Finding Creativity, writing prompts

Stalking Inspiration with Michelle Vattula

Welcome, Wonderers! Today’s guest on finding inspiration is picture book author, Michelle Vattula. Michelle and I met in the New in ’19 debut group, though both of our books were pushed back to 2021. Happily, her book, THE STALKING SEAGULLS, released April 20th. I thoroughly enjoyed how her main character, Alec, uses his creativity and wits, along with sandcastles and beach ball blockades, to eat his sandwich at the beach in peace, though I had a good laugh at how the story ended.

Candice: Thanks for being here, Michelle! Where did you get the inspiration for THE STALKING SEAGULLS?

Michelle: I was on vacation in Florida visiting my parents. We took our boys to the beach. When the snacks came out, so did the seagulls.

Candice: Oh my goodness, yes. I totally felt Alec’s frustration. I had a Dorito snatched from my hand one time at the beach. It was almost IN. MY. MOUTH. Add injury to insult, the seagull’s wing even cuffed me on the back of the head when it stole my snack! They can be very determined. What is your favorite part of the creative process?

Michelle: When I initially get the spark for an idea and run with it. Once the idea pops in my head, I just sit down and write wherever I am. I have more notes on random pieces of paper, lol. The words flow out so much easier when the idea is spontaneous. The feeling of completing the story after dozens of revisions is wonderful too. I adore coming up with book titles. Sometimes I have the name of the book before I have the story. 

Candice: Titles are tough for many of us so that’s great you have that super power! Do you have other creative outlets? Do they cross into your writing?

Michelle: I love to anything with music. I have been playing the piano since I was 5. Playing is extremely cathartic (when I have time to do it). I also love to dance. I do Zumba throughout the week. I have written a few manuscripts that have dancing in them. One funny, lyrical and has dancing cows. The other more serious about a mother/son relationship. 

Candice: Zumba is so much fun though it’s been years (pre-kids!) since I’ve joined a class. Do you have any tips you’d like to share about finding creativity?

Michelle: My creativity usually comes when I’m doing something mindless like walking, cleaning or taking a shower.

I always tell writers to take time away from the craziness of life because it allows your mind to focus on simple concepts without being overwhelmed. I also find that writing using emotion tends to work for me. I like to tap into deep feelings that people are feeling but don’t like to talk about. 

Candice: Creativity usually seems to inspire more creativity. Do you have another book project you’re working on that you could give us a hint about?

Michelle: I have at least 5 more completed manuscripts and many more that are in their revision stage. I love to write about cows, but I have numerous ones that touch upon subjects such as mother/son relationships, aging family members, and participating in different cultural experiences. 

All great and important subjects! Thanks again for being here, Michelle!

Y’all be sure to request THE STALKING SEAGULLS at your library or local independent bookstore. It’s available online at MacLaren-Cochrane Publishing, and bookshop.org to support indie bookstores.

Michelle was born in Boston but grew up most of her life in Erie, PA. After She received her Bachelor degree from Miami University of Ohio, she ventured back to Boston for her Master’s degree in Speech-Language Pathology from Northeastern University. Michelle currently lives in the beautiful rolling hills of North Pittsburgh with her Finnish husband, her two Golden Retrievers (one who is a therapy dog) and her two beautiful boys who are her true inspiration for writing.

Michelle’s debut picture book, THE STALKING SEAGULLS, was released by MacLaren-Cochrane Publishing on April 20, 2021. Michelle is part of the Western Pennsylvania SCBWI leadership team as their New Member and Critique Group Coordinator. She is also a proud member of the twitter group #Newin19. Michelle is represented by T.J Kirsch from JCH Literary. She is open for interviews and virtual visits.

T.L. Derby is a children’s book author and Illustrator. She has turned her love for writing and art into her career. Now she helps others to make their dreams come true as a publisher. She is educated with a BFA in Creative Writing for Entertainment and an MFA in Creative Writing. She is also an autodidact in illustrating, screenwriting, and painting for over 20 years. Her love for children makes what she does a gift from her to the world

Call to Creativity: What frustrates YOU? Use your emotions, like Michelle suggested, and brainstorm a story of your own!

Finding Creativity, May the Force be with You

May the Force be with You!

“May the Force be with You”

“Another Galaxy, another time.”

I usually write about a variety of literary devices on the Wonder of Words Blog.  But since today is Star Wars Day and my household lives on the edge of everything galactic, I am deflecting to all things Star Wars.  For us, reading Star Wars books is akin to watching the movies (over and over).  Die-hard Star Wars fans already know the movie was NOT based on a novel.  The movie script was made into a novel (written by ghost writer Alan Dean Foster, a fantasy and fiction writer) and published three months before the movie release.  It promptly sold out.

In further research, I discovered there is now a plethora of books ranging from picture books to cookbooks and everything in between about all the Star Wars adventures.

For the bakers and cooks among us, check out the Wookiee Cookies recipe in The Star Wars Cookbook,  or the Darth Malt recipe featured in The Star Wars Cookbook II

For young readers, Golden Books has a whole series of Star Wars stories including Star Wars I am a Jedi,  Star Wars I am a Droid, and Star Wars I am a Hero. 

While I devoured all things Star Wars my library had to offer, love at first sight for me was Star Wars:  The Secrets of the Jedi.  It is a historical documentation of the Jedi and the Force, as well as the lives of Jedi legends including Anakin Skywalker, Obi-Wan Kenobi and the beloved Jedi Master, Yoda, told by none other than Luke Skywalker. 

Star Wars: the Secrets of the Jedi by Marc Sumerak (2019, Hardcover)

It is an interactive reading experience with a translator card and a popup holocron, which is a device used to store knowledge and wisdom.  It can only be accessed by “those skilled in the Force.” (And yes, I had to look up what it was!) 

No matter what you’re looking for in terms of the Star Wars Realm, there is much to be had.  Enjoy your search and May the Force be with You!

Uncategorized

A Combination of Mythology and Modern Storytelling:

Greek Mythology has long been a fascination with readers of every age level. Have you ever wondered what a Greek god or goddess was like as a child? Wait until you learn about Jennifer Buchet’s debut picture book, Little Medusa’s Hair Do-Lemma, illustrated by Cassie Chancy. We will have a whole new understanding on what it means to have a bad hair day!

ME: Jennifer, thank you for visiting our blog today! We are so excited to hear the behind the scenes details in creating this most adorable “Tiny Medusa”!

JB: Thank you for having me! Throughout my various careers, I‘ve always been writing–everything from advertising copy to radio ads, websites to magazines and more. And since every medium has its own approach to words, I’m always learning something new! For example, the other week I heard the phrase “hedge words.” Are these bushy evergreens laden with colorful verbiage? Not exactly, but I did learn why these hedges need trimming!

ME: I am always fascinated with the background of a writer! So interesting. Whether drafting or revising, how do you know when it is necessary to show action, scene and sensory elements?

JB: As picture book authors, every word counts. But that doesn’t mean our stories have to be “no frills.” Rather, each word and every sentence must move the story along. In my debut picture book, Little Medusa’s Hair Do-Lemma, I originally began with this opening:

Little Medusa finally got her very first snake on her birthday. She was so excited, she danced and twirled around her room.

This does set the stage, but it’s also wordy and rather bland (yucky first draft 101!). After several revisions, the opening now contains more action.

Little Medusa was delighted when she got her very first snake.

I love including sensory elements beyond what the character sees, like tasting, hearing and touching. For example, Little Medusa discovers she doesn’t like having her new serpentine friend slither through her hair (can’t really blame her!) This sets up the character’s challenge, but I knew I needed to expand on that feeling, so I added these lines:

“…she couldn’t fathom was so great about traditional Gorgon hair. 

It was itchy.

It was buggy

And it was positively scaly when Addie shed her skin.”

This is much more relatable and if the reader squirms even just a tiny bit, my job is done!

ME: You even succeed in hooking the reader with great suspense in your revised opening line. What a wonderful story line. Are there specific strategies, tools or resources you use to incorporate more showing/descriptive language?

JB: I allow myself to write wordy, adjective-filled, too-long, early drafts! Most of my drafts easily begin at 700w. Once I’m satisfied with the arc and character development, my inner editor comes out to play with all her highlighters. 

Bam, change passive words to present! Bam, remove adverbs! Bam, delete hedge words, AKA those pesky filler words such as “usually; very; suddenly; almost.” 

I’ve also discovered that contests have helped me become a stronger writer. Contests challenge the muse and for those with limited word counts or quirky themes, they really challenge the brain! In fact, I love them so much that last year, I co-created the non-fiction contest #SunWriteFun.This challenge included both minimal word count and a summertime theme. Reading all those entries certainly inspired me and I know the contest inspired others!

ME: I completely agree. Reading others’ writing is such great exposure to styles, structures, and just plain sensational stories. Would you like to share an example of a before and after where you needed to show more and found the right words to paint the image for the reader?

JB: In the climax of Little Medusa’s Hair Do-Lemma, my heroine makes a really big decision. Like many of us, she begins to second-guess herself. Rather than describe how she’s feeling with emotive adjectives (she was happy, sad, confused, doubtful, etc), I wrote the scene using physical actions. 

Little Medusa bounced around the room.

Until the bouncing slowed to a jump, the jump to a hop

And Little Medusa became still as a statue.

Not only did this drill down big emotions for little readers, it also provided the illustrator (the talented Cassie Chancy) with oodles of room to work with. Bonus—that last phrase ties neatly into the whole Gorgon statue-turning talent! 

ME: Oh my gosh, we are so excited to see the finished product! The illustrations are just precious! Writing is about balance. How do you know you’ve got it just right? What tips or suggestions do you have for writers in terms of striving for that balance of showing versus telling?

JB: If someone invented a timer for creatives that trumpeted “perfecto,” they’d be rich! Sometimes it’s hard to know when your story is just so. There are definitely fantastic checklists to use that ensure one has incorporated all the “write” elements, but I think in the end, it’s a gut reaction. You know when your story is ready to share, whether with your critique group, your agent or editor, etc.  As for finding that balance between show and tell, I believe it’s an acquired skill for most. Read a lot and write even more, for as you hone your craft, you learn when those beautiful rosy words are really just hedges needing a trim.

ME: You have made so many valid points, Jennifer! Working on the craft of writing is definitely a rewarding journey we all make time for.

Learn more about Jennifer:

Jennifer Buchet is an award-winning author, pre-kindergarten educator and self-proclaimed foodie. Her kid lit career officially started in 2011, writing for Cricket Media. Today, she is a regular feature contributor for Faces magazine while also creating new picture books and chapter books. 

Spare time is a rather elusive creature in her home, but when Jennifer does find it, she enjoys creating exotic meals, creating writing contests, crushing her family in games of Catan and searching for fey in the woodlands. Her debut picture book, LITTLE MEDUSA’S HAIR DO-LEMMA (Clear Fork Publishing) slithers onto shelves May 2021.

You can swap tales & recipes with Jennifer here:

Twitter @Yangmommy

Email: Buchetbooks@gmail.com

Website: buchetbooks.wixsite.com/mysite

poetry

April is Poetry Month – Celebrate Poetry!

The ice is coming off the lakes. The birds are returning and filling the air with song. The snow is melting. Today crocuses blossomed in our garden, and coltsfoot flowers along the road.

 It’s time to put away snowshoes and skis, take out walking shoes and enjoy spring!

And spring means poetry month is here – the largest annual literary celebration in the world according to poetry.org. It is a way to remember the importance of poetry in our lives and throughout civilization – from ancient poets like Homer to those of past centuries like William Shakespeare, Robert Frost, and Emily Dickinson to today’s poets like Billy Collins, Mary Oliver, Amanda Gorman and Joy Harjo.

National Poetry Month was inaugurated by the Academy of American Poets in 1996. Not only poets, but schools, libraries and bookstores celebrate poetry in our culture.

Everyone can participate: readers, writers, students, teachers, old and young, male and female. Bookstores and libraries host literary events. Poets read their poems and bloggers blog about poetry.

How can you celebrate? Here are some ideas.

Read lyrical, poetic picture books as well as poems – they have a lot in common!  

At a NESCBWI conference, I listened to Jane Yolen and Heidi Stemple speak about the similarities between a poem and a picture book in their talk, Poetry as Picture Book Text. Both use figurative language, sensory details, imagery, personification, onomatopoeia, simile, metaphor and other poetic devices. They use rhythm and resonance to evoke feelings and engage the imagination.

Introduce poetry to kids.

It builds vocabulary and improves reading fluency.  Need help? Poet and author David L. Harrison has compiled 55 poetry ideas for the classroom during poetry month in the new issue of MISSOURI READER at https://joom.ag/zGzI

Participate in – and organize – poetry readings and events online and in person.

Reading poetry together builds relationships.

Poet Michael Czarnecki hosts Tuesday evening poetry readings via zoom; you can find the link here: https://www.facebook.com/michael.czarnecki.35. Many libraries and bookstores also host regular poetry readings.

In 2016, I wanted to participate in Montpelier’s Poem City – but discovered that I was ineligible because I don’t live in Vermont! So a few of us from our local Poetry Group approached the Adirondack Center for Writing – and Saranac Lake’s Poem Village was born!

Poem Village is a community celebration of poetry open to all – from schoolchildren to seniors. Poems are posted in store windows, surprise pocket poems are hidden at restaurants, doctor’s offices, and place all over the area for you to find. Poems even appear in your email inbox! This year you can visit the online poem showcase here:

https://adirondackcenterforwriting.org/poemvillage/

You can visit PoemCity events here: https://www.kellogghubbard.org/poemcity

Spark the imagination of your inner poet. How will you celebrate Poetry Month?

As a poet, I celebrate poetry all year long.

Will you join me?

Uncategorized

The Wonder of Words Update

Goodness me – where did those three years go? In 2017 Candice, Gabrielle, Sandra, Tina, Yvona and I met through Julie Hedland’s 12 Days of Christmas and started a picture book critique group. Nine months later we started The Wonder of Words blog. I can’t believe we’ve been writing here for over two and a half years. Crazy!

This week I asked everyone to reflect on how far they’d come in their writing and reading since we started the blog. Candice, Yvona and Gabrielle’s answers are in this post and I’ll post the rest of our answers next week. I hope you enjoy our reflections.

I asked everyone these questions:

  1. Compared to where you were two and a half years ago, how has your writing evolved?
  2. Compared to where you were two and a half years ago, how has your reading evolved?
  3. What is the biggest thing you have learned over the past two and a half years?
  4. Do you have any advice for readers and/or writers of children’s literature?

Candice

With the madness of 2020, I actually had to do math to calculate back two and a half years. And you know math isn’t my strong point, haha. So, we’re comparing now, March 2021, to September 2018. The six of us had been in our critique group for nine months at that point. We’d learned a lot about each other’s strengths, interests, and I know for me, I’d learned to rely heavily on y’all’s edit suggestions. And we were just starting this Wonder of Words blogging adventure together! Sandra and I had joined the Newin19 picture book debut group, though my book ended up getting pushed back to June 2021. Since then, I’ve sold another picture book, a YA Southern mystery (also coming out this June!) and signed with a new agent who has an MG and PB out on sub for me. I’ve given summer writing classes for kiddos, sold a story to Highlights Hello, work part-time at a local indie bookstore, and gotten more involved in SCBWI by becoming a Local Liaison.

Between the debut groups, our blog, and my bookseller job, I mainly read advanced copies now. I love being able to read books before they hit the market but it does have its drawback when I’m really excited to tell someone about a book I know they will absolutely love, and then have to be like, oh, oops, it’s not out yet…

I think the biggest thing I’ve learned is how good it feels to help someone on their writing journey. Much of the publishing industry is out of your control if you’re going the traditional route, so it feels awesome to share books you’re excited about with others. I’ve been a judge/prize donor in a few Twitter contests these past couple of years, and I love being able to give back. Also, I learned I use ‘it’ a lot. On a self-editing level, I’m learning to look for my ‘its’ and strengthen my writing by being more precise. (Can you guess how many ‘its’ I expounded on, just in this one answer?)

My piece of advice is to find your kidlit writing community! Obviously, your personality won’t mesh with everyone you “meet” on twitter, facebook groups, or SCBWI critiques, and that’s okay. You will find a community of like-minded writers.

Yvona

I recently read Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert. She has great advice and I highly recommend it to other writers.  I’m still reading a lot of picture books – two recent ones I love are Green on Green and Blue on Blue both by Dianne White. My favorite authors keep changing. You can keep up with some of my reading on the My Reads page of my website: www.yvonafast.com.

I’m drawn to lyrical language and I love nature, and that is the direction my writing has taken. I have been writing more and more poetry. I’ve published 3 poetry chapbooks since 2017. I hope to have two new books coming out in 2021. I currently have six children’s books that I hope are submission-ready; another eight that are in the revision process; and five that are unfinished.

I have taken more classes too, but sometimes, between classes and critique groups, the writing time gets eaten up! I think from all the classes I have taken – and they were all good – I would most highly recommend Renee La Tulippe’s Lyrical Language Lab.

I’m in more critique groups now than I was then … perhaps too many. I’m learning to sift through the comments and advice I get, but also to trust my gut.

My advice for writers is – be patient. That is advice to myself too. I still believe it will come – if you keep writing, revising and submitting, you WILL have a book deal one day.

And be kind. Both to yourself and to others. Illness, caregiving, responsibilities will intrude on writing time, you just have to make peace with that.

Gabrielle

After having three picture book manuscripts written to what I considered “polished” I sent them to a professional critiquer.  I discovered one manuscript simply had no heart, so I pushed it back to the revision pile.  About that time, I found an awesome mentoring group that has helped me get a first draft written and now I am in the revision mode.  It has motivated me to concentrate on middle-grade for the moment.

Oh my gosh – how has my reading developed?  I decided to embrace the illustrious words of one of my favorite authors, Stephen King, who said, “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”  Now I don’t just read whenever I can, I schedule reading as part of my writing day. 

In terms of what I have learnt, there is so much information out there.  In the beginning, I would sign up for everything but gradually, I realized I was on writer’s overload, so I scaled back to focus on one thing at a time.  Right now I am concentrating on my middle-grade manuscript.

My advice is to figure out what works for you and don’t be afraid to ask for help in any area of your writing!  And find a phenomenal critique group or partner.  They are golden!

Pitch It to Me

~ The Pitch it to Me Challenge ~

Welcome back, everyone! The next Pitch It to Me Challenge is here! We took a detour last time to devote some attention to the opening of my small press, Gnome Road Publishing, and to allow you, our WONDERful readers, a chance to pitch some of your own work. Thank you to all who participated or dropped by to say hello and offer words of encouragement.

For this next round of the challenge, we have author Carey Welch here to pitch her work-in-progress, THE HANDS AND PAWS HOPE KNOWS. Carey is also a talented artist, a mom, and well . . . an all-around cool person. Welcome, Carey!

Stepping up to the plate as our guest star pitcher is our very own Candice Marley Conner who has both her debut novel and debut picture book coming out in June! I couldn’t resist this opportunity to showcase these achievements and support this part of her journey. I just know she will knock it out of the park!

And now for the challenge. Take a look at the three pitches in the voting box. They are in no particular order so you’ll never know whose is whose (the author’s, mine, or our special guest-star pitcher). Vote for your favorite, and if you are so inclined, leave a comment, too. We love hearing from our readers!

You have until April 1, 2021, to cast your vote. No joke! Please vote only once, but feel free to tell your friends about us and get them in on the action.

ABOUT CAREY:

Be it Folklore or an embarrassing story her father liked to tell; Carey was “made” in Ireland the day her parents kissed the Blarney Stone. Thus, a penchant for storytelling was her destiny. She creates art at the intersection of humor and imagination and believes in the mantra “Kindness Rules!”. She is currently illustrating a book of children’s poems. Her art has previously been featured on a book cover, album cover, on skateboards and in a workbook based on Women in Non-Traditional Careers. Carey resides in Western New York, where a 6-year-old Leprechaun calls her “Mom”, but she’s not telling that story.

Her art can be found at careyannwelch.com

ABOUT CANDICE:

Growing up between swamps, a river, and the Gulf Coast, Candice Marley Conner’s stories emerge from gnarled cypress knees, muddy water, and salty air. She is the kidlit haint at a haunted indie bookstore (but not haunted how you’re thinking), and a Local Liaison for SCBWI. Her short stories and poems are in various anthologies and magazines including Highlights Hello, Cabinet of Curiosities, Babybug, Chicken Soup for the Soul, and more. Her picture book, SASSAFRAS AND HER TEENY TINY TAIL releases June 8th, 2021 and her YA Southern mystery, THE EXISTENCE OF BEA PEARL, debuts June 15th, 2021. She lives in Alabama with her husband and two children (one of whom is possibly feral).

Candice is represented by Katelyn Detweiler of Jill Grinberg Literary Management. Visit her website at http://www.candicemarleyconner.com, Twitter @candice_marleyc, Instagram @candice_marleyconner, and Facebook @cmarleyconnerauthor.

To pre-order THE EXISTENCE OF BEA PEARL and support Candice’s local independent bookstore, The Haunted Book Shop, click HERE.

CLOSING REMARKS:

The Pitch it to Me Challenge is always a WONDERful experience with the help of all you readers who take a moment to support authors like Carey and Candice by voting for your favorite pitch and leaving comments. Thank you all for being here! And, thank you to Carey and Candice for making this another tough round. Until next time . . .

Uncategorized

Moving Through Black History

Throughout history, people have been on the move for a better life.
In 1976, President Gerald Ford asked all Americans to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.” Since then, every American President has designated February as Black History Month.

Black history is full of movement. In the late 1800s and 1900s, six million African Americans left the rural south for cities in the north and west. This period has been called the Great Migration. As Lesa Cline-Ransome so eloquently puts it, these families are “running from and running to at the same time.” Running from hardship – and dreaming of a better life in their new home.

As an immigrant, I’m familiar with the emotions of leaving one home for another. Here’s a poem I wrote a few years ago:

GRADES

First grade in Warsaw,
Then Tel-Aviv.
Third grade in Haifa,
new place to live.

Fourth grade – Chicago,
another new land.
Kids talk to me, but
I don’t understand.

Fifth grade, once more
another new school –
In Philadelphia,
they call me a fool.

In eighth grade we move
to upstate New York.
They say, “You ain’t Jewish
because you eat pork.”

So many changes,
many new places.
So many people,
always new faces.

My work-in-progress, They Came to Vote, is about a black family moving to the Timbuctoo settlement in the northern Adirondack mountains, where abolitionist and philanthropist Gerrit Smith gave land to black homesteaders. This helped them become self-sufficient, allowed black men to vote, and kept them safe from racist atrocities and bounty hunters who kidnapped blacks and sold them back into slavery.

Two other books for young readers about black families relocating are The Overground Railroad by Lesa Cline-Ransome and James E. Ransome (Holiday House, 2020, 48 p.) and Follow Me Down to Nicodemus Town by A. LaFaye and Nicole Tadgell (Albert Whitman, 2019, 32 p.)

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In the Overground Railroad, lyrical language and bold art depict the story of one family leaving the oppressive South for a new life in the North. Family, friends, and everything that was familiar was left behind. On the train, Ruthie reads the autobiography of Frederick Douglass to her mom. His journey north to escape slavery gives her courage and hope.

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Follow Me Down to Nicodemus Town introduces the Exodusters and explores a part of pioneer history that needs to be better known. Dede and her family work hard to buy their way out of sharecropping. After a long day’s work on the farm, Papa builds furniture and Mama sews dresses. Little Dede shines shoes at the railroad station. Soft tones and fluid lines in the illustrations convey the family’s hope for a new life in Kansas.

Both of these historical fiction picture books introduce an important piece of American history that is often overlooked. Both share courage and hope as Dede and Ruthie with their families flee the oppressive sharecropping system of post-civil war American South. Teachers and parents can use these as a springboard to learning.

Finding Creativity

Connecting the Idea-Spark Dots with Charlotte Offsay

Welcome, Word Wonderers! Today we’re chatting with children’s author, Charlotte Offsay, about her debut picture book that releases in just two weeks, THE BIG BEACH CLEANUP. I am so excited for this book. Growing up on the Gulf Coast and participating in coastal cleanups with my children make this story very relatable, and any story with the many-hands-working-together-as-one theme is sure to make my heart absolutely melt.

Candice: Thank you for being here, Charlotte, and for writing such an accessible book on a global problem. Where did the original spark come from and how did it become the beautiful book we’ll hold in our hands in March?

Charlotte: Thank you so much for having me on your blog and for your kind words about The Big Beach Cleanup! The inspiration for this story stemmed from my desire to write a story about little hands joining together to make big change. I passionately believe that if enough ends join together, we can change the world. The story didn’t come together right away though and I struggled for a long time to find a way in. It wasn’t until a couple of back-to-back events with my two young children collided that The Big Beach Cleanup started to come to life. First my superhero obsessed son looked at me one morning and said, “I don’t feel like being a superhero today.” I jotted this down in my brainstorming journal as something to noodle on later and hurried my kids out the door (agreeing that I didn’t feel like being one either!). I later had a few environmental conversations with my children about some trash on the street on our walks to and from school.

It was these conversations that connected the dots for me and the idea of not needing to be a superhero, little hands joining together, and doing our part to protect our oceans collided. I went home and wrote the first drafts of what is now The Big Beach Cleanup. The manuscript went through extensive revisions and early drafts didn’t even include the sandcastle competition that the manuscript now revolves around! Luckily, my incredibly supportive critique partners were willing to stick with me through my countless drafts and along with an inspiring critique during an Inked Voices Workshop with Albert Whitman editor Christina Pulles, the manuscript was ready for submission. It eventually sold to that very same editor! Christina Pulles shared my vision for the manuscript and selected the perfect illustrator for our book – the talented illustrator and ocean activist, Katie Rewse.

I love the color palette of the illustrations. They’re beachy, bright, & fun–the perfect balance for a children’s book that tackles big issues like plastic pollution.

Candice: I love that the story revolves around a sandcastle competition! Where would we be without our critique partners? And I got goose bumps when you said “if enough join together, we can change the world.” Such a powerful statement. What is your favorite part of the creative process?

Charlotte: Oh! What a great question! I guess the beginning stages of a new manuscript are probably my favorite. I absolutely love the feeling I get when an idea crawls under my skin and won’t let me rest until I’ve gotten it out. I become somewhat obsessive writing and rewriting, pulling every mentor text I can find and pacing my kitchen back and forth searching for the perfect words. I guess it’s that all-consuming feeling that I adore the most – the feeling that I have something that I just have to find a way to share with the world.  

Candice: Do you have other creative outlets or hobbies? If so, do they ever cross into your writing?

Charlotte: Hmm, most of my creativity finds its way onto the written page and regardless of my wishing, my illustration skills are continually outdone by my first grader. In terms of hobbies, I am a big workout enthusiast and can be found in our home gym in the early hours of the morning. I love a good high cardio workout with extremely loud music. None of this has crossed over into my writing yet, but the question is getting my wheels turning!

Candice: Do you have any tips you’d like to share about finding creativity?

Charlotte: I know a lot of people find creativity in different ways, some go for walks in nature, some make lists and mix humorous combinations, others try word associations and see where their minds take them. My story ideas tend to come from the things that I am most passionate about or the things in my life that I am most consumed with at that point in time. For example, I have another book coming out in September with Beaming Books called How to Return a Monster. It is a humorous how-to story about a young girl who tries to return her new baby sibling in the mail. At the time I began dreaming up that story I was consumed with how my daughter would react to her new baby brother being brought home and wanting to embrace/normalize all of her emotions!

My creativity tip is to think about the things in your life that matter most to you or that consume the most space in your mind and think about how you could approach that topic from a child’s perspective.

Candice: That is such great advice! How To Return A Monster sounds adorably child-centric. Can you tell us more about it and any other projects you’re working on that you could give us a hint about?

Charlotte: Yes, thank you for asking! I have two other upcoming picture books. How to Return a Monster which I mentioned above is being illustrated by Rea Zhai and is coming out this September from Beaming Books. A Grandma’s Magic is a picture book celebration of grandmothers and all the ways in which they are “magical.” It is being illustrated by Asa Gilland and publishes with Doubleday Books for Young Readers in Spring 2022.

Candice: Oh, I love anything magical and grandparents truly are! I’m excited for you, Charlotte, and appreciate you being here!

Who wouldn’t want to dive right into this spread?! I can easily envision a child scouring the page, looking for those first, second, and third place ribbons–how fun!

Y’all be sure to request THE BIG BEACH CLEANUP at your local library come March and preorder at your independent bookstore. If you prefer to shop online due to the pandemic, consider purchasing through bookshop.org. You can choose for your money to go to your local indie bookstore, or if you don’t have one in your area, it goes into a pot to be divvied out among indie bookstores.

Charlotte Offsay was born in England, grew up in Boston, and currently lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two small children. Born into a family with a love of travel and adventure, Charlotte enjoys exploring new places and cultures. She is a former corporate finance client specialist who now spends her days caring for her family, volunteering in her local community, traveling, and using her experiences to fuel her true passion: writing. Through her work, Charlotte hopes to make children laugh, to inspire curiosity, and to create a magical world her readers can lose themselves in time and time again. Visit Charlotte on her website at http://www.charlotteoffsay.com and follow her on Twitter @COffsay or Instagram @picturebookrecommendations. Charlotte is represented by Nicole Geiger at Full Circle Literary.

Katie Rewse is an illustrator based on the south coast of the UK, in Bournemouth. She graduated with a master’s degree in illustration at the Arts University Bournemouth in 2017. When Katie is not illustrating from her little home studio by the sea, she enjoys exploring the coast with her husband in their camper van. Visit her website at www.katierewse.com.

Call to Creativity: Do you have a brainstorming journal? Now is the best time to start if you don’t! Write down ideas that capture your wonder and attention, then, like Charlotte suggests, look at it from a child’s perspective. How would eight-year-old you connect the idea-spark dots?

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A Multigenerational Story of Tradition, Renewal, and Hope:

As we all know, in addition to reading for sheer enjoyment, another is to learn about others, their cultures, and traditions. Annette Schottenfeld’s debut picture book, NOT SO FAST, MAX: A Rosh Hashanah Visit With Grandma, illustrated by Jennifer Kirkham, does all of these! Annette shares how the seeds for this piece were planted years ago when her children were young, their Grandma visited, and all of them would go to the apple orchard. We are excited to share her journey of showing a beloved family tradition! In late May, Annette will be back to share her second picture book: Obi’s Mud Bath (Spork – Clear Fork Publishing), illustrated by Folasade Adeshida, which releases this summer!

ME: Annette, thank you for visiting our blog today. NOT SO FAST, MAX: A Rosh Hashanah Visit With Grandma, will be out in the world very soon. We are very excited for you!

AS: Thank you for inviting me on your blog. I love the theme Best in Show

ME: Whether drafting or revising, how do you know when it is necessary to show action, scene, and sensory elements?

AS: When I begin writing a story, I try not to limit myself with too many rules. I start with a base story structure, but I don’t worry about creating magic in the first draft. This rarely happens. Then I go back and start the revision process, stripping down and simplifying the text. I like to see that the bones are solid. 

Next comes the sparkle that brings the story to life. Since I am not an illustrator, I need to leave room for the artist to tell their end of the story as well. This means selecting each word strategically. Picture books have so few words and each one counts. 

Here are some examples from NOT SO FAST, MAX: A Rosh Hashanah Visit With Grandma (Kalaniot Books, March 2021).

Action A sign next to my desk reads: Let Verbs do the Heavy Lifting.

Max followed along. 

This does not tell the reader much about Max.

Let’s try a more active and expressive verb:

Max stomped along.

Now we see there is something that Max is not happy about. 

Scene Unless it matters to the storyline, certain elements of the scene should be left up to the illustrator. If the writer has done their job well, the illustrator will know how to portray the scene.

Each year when the leaves turned colors…

The reader (and illustrator) know it is fall.

Sensory Elements Considering all the senses – sight, smell, sound, taste, touch – when writing helps bring the story alive. 

Thump! Plop!  

Gravel crunched under the tires.

The branches created a cozy space. 

These lines tug at the readers’ senses.

ME: That is a great process and I love the sign about letting the verbs do the heavy lifting! Are there specific strategies, tools, or resources you use to incorporate more showing/descriptive language?

I create a character profile for each character in my story. Examples of things I might note: Do they have a unique hobby? What kind of a friend are they? Are they a morning person?

By getting to know my characters inside out I instinctively understand how they will react to certain situations. Their consistent actions and voice make them real, relatable, and reliable to readers.

placing words intentionally is another way to show what is happening in the story.

Let’s take a look at some examples from OBI’S MUD BATH (Spork Books, Summer 2021).

Once again, the friends 

yanked and yanked,

huffed and puffed,

and little by little

the tire loosened,

until FLUMP it was off.

In the example above, breaking out the words slows the action and sets the pace. You can see the effort that the characters are putting into this.

And then, just when he thought he couldn’t go any further… 

By using an ellipsis, anticipation is created, and readers will want to turn the page to see what happens next.

Another trick is to read the story aloud. I tape myself reading and listen to others reading the story to catch things I wouldn’t have otherwise. Does it sound as I intended? Does it generate emotional reactions? If the answers are yes, it’s a win! 

ME: Would you like to share an example of a before and after where you needed to show more and found the right words to paint the image for the reader?

In OBI’S MUD BATH, I altered my wording to paint a more vivid picture for the reader.

Before:

“Could that be mud?” 

Without warning a snake uncurled, slithering up to Obi.

After:

“Could that be a puddle of mud?” 

But mud didn’t slither and hiss. 

In the first line, adding the word “puddle” made the image more specific in the reader’s mind’s eye. In the second line, I stopped “telling” and instead “showed” that it was a snake.

ME: You make such good points about the revising process, especially reading our manuscripts aloud. Writing is about balance. How do you know you’ve got it just right? What tips or suggestions do you have for writers in terms of striving for that balance of showing versus telling?

Great question! I create a physical dummy after a few rounds of editing my work. This gives me a visual perspective. I see if the problem is stated upfront and if the who-what-when-where-why are all addressed. I get a sense of the flow and pacing of the story. Is there too much copy, dialogue, or detail on certain pages? Does the narrative arc land properly? Does the ending add a twist, and is it satisfying? 

I will then edit again and submit it to my critique group. These are ‘my people’ who know their craft and provide honest feedback. I always find their input helpful. I’ve learned that if everyone is pointing out something similar, there is a reason.

Then, I put the story away. I do not rush to submit. Looking at it with a “fresh eye” is extremely valuable and telling. Rereading after a period of time, I find things jump out at me. Final edits are made. At this stage, I listen to my inner voice and start to submit!

ME: Thank you, you have given us so many tools and examples to help us with our writing!

Annette Schottenfeld’s debut picture book, Not So Fast, Max: A Rosh Hashanah Visit With Grandma (Kalaniot Books), illustrated by Jennifer Kirkham, releases March 2021.Her second picture book, Obi’s Mud Bath (Spork – Clear Fork Publishing), illustrated by Folasade Adeshida, releases in the summer of 2021.

Learn more about Annette:

Photo by Andrew Werner

Annette is passionate about writing for children, hip-hop dance, and environmental issues, believing all have the power to change lives. A registered dietitian and expert baker, she created the decadent Uglie Muffin. Shhh, the recipe is a secret! Annette lives in New York with her husband and two kids.

You can find Annette online on TwitterFacebook, or annetteschottenfeld.com.