Friday, March 15, 2019


I began my Writer’s Journey writing picture books pre-Internet, pre-J.K.Rowling’s Harry Potter $ucce$$, pre SCBWI when it was minus the I.
Barbara Seuling had yet to write her first edition of How To Write A Children’s Book and Get It Published!
But Richard Peck was right. “We write by the light of every story every read.”
Had Marjorie Weinman Sharmat’s picture book I’m Terrific not shone so brightly for me at the start of my career, I’d likely have remained a Children’s Book Writer Wannabe

I discovered the book, illustrated by Kay Chorao, with my almost-three year old son on the New Books shelf during a Library Moms-and-Tots visit. The cover grabbed our attention: an obviously self-contented smallish bear, admiring his image in a paw-held mirror.  A robin sat nearby, a soon-to-be-awarded gold star in his beak.

Once checked out and read aloud, that small bear’s story struck a chord in my toddler’s heart. Yet the tale and the telling struck a chord in my heart, too: the first-ever picture book I was writing looked and felt the same. So I read and re-read I’m Terrific, only minus the toddler and wearing my Writer’s Cap.

Admittedly, I was first looking to learn the how-to of the picture book format. I began by typing out Sharmat’s text as it appeared on the pages, leaving triple-spaces for each successive page turn.  I indented where the author indented, placing characters’ words within quotation marks.  Dialogue, I sensed, contributed immediacy and energy, and that fine balance between narrative and dialogue moved along the story. I noticed repetition of both phrases and sentence structure. The sentences themselves offered noun-verb clarity, yet my fingers felt the rhythm of Sharmat’s playful words.

Jason’s three friends - Raymond Squirrel, Marvin Raccoon and Henrietta Emily Bear, appeared within the building scenes, always in the same order, creating the expectation necessary for young listeners. Jason’s Mama claimed the transitional scenes. Each scene called for a new and different setting. A star-studded Jason spoke the story’s final words.  “Thank you,” he said, once his friends dubbed him “terrific.”

Next, I revisited Kay Chorao’s soft, penciled illustrations.  I covered the text and let the pictures tell me the story, as my toddler son did each time he re-read the book.  The pictures said it all, amplifying characters’ actions, re-actions and emotions.

Finally, I cut apart one of my carbon-ed (!) text copies, paragraph by paragraph, then re-pasted the words to the pages of the blank 32-page book I’d created.  I left space for the front matter, then room for the accompanying illustrations.

Ah, I thought: the picture book story’s told across fourteen double-page spreads, creating, sort of, a play’s three acts. And, Oh! Within each newly-set changing scene, the characters speak their thoughts and feelings as the action worsens. And, Yes! Everything comes together at the end, tied up with a bow. There wasn’t one part of Jason’s story hanging out, un-tethered.

                                        (My well-worn copy of I'M TERRIFIC)

But to my surprise, it wasn’t just the text that showed me the way forward on my Writer’s Journey.  It was THE BOOK in its totality that taught me what I needed to know!  The front flap copy showed me the importance of hooking a reader – child, editor, agent.  The title page introduced a publisher (Holiday House).  The Library of Congress listing showed me both the book’s plot summary (“Jason Bear thinks he’s terrific and even awards himself gold stars for superior performance in his chores.  His friends don’t like to be around him.”) and its themes and curriculum connections (Pride and vanity, forest animals).  The dedication encouraged me to consider my book’s dedication, a someone in my life likely to keep me keepin’ on (namely, that almost-three-year-old son of mine). The book’s back flap author and illustrator copy connected me to other books Marjorie Weinman Sharmat wrote as well as the work of Kay Chorao. Soon I was discovering other illustrators of Sharmat’s books and other authors illustrated by Chorao, which meant other publishers, whose catalogues I studied, other formats, other structures, other genres. I deconstructed and rebuilt Sharmat’s Nate the Great to learn how to write easy-to-reads; I did the same and learned novel writing, thanks to Sharmat’s Maggie Marmelstein.

Reading I’m Terrific as a reader, the book amused and delighted me, as it should have. Reading I’m
Terrific as a writer, the book informed and inspired me, as only it could have. Jason Everett Bear and Mesdames Sharmat and Chorao deserve buckets of gold stars for all they taught me.

I still turn to children’s books to learn and hone my craft; I encourage my students and writers to do the same. I consider each published book a Teacher-in-Waiting. Or even better, a TeachingAuthor!

As luck would have it, Holiday House published my very first picture book There Goes Lowell’s Party! one year after re-issuing I’m Terrific to mark its twentieth anniversary. (My now-grown toddler and I knew a good book when we saw one.)  When I found myself seated across from Kay Chorao at the Holiday House ALA Dinner that year, I shared how I’m Terrific illuminated my writer’s journey.  “Thank you,” she said.  Then she graciously signed my copy, drawing stars that lit the page.
Speaking of stars, thanks to My Juicy Little Universe and Heidi Mordhost for hosting today’s Poetry Friday.

Happy learning! May a terrific book light your Writer’s Journey!

Esther Hershenhorn

If you’re seeking a human TeachingAuthor to light your way, one or two spots remain for my MANUSCRIPT WORKSHOP, July 14-19 at The Landgrove Inn, Landgrove, VT.
You can read more about this long-time workshop, created by Barbara Seuling, by scrolling to the bottom of my TEACH page on my website. Fortunately, bags fly free on Southwest so I’ll be bringing lots of relevant mentor texts from Chicago for my writers.


Michele Helsel said...

This is a wonderful article and exactly why I often hear the advice at SCBWI conferences that you should attend author sessions. Thank you!

Dawn Simon said...

What a great post! I love hearing or reading about other writers and illustrators (note the I!) on their journeys! Thank you for sharing! :)

April Halprin Wayland said..., wow, wow! You were YOU!

Carla Killough McClafferty said...

Dear Esther, another amazing, brilliant, powerful post. Always your fan, Carla.