Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Memoir and Remembering

Craft books can be a huge help, but I don’t always read them straight through. I often find some nugget that inspires me enough to make me go off to write instead. I figure the more helpful the book, the less I have to read, and I save the rest for later.

This semester, I’m teaching a class on writing memoirs. As I usually do when I’m preparing to teach, I checked out a stack of books from the library. A couple of them are familiar, reliable resources—I’ve read them before and found them useful: Natalie Goldberg’s Old Friend from Far Away: The Practice of Writing Memoir and Writing the Memoir: From Truth to Art by Judith Barrington. Others were new to me, and I enjoyed exploring the subject from their varied points of view.

Even if you are not writing a memoir, such books can help in several ways:
  • by providing a glimpse into another writer’s approach
  • by reminding you that writers keep writing in spite of obstacles
  • by bringing up true stories that can inspire leaps into fiction, memoir, or something else
  • by sharing exercises that might help you move forward
One book grabbed my attention not only for its playful tone but also for its helpful format: Thinking About Memoir by Abigail Thomas. Instead of suggesting exercises and then giving examples of how they might be done, Thomas tells stories first and then provides writing prompts on topics that flow from the stories.

She writes about seeing a buzzard far away on a beach. After watching it awhile, she decides to walk up for a closer look and discovers a stick with a plastic bag tangled around it. Her instruction is to write about mistaking something for something else.

She says her sister suggests that “a good way to get going on memoir is to write your will. You have to decide who gets all your treasures, and this involves looking at them, and remembering where you found them.” Her assignment: write about your treasures.

She describes a trip with her sister after they had each been given a box of six truffles. “The tiny print said two pieces contained 310 calories,” she writes. “We were sitting on the bus headed downtown, quietly doing our calculations: Judy was dividing by two and I was multiplying by three.” This story cracked me up; the assignment that follows it is to write about a time when you recognized a difference between you and another person.

In the spirit of Thinking About Memoir, I’m including a memory from my childhood and a choice of writing prompts that stem from it.

Writing Workout: Begin with a Memory

One Sunday morning when most of my family had gone to church, I decided to make everyone breakfast. My father was asleep upstairs. I remember scrambled eggs and bacon, so I must have been old enough to use the stove on my own.

I was thinking about how surprised my family would be when I heard a loud crash outside. I ran out and saw a car halfway up our front steps.

My father came out and discovered that the driver was a woman whose husband had recently died. She was on her way to the cemetery with a vase of flowers on the seat next to her. When the flowers started slipping off the seat, she reached to grab them and lost control of her car.

As soon as he found out she was not hurt, my father told her not to worry. He would fix the steps himself. I don’t remember the woman, the car, whether anyone called the police, or what happened when the rest of the family came home, but I do remember his kindness.


Write about a time when you were home alone.


Write about someone being compassionate to a stranger.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Guest Teaching Author/Illustrator Interview and Another Book Giveaway!

We have another first today--our first Guest Teaching Author interview with a Teaching Author who is also an Illustrator: Elizabeth O. Dulemba!
We are pleased to be part of Elizabeth's blog tour for her first picture book as both author and illustrator, Soap, Soap, Soap ~ Jabón, Jabón, Jabón (available in bilingual and all-English versions) published by Raven Tree Press. See the end of this post for information on how to enter for a chance to win your own autographed copy!

Elizabeth is the award-winning illustrator of seven trade picture books. She speaks regularly at conferences, schools, and events, and once a year, she teaches "Creating Picture Books" at the John C. Campbell Folk School in North Carolina. She is the Illustrators' Coordinator for the Southern region of the Society of Children's book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) and is on the Board for the Georgia Center for the Book, where she is a strong advocate for the children's writing community.

Elizabeth, can you tell us how you became a Teaching Author/Illustrator?

I've always said if I wasn't a children's book author/illustrator, I'd be a teacher. One of my regrets in life is that I didn't stick around for an MFA in college--a degree which would have opened doors to teach in colleges and private schools. I still hope to achieve the degree someday. In the mean time, I have taught every chance I could through alternate means. I was a substitute teacher straight out of college; taught Beginning Drawing through the Chattanooga Arts Center in Tennessee; speak regularly at schools (grade school through adult), conferences and events; and teach 'Creating Picture Books' once a year at the John C. Campbell Folk School. I love to teach--it's a constant puzzle. Every student absorbs information differently and it's up to me to figure out how to relay that information in a way it will be best understood by each particular brain. It's a challenge that I adore.

What's a common problem/question that your students have and how do you address/answer it?

In line with what I mentioned above, if a student doesn't understand what I'm trying to relay, I have to approach the information differently--until I find the way that person learns best. Low attention spans can also be a challenge (even in adults!). I try to keep things dynamic to keep everybody engaged. (Full-time teachers must have amazing energy--I wish they could bottle it.) If I see I'm losing a student, I'll direct a question to him or her to pull them back in.

Would you share a favorite writing exercise for our readers?

Since I am an illustrator first, my exercise has a craft/visual element. I have students create a mini-book with a strip of paper--creating four panels with three folds. They divide the story they're working on into four categories, one for each of the four panels:
1) Introduce a problem, want, or desire
2) Present obstacles
3) Climax
4) Resolution
Even for adults, I pull out a box of markers and have them decorate their "mini-dummies." It's something fun to show, but it also helps them define the key components of their stories.

What a great exercise for picture book writers! Can you share how you were drawn to the writing side of picture book creation?

My journey into writing is an ironic one. I was identified as an artist at a very early age. So when the writing showed up a little later, it wasn't given much credence. After all, you only get 'One Thing,' right? However, my drawings were always illustrations of the stories filling my head, and I wrote in my drawing pads too--poems, stories, you name it. I kept a diary for years (volumes and volumes), but I never really knew I was a writer until I finally dove into my dream of creating picture books full time. My first attempts were pretty awful, but then I started getting comments like, "She can obviously write," or "She's a beautiful writer." Those meant so much to me. And even though my first picture book as both illustrator AND author is now out, I'm not sure I feel like a 'real' writer yet. I'm not sure what will do it.

It's kind of like with my illustrations. I was an in-house illustrator, making my living from my art for fifteen years. But I didn't feel like a 'real' illustrator until I traveled to New York for the SCBWI Portfolio Show at the Society of Illustrators. I joke that I circled the building seven times and pounded that New York pavement. After that trip, I finally felt like a bona fide illustrator.

Soap, Soap, Soap is a variation on a classic Appalachian Jack Tale. Can you tell us how you came to write this story?

I have long been a fan of the Jack Tales. Something about the Appalachians and the culture there has pulled at me my entire life. So when Raven Tree Press approached me to illustrate Paco and the Giant Chile Plant, a bilingual adaptation of "Jack and the Beanstalk," I jumped at it. Not only was it a Jack Tale, but it was my excuse to finally learn Spanish. (Raven Tree specializes in bilingual picture books.) Happily, Paco did very well for Raven Tree and they wanted another.

I presented
Soap to my publishers when they were in town for IRA and they flipped over it. However, the new tale fit better in a modern day setting. So Paco became Hugo, and the old Chihuahuan desert became a small town in South Georgia. The rest will, I hope, be a very happy and successful journey. 

Do you have any suggestions for teachers on how they might use Soap, Soap, Soap in the classroom?

Yes! I've created an entire activity page on my Web site. It includes coloring sheets, puzzles, recipes, and other activities that can be used at home or in the classroom. 

I'm also thrilled to share that the Alliance Theatre's Teaching Artists program has picked up Soap as one of their main books this season. They focus on the basic concepts of getting muddy and getting clean. For instance, where can you get mud on you? Your elbows, your knees, etc. What does mud feel like and smell like? Once you've gotten muddy, how do you get clean? Do you take a bath and scrub? 

Teachers are using
Soap to introduce hygiene in their classrooms. Anastasia Suen has also posted a mini-lesson tying the book to a related topic of hand-washing and learning to stay clean--an important topic in this Swine Flu season.

Along with these basic ideas, Soap can be used with my previous (illustrated) picture book, Paco and the Giant Chile Plant (written by Keith Polette) to discuss how folktales evolve over time. Both books are adaptations of classic Appalachian Jack Tales that were passed down by word of mouth from generation to generation, from Cornwall, England to the Chihuahua desert in Mexico. Playing "telephone" is a great way to discuss how stories change and evolve as they travel from teller to teller and how stories can become uniquely our own when we tell them our own way.

Elizabeth, thanks so much for taking time to talk with us today. And special thanks for providing an autographed copy of your book for our giveaway.  Readers who'd like to learn more about Elizabeth and her books can visit her Web site.

Instructions for entering our giveaway drawing are provided below. But first, you may want to watch the trailer for Soap, Soap, Soap ~ Jabón, Jabón, Jabón:

Now, for the contest requirements:

To enter for a chance to win an autographed copy of Soap, Soap, Soap in your choice of a bilingual or all-English edition, you must post a comment giving us the title of one of your favorite folktales, and the reason behind your choice. To qualify, your entry must be posted by midnight, Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2009 (CST). The winner will be announced on Thursday, Oct. 1, 2009. Be sure to provide an email address where we can reach you! See this post for our complete giveaway guidelines.

We look forward to reading your comments. Good luck, everyone! And don't forget to watch for another book giveaway coming VERY soon.


Friday, September 25, 2009

Books on Craft: How One Chapter Changed My Life

Hooray--it’s Poetry Friday! Today’s poem and lesson plan are at the end of this post.

I’ve always felt that that if nothing else, I’m good at being a portal. A conduit between what someone wants and how they can get it. That's what has given me the to courage to teach Writing Picture Books for Children through UCLA Extension’s Writer’s Program for over a decade. This class is for newbie children’s book writers--not for those who have read a lot, taken classes, submitted stories, or joined organizations.

To these toe-in-the-water beginners I assign two books. The first is

The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Publishing Children’s Books—3rd Edition by Harold Underdown.

This is a comprehensive, down-to-earth guide—worth reading cover-to-cover and easy to dip into as a reference. It presents a broad overview of the field but also gives specifics. As with all Idiot Guides, it's easy to browse and packed with extras like "Vocabulary Lists," which explain terms in the children's publishing industry; "Class Rules," which detail warnings and cautions; "Can You Keep a Secret?" which include tips and resources to help a children's writer or illustrator present him or herself as a pro; and my favorite, "Playground Stories," which are anecdotes from and profiles of children's authors and publishers, giving an insiders view of the children's publishing world.

The other required book is Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott.

Teaching Authors Jeanne Marie and Mary Ann have both talked about Bird by Bird...and I’m going to talk about again. Because yes, it’s that good.

My favorite chapter is the one on jealousy, which changed my life. I read it at least once a year to quell my burning heart.

Though I happily celebrate most friends' successes, some colleagues' successes cause me great agony and confusion.
Several years ago, someone gently suggested that perhaps I shouldn't read the book review section right before I went to sleep. She was right. When I'd see certain names, I'd toss and turn all night, feeling like I'd lost a race I didn't even know I was in.

I am a mean and tiny person with tight fists and a black heart.

This is really embarrassing to admit.

I've been more loving to myself about this in the last few years, and Anne Lamott's BIrd by Bird is a big reason why. She writes:
“But if you continue to write, you are probably going to have to deal with [jealousy], because some wonderful dazzling successes are going to happen for some of the most awful, angry undeserving writers you know—people who are, in other words, not you."

and later,

"It can wreak just the tiniest bit of havoc with your self-esteem to find that you are hoping for small bad things to happen to this friend--for, say, her head to blow up."

Who, me?

She writes about seeing a documentary on AIDS:

"You could see the amazing fortitude of people going through horror with grace...seeing that this is what you've got, this disease, or maybe even this jealousy. So you do as well as you can with it. And this ravaged body or wounded cared for as softly and tenderly as possble."

Lamott has shown me that yes, I have this tendency to be jealous, yes, I have this green spot on my heart…and though I try each year to make it smaller, I may have to live with that little green spot, be amused by that part of me and love myself anyway.

I’m human. What a surprise.

Writing Workout / Lesson Plan—
Metaphor—Getting a Handle on a Really Uncomfortable Feeling

For ages 7 through adult (or younger, with individual help.)

This lesson reminds us how writing can help us when we feel awful. (And if the feeling doesn’t go away, at least we’ve got a poem out of it!)


1. Think of someone or something that fills you with envy (or another awful feeling).

2. Close your eyes. Take a deep breath.

3. Feel this feeling in your stomach, in your bloodstream, filling every bone in your body.

4. Or instead, think about what helps drive this emotion from your body. Feel the relief as it leaves through the top of your head, through your finger tips, through the bottoms of your feet.

5. Brainstorm at least five metaphors for jealousy or for what makes jealousy go away. Are you a leaf and is your jealousy a worm chewing on you? Is your jealousy a ring in the bathtub being scrubbed clean with Ajax cleanser?

6. Write a poem using one of your metaphors.

7. Write honestly—even if it embarrasses you.




by April Halprin Wayland

Varda once told us

that we were all cans on a shelf.

Cans of chili, kidney beans, split pea soup.

I decided that I was a can of apricot halves.

She said that the shelf was only one can deep

but that it stretched out forever

so there’s always room

for one more.

“You don’t have to be afraid that adding another can
means there isn’t enough room for you,”she said.

“You can even help a new can

onto the shelf next to you.”

And she never talked

about jealousy again.

© April Halprin Wayland

Out and About

I’m giving a short program and book signing at the fabulous

Children’s Book World in Los Angeles on Saturday, September 26th at 10:30 am.

If you can’t come, call 310-559-2665 (310-559-book) and they’ll send you your very own autographed copy of New Year at the Pier!

All drawings by April Halprin Wayland

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Arts and Crafts

How many writers have strange word associations?  (Maybe I'm kidding myself that it's a writer thing and I'm just weird.)  Names remind me of food.  Rebecca = tomato soup with rice (explain that one).  Margaret = butterscotch.  Okay, this is sounding weirder the more I type.  Gary = ground beef (courtesy of Gary Burghoff on M*A*S*H, who was the only Gary I'd ever heard of at age 3).  And so the word craft = Kraft Mac & Cheese.  Nothing fancy.  A comfort food.  Dependable, easy, satisfying.

Perhaps it's because I read John Gardner as a beginning writer and he scared me into thinking I was certainly in the wrong field, but I realized early on that I do not write literary fiction and, perhaps sadly, don't aspire to.  While the "art of fiction" is certainly a very worthy pursuit, I am more inclined to view myself as a journeyman than an artiste

While other artistic endeavours (music, visual arts) involve skills honed through years of specialized study... we all write.  I am not a "morning pages" sort (though I admire those who are).  I hope I am not deluding myself when I say that I believe that every time we put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard), we are honing our craft, exercising our writing muscles, in effect doing our scales.

The first craft books I read in my first serious writing class (6th grade) were the old standby, Strunk & White's Elements of Style; and Writing Well, by Donald Hall.

I also adore George Orwell's essay, Politics and the English Language.  (Today's political discourse would certainly resemble a more honest dialogue  were its principles observed by more of us -- but I digress.)

Through the years, I have added the following to my "required reading" list:

Line By Line: How to Edit Your Own Writing, by Claire Kehrwald Cook.  This one was recommended by Jane Resh Thomas (writing teacher extraordinaire) at Vermont College and should, in my opinion, be read in very small doses -- tough to slog through and absorb, but well worth reading.

And, by my late, great mentor (though not a craft book per se): It's a Bunny-Eat-Bunny World, by Olga Litowinsky.

I also heartily second the Anne LaMott and Jon Franklin suggestions. 

As in the art of writing, the most extraordinary teachers among us have an inborn gift.  But even these blessed few must spend years working and studying to perfect their craft. 

When I began to teach English 101, my boss recommended I read The St. Martin's Guide to Teaching Writing, which she said taught her everything she knows.  I am still a neophyte teacher, but I can certainly attest to its helpfulness! 

For primary teachers, I am a big fan of Educating Esme and the website, tremendously useful for instilling a love of literature in young readers.  (I love reading it as a writer, too.)  I'd bet that most of us who are children's book writers had at least one teacher like Esme when we were young to whom we owe many thanks for our enduring love of words and story.

Monday, September 21, 2009

"Crummy" First Drafts and Moving That Story Along

For the past week or so, you, Our Faithful Followers, have sent us your favorite books on writing for children and young adults. Now it's our turn (the Teaching Authors) to join the conversation with OUR favorite books.

I'm going to cheat an eensy bit here, because my absolute favorite book on writing is not about teaching OR writing for children. It is more of inspirational book, and geared for all writers, not just those of us who write for the 18-and-under crowd. I also have a favorite teaching book, so you are really getting a two-for-one-deal here.

My all-time-favorite-don't-leave-home-without-it book is Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. Now I realize that Bird is not everyone's cup of tea. Anne Lamott is one highly opinionated writer, and her opinions in this book include hers on American politics, women's reproductive rights and religion, in addition to writing. If you pick past her mini-rants, you will find a lot of common sense on writing. Or, more specifically, in dealing with all the "garbage" your mind generates in the way of negative self-talk as you wrestle with your own prose. (Naturally, Lamott uses a shorter and less polite term for "garbage").

Negative self-talk is one of my big time problems that can stall me on a project for months at a time. "Who do you think you are? Karen Hesse?" (or my idol of the moment) "What makes you think you are a good enough writer to take on this story?" "So what if I've sold a book (or two or four or eight?) I got lucky. I'll never do it again." These are only some of the gems my mental radio station broadcasts to me in an "all-talk, all-negative, all the time" format. Lamott tells you how to pull the plug on this station, and other ways to kill your Inner Negative Writer.

Bird by Bird introduced me to the single most earth-shattering notion of my entire writing life; "permission" to write crummy first drafts. (Again, Lamott uses a far more colorful word than "crummy" to describe a first draft.) Perhaps this is just common sense to most of you, but the news that I did not have to hunt for just the right word or character name, or blitz through a transition scene, already knowing that it wouldn't work....just to get to the END of a first draft..why this was the best news ever! If given "permission," I will meander through a first draft, picking over my word choices like Forrest Gump with a box of chocolates. I will hunt through my "name books" for days, choosing and rejecting character names. All of which are good things to do...but not in a first draft. First drafts are for banging it out, getting it done, reaching the other side of the river.

My drawers are full of elegantly worded first chapters that have no second chapters, because I exhausted my original creative impulse by trying to make them "perfect" the first time. At some point, I became so frustrated with my imperfection, I gave up on them, or talked myself into thinking the whole idea was stupid.

Clearly, Anne Lamott and Bird by Bird had a lot to say to me.

But on to what I am supposed to be writing about...writing books to use with kids. My all-time recommendation is Marion Dane Bauer's What's Your Story? OK, I will admit up front that Marion Dane Bauer was one of my teachers in the Vermont College MFA program. However, I read this book long before I ever met her, and found it to be straightforward in explaining the writing process to a young writer. Without condescending, it starts with the basics of character, setting and plot, and shows the writer how to fashion a multi-dimensional character, make the setting another "character" in the story, and how to dovetail the plot events in so that each event builds on the previous. Bauer manages to convey all this for writers age ten and up, in less than 120 pages.

Plot is my weak point, and What's Your Story? reminds me not to include a single word that will not further the story. Bauer's mantra, "How does this move the story along?" is something I have to ask myself at the end of every page.

Marion Dane Bauer and Anne Lamott are my writing mentors, even though I personally know only one of them. It's sometimes crowded in my office, as the three of us plow on through my next "crummy" first draft, stifling the radio station in my head, and chanting HDTMTSA? (How does this move the story along?)

But it works.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Word Builder Giveaway Winner and Upcoming Topics

The winner of a free autographed copy of Ann Whitford Paul’s picture book, Word Builder, illustrated by Kurt Cyrus, is Corey Schwartz!

In response to our question regarding a favorite book on writing for children and/or young adults, Corey posted:

"I like Heidi Bine-Stock's series How to Write a Children's Picture Book. (I own two of the three volumes.)"
Congratulations, Corey! And thank you to all who shared their favorites. As a follow-up to our contest, next week we will share some of our favorite books on writing in general. This is in response to an Ask the Teaching Authors question. (Since I won't be posting next week, you can see some of my favorites listed in my column for the SCBWI-Illinois Prairie Wind.)

Also, if you didn't win this time, stay tuned! We will have another book giveaway on Monday, September 28, in conjunction with our first Guest Teaching Author/Illustrator interview.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Head I'm In

I have had a toothache for a month and a half. It is amazing the amount of time, thought, and care that my brain has directed straight to my highly innervated mouth. (Would that my mouth would consequently say smarter things, but alas -- no such luck.)

As a kid, I had ten years of orothodonia. (My parents got a deal because the ortho specialized in military families who moved every three years and offered a flat rate. Surprise! He got stuck with me.)

When I was eight, I got headgear. Shortly before this, my mom had allowed me to watch a frightening vampire saga on TV. I bet I was the only child in America relieved to have an ugly apparatus wrapped around my neck because it allowed me to sleep without fear of being bitten.

In one of those sleepless pre-headgear nights, I remember becoming unusually conscious of the voice inside my head. And then I had that haunting existential thought -- where did this voice come from? How did I get trapped inside of ME?

Reading April's amazing 9/11 poem and Writing Workout, I was reminded of my childhood napping habit. I would put a pillow on the floor beneath my head, recline against the couch, and sleep with my feet straight up in the air. Increased blood flow to the brain = good. Of course, doing this now would surely give me vertigo.

My children seem to spend a lot of time upside-down, as well. I have to think that maybe we are born with a natural inclination to try to look at the world for a different persepective. And then I have to wonder -- how do so many of us lose that instinct somewhere along the way?

"Dialogue" is the word we use in the politics of life to indicate diplomacy, mediation, tense negotiation. In my day job, dialogue is everything. Nearly all soap opera scenes that don't involve disasters, cat fights, or kissing are chiefly comprised of informational recap (blah, but useful if you missed yesterday's episode) and/or verbal conflict. You may have noticed that two characters in a scene together nearly always take opposing viewpoints. "Strong POVs," as they say, are always more interesting. (Of course, nuance helps, too.)
Writing Workout

When I was teaching English 101, I adapted a playwriting exercise from college on writing dialogue. I asked my students to leave the classroom, to eavesdrop on a conversation, and to take good, quick, verbatim notes, then come back and share.

My intent was to show them how much conversation consists of "mms" and "uhs," is redundant and boring. I wanted to show them the importance of winnowing down a conversation or an event to only the most important details.

My students fanned out across campus. The class was held at time when few other activities were scheduled, so several students wound up eavesdropping on the same conversations.

Three different groups came back. There was the group that had listened to a boring conversation about allergies (i.e., informational recap). Then there was the second group, which had overheard a fight betwen a couple about whether one had given the other HIV. The third conversation described a menage a trois with identical twins. I write for a soap opera, and I thought I had heard it all. I had not.

And so the idea that an average conversation is boring was not conveyed so well by this particular exercise. But the idea of listening -- with an open mind -- of trying to put oneself in someone else's shoes, to imagine the circumstances preceding and following the slice of life you've observed -- DIALOGUE in life is everything.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Thumbs Up for Ann Whitford Paul's Writing Picture Books! , and Another Book Giveaway!

Thumbs Up for Ann Whitford Paul’s right on, write on (!) Writing Picture Books: A Hands-On Guide from Story Creation to Publication (Writer’s Digest, 2009).

I confess upfront: I admire Ann Whitford Paul’s picture books; I value her Writing Workshops; I’m an ardent fan of this talented children’s book writer.
However, even if I didn’t treasure this fellow Teaching Author, I’d recommend her text to all who write – and want to write – picture books.

In fact, for the first time ever in my upcoming Picture Book Workshop at Chicago’s Newberry Library beginning late September, I’ve listed Ann’s book as required reading.

The Truth is: Ann gets this singular art form.
She understands its grounding and place in children’s literature.
She knows only too well, there’s first the story, then the telling.

Both the book’s content and its organization reflect Ann’s knowledge and experience as an award-winning picture book author and as a much-respected teacher.

The need to know children’s books published today.
Characterization’s role in creating flawless stories.
Structure. Plotting.
Beginning, middle, end.
Scenes and Show, Don’t Tell.
Stories in rhyme.
Word choice. Rhythm.
Tight writing.
How to submit and keep keepin' on.

For each teaching point, Ann offers not only supportive titles and authors to read and know; she also offers up her personal experiences.
Each chapter concludes with a preview of the coming chapter, then content-related exercises titled “Before You Go On.”
And throughout, writers are encouraged to apply what’s learned to two selected picture books chosen at the start (one loved, one hated), to their own work and to the work of others.

The first page of Writing Picture Books says it all.
Ann wrote the book in loving memory of Sue Alexander, a beloved teacher, friend and SCBWI stalwart who modeled by sharing her love and knowledge of the picture book.
Ann dedicates the book to “anyone who has ever written or dreamed of writing a picture book.”
She notes a portion of the book’s proceeds will help fund SCBWI’s Barbara Karlin Grant that recognizes and encourages the work of aspiring picture book writers.

Ann Whitford Paul gets - and loves - the picture book.
But even more important?
Ann Whitford Paul gets - and loves -the picture book writer.

For more information, you can read an excerpt for yourself or visit Ann's website.

When we hosted Ann's blog tour for Writing Picture Books back in July, we promised a second-chance drawing for another of her books. So, if you haven't won any of our previous giveaways, now is your chance! Ann is providing a free, autographed copy of her picture book Word Builder, illustrated by Kurt Cyrus, for one lucky reader. To enter our drawing, you must post a comment sharing the title of a favorite book on how to write for children and/or teens. Be sure to include your email address, and please read our complete giveaway guidelines before you post. To be eligible, you must post your comment by midnight (CST) on Friday, September 18, 2009. The winner will be announced Saturday, September 19.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Comfort in Times of Tragedy

Where do you turn in times of deep trouble? How do you console yourself when your whole world has turned upside down? How can you provide solace to others, especially children, who have lived through traumatic events like the tragedies of September 11, 2001?

Poet, author, and teacher Georgia Heard tried to answer such questions when asked “to gather poems of comfort to read to the New York City children who witnessed the World Trade Center tragedy.” The anthology she edited, This Place I Know: Poems of Comfort, includes eighteen poems, each one illustrated by a different picture book artist. Many of the illustrators describe their inspiration for the illustrations and their hopes that their contributions might help provide comfort. In an Author’s Note, Heard says, “I tried to choose poems that touch upon our feelings of fear and loss, remind us that we are not alone in despair, and assure us that dreams can be born even from tragedy.” The poems in this wonderful collection fulfill her objective and more.

The title poem, “This Place,” by Eloise Greenfield, and several others address grieving and assure young readers that tears are an acceptable and possibly even a necessary part of the process.

Touching poems about friendship and togetherness include “To You” by Karla Kuskin, which speaks to someone whose company would enable the narrator to “do anything at all.” “A Little Girl’s Poem” by Gwendolyn Brooks describes a child’s wishes for children all over the world: “Life is for us, and is shining. We have a right to sing.”

Both “Hold Fast Your Dreams” by Louise Driscoll and Langston Hughes’s “Dreams” remind readers to hold onto their hopes and dreams so they can eventually find joy. A favorite of mine, “Trouble, Fly” by Susan Marie Swanson, addresses trouble directly and asks it to “Let our night be a night of peace.” “The Peace of Wild Things” by Wendell Berry describes a retreat to still water to “rest in the grace of the world.” Additional poems describe life in New York City and the resilience of its inhabitants. The publisher, Candlewick Press, and contributors donate part of the proceeds to Save the Children.

I return to this collection again and again, when teaching, in school visits, to comfort myself in difficult times. Of course, poetry alone is not enough to save us in times of tragedy. But it can help lessen the pain of listeners and readers alike by reminding us of our shared losses and strengths.

Friday, September 11, 2009

9-11 Lesson Plan: Stand on Your Head

9-11-01. Man-o-man.

Write a poem for Poetry Friday about it? I tried. But it was sooooooo big, I didn’t know how to get my arms around it.

So I tried looking at it a differently:


two towers

grow out of the ground
and bloom

© April Halprin Wayland

It’s hard for me to write about the big stuff.

Here's a quote from a book by Tim Page called Parallel Play–Growing Up With Undiagnosed Asperger’s:

“Not only did I not see the forest for the trees; I was s
o intensely distracted that I missed the trees for the species of lichen on their bark.”

Yeah—me, too!It’s easier for me to write about the intimate, the personal, the small stuff. I have to start by writing about my backyard before I can write about war.

So, for example, if I wanted to write about a big hard-to-get-my-arms-around-it topic like LOVE, I might write about the day we brought our dog Rosie home from the shelter.

But what if I stand on my head to look at this topic? Maybe I can write about love by describing what it feels like to lose it.


The lady who opened the cage cried

and the guy behind the counter
reached out to touch your bristly hair one last time,
and the vet came out in her white coat,

held your face in her hands,

looked into your Cleopatra-lined eyes,

and solemnly kissed your nose good-bye.

Then she handed me

your leash

and the thing that

the lady who opened the cage
and the guy behind the counter
and the vet
were about to miss

jumped into the backseat with me

drove home with me

raced around the grass with me
and the thing they are missing

is here with me now
licking my face,
licking my lucky face.

(c) April Halprin Wayland

Here’s another example of writing about something by thinking about what's missing when it's not there:


Opening the front door,

there is no small sound of clicking nails
on the wooden floor
no bright eyes
no jumping, dancing dog.

I have opened a pomegranate

and found no ruby seeds —

only this


published in Cricket Magazine—November, 1999
© April Halprin Wayland

So if you are stuck trying to write something about 9-11 or any other subject, try standing on your head!

Writing Workout / Lesson Plan—
Standing A Topic on its Head
For ages 7 through adult (or younger, with individual help.)

This lesson teaches writers how to stand on their heads and look at something in a new way.


1) Brainstorm on paper a memory of an event that rocked your personal world. Jot down whatever comes to mind, writing quickly. Don't worry about neatness or spelling or complete sentences--you're making notes for yourself, not anyone else.

You might think about:

when you did something that made you feel grown-up—

maybe you helped paint the kitchen.
Or you did something that helped someone solve a problem.

when something scary happened—
maybe your dog ran away.
Or your parents separated.

when something joyous happened—
maybe your family moved into a nice home.
Or you learned how to skateboard or read.

2) Take a deep breath.

3) Circle one event you want to write about.

4) Now, stand on your head. Think about this event backwards or sideways or if it had happened differently---and how you would be changed as a result.

5) Write honestly. Write with joy!

Maybe that's the best way to address 9-11...write honestly and write with joy.
Out and About
It's nearly Rosh Hashanah!

On Saturday, September 12th New Year at the Pier--A Rosh Hashanah Story will be read on the radio program HALFWAY DOWN THE STAIRS by the one and only Uncle Ruthie on KPFK in Los Angeles & Santa Barbara.

Also on Saturday, September 12th from 3-5 pm: my bricks-and-mortar book launch for New Year at the Pier--a Rosh Hashanah Story, including a playlet featuring elementary school kids(the play will be around 3:30-ish)at Hillside Pharmacy in Manhattan Beach, CA (our local independent bookstore cleverly disguised as a pharmacy)

For more events, check out my calendar!

Wild Rose Reader is hosting the Poetry Friday Roundup.
all drawings by April Halprin Wayland

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

H is for Hallelujah! S is for Story: A Writer's Alphabet Lives and Breathes in the World Today!

September 9, 2009.
I’ve been counting down the weeks to this, my newest book’s pub date.
And now, S is for Story: A Writer’s Alphabet officially lives and breathes in the world today.

It’s available for purchase.
It’s available for reading.
It’s can’t-wait-ready to gift readers and Young Writers.

Last Wednesday, cartons of author copies arrived safe and sound at my Chicago home, courtesy of my publisher, Sleeping Bear Press.
I quickly opened the first carton, removed the top book, then hugged and held it tightly.
Just as tightly, in fact, as I’d hugged and held my now-grown son when he first arrived.

Of course, the modifying first person singular pronoun my needs to be plural.
As in, our newest book.
S is for Story: A Writer’s Alphabet also belongs to Sleeping Bear Press editor Amy Lennex, publisher Heather Hughes, Art Director Melinda Millward and the very talented artist, Zachary Pullen, whose singular illustrations reflect his respect for young writers.
All those hands, all those heads and hearts, working together to make the best book possible.

Check back Friday, October 2 to learn how you or your students can enter our TeachingAuthors Contest and win an autographed copy of S is for Story: A Writer’s Alphabet. (Hint: What lettered entry would you have included had you been creating a Writer’s Alphabet?)

Be sure to return each day, Monday through Friday, October 5 through 9, to read the posted answers to my fellow Teaching Authors’ probing questions about how and why I wrote this book.
Click on my website’s Write page to gather Young Writer Extras – opportunities to write, read and discover, at home, in school, or at the library.
Click on the Sleeping Bear Press website, too, to download the Teacher’s Guide for S is for Story: A Writer’s Alphabet.

And, visit my website’s newest page, Tour, to learn the What, When and Where of my Out-and-About book events, signings, school visits, conference engagements, writer presentations, teacher workshops and upcoming October-through-November Blog Tour.

S is for Story: A Writer’s Alphabet is truly my school visit, wrapped and ribboned and tied with a bow, shouting, when opened, “Writers are readers!”


Let the reading - and writing - begin!

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Giveaway Winner and Teaching Authors in Cyberspace

We've enjoyed celebrating the release of April Halprin Wayland's New Year at the Pier--A Rosh Hashanah Story with all our readers!  If you'd like to learn more about April and her wonderful book, check out these other stops on her blog tour:
By the way, April isn't the only Teaching Author to be interviewed in Cyberspace this month:
As promised, I am announcing our contest winner today. Thank you to everyone who took time to post a goal for the new school year. Your goals are so inspiring! Fortunately, this contest was a random drawing because it would have been too hard to choose the "best" entry.

And now, drum roll please! The winner of a free autographed copy of New Year at the Pier--A Rosh Hashanah Story is Kim Winters! Kim posted:
"My goal is to write two pages a day on my current fantasy novel in progress now through the end of the year."
Congratulations, Kim, and good luck following through on your goal!

And don't forget: we expect everyone who posted a goal to report back on your progress during the first two weeks of January! If you didn't win this time, you'll have the opportunity to enter our "second-chance" drawing then.

Finally, if you're planning to purchase a copy of April's book, we hope you'll do so at an Independent bookseller. You can find an Independent near you by clicking here, or order online by clicking here.  Would you like an autographed book plate to go with your new book? See April's website.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Activities for Teachers, Parents, and Readers Using New Year at the Pier

Today is the last day of our celebration of the new school year with our very own April Halprin Wayland. But don't worry, there's still time to enter for a chance to win a free autographed copy of April's picture book New Year at the Pier--A Rosh Hashanah Story. You have until midnight, Monday, September 7, 2009 (CST), to post your goal for the new school year.  Click here for details.

On Tuesday, September 8, 2009, we'll announce the winner. We'll also have a round-up of links to other sites where April has been interviewed, as well as links to recent interviews with two other TeachingAuthors. We won't be posting on Monday, because of the Labor Day holiday. After Tuesday, we'll return to our usual Monday, Wednesday, Friday posting schedule.

April, here's our last question for you: How would you like to see teachers, parents, and young readers using New Year at the Pier?

I’d like teachers to use it to help explain to students why some of their Jewish classmates are absent…and what they’re doing.

I’d like them to use it in January to talk about all the ways people around the world celebrate the new year. (For more on New Year Rituals Around the World, see my website.)
I’d like teachers and parents to use the book to open discussions about how to apologize. To help, I've listed resources for discussing forgiveness on my website.

I’d like them to use it to act out how to accept an apology.

I’d like older kids to use this book as an opening to discussions about the Rwanda Reconciliation. I've provided resources for this on my website too.

And here's an activity I’d like all readers to try:
Think of one person you’ve harmed.
Write about the incident and read it to someone else.
Sit with the feelings for a bit, then be willing to let them go.
The feelings may not go away, but the first step is to be willing to let them go away.
Then make an appointment to see the person you've hurt face-to-face to apologize.  No excuses—just a simple heartfelt apology…without expectations that you will be forgiven.  Rabbi Neil told me that forgiveness can’t be the focus of the apology.  I can’t apologize in order to be forgiven or to feel better.

Here’s an example:  Last year I gave a 7th grade poetry workshop at a Catholic school.  It was a terrific school, the students were very responsive, and I love teaching this particular workshop.  A few days later, the principal of the school called to say that a website I referred to in the workshop contained X-rated content. 

You can imagine the feedback she’d gotten from parents.

I was mortified. I called a very smart friend and asked her what to do.  She suggested that I use it as a teaching opportunity—that I offer to write an article in the parent newsletter cautioning about the ever-changing internet. She suggested that I could publish the article in a magazine.

I tried to write that article. I really tried. But it didn’t sound very sincere. 

I called my friend Bruce.

“What should I do?” I asked.
“You should apologize,” he said.
“That’s all?” I asked. “But what about the article?”
“How would you feel if you were in their position?” he asked. “Wouldn’t you just want to hear, ‘I’m so sorry?’  Don’t complicate it.” 
So I wrote and sent a sincere letter of apology.  And it felt right. 

Another thing I’d like readers to do with the book is use it to learn about feeding the hungry. I am donating a portion of the profits of this book to Mazon, a Jewish response to hunger.

Finally, how else would I like people to use New Year at the Pier?  I’d love to hear that one of you gave this book to a friend as a way of finally apologizing about something that’s been bothering you for a long-long-long-long time.

Since today is Poetry Friday, I’ll like to end with a story and a poem about apologies:

Rabbi Neil Comess-Daniels told me a story of a man who was sorry that he gossiped about someone.  The man went to his rabbi for help to him make it right.

“I can’t help you,” the rabbi said.
 “But I’m really sorry,” the man said. “I want to make it right.”
“You can’t make it right.” the rabbi said.
“But why?” the man asked.
“Go get me a knife and a feather pillow,” the rabbi said.
The man brought back a pillow. The rabbi stabbed the feather pillow and shook out all the feathers, throwing them to the winds.
“There are some things that can never be put back together the way they were.  A situation can be changed through apology, but it cannot be undone,” said the rabbi.

by April Halprin Wayland

I ripped your pillow.
Your favorite pillow.
Filled with feathers.
Was it your father’s?

You ran out crying.
So I am trying
to find each feather
and put it back.

The wind is blowing,
the feathers going
out the window
all over the yard

This fixing pillows
is very hard.

© April Halprin Wayland

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Opening the "Big Picture" Package; Where Illustration and Text are "Married"

Find out about our Teaching Author Book Giveaway Contest running all this week! Click here for details.

Happy New Year! This week we’re celebrating the new school year and our very own April Halprin Wayland’s book, New Year at the Pier--A Rosh Hashanah Story, which is about another kind of new year--the Jewish New Year.

Mary Ann:
April, each book is a ribboned and bowed gift—for the writer as well as for the reader. What was the surprise for you when you unwrapped this book?

The best surprise were the absolutely glorious watercolor and gouache paintings outlined in pen and ink illustrations by Stéphane Jorisch—oh my!

In each of my previous books, it’s taken me a few months to set aside the images I carried in my head as I wrote.

I tell my students that occasionally it feels as if I’ve been writing a screenplay in which I imagine the main character to be Hannah Montana. On opening night, I take my seat, balance my popcorn in my lap, and watch as the movie starts…and am stunned to discover that the main character is Big Bird!

For example, my first reaction to Robin Spowart's illustrations of To Rabbittown were, “Wait…no—that’s all wrong. The illustrations should be very realistic…almost like photographs of rabbits. How could they get it so wrong?”

After a few months of listening to people ooh and ahh over his lush pictures though, I forgot my own images and embraced Robin’s. Now I can’t imagine that beautiful book illustrated by anyone else.

But from the first time I saw the cover of New Year at the Pier, I was smitten. It didn’t surprise me to learn that Stéphane grew up on the water. I can feel the roll of the waves in his pictures—they’re that real.

I also love the fact that many of his Jewish characters appear to be Asian. I haven’t asked him if this was intentional, but it’s a true snapshot of many congregations today.

The best thing about his illustrations is the amount of emotion with which he imbues each character. I fell in love with him for his illustrations of Pat Brisson’s I Remember Miss Perry, the story of a beloved elementary school teacher who dies mid-year. His ability to show the full range of emotions in this book is stunning.

I didn’t know that Stéphane had received the highest award for a children’s illustrator in Canada (Governor General's Literary Award winner) four times. He also received the 2008 TD Canadian Children's Literature Award for the most distinguished French-language book of the year, which includes one of the largest cash prizes for children's literature. Heavens—my book has been illustrated by royalty!
You may know that children’s picture book authors and illustrators are often discouraged from communicating while their book is being illustrated. Since a picture book is half my vision and half his, publishers don’t want me polluting his original spin with my own ideas.

I think of my editor and the art director as living together on a mountain overlooking two meadows separated by a rushing stream. I live in one and Stéphane lives in the other. Only the editor and art director can see the big picture.

When the book is published, we build a bridge across the stream and finally meet—hello!

I like it that way.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

From Concept to Completion: A New Year at the Pier Time Line

Find out about our Teaching Author Book Give-Away Contest running all this week! Click here for details.

Happy New Year! This week we’re celebrating the new school year and our very own April Halprin Wayland’s book, New Year at the Pier—A Rosh Hashanah Story, which is about another kind of new year—the Jewish New Year.

Give us a feel for the time line of this book—from the first inkling of an idea to Book On the Shelf.

I’ll tell you, but if you’re an aspiring children’s author, it might be best to cover your ears and sing “La, la, la” through today’s post…especially the very end.

So—here’s how it started. An editor asked me if I had any Jewish stories in me. I had a few…but one ritual was the standout for me: tashlich.

I began by writing down everything I knew about tashlich—how it feels to walk up the pier, singing, with two hundred of my friends, the sun, the waves, the butterflies in my tummy, the feeling I have when I give my “sins” to the winds.

Next, I read books about tashlich, starting with children’s books, though there weren’t many. The most recent children’s book I found in which tashlich is the main subject is Carol Levin’s A Rosh Hashanah Walk (Kar-Ben, 1987).

Then I interviewed my friend, Rabbi Neil Comess-Daniels of Beth Shir Sholom Temple in Santa Monica, California. Rabbi Neil is very tuned into kids; he’s written many albums of children’s songs.

I just re-read my notes from that afternoon and realize how much of what he taught me infuses the book. Look over my shoulder at a few of my notes:

• Rabbi Neil doesn’t like using the word “mistake,” as mistake means not on purpose, and sometimes you do some of these things on purpose.

• There’s a famous story of a man who goes to his rabbi and says that he gossiped about someone in town and he is now sorry and wants the rabbi to help him make it right. The rabbi said no, he can’t help this man. What? What do you mean, says the man. I really am sorry. I want to make it right. No can do, says the rabbi. But why? Asks the man. Go get me a knife and a feather pillow, says the rabbi. The man does. The rabbi stabs the feather pillow and takes out all the feathers and throws them to the winds. The idea is that you can’t always fix a situation. A situation can be changed through apology, but not undone.

• His example, regarding how you can’t fix something completely, was of a child stealing a doll and bringing it back. She might say, “I know I can bring the doll back, but I can’t make you trust me again.”

• Not: “It’s okay.” (Because maybe it’s not okay.) But: “I accept your apology.”

• Neil suggests that instead of burning her list, she uses it as a checklist.

After the manuscript was written and accepted, my editor, Lauri Hornik, guided me through the rewrites with her clear vision. I growled at her under my breath. She sent edits. I stomped around my computer. She sent more edits. Back and forth, back and forth.

But ask her now how many “Thank you, my dear darling editor!” notes I’ve sent her since the book came out! (Lauri’s since been promoted to President and Publisher of Dutton Children's Books, in addition to her previous title of President and Publisher of Dial. My new fabulous editor at Dial is Jessica Garrison.)

So here, finally, is the spoiler…the actual time line of New Year at the Pier:

• April 2002: interviewed rabbi

• October 2004: accepted by Dial

• many, many, many edits, changes, drafts…

• May 2007: projected publication date is 2008

• September 2007: book delayed until 2009

• April 2008: tiny edit—five small word changes

• June 2009: book is on bookstore shelves—YAY!

SEVEN YEARS?!?!?! Well, yes. Would you believe me if I told you it was worth the wait? Look at the harvest—a starred review in Publishers Weekly and lots of other wonderful reviews!

image credits:
photo of people walking up the pier by Rachel Gilman

erase writing: