.  
Greg Pincus is on the right, helping an SCBWI member
over a publishing dilemma

Greg is also very funny.  And so is his debut middle grade novel, The Fourteen Fibs of Gregory K (Arthur A. Levine Books) -- which you could win!  See below!
From Publisher's Weekly:
Everyone in Gregory's family adores math—everyone, that is, except Gregory. While his parents and siblings live for the yearly City Math contest, Gregory prefers writing, especially poetry...Gregory is a buoyant narrator whose extreme math phobia and obsessive love of pie (and definitely not pi) give his character an idiosyncratic shine. Hyperbolic details, like his mother's "Weird Wednesday" family dinners, are interspersed with passages from Gregory's extra credit math journal, where his ruminations on the Fibonacci sequence and "Fib poetry" give readers access to deeper reflections on mathematics, metaphor, and the places where they might overlap. Pincus's story explores struggles with friends, family, and learning while remaining exuberant and relatable, a winning equation.

The real Greg actually invented the “Fib” — a form of poetry based on the Fibonacci sequence — read about it at his original Fib post, and in The New York Times and at Poetry Foundation. (Remember I know him!  I've had had actual coffee with him!)

Pretty impressive bio and review, right? So without further delay, let's hear from the author himself! 

So, Greg--how did you officially become a TeachingAuthor?

Inertia! I was spending time as a volunteer elementary school librarian, so I was reading/working with a lot kids already. As I published my poetry and then The 14 Fibs, it was just a natural outgrowth to get into classes and not just talk about poetry and the like but teach it... workshop it... explore it. So, I did!

What's a problem you've seen students having when writing poetry?

I've found that many students simply don't know how to start writing a poem - as though there's some code they haven't been taught or some permission they need. So, besides giving permission to write a lousy draft of a poem, I also work with them on looking around wherever they are and seeing something... anything, really... that's of interest to them. And if that fails to spark an interest, we look internally, too, because there's always a feeling to write about. So far, a bit of gentle guidance has always been enough.

And when did you know you were a writer?

I always loved to write, yet I never really thought about it separate from school work. Until, that is, I was part of a writing competition - the Ready Writing Contest, competing against other kids my age (which was around 12 at the time). Yes, there I was with other kids who liked writing! That was exciting by itself... and then there was the fact that it was a competition which, well, at the time I could be a little competitive.

The funny thing is that I remember the contest being inspiring, but I haven't a clue how I did in it. And that's really as it should be, as writing isn't a competition (though since I can't remember, I'm guessing I didn't win... and lived to tell new tales anyway).

What's on the horizon for you besides pie? (There's a lot of pie eating in Greg's book...)

I'm working on a new novel to join The 14 Fibs of Gregory K. and working on a whole assortment of poems (Fibs included) and picture book manuscripts, too. Plus, I'm trying to get into the classroom as often as possible so I can share my love of poetry with anyone who will listen!

I've gotta ask, did you decide to name your character Gregory?

Great question!  Arthur (his editor, Arthur A. Levine) came up with the title The 14 Fibs of Gregory K. when we first talked about the book in 2006. There was no manuscript at the time. Instead, there was a vague idea about a kid who writes Fibs and tells fibs. A lot of my poems are written from the point of view of a kid who was unnamed... but I used to write those poems as Gregory K. instead of Greg Pincus. We decided the book should about that kid, then Arthur used "Gregory K." as part of the title. I thought it sounded great.

That I happen to be Gregory K, too, is fun and certainly relates to how the name came to be, but it wasn't actually me making the choice! Editors do a lot - including, sometimes, naming the main character for you. Who knew?

  Greg at his book launch
Click here to watch his entire book launch, which he streamed live! 
(I'm sure Greg will agree with me when I say
you can skip the first 40 minutes)

What poem will you share for Poetry Friday, Greg?

Here's a poem from The 14 Fibs (which, remember, you can win--see below!):

by Greg Pincus

I bought a quarter pound of eighths.
I bought an ounce of thirds.
I filled a bag with seventeenths that I will feed the birds.

I found a ninth of thirty-eighths.
I grabbed a single half.
The sixths and fifths were one-fourth off, and that caused me to laugh.

As I prepared to pay my bill,
Well, that’s when things got strange.
Although they’re selling fractions there, they cannot figure change.

poem © 2013 Greg Pincus. All rights reserved

Thank you so much for stopping by today, Greg. We look forward to posting your Wednesday Writing Workout right here on January 15th!

To win a copy of The 14 Fibs of Gregory K (the book trailer is below), enter via Rafflecopter. This giveaway ends at the end of the day, December 31. The lucky winner will be notified after the first of the year. Good luck!  And may you all eat pie!

Dear Campers, this is the last post on Teaching Authors until 2014.  Have a wonderful rest-of-December and watch for our posts beginning January 5th--we promise to help kickstart your writing engines in the new year!

There is so much to share with you about Greg and his book I've added some extras below, beginning with the book trailer...

If you're anything like me, you're completely overwhelmed in life and online and should be congratulated for taking the time to read this far.  Still, consider watching this 5:55 minute video on Greg's website about Fibonacci in nature.  SO MUCH FUN and jaw-droppingly amazing (I am as amazed by the girl who created it as by the video itself--how old is she???)

Need more? For a fun and wonderfully in-depth interview of Greg, complete with a video of him reading his poem,  “I Went to the Farm Where Spaghetti Is Grown,” paddle over to Renee LaTulippe's fabulous blog, No Water River

Greg's dog, Mocha...who's looking a little worried...

Where's my pie?

posted with a wave g'bye to 2013 by April Halprin Wayland

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

A WWW for EVERY day of the year!

                                                        (Morgue Files/

I began 2013 with a BOLD move:  I bought an iPhone5.

Finally I was joining the technologically-savvy-and-cellular-device-connected Human Race!
I could hear my Luddite heart quicken as I studied the icons, thumbed my keyboard, clicked on images. 
But soon, like everyone around me, I too was finger-swiping screens like there was no tomorrow.

My 3-year-old grandson had fortified my courage.
A week earlier, within 3 hours of being introduced to his family’s Christmas present – i.e the iPad, I’d watched him arrive at Level 4 of Angry Birds and pout when his fingered launches failed to earn 3 stars.
The aforementioned grandson also inspired my newest August, 2013 Sleeping Bear Press release TXTNG MAMA TXTNG BABY which brings 2day’s Techy-Techy World to the sturdy pages of the ultimate hand-held device: the baby board book.

So it’s only fitting that I end this Life-changing year by offering up as my Wednesday Writing Workout the app I purchased yesterday  - Day One, a simple journaling platform that allows the user to “record and preserve memories for the long term.”

Of course, we all know the value of journaling.
And now, I can journal anywhere, and post a Selfie of me journaling, to boot!

The Good News is: If – I – can use DayOne, anyone can. J

To start a new entry, I simply click the +sign at the top left of my screen. A new post opens.  I can type away, adding text, photos, locations, the weather, the day and date of course, even music and tags.  The app connects with the cloud; it synchs in with other Apple devices (none of which I own yet); it’s totally searchable and entries can be downloaded as a PDF and printed out later.

The Chicago Tribune headline that introduced me to my newest daily journal says it all:
when it comes to writing every day, recording daily thoughts, ideas, adventures, you-name-it, “Day One app (is) a good place to start.”

Try journaling in the New Year.

Enjoy! Enjoy!

Esther Hershenhorn


The DayOne blog offers up a multitude of journaling possibilities, whether you own an iPhone, another brand’s notebook or even choose to journal your day the old-fashioned-way, with a notebook and pen or pencil.

Check out the app's website  for thoughts on why and what to journal.

Reading through the DayOne list of uses will turn on all sorts of light bulbs to get you writing about your day, every day, Sunday through Saturday, in an easy, focused yet creative manner.

Think about your:
movie log
food log
travel log
photo log
idea log
work journal
word processor
Baby Book
Family conversations
Scenes from your novel
Even your Dear Santa letter – it’s not too late!

(And who’s to say you can’t journal as your character?)

Monday, December 16, 2013

Three 2013 Favorites

I've read many clever and affecting picure books this year, so having to select two or three favorites might have been difficult. Because of personal connections, though, two stand out for me.

The first is Pat Zietlow Miller's Sophie's Squash (illus by Anne Wilsdorf).

Pat's a dear friend, and I first saw this funny, sweet story in manuscript form. Reading it, make that savoring it, literally gave me goosebumps. I couldn't stop thinking, "Oh, man, this is so GOOD." I told Pat that, of course, adding, "This will sell." Happily, an editor soon snapped it up. Once published, Sophie quickly garnered 4 starred reviews. Woot! School Library Journal said:  "With lessons on life, love, and vegetable gardening, this tale will be cherished by children, and their parents will be happy to read it to them often."

Cherished, people. Gotta love that.

Three more of Pat's picture books are in the publishing pipeline (so far). And, even knowing how she loathes arbitrary capitalizations, I'm going to say that she's definitely Someone to Watch.  ;)

Another favorite this year is from Australian author/illustrator Gus Gordon.

Gus is a children's book celebrity down under, but Herman and Rosie is his first American release, and it's a doozy.

I could wax poetic about this story of how two lonely, quirky souls come together in New York City, but NYPL librarian and blogger extraordinaire Betsy Bird does it so much better. Read what she had to say about this gem here.

Gus burst onto my radar when he was tagged to illustrate my I Am Cow, Hear Me Moo! (Dial, May 2014). His illustration style is part collage, part plain old amazing. Kids will love searching for subtle details sprinkled through Herman and Rosie. It is one special book.

The third book I think deserves special mention is a TERRIFIC craft book from prolific and uber-talented picture book author Linda Ashman. Her The Nuts and Bolts Guide to Writing Picture Books is a comprehensive how-to, packed with clear, well-organized information that examines every element of picture book writing.

Whether you write in rhyme or prose, everything you need to know is here. And Ms. Ashman doesn't just tell you how to master something, she includes examples from already-published picture books so you can see for yourself. As I read Nuts and Bolts, I couldn't help wishing I'd had it back when I was starting out. Talk about shortening a person's learning curve! Truly, this is the best book I've ever read on writing picture books, and I know I'll be returning to it again and again. Your copy is waiting here


Jill Esbaum

Friday, December 13, 2013

Three Favorites from 2013

Today I continue our TeachingAuthors series about our favorite books of 2013 by discussing three of my favorites from this year: a nonfiction picture book, a middle-grade novel-in-verse, and a young adult historical novel. In honor of today being Poetry Friday, I've obtained permission from the author of the novel-in-verse to include a poem from her book  I'll also provide links to several online "best books of 2013," in addition to those JoAnn shared last Friday.

Because I'm currently working on novels, I haven't been reading many picture books, but I want to highlight one I did take time to read: Let's Go Nuts! Seeds We Eat (Beach Lane Books) by April Pulley Sayre. Full disclosure here: April is a good friend of mine--we met while attending Vermont College. (We featured April in this Guest TeachingAuthor interview back in 2010.) But even if I didn't know April, I'd still LOVE this book, the third in a series that includes Rah, Rah, Radishes! A Vegetable Chant and Go, Go, Grapes! A Fruit Chant, also from Beach Lane Books. All three books use a lively rhyming text in the form of a chant to turn what might be a dry topic into a fun learning adventure. The books' wonderful photographs make the subjects appetizing to even the pickiest eaters. I can just imagine a classroom of students chanting these texts. And even though I consider myself somewhat of a "health food nut" (Quinoa, nuts, and flax seeds are all a regular part of my diet.) Let's Go Nuts introduced me to new seeds, like butternuts. Finally, I love how the lightheartedness of this book extends to the end matter, which provides "The Scoop on Seeds." Thanks to Let's Go Nuts! Seeds We Eat, I now know the difference between cacao and cocoa. It's no wonder that JoAnn included one of April's books in her best-of list, too--April is a master at making nonfiction come to life!

Speaking of masters, I have to say that Helen Frost is a master of the novel-in-verse. Unlike some books in this form, Frost's are true poetry. I remember being blown away by Diamond Willow and Hidden, both contemporary stories told in verse (and published by Frances Foster Books/FSG) that contain poems written in special forms to fit their stories. Now Frost's come out with Salt: A Story of Friendship in a Time of War (Frances Foster Books/FSG). This novel not only makes use of unique poetry forms tied to the characters' points of view, it also tells a compelling story based on actual historical events. Here's a summary:
“In 1812, as war ravages the land, two young boys, one the son of American settlers, the other Native American, find their friendship and loyalties tested by conflict among the British, Americans, and Miami tribe members.”
As with Let's Go Nuts!, I enjoyed learning new things from this book, this time about American history. The story is set in what is now Indiana. Even though I was born and raised in Illinois, I had no idea the War of 1812 reached the Great Lakes region, nor had I ever heard of the Miami Tribe. But aside from what I learned about American history, I appreciated what this book had to say about friendship, especially friendship across cultures. As I wrote in my reading log: "I was especially struck by how misunderstandings develop between settlers and natives simply because they don’t speak each other’s language, even for the two boys. But because of their friendship, the boys overcome their misunderstandings to help each other."    

Frost explains in her author's notes that the poems from Anikwa's point of view include diamond and triangle shapes reminiscent of Miami ribbon work, while James' poems consist of horizontal lines to suggest the stripes of the American flag. And periodically in the story, there are free verse poems about salt and its importance to both people and animals. Here is one of my favorite poems from the book:

                         Salt Streaks

               Tears come from earth and sky,
               from words moving through us.

               We taste them as they fall,
               leaving salt streaks on our faces.

              We bear witness as they splash
              back to earth, and are absorbed.

excerpt from Salt: A Story of Friendship in a Time of War (Frances Foster Books/FSG)
© 2013 Helen Frost. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

My young adult favorite from 2013 is a book I read for this year's SCBWI-Illinois Prairie Writer's and Illustrator's Day because it was edited by one of the conference speakers: Love Disguised (Bloomsbury USA) by Lisa Klein. I wasn't familiar with this author and I worried about what sort of license she'd take in a story featuring William Shakespeare as a main character. But I didn't know that Klein is a former college English professor. It soon became obvious as I read Love Disguised that she knew what she was doing. Here's a summary of the book from the author's website: 
"Will Shakespeare, in London pursuing his dream of acting, meets a young woman who will change his life forever: Long Meg, a tavern maid who disguises herself as Mack. A tale of mistaken identities, love triangles, and comic misadventure."

I love that Klein chose to tell this story in a style reminiscent of Shakespeare's work and filled with historical details true to the setting. I especially appreciate how she creates an authentic, multi-layered protagonist in Meg. You don't have to be a fan of Shakespeare to enjoy this book. 

And now, for the links to additional lists of "best books of 2013" for children and teens:  

New York Times list of Notable Children's Books 2013 includes young adult, middle grade and picture books.

School Library Journal has three separate lists: picture books, fiction, and nonfiction.

From Kirkus: the best picture books and middle grade fiction by category (they picked Salt too!) and the best teen books by category  

And you can see the Goodreads' Readers' Choice awards for picture books, middle grade, young adult fantasy and science fiction, young adult fiction.

Don't forget, today is Poetry Friday. When you're done checking out all these great lists, be sure to head over to this week's roundup by Tabatha Yeatts at The Opposite of Indifference.

Wishing you all a safe and happy holiday season!

Happy Writing!

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Year-End Accounting

No, I’m not going to discuss taxes or finances, although they might be good topics for future posts. Today’s tips concern the writing life. Here’s what I need to keep in mind at this busy time. Maybe you do, too.
1. Hold a year-end clearance. Now that my teaching semester has ended, I’m immersed in my semiannual clutter-busting battle. As soon as I turned in my students’ grades, I recycled every piece of paperwork from this semester. I’ve significantly reduced the piles on my desk, but I still have a long way to go. The end of the year is a good time to make space for new work.

2. Take stock of your inventory. Did you accumulate new story ideas by participating in PiBoIdMo? Have you written a new draft of a novel through NaNoWriMo? Or do you have half-baked manuscripts piled up willy-nilly around your workspace and scraps of paper falling out of your pockets like I do? Gather everything up in a file folder, basket, or shoe box. Sort through the stack and see what you have on hand. You might be surprised by a nugget or two of pure gold. (I'm hoping!)

3. Prioritize. Which projects call to you the loudest? What subjects tug at your heart? Put those at the top of your To-Do list. Buck up, kiddo. The hardest thing to do with some of these projects is to let them keep hanging over your head. Make 2014 the year to tackle what’s most important to you.

4. Protect your assets. You are your own best resource, and you cannot produce when your gas tank runs dry. Get outside and fill the well! I tend to put off making appointments till the end of a semester, slap my forehead, and schedule everything at once—which is why I’ll get my hair cut and visit the dentist this afternoon. I’ve scheduled a physical for next week. Then there’s that exercise plan. . . .

5. Believe in the power of positive thinking. It’s hard to create when grudges weigh you down. I’ll be forever grateful for the family and friends who buoyed up our family during one of the toughest years we’ve ever faced. Let that kind of memory influence your outlook.
And finally, a year-end bonus: my best wishes for the happiest holidays. See you next year!
JoAnn Early Macken

Monday, December 9, 2013

The Best (and Besting) Children's Books of 2013

To gift-wrap our year and tie it up with ribbons, each TeachingAuthor is sharing a few of those children’s books published in 2013 she deems worthy of the label “best.”

Of course,
there’s best the adjective, best the adverb, best the noun and best the verb.
And what best means to one, it doesn’t mean to another.
I pondered the possibilities, but not for long.
SNOWFLAKES FALL, I knew, bested all.

Simply put, children’s books do Important Work.
They delight. They inform.  They inspire.  They encourage.
Always, they leave their readers with Hope.
Best of all, though, to my way of thinking,  
children’s books help readers make sense of their World.

On the morning of April 20, 1999, I was out-and-about, visiting grade schools in Lake Zurich, Illinois, sharing my very first picture book There Goes Lowell’s Party! with K-5 students, when News Bulletins reported the tragic killings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado.

How does one explain this horrific happening to children?

Or 9/11?

Or the December 14, 2012 losses of Sandy Hook?

I am honored to live and work in a community that when tragedy strikes, when horror reigns, members instantly begin gathering children’s book titles, sharing resources and utilizing their talents to help children grasp and grapple and understand.

SNOWFLAKES FALL is the first collaboration between longtime friends illustrator Steven Kellogg and Newbery medalist Patricia MacLachlan.

In the book’s dedications,
Steven Kellogg writes, “I was active in the school and library communities of Newtown and Sandy Hook, Connecticut where I lived with my family for thirty-five years.  My first book for children was published just before we moved there, and was followed by a hundred more books that were created in the attic studio of our old farmhouse.  The changing seasons in the woodlands, fields, and streams that surround the Sandy Hook village provided an idyllic environment for raising a family.   Those scenes and memories inspired these illustrations.”

Patricia MacLachlan writes,
“I wrote Snowflakes Fall after Steven told me of his sadness and concern for his community and for children everywhere.  This is a sadness that the world felt, and that I felt too.  What brought us comfort was the idea of renewal and memory, and while writing Snowflakes Fall, I thought about all children and families affected by loss.”

In a February 25 PW interview, Patricia MacLachlan shared that the snowflake motif used to underscore each individual’s uniqueness and the power of nature and time to help heal was inspired by the Connecticut Parent Teachers Association’s efforts to encourage people to create paper snowflakes to decorate the new school Sandy Hook students would be attending.

A round white decal claims the bottom left corner of each book’s cover.
Random House also made a book donation of 25,000 books, signed with autographed bookplates, to the national literacy organization First Book, in support of children everywhere.

Steven Kellogg concluded his book dedication with his hope that “this book celebrates the laughter, the playful high spirits, and the uniqueness of the children of Sandy Hook and of children everywhere.”

When it comes to the power of children’s books, it doesn’t get any better than that of Snowflakes Fall.

Thanks and Holiday Greetings to our TeachingAuthors readers who continue to uplift and celebrate us and help us remember!

Esther Hershenhorn

Friday, December 6, 2013

One Good Thing About Winter

The weather outside is—how many synonyms can I find for brisk that don’t imply awful? I’m trying to remain positive. One thing that helps at this time of year is finding so many recommendations for wonderful books to read.

Last Saturday, I took part in Small Business Saturday by helping out at Boswell Book Company in Milwaukee. The only difficult task in the whole process was limiting my book recommendations to five. I couldn’t do it, so I suggested a few extras and let the booksellers narrow down the list. Eleven authors participated, and all our suggestions are listed here.

Here at Teaching Authors, we’re posting about the best new books of 2013, so I’ll highlight just three of my recommendations: one poetry collection, one book for adults, and one nonfiction picture book.

April Pulley Sayre’s wonderful Touch a Butterfly: Wildlife Gardening With Kids would make an excellent gift for parents, teachers, or any other adults who want to share outdoor experiences with children. On her web site, April says, “Turn your garden into a hummingbird hotspot, a haven for butterflies, and a thriving ecosystem. This family-friendly guide is my most personal book yet, sharing the wildlife gardening knowledge that Jeff and I have gained over the years. By reading it we hope you will begin to see your yard from an animal’s perspective; discover plants that attract colorful birds and bugs; embrace sensory experiences that native plants and creatures bring; and understand how your yard fits into the surrounding landscape.”

The Case of the Vanishing Honeybees: A Scientific Mystery by Sandra Markle spotlights a critical issue we all need to know more about. From Booklist: “. . . this attractive volume explores the world of honeybees and the mysterious malady that threatens them. After an opening in which a beekeeper discovers that most of the bees in his 400 hives are gone due to colony collapse disorder (CCD), the book describes how healthy honeybees pollinate flowering plants, gather nectar, and raise their young. The next section, which explains bee development, is particularly vivid and informative. Finally, Markle discusses the many possible causes of CCD, such as mites, fungi, pesticides, and the stressful conditions (overwork and poor diets) sometimes endured by bees in commercial hives. She also comments on the work of researchers exploring likely sources of the problem. Throughout the book, excellent color photos illustrate the text.”

Joyce Sidman’s terrific YA poetry collection What the Heart Knows: Chants, Charms & Blessings, illustrated by Pamela Zagarenski, has received at least four starred reviews and has been featured on many other Best-of-the-Year lists. I’m tickled to see this book getting so much attention. It made me laugh, it made me cry, it made me wish that I might someday write something half as lovely and evocative. Here is the poem that cracked me up.

Silly Love Song

If you are the blazing riff,
then I am the piccolo.

If you are the Maserati,
then I am the oil change.

If you are the midnight neon flash,
I am the silver hint of dawn.

If you are the raptor’s wings,
I am the elephant’s eyelashes.

You are the knife, I am the spoon.
You are the sun, I am the moon.

You are this, I am that.
Just kiss me.
—Joyce Sidman

For those of you who enjoy reading about other people’s favorites as much as I do, here are a few more links: 

Today's Poetry Friday roundup is at Life on the Deckle Edge.

JoAnn Early Macken

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Wednesday Writing Workout

Meet my pal, Linda Skeers:

Linda's picture books are filled with humor and heart.

She's one of those naturally funny people, a popular speaker who even leads workshops to teach others how to write funny. For today's writing workout, Linda has agreed to share an exercise she's used with both children and adults. Enjoy!


Kids love to laugh. Editors love to laugh. Heck, everyone loves to laugh! But what do you do when you sit down to write something that will have everyone giggling and you just stare at the blank page, feeling anything but funny? Here's an exercise that will help you create some silly situations, crazy characters, and get you laughing out loud in no time.

First, get three paper bags. Label one CHARACTERS, another PROBLEMS, and the third SETTING. Next, cut paper into strips.

Now, let the fun begin! Quickly write down possible characters on slips of paper. For example:  pirate, walrus, alien, dentist, zookeeper, and cowboy. Drop them in the appropriate bag.

Move on to problems or situations:  lost, new school, hungry, broken leg, digging for buried treasure... don't censor yourself, just jot down whatever pops into your head. Put them in the PROBLEMS bag.

Now for settings:  deserted island, Mars, playground, bathtub, snow fort, jungle. Add them to the SETTINGS bag.

You don't have to come up with ideas on your own. Ask family, friends, other writers, kids, your mailman... for things to add to the bags.

Now, draw a slip out of each bag and tell a story with those three elements. Mix and match until you get the giggles, and then that blank page won't look so scary!


Thanks, Linda! Merry Christmas and happy holidays to all!

Jill Esbaum

Monday, December 2, 2013

These Are a Few of My Favorite Books---The Best of this Year's Picture Books

    When I picked out my three favorite picture books of 2013, I did not have a theme in mind. I just wanted to share three books that I felt were outstanding.  Only after re-reading them, did I realize they all had something in common.

     They are all based on stories from the author's family history.  No wonder I liked them! Almost everything I have written is based on my own family stories.  You know what they say, write what you like to read.

    I like stories based on real stories of real families.

   The authors of these three will probably be familiar to most of you.  I will leave the honor of "discovering" for you an exciting debut author for a fellow blogger. Again, I did not mean to pick well-known authors. It just happened.

      Patricia Polacco's The Blessing Cup is a companion piece to her classic, The Keeping Quilt. The books stand alone as stories, so it is not necessary to read one to understand the other. Once again, Polacco recounts her ancestors' life in Czarist Russia, from the point-of-view of her Grandmother Anna, as a child.  Life is hard, but the family has one treasure, a beautifully embellished tea set, a wedding gift to the author's great-grandmother.  With this magnificent present comes a blessing: "Anyone who drinks from it has a blessing from God.  They will never know a day of hunger.  Their lives will always have flavor.  They will know love and joy and will never be poor."  When circumstances force the family on a long and arduous journey to America, Anna discovers just how much magic and blessing truly are in the tea set.

    Another multigenerational story, again with an object as the centerpiece, is This Is the Rope by Jacqueline Woodson, with great illustrations by James Ransome.  This book would be a good introduction to the history of The Great Migration from the rural South to the industrial North as thousands of African-Americans searched for a better life. The rope begins as a jump rope for the child narrator's mother as she skips beneath the "sweet-smelling" pines of South Carolina. Soon the rope is used to anchor the family's belongings to the station wagon that takes them North. Each scene begins with the phrase "This is the rope that..." as the rope is used in a variety of ways in the city, through the narrator's mother's childhood, then adult life, until the rope, "threadbare and greying" is exchanged by the narrator  for a new jump rope, leaving her mother holding the old one, and "her long-ago memory of sweet-smelling pine."  Woodson includes an author's note on The Great Migration which took place from the early 20th century to the 1970's.  Sharp-eyed adults will be able to trace the passage of time through the changes in clothing, hairstyles and car models, to tiny details (one two-page spread includes 45 rpm records and a Michael Jackson album scattered on the bed, a poster of Prince on the wall.) For those of us who love our metaphors, Woodson states that the rope symbolizes hope. I have read this deceptively simple book many times...and as an adult reader, have found something new and profound with each reading.

    The last picture book I wish to share is Year of the Jungle: Memories of the Home Front by Suzanne Collins, illustrated in near-cartoon fashion by James Proimos.  Suzanne Collins?  The Hunger Games Suzanne Collins? Yes, the same author who created Katniss Everdeen has written a picture book memoir of the year her father went to Viet Nam.  Told in present tense, first grader Suzy only understands that her father is going away to a jungle.  Her favorite cartoon (George of the Jungle, maybe?) takes place in a jungle, so Suzy is curious and excited when her father sends her postcards.  No one tells her he is fighting a war, so Suzy is initially puzzled, then scared, by adult reaction when she tells them her father is in Viet Nam.  The year goes on and Dad's postcards become infrequent. Most alarmingly, he sends her birthday card in winter. Surely Dad knows that Suzy's birthday is in summer? Suzy's mother tells he must have been "confused."  Suzy wonders just what kind of place this jungle is to confuse her dad so badly. Finally, after many months, Suzy connects the news reports of the Viet Nam war with her dad's "jungle."  The end of this story is exactly as it should be, for one told by a first grader.  I am pretty sure that the Viet Nam War is not on anyone's first grade curriculum.  However, parents serving in other wars in other places is still a reality for many small children.  This would be a wonderfully reassuring book to share with them.

    One of my favorite authors is Kevin Henkes. In one of his books about Lilly the Mouse, there is a refrain throughout the story of "Wow. That's all he(she) could say. Just wow."  That's how I feel about these three books. Wow. That's all I can say. Just wow.

Posted by Mary Ann Rodman