Wednesday, May 27, 2009

So, What's Life Got to Do With It Anyway? by Esther Hershenhorn

The above title’s question is a variation of this week’s Ask the TeachingAuthors question, "What’s the connection between Life and Fiction?”

My answer?

Real Life works its way into our writing and words, invited or not, intentionally or otherwise.
And how could it not? We’re reservoirs of life events, memories, emotions, collectors of people, places and things.

Sometimes, Life serves up a story on a silver platter, as in my picture book Fancy That, when a chance meeting with a modern-day folk artist sparked a story idea. Steven Shelton’s Craft Show booth sign “Limner and Fancy Painter” drew my interest. Further questioning revealed the young artist was traveling America, living the life of a 19th-century itinerant sign and portrait painter! I could feel my heart quicken, my Writer’s brain spin, as I hurriedly scribbled down Steven’s every comment. I knew I’d found my very next book.

And other times? Other times, as in my picture book Chicken Soup by Heart, loved ones surprised me, showing up in a character’s actions, voice or word choice even. My character Rudie Dinkins’ after-school baby-sitter Mrs. Gittel cooks up the World’s Best Chicken Soup and offers up a liver spot count-along, as did my son’s maternal Philadelphia Grandmom; Mrs. Gittel calls Rudie “Boychick” and lets him win at cards, just like my son’s paternal poker-playing Florida Nana.

Whenever I’m reading, the writer in me, ever-curious, wonders about the story’s spark. Was it a Real Life happening? A memory? A What if? I encourage all writers to do the same.

Discovering a supposition’s accuracy is easy. Simply Google the author’s name and book title, adding the words “interview with…”

Or, visit author websites and blogs to learn a book’s story spark or back-story.

Doing the above, I learned the back-story of author-illustrator Marla Frazee’s A Couple of Boys Have the Best Week Ever (Harcourt), a glorious tongue-in-cheek travel journal that celebrates friendship, summer, the great outdoors and grandparents. Wanting to thank her son James’ friend Eamon’s grandparents for the lovely vacation they’d given James, Frazee chose to write the thank you note as a small book, illustrated by James and Eamon. Eamon’s mom, it turns out, was none other than Allyn Johnson, Frazee’s then Harcourt editor. Armed with Johnson’s encouragement, Frazee began to develop the story idea to see if it could become a book.

I’m happy to report: three of Frazee’s pencil and gouache images from the 2009 Caldecott Honor book currently hang in Gallery 10 and the Vitale Family Room of the Art Institute of Chicago’s Kraft Education Center, part of a must-see exhibit of original paintings, drawings and prints from 17 picture books that received a Caldecott Medal or Honor Award between 2006 and 2009. To learn more about this exhibit, visit the Art Institute of Chicago website. If you’re coming to Chicago between now and October, perhaps for the July 11-14 American Library Association Conference at McCormick Place, make time to stop, study, ogle and celebrate the works of Beth Krommes, Melissa Sweet and Uri Shulevitz, just to name a few.

Who knows? Maybe the experience will work its way into your fiction!

Writing Workout: A Thank You Mini-Book

Try your hand at creating fiction from Real Life by doing what Marla Frazee did. Write a thank you note, for a gift, for a kindness, for a gesture, for an experience, ONLY express your gratitude as a story within a mini-book!
Think Who, What, When, Where, How and Why.
Think characters, actions, time and setting.
Create a beginning, muddle the middle, then resolve the story in a satisfying way.

Here are two links to websites that will help you physically, artfully create all kinds of mini-books:


Carmela Martino said...

Esther, I just read a story about the discovery of three books by Arthur Lobel that he originally did as a Christmas gift. The story reminded me of your Writing Workout. Turns out, the books are being combined into two new books being published this year: The Frogs and Toads All Sang, coming out this week, and Odd Owls and Stout Pigs, due in October. You can read the complete article at . The article contains a link to a YouTube clip of Lobel's daughter Adrianne discussing the books.

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