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Friendship and Empathy: Helping A Friend Who Has Experienced Trauma

Have you ever wondered how some authors take heavy topics and show their story in a way that helps others be more mindful of others’ feelings? Joanna Rowland is very experienced in this area and in her newest picture book, Big Bear Was Not The Same, she accomplishes just this! Beautifully illustrated by John Ledda, Joanna and John show readers how to be more empathetic and supportive to a friend who has experienced a traumatic event. I’m so glad Joanna could stop by to talk about her book today!

TS: Hi Joanna! Your book is such a good reminder of how to be there for someone. Whether drafting or revising, how do you know when it is necessary to show action, scene and sensory elements?

JR: One of the things I love about picture books is that illustrators can show so much through their illustrations that I don’t need to tell. I have one line, “Little Bear tried all sorts of things to cheer up Big Bear. But nothing worked.” It was so fun to see the ways illustrator John Ledda used to show Little Bear trying to cheer up Big Bear. I don’t need to tell the reader in words what was happening because they can see it in the pictures. Because the story I wrote is about trauma and responses to trauma, it was important for me to sometimes say the action. One example: “Oh, no! said Big Bear, and he ran away.” I felt it was important to say the action when it was a response to trauma to help kids better understand how someone might act when they are traumatized. In Big Bear Was Not The Same, Big Bear has been traumatized by a forest fire. When things remind Big Bear of the forest fire, he responds with fight, flight, or freeze. It was important to show Big Bear having that action when things reminded him of the fire. I think learning about how people who have PTSD respond to things, helped me know I needed to have more action scenes when Big Bear was triggered.

When I was writing the story, my critique partners were great for letting me know if it felt like something was missing. My books are always better by seeing how they respond to what I write and their feedback. 

TS: You made great decisions in those scenes especially because young kids are just learning about life and some of the difficulties they may experience. Are there specific strategies, tools or resources you use to incorporate more showing/descriptive language?  

JR: Reading picture books is a great way to learn about language and craft. I read different picture books every day. One of the fabulous perks of teaching five-year-olds. I love reading lyrical books. Cynthia Rylant does a beautiful job of using descriptive language in her books.

When I’m trying to make a word list, I like Word Hippo   https://www.wordhippo.com/

I also like looking up idioms here https://idioms.thefreedictionary.com/ I find idioms can be a fun way to help me think more creatively on how I want to use words.

TS: These are terrific resources. Thank you for sharing! 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?

 JR: Sure, this is an Early draft of Big Bear text example with too much telling:

It was only a matter of time before something set off Big Bear to think and feel

like the day in the woods was happening all over.

Sometimes, a smell set off Big Bear.

And Big Bear ran away.

It was only campers having dinner. But Big Bear relived that scary moment in the woods anyway.

Final version of Big Bear text example:

Some days, Little Bear and Big Bear had good days that almost felt normal.

But one smell could change it all.

SNIFF

Big Bear froze. 

“Don’t worry, Big Bear. It’s just kids making s’mores. You’re so big and brave. Nothing can scare you. Right?”

But Big Bear shivered.

Little Bear worried. “Do you want a hug?”

But Big Bear didn’t answer.

TS: I love the difference between the two versions. Much more emotion and heart in your final version! 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?

JR: I do learn from rejections. Pre agent, I used to send things out too soon occasionally, and if they didn’t connect emotionally, I knew I needed to go back to find the heart. My critique group is great at letting me know when I’ve hit that right emotional chord. So, if you aren’t in a critique group, find one. They are so valuable. Honestly some books can take me years to get right, and some weeks. Explore different structures with how to write your book, try writing it in different points of view, and revise. Big Bear took quite a few drafts because I wrote it in 3rd person and most of my other published books have been written in 1st person, so it was a learning curve for me to think about dialogue and how to write the action scenes in the book. Sometimes it’s okay to tell. I felt it was important to say the words, “Big Bear froze,” because freezing is one of the responses people have when they have been through a traumatic event. But I think leaving more room for the illustrator whenever possible, makes for a stronger book.  See how other authors show the balance in published books. You will learn so much from reading. What showed the action? Was it dialogue, text, or the illustration? Have fun and don’t be afraid to experiment. Copy your manuscript and practice deleting chunks to see if it’s better with or without. Sometimes less words, is more powerful. But most importantly, keep trying

TS: Critique partners are those objective eyes and ears. Reading other books is such a great habit to develop, I agree. Wishing you continued success with Big Bear, Little Bear and future books. Thank you for stopping by!

Joanna Rowland grew up in Sacramento, California, where she still lives today with her husband and three children. She teaches kindergarten by day and writes picture books at night. In the summer you’ll find her by water or cozying up with a book. She is the author of The Memory Box: A Book about Grief; The Memory Book: A Grief Journal for Children and Families; Stay Through The Storm; When Things are Hard, Remember; and Always Mom, Forever Dad.

You can find Joanna online at:

Website: https://www.writerrowland.com/

Twitter: @WriterRowland  

Instagram:  @writerrowland 

Facebook: Joanna Rowland

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Showing Through Real World Issues

We have a real treat today! Welcome back to Annette Schottenfeld whose second picture book, OBI’S MUD BATH, just released with Clear Fork Publishing. Several stories are crafted from our own family experiences such as Annette’s March release entitled NOT SO FAST, MAX: A ROSH HASHANAH VISIT WITH GRANDMA, and global issues that take hold our hearts such as OBI’S MUD BATH. Annette, welcome back and congratulations on your second release!

AS: Hi Tina! I’m thrilled to be here.

TS: Obi is such a lovable and endearing character. The reader finds himself rooting for Obi from the beginning. How did you develop Obi’s character traits?

AS: Thank you Tina! When writing OBI’S MUD BATH, I wanted readers to genuinely care about the main character and his problem. After reading many picture books and making note of what drew me in, I worked on creating a voice for Obi that would tug at readers’ hearts. My goal was for the little rhino to showcase his determination, playfulness, innocence, and belief that anything is possible. 

I brought many versions of the story to my fabulous critique partners and Obi slowly became a recognizable character. Then, when I took The Craft and Business of Writing Picture Books at The Children’s Book Academy during the summer of 2018, the Academy’s founder, Dr. Mira Reisberg – who also became the editor and art director for OBI’S MUD BATH – fell in love with Obi and she, along with a critique group I was paired with in the class (which included you, Tina!), helped me define his voice further.

Dr. Reisberg selected and worked with Obi’s super talented illustrator, Folasade Adeshida, who mirrored Obi’s voice in her illustrations. The little rhino’s expressions, body language, and movements created by Folasade perfectly paired with the voice my words had given him. The result was a character that readers could get behind!

TS: The unfolding of the illustrating process is so exciting! I loved meeting Obi in your early drafts. OBI’S MUD BATH is inspired by true events that took place in Zimbabwe. Could you share with us the connection?

AS: The idea for OBI’S MUD BATH began while I was reading a news article. On a scorching, hot day in Zimbabwe, a little rhino bull named Mark was searching for juicy greenery. Unfortunately, there was litter on the ground. His snout and horn became stuck in a tire, and he couldn’t eat or drink. A team of vets came to his rescue and, thankfully, Mark made a full recovery.

The scene kept playing in my mind. I pictured the little rhino full of determination, exhausted, and then finally free. I envisioned a picture book that was not only fun to read, but that could also give back to help the environment. And Obi was born!

This is an example of how anything can spark a story idea and lead to something wonderful.

I wanted the book to make a difference on a larger scale, and a portion of the proceeds from OBI’S MUD BATH will be donated to Water.org, an organization which empowers families around the world with access to safe water and sanitation. Check out: Shop to Support .

To ensure that the book represented an accurate depiction of the landscape, wildlife, cultural appropriateness, and language of the area, Esau Mavindidze, a native of Zimbabwe and Shona language expert, was instrumental as a cultural sensitivity reader for OBI’S MUD BATH. Thank you Esau!

TS: What an amazing experience to have Esau share his insights! Obi’s new friends are a diverse group of characters. How did you decide on these specific ones to compliment Obi’s character and challenges?

AS: Yes, Obi’s friends are certainly fun! They added another layer to the story and were crafted to help with pacing.

I researched animals found in Zimbabwe that were not predators of each other. There was no room for a scuffle!

Each of Obi’s friends also has a distinct voice. The language they use, paired with their movements, tells readers a lot about them. They all add value to Obi’s quest.

Rufaro, the ostrich, is gentle and offers Obi comfort.

Tenda, the giraffe, has better eyesight and a longer neck than Obi, to search for a mud bath.

Moyo, the elephant, is older and sympathizes with Obi.

Let’s face it, we all need buddies to help us out occasionally. Showing readers the friends working together – teamwork – was an important concept to include. This is what leads Obi to come up with a solution to his problem.

TS: I agree! What do you hope will be the reader’s lasting impression or message learned from reading Obi’s story?

AS: I hope reading OBI’S MUD BATH leaves readers thinking about:

A determined young rhino…teamwork…believing…taking care of our environment…and, ooey, gooey mud!

TS: Thank you for sharing with us your process for showing such an important character like Obi!

Annette Schottenfeld is the author of Obi’s Mud Bath (Spork – Clear Fork Publishing), illustrated by Folasade Adeshida and Not So Fast, Max: A Rosh Hashanah Visit with Grandma (Kalaniot Books), illustrated by Jennifer Kirkham.

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.

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Counting Syllables

Counting Syllables: From Haiku to Tricube

Many teachers use haiku as a way of teaching kids about syllables. Then you get this:

(Source: a facebook meme. I don’t know who first posted this.)

I say it’s not.

Elementary school teachers have long used the haiku in lessons on syllables. But a haiku is much more than syllable count. In fact, many modern English haiku don’t count syllables at all. And some are only one line – these are called monoku.

A haiku is an ancient Japanese poetry form that goes back hundreds of years. It is a short nature poem, a flash of awareness in the present moment – like a snapshot from a camera capturing a moment in time. It juxtaposes two images, and ends with an unexpected surprise. It focuses on imagery, but is not just a description or narrative. The emotion comes through the awareness and surprise at the end. 

One of the most famous examples is Basho’s frog poem where the frog jumps into the pond. It depicts a moment in time. An old pond / frog jumps in / Splash! You see the two images – the pond and the frog – and the splash is the unexpected ending.

If you’re interested, here’s a link to many translations of Basho’s famous frog poem:

http://www.bopsecrets.org/gateway/passages/basho-frog.htm

If you want to teach about syllables – and math – try the Tricube form invented by Phillip Larrea. The poem has three stanzas. Each stanza has three lines, and each line has three syllables.

Here is a tricube I wrote about summer:

Hot, hazy.

Slow, lazy.

It’s Summer.

Photo credit: Edward Kanze, naturalist and author.



Bird and breeze  

sing summer

 melodies.

Photo Credit: Gabrielle Copeland Schoeffield

Flowers bloom,

sweet perfume

of summer.

Photo credit: Edward Kanze, naturalist and author.

I learned about the tricube from poet and children’s author Matt Forrest Essenwine. You can check out his blog posts about this poetry form here: https://mattforrest.wordpress.com/2021/04/29/poetry-friday-have-you-tried-a-tricube-the-roundup-is-here/

and here:

https://mattforrest.wordpress.com/2021/04/15/poetry-friday-tricube-a-first-attempt/

 Like a haiku, the tricube poem uses few words to convey a thought – so it forces the poet to think about word choice in order to incorporate imagery, emotion, and wordplay.

If you try writing your own tricube poem, post it in the comments.

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The Wonder of Words Update Part 2

This is part two of “Goodness me – where did those three years go?” As I mentioned in my previous post a few months ago, Candice, Gabrielle, Sandra, Tina, Yvona and I met through Julie Hedland’s 12 Days of Christmas and started a picture book critique group in 2017. Nine months later we started The Wonder of Words blog. 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 my previous post and Sandra’s, Tina’s and mine are in this post. 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?

SANDRA

So much has changed in two and a half years – both personally and professionally – that I feel like a completely different writer at this point. This is partly due to an evolution in my writing style and experiences as a published author. However, it is also from the changes 2020 brought to my life and the new adventure I embarked on when opening Gnome Road Publishing earlier this year. I am a more efficient writer now (by necessity), more clearly tuned-in to the development of characters and story arc, and more patient with the publishing process. This critique group, and the support of other fabulous critique partners, were huge confidence boosts when I needed it most and a driving force behind improvements in my written work. 

I still read a lot of different stories, but now these are not only books from the library or my children’s bookshelves, but also in the form of hundreds of manuscripts submissions at Gnome Road Publishing. I also provide picture book critique services as time allows, which is to say, not very often at this point. And then, of course, there are the books sitting on my nightstand that cover non “work-related” subjects that have always interested me such as psychology, neuroscience, biological or natural disasters, and historical mysteries/treasures. Every once in a while, I might pile on something to do with law and ethics.

I don’t know that there is a single “biggest” thing I’ve learned during this time. But patience has certainly become my friend, in a love-hate sort of way. Although I still struggle with patience, it is definitely something I have learned to use (embrace?) more wisely now. 

My advice to other writers (and illustrators!) is to be open. Open to possibilities. Open to changes. Open to other people with other ways of seeing things. This will give you the greatest opportunity to grow.” 

TINA

During the last two and a half years, I have taken several writing courses, read many books, critiqued many manuscripts, and written more of my own. All of these activities have helped take my writing to a new levels. I have really dug deeper into a few genres that I would like to create more stories for. Picture books, chapter books and nonfiction are all very different yet have unlimited opportunities to share unique stories. Looking at story structures, reading other author blog posts, participating in professional writing groups continue to help me develop my skills. This past year, I became an agented writer which has introduced me to another community of writers within the industry and I am learning so much.

I continue to learn that writing is a journey that takes time. In the beginning, I wrote stories and truly improved them to the point that I felt I was ready to begin querying. Like so many others, I now look back and realize I was not as ready as I thought. I needed to develop and define my skills more. This all takes practice, patience, persistence, and passion. We all lead very busy lives and adding the desire to write for children is no small task. I continue to learn writing is one piece of a much broader picture as you also need to learn marketing, participate in writing groups, which all take time. Using a separate planner just for writing tasks to organize my weeks separate from my family or teaching planner has helped so much!

As you start your writing journey always remember your “why”. The road is filled with ups and downs, and believe it or not this is a great thing. It is through these that you learn so much about yourself. Be patient. Everything will fall into place over time. Become a part of some wonderful online writing groups and meet other authors. It truly takes a village to become a writer. So many others, in classes and in critique groups, have helped me when I did not know which way to turn. I enjoy doing the same for others because it is awesome to see others reach their dreams. There are so many incredibly talented people in this community to learn from.

KATHY

And now I get to answer the questions I posed to the others. My writing is continually evolving as I discover more about my own voice and read the great variety of voices from other writers. In fact voice has become a prime consideration not only in my own writing but also in my clients’ writing and in the writing of those who submit to my publishing house, Pavlova Press. Which brings me to two major new writing directions for me: not only have I become a publisher, but I have also left my teaching role at the local polytechnic where I taught creative writing and now work with clients from all around the world helping them write their own novels with a strong focus on voice.

When I’m not reading submissions for Pavlova Press or the work of my clients, I am reading middle grade novels and non-fiction, primarily around psychology. There has been one diversion from this: Uprooted by Naomi Novik which is a glorious and original fantasy novel with a strong voice.

It will come as no surprise that the biggest thing I have learned over the past two and a half years is all around voice. I have been working with this concept for a long time and it is only in the last couple of years that it has all clicked into place. I have also discovered a concept that I call The Itch which is at the very heart of every story and the very reason a particular story has to be written. It goes beyond theme and idea, although it could be one or other of those, and goes to the very heart of the writer. I am not the first person to realise this I’m sure, but it has been a very exciting discovery.

In general, I am working to become someone who gives less advice and who listens more, so the fact that I asked the question about what advice we can offer is intriguing. Let me answer my advice question with a thought rather than advice: at some point you will have far more tools than you actually need to write your story, to the point that learning just one more thing becomes a wonderful distraction to writing. STOP! Stop collecting tools and just start writing. If you find there’s something else you genuinely need to learn, you can come back to it later once you know what it is.

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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

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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!

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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.

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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.

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Building your writer’s inventory with writing prompts and visual prompts

Over the past few months, while hunkered down due to the pandemic, I finally found the time and inspiration to work on that middle grade novel I knew was hiding in me.  I have to confess though, there were moments, sometimes hours at a time, where I sat at the computer, fingers poised over the keyboard waiting for the words to fall out.  When those hours turned to days, I turned to searching out writing prompts for motivation. 

Writing prompts can jump start your writing, get you out of a slump or just be inspiration for a story. I see them as a way to organize, create even, a scene I can add to my manuscript later. For my current middle grade manuscript, I leaned heavily on random generators I found on the internet.  They covered a wide range of subjects including words, names, worlds, outfits, sentences, and decisions.  There are websites that will send you a word prompt a day. A simple google search will put you in contact with a myriad of choices.

As a picture book writer, I found visual prompts to be the most helpful and a big advantage as all I had to do was have my camera always at the ready.  Characters for stories can be found everywhere, whether it is on vacation, in the garden, or your own kitchen, inspiration abounds.  I captured many of them through the lens.

On vacation, a walk on the beach netted me story ideas.  One such walk, I was introduced to a dinosaur that became a short story idea. 

This guy was waiting to greet me as I stepped out the back door one morning.   

After a spring storm, I was delighted to find my irises drinking in the raindrops.

An interesting one was the dinosaur I discovered hiding in my frying pan as I was about to cook dinner.

Another story was inspired by the Spudz Family.  I was so enthralled by them, that I did a complete family photo shoot.  They were cooperative and excited to be in a future picture book.

And the inspiration for my current middle grade work in progress? 

I can only tell you it will be out of this world!

Thanks so much for stopping by!  Write On!