Today we have a special guest, friend and critique partner, Yvona Fast. She shares the emotional story of her mother’s childhood experiences during the Holocaust in her upcoming middle grade book,GOOD IN THE MIDST OF EVIL, with Clear Fork Publishing. Dana Fast is one of many whose personal experiences during such a horrific time, have given her the strength she has today.
TS: Welcome, Yvona! I am so excited to read your book and hear about how your mother’s important story came to be. Her experiences help us understand our world’s history, especially such difficult times.
AF: Thank you, Tina. Yes, they really do!
When I was growing up and we studied history and the Holocaust, I would ask Mom questions – I knew she had lived through it – but she never would talk about it. It was only later, when I was in my forties that she started talking.
Her brother – who is 5 years younger – asked her to write it down for his kids, since he remembered so little, being so young. This was in the 1990s. I was in Europe working in Yugoslavia, Poland and Slovakia from 1989 – 1995, and she typed it on our friend Olga’s word processor… it wasn’t even a computer back then. I just recently came across this early draft when cleaning out the filing cabinet.
Her friends in Poland wanted to read it – so she wrote it in Polish for them, using the same word processor…
When I came back to the states, I read both versions – and they were not identical. She recalled different things each time.
TS: Wow, so fascinating. I am sure after so many years, sitting down to write the difficult memories in both languages must have been very challenging.
AF: This really inspired me to want to share her story. I was living and working in Rochester, NY, then, and combined both versions into one, editing as I went. I tried submitting the story to publishers, but there was no interest.
A few years later, in 2010, a friend of Mom’s, Andrea, asked if she could write mom’s story down. She was on the board of the Polish-Jewish Heritage Society in Montreal, Quebec, and they were looking for Holocaust stories to publish.
We told her the story was already written – and in 2011 they published it, with only minor edits, under the title, MY NINE LIVES. When I said we wanted a thousand copies, they thought we were crazy… but we have sold most of them. The nonprofit only publishes the books, but they do not distribute them, so the only way to get a copy is either through the agency or through us.
Mom is well-known in our community, since she has worked here and lived here and volunteered for various organizations from the local library to the Visitor’s Interpretive Center, and served as a Master Gardener Volunteer for years, giving talks on gardening, composting, preserving food, and so on. Over a hundred people came to her book release party.
TS: She is amazing! You must be so proud of her.
AF: I really am. But I wanted a wider market for the book, beyond our small village. Since there are about a dozen books with the title MY NINE LIVES, I wanted a unique title that fit. A friend, Karen Davidson, designed a more engaging cover. These are things that are important to book marketing… the cover and the title.
A friend offered to help me publish it through Amazon’s KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing) but part-way through she dropped the project. Her Apple computer and my IBM version did not seem to work together well. That’s when I sent a copy of MY NINE LIVES to Caliie Metler of Clear Fork Publishing. She loved the book and offered to publish it under the Rise Imprint – books that empower women and teach them to rise.
TS: Yvona, how wonderful for your mother and your family to be able to do this for her. Great thinking on your part to submit her story to Clear Fork and the RISE Imprint is a perfect fit.
AF: My mom, Dana, is definitely a strong, independent woman. Her life made her that way.
I say she wrote the book – it is her story. She claims I wrote it. I definitely edited and improved it, but the story and voice are clearly hers.
TS: Something tells me both of you are sharing this important history, together. We wish you every success as the release her incredible story releases Tuesday, April 5th!
Yvona Fast grew up on three continents, speaking three languages by age ten. She thought many of her challenges were due to these changes in culture, but in her forties she discovered she is neurodivergent and needs words – not pictures – to understand her world, a condition known as Nonverbal Learning Disability.
Her love of books and language first led her to become a librarian, and later, to writing. She has written articles and essays, writes a weekly food column for her local paper, the Adirondack Daily Enterprise, and has published several books, including three poetry chapter books. Her first book, Employment for Individuals with Asperger Syndrome or Non-Verbal Learning Disability, was published in 2004 by Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
Welcome, Word Wonders to today’s post on inspiration! This time I’m interviewing three authors AND an illustrator at once and it’s because they all worked together on the sweet story of friendship, PLANTING FRIENDSHIP: PEACE, SALAAM, SHALOM by Callie Metler, Shirin Rahman, Melissa Stoller, illustrated by Kate Talbot. I’m eager to learn more about the creativity behind this collaboration so let’s jump right in!
Hi, Ladies! Thanks for joining us on the Wonder of Words blog. What was the inspiration behind this story?
Melissa: First, Candice – thank you so much for inviting me to your blog! I enjoyed answering these questions about creativity!
I am so lucky to be working with Callie Metler and Shirin Rahman on this project! PLANTING FRIENDSHIP: PEACE, SALAAM, SHALOM (illustrated by Kate Talbot, Clear Fork Publishing) has been an absolute pleasure to work on together. Shirin brought the idea to Callie and me, and I will be forever grateful that she did. I have met them both in person (on separate occasions – we still all need to meet together!) and I knew that we would bond perfectly as a group. The inspiration behind the story is to tell a tale of three girls of different faith traditions that would mirror our faith traditions (Jewish, Christian, and Muslim). We wanted to show that, although the three girls in the story are different, they are more alike than they realize at first, and their differences and cultural heritages should be shared and celebrated. The backdrop of the story is the first day of school, and their teacher, Ms. Blume (obvious nod to Judy Blume!) starts a planting project. As the plants bloomed, the girls’ friendship blossomed. Illustrator Kate Talbot’s artwork is just exquisite and she brought her own unique vision to the story and elevated our words!
Callie: The inspiration for Planting Friendship came from Shirin. She wanted to create a book about three girls coming together and so we worked on it together and brainstormed what the story came to be.
Shirin: I have thought about this story since I became a mother. I strongly believe that if children grow up knowing and respecting different faith traditions- and all differences- our world will be better for it. My children are my inspiration. I did not want them to experience the challenges I faced as a child. I want every child to feel they belong. I want every child to be proud of their identity and heritage, while appreciating all others.
Our world is enriched by all the diverse faiths, cultures and traditions–we are one human family.
It’s an important lesson that children need to learn before they begin school. Picture books are so important. They can play a crucial role in a child’s development. I hope our book has a positive impact in the world.
Kate: Callie approached me in late 2020 to ask if I’d be interested in illustrating Planting Friendship: Peace Salaam, Shalom. Upon reading it, I instantly knew I wanted to be involved. The message and the timing of the book seemed perfect and I was excited by the challenge of creating three unique main characters.
Candice: It’s such a great idea! What is your favorite part of the creative process? And what was your favorite part about working with co-writers? Did you learn anything about your own process?
Melissa: As far as the creative process and writing – I enjoy it all. I love brainstorming ideas and find stories all over, especially by observing nature, strolling through my NYC neighborhood, and mining my family history. Also, I enjoy revising and teasing out the heart and themes of a manuscript. Those are not always evident in the first draft and I rely on my amazing critique partners as I work through the story.
For this project – it was an absolute joy to work with Callie and Shirin. We have an amazing energy together. We met almost weekly to write, revise, and polish the manuscript for PLANTING FRIENDSHIP. And we continue to meet to work on the next book, BUILDING BRIDGES: PEACE, SALAAM, SHALOM, as well as the third picture book to complete the series. My favorite part about working with co-authors is the collaboration itself – bouncing ideas off each other, engaging in meaningful dialogue, and the deep friendship that has resulted. We shared a lot and also had many laughs throughout the process! I learned that I LOVE working with co-authors! When illustrator Kate Talbot joined the project we became a true #DreamTeam and I’m so blessed that our work together is continuing!
Callie: I love the discussions and the partnership. We each added something special to the story, and communicated what was important to us for the story.
Shirin: I love writing stories for children. I’m so grateful to be able to live this dream. Working with Callie and Melissa has been such a joy, that I am so thankful we are continuing this collaboration indefinitely! I could not imagine a better team to work with. We schedule zoom meetings and figure out the story together. I am constantly amazed by the ideas we come up with. After every meeting, we all agree that we accomplished a lot. I have learned that I am much more productive when we talk over plot possibilities. The ideas seem to flow better when we brainstorm together.
Kate: I adore working in colour, so for me, the final stage of colouring and rendering my art is my favourite part. For me, this is where the magic really happens and bringing these three gorgeous little girls to life left me with a permanent smile on my face.
Candice: Do you have other creative outlets or hobbies? If so, do they ever cross into your writing?
Melissa: I love being creative and crafty! My kids and I especially enjoy holiday art projects like decorating a menorah for Hanukkah, making a seder plate for Passover, or baking macaroons for Purim. I also love collecting – I collect shells, sea glass, beach rocks, driftwood, and snow globes. During the summer, I’m always painting shells or making found beach object projects. I think that any creative pursuit does cross over into writing – as I’m creating I’m also thinking and mulling over story plots! Creativity involves using your imagination so whether it’s doing a craft or writing a story, the mind is always active and finding new solutions or ways of doing things, and working around any problems that may arise.
Shirin: I love to paint and I’m learning to draw, as it has always been my dream to write and illustrate my own books. I don’t know if it will take another ten years or more, but I’m content with the journey of learning for now. It’s a way to change gears and still be creative, when I am seized by the dreaded writers block
Callie: I love to play computer games, read, and paint. They often cross over into my writing.
Kate: While I was the illustrator on this project, I am also a writer, so when I’m not at my iPad sketching, I’m busy dreaming up story ideas.
Candice: Do you have any tips you’d like to share about finding creativity?
Shirin: For me, creativity is sparked by moments of quiet solitude. Mornings are my favorite times, when I watch the sunrise with a cup of tea. Writing morning pages helps clear my mind and prepares me for a good day of creativity
Melissa: I love finding creativity in my life in small ways throughout the day. I have adult coloring books, tiny blank canvases, and markers on my desk, and I use them if I have a few minutes. And by reading kidlit, keeping a writing idea journal, and always trying to add a spark to an existing manuscript, I hope I am keeping my imagination and my creativity alive. And of course, my book, SCARLET’S MAGIC PAINTBRUSH (illustrated by Sandie Sonke, Clear Fork Publishing) is all about creativity! The theme is letting go of perfection and finding your own creativity – whatever form that may take. And for fans of Scarlet, the sequel, RETURN OF THE MAGIC PAINTBRUSH is coming soon. Sandie’s illustrations are just gorgeous! I’m so excited for readers to be immersed in that world surrounding creativity and imagination once again!
Callie: Creativity can come in any form. The trick is to see and accept the magic in the world around you and to capture that to pour into your writing.
Kate: Like all creatives, I struggle with motivation at times. I’ve found, that for me, the best way to counteract this is to have multiple projects going at once. This means that when I hit a seemingly impassable creative wall, I shift focus for a couple of weeks before circling back. I’ve found that while sometimes I need to push myself, other times, the best thing to do is take a break.
Thank y’all for joining us and sharing your thoughts on inspiration and creativity!
Consider adding PLANTING FRIENDSHIPS to your holiday gift-giving list! Support local by requesting at your indie bookstore or purchasing online at bookshop.org (book specific link) to benefit your favorite indie.
Call to Creativity: have you ever thought about co-writing? What strengths of your own could you share with others?
Melissa Stoller is the author of the chapter book series The Enchanted Snow Globe Collection – Return to Coney Island and the picture books Scarlet’s Magic Paintbrush;Ready, Set, GOrilla!; and Sadie’s Shabbat Stories. Planting Friendship: Peace, Salaam, Shalom (co-written with Callie Metler and Shirin Rahman, illustrated by Kate Talbot), released from Clear Fork Publishing in 2021. Melissa is a Blogger and Course Assistant for the Children’s Book Academy, a Regional Ambassador for The Chapter Book Challenge, a volunteer with SCBWI/MetroNY, and a founding member of The Book Meshuggenahs. In other chapters of her life, Melissa has worked as a lawyer, legal writing instructor, freelance writer and editor, and early childhood educator. She lives in New York City with her family, and enjoys theatre, museums, and long beach walks.
Shirin has lived on three continents and sees herself as a global citizen. Through sharing stories from her heritage, she hopes to inspire an appreciation for all the diversity of our beautiful planet. A member of SCBWI since 2010, Shirin is now represented by Saba Sulaiman of Talcott Notch Literary Agency. http://www.shirinshamsi.com @ShirinsBooks
Callie Metler is the owner of Clear Fork Media, and an author and illustrator of several children’s books. She lives in Stamford, Texas with her two sons, and enjoys looking out her office window at the trees and nature in the local town square. http://www.CallieMetler.com
Kate Talbot is a Children’s Book Author and Illustrator who has a passion for quirky stories, especially when told in rhyme. She has a degree in filmmaking and spent several years as a Film Producer (the highlight of her career was spilling an entire tray of drinks in Russell Crowe’s lap before falling butt-first into a fountain). In 2011, she made the shift to children’s writing and illustration, when she moved to Germany with her Spanish husband. Until recently she lived there with her family, but has now relocated to New Zealand. https://www.katetalbotbooks.com
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 TheSame, 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.
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.
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.
Welcome, Word Wonderers! We hope everyone had an enjoyable, safe summer as we prepare for Back-To-School! Today’s guest is Kira Bigwood, with her debut picture book, SECRET, SECRET AGENT GUY, out now. And let me tell you, my youngest has been in spy-mode ever since we read her story together!
Candice: Hi, Kira! Thanks for being here today to talk about your creative process. When and where did you get the inspiration for your story?
Kira: Thanks again for having me! I was inspired to write SECRET, SECRET AGENT GUY in 2018 by my own sleuthing children. They got a spy kit for Christmas, complete with night-vision goggles and motion-detecting alarms. After being booby-trapped for like the zillionth time, I knew there was a story in this. Kids love spies! Heck, grown-ups love spies! I wanted to come up with a “sticky” concept that I hadn’t seen before, so I channeled my day job (advertising copywriter) and landed on this lullabies-for-spies idea. Once I had my concept, the story sort of wrote itself (which does not usually happen for me!).
Candice: Oh gosh, yes. I have been snuck up on so many times since my son and I read this book together. Everyone loves spies! And I like that phrase, “lullabies-for-spies.” Clever. What is your favorite part of the creative process?
Kira: My favorite part is what I call the “concepting” phase. Coming up with big ideas…good or bad. It honestly doesn’t matter, because ideas breed ideas breed ideas, and eventually, you’re bound to come up with something cool (a statistical fact!). I’m not an illustrator, but I do enjoy drawing (thanks to my artist mom and architect dad for that gene). So a lot of my initial concepting involves jotting down ideas for titles or themes, and then doodling those out a little. I don’t share my drawings with anyone (and they don’t inform any illustration notes I may include), but they do help me start to visualize the story and figure out where it should go.
Candice:You’re absolutely right. Bad ideas can be just as helpful as good ones to get creativity flowing. Do you have other creative outlets or hobbies? Do they cross into your writing?
Kira: I like to make stuff…cute invites and decorations for parties, clues for scavenger hunts, elaborate Halloween costumes (that was my 2-year-old dressed as Richard Simmons), homemade cards and poems…I’m kinda addicted to making people laugh, or feel loved or just acknowledged, through the written word. I suppose that would be the crossover…making stuff that makes people feel something.
Candice: I can imagine thebook-themed parties! And making people feel something is such a great life goal. Do you have any tips you’d like to share about finding creativity?
Kira: Fill the well! The more you experience in life, the more you have to draw from when it comes time to create. This can be going to the movies, walking in nature, people-watching, dog-watching, going to a museum, playing with your kids, taking a much-needed break from your kids…the key is to try to be as present as possible (ditch the phone!), absorb your surroundings, and dump it all in the well.
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?
Kira: Right now I’m putting the finishing touches on a narrative non-fiction science manuscript—fingers crossed it will be my next book! I will say, this past pandemic year really cramped my creativity, and I’m sure I’m not alone in that. So, while I wasn’t nearly as productive as I’d hoped to be (remote schooling, anyone?!), I’ve given myself permission to let it go and not focus on what I didn’t accomplish last year. Here’s to 2021, amirite?!
Candice: For sure! We appreciate you being here, Kira, and best of luck with your non-fiction science manuscript project!
Kira: Thanks so much for having me, Candice, and congratulations on your creative successes!
Be sure to request SECRET, SECRET AGENT GUY at your library or local indie bookstore. You can also find it online at bookshop.org (book-specific link) which also helps support local indies.
Kira Bigwood writes children’s books, TV commercials, and much to her 11-year-old’s dismay, notes for her kids’ lunchboxes. She was once edited out of a My Little Pony ad because she was missing her two front teeth (not that she’s still hanging on to that or anything). Luckily, she has all her teeth now, and a much more positive attitude toward the editing process. Kira is a graduate of the University of North Carolina (go Heels!), and lives in Chicago with her husband and three children. Her debut picture book, Secret, Secret Agent Guy, illustrated by Celia Krampien, has received starred reviews from Kirkus and School Library Journal. Find Kira online at kirabigwood.com, on Twitter and Instagram.
Celia Krampien grew up in a house in the woods in a small town near Owen Sound, Ontario, Canada. She studied illustration at Sheridan College and currently lives in St. Catharines, Ontario, with her partner, a mischievous cat, and a nosy beagle.
Call-To-Creativity: Observe the children in your life to see what they gravitate to. Could that inspire something new? Could you incorporate a favorite lullaby from your childhood? Let the good (and bad!) ideas flow!
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.
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!
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?
Welcome, Word Wonderers! Today we’re chatting with the co-author of MOOTILDA’S BAD MOOD, Kirsti Call. I hope y’all are ready for some punny wordplay, because this moo-velous masterpiece delivers. Its playful rhyme is so much fun to read aloud.
Hi, Kirsti! How did y’all get the inspiration for your story?
Kirsti: My co-author, Corey Rosen Schwartz and I wanted to write a story that takes advantage of my background as a therapist. When we came up with the title MOOTILDA’S BAD MOOD, we knew this was a story we had to write! And let’s face it, with the 2020 pandemic, we can all stand to read a story about bad moods es-cow-lating and then cow-miserating to feel better!
Candice: I love that you have a background as a therapist. I was actually wondering that as I read y’alls story the first time. And I absolutely adored that it was Mootilda’s act of kindness, her “cow-miserating” with the chickens, that got her out of her funk. Thinking of others has definitely helped my moods this crazy year. What is your favorite part of the creative process?
Kirsti: I love getting the spark of a new idea and writing a terrible horrible no good first draft– just writing down everything that comes to mind and allowing it to be THE. WORST.
Candice: Do you have other creative outlets? Do they work their way into your writing?
Kirsti: I make music with my family–we sing together every day. Here are my kids singing a COVID parody the family worked on. And here’s the MOOTILDA SONG my 14 year old daughter wrote–my 10 year old son is Mootilda’s voice and I’m the one in the cow dress. I plan to collaborate with my children to write songs for all my books. And one day, I’d love to write a picture book that has a song as part of the text!
Candice: Dang. I am SO IMPRESSED with your family’s talent and creativity! That is amazing (and hilarious. Totally related to the “introverted so it’s a bliss” line.) Do you have any tips you’d like to share about finding creativity?
Kirsti: For me, creativity comes in the quiet moments. Letting my mind wander and giving myself permission to stop focusing on solutions allows more space for creativity. My best tips? Take a walk, listen to the sounds of nature, take a break from your screen. You’ll find your muse in the quiet moments.
Candice: Giving yourself permission seems to be key: to set aside space for creativity–to daydream, to write the ‘worst’ first draft. That permission is so liberating! Great advice. 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?
Kirsti: I’m working on boardbooks, picture books, a chapter book, middle grade and YA. Corey and I just finished a story about a daddy rooster who says Cock a doodle DON’T! And in March 2021, COW SAYS MEOW is coming out with HMH, and next Fall COLD TURKEY (also co-written with Corey) comes out with Little Brown.
Candice: Exciting things on the horizon! Congrats, Kirsti. Thank you for being here and sharing your creative insights and moo-sical talents!
Y’all be sure to request MOOTILDA’S BAD MOOD at your local library and independent bookstore. If you prefer to shop online during these trying COVID times, consider purchasing books for holiday gift-giving through bookshop.org. You can choose for your money to go to your local independent bookstore, or if you don’t have one in your area, it goes into a pot to be divvied out among independent bookstores.
Kirsti Call co-hosts the PICTURE BOOK LOOK podcast and co-runs ReFoReMo. She reads, reviews, revises and critiques every day as a 12×12 elf, a blogger for Writers’ Rumpus, and a member of critique groups. She’s judged the CYBILS award for fiction picture books since 2015. Kirsti’s picture book, MOOTILDA’S BAD MOOD (Little Bee) debuted September 1st, 2020. COW SAYS MEOW (HMH) and COLD TURKEY (Little Brown) release in 2021. Kirsti is represented by Emma Sector at Prospect Agency. Visit her website at www.kristicall.com.
Co-author Corey Rosen Schwartz is the author of The Three Ninja Pigs and several other rhyming picture books. She lives in Warren, New Jersey, where she’s spent many years eating ice cream and visiting farms with her two moognificent children. Visit her at www.coreyrosenschwartz.com.
Illustrator Claudia Ranucci graduated with a degree in graphic design and illustration at the Istituto Superiore per le Industrie Artisitche in Urbino, Italy. Her books have been published in France, Portugal, China, Japan, Korea, Mexico, and Brazil. She currently lives in Madrid.
Call to Creativity: 2020 has been a trying year for all of us and of course, some more than others. But for this call, let’s look for the silver linings. Have you learned any new skills, new appreciations, or like Mootilda, a new perspective of thinking of her barnyard friends? How can you turn that silver lining into a picture book?
Welcome Word Wonderers, as we explore a colorful Indian market today with children’s author, Meera Sriram. Meera and I connected at last year’s Fall Writing Frenzy kidlit contest, so when I saw she would be releasing a gorgeous picture book set in a bustling Indian marketplace, I reached out to her. What better way to escape my own backyard and travel somewhere new to me?
Candice: Welcome, Meera! When and where did you get the inspiration for A GIFT FOR AMMA?
Meera: When my kids were little, I often searched for multicultural picture books for early learning. They were hard to find but the few we read were enriching in many ways. Since then, a book on colors set in a cultural backdrop was always on my mind. I grew up in India and every time I stepped out to the street, there was so much to take in – colors, textures, smells, chaos, sounds! But capturing and packing all of that into a picture book manuscript was the challenge. I had tried a few different drafts and given up. In 2017, I pulled out the manuscript and started playing with it, incorporating active as well as sensory elements. Soon, the colors and markets seemed to come alive.
Candice: That’s the hardest part about picture books–packing so much in while not overcrowding the story. You definitely found that balance! What is your favorite part of the creative process?
Meera: Revisions! A first draft usually makes me happy because I’ve actually acted on an idea. Then, at a certain point down the road you realize that the story has great potential. You start rolling up your sleeves and paying attention to hook, rhythm, imagery, and start to push harder to shape it up into something that’ll stand out. Sometimes, this happens when you get positive feedback or insightful direction from critiques. I love to discover and navigate the possibilities that open up during this process. With every iteration, words grow richer, plot tighter, ending stronger, and a small sprouted idea transforms into a full story arc.
Candice: Love this! I always say creative people are creative in a lot of different ways. Do you have other outlets or hobbies? How do they cross into your writing?
Meera: I love photography and very often I attempt to communicate through a visual composition. I used to photo blog for a few years, where the writer in me took a back seat and allowed a picture to speak for itself. To me, objects, light, and placement are equivalent to characters, plot, and setting. I also enjoy decorating interior spaces, and again, I try to include things like memorabilia and art to make the space feel lived in and to tell stories.
Candice: Leaving room for the illustrator is something I struggle with so it sounds like your photography interest helps with that–great idea! Do you have any tips you’d like to share about finding creativity?
Meera: I believe we’re all creative all the time! Like when we cook or garden or hang a picture or play with a kid. Some of us pause longer and invest more because it brings us joy. If we let life happen and engage with the world, we’ll find countless ways to express creatively. I believe the important thing is to take the time to stop, listen, look closer, and soak in the moment.
Candice: Great advice–listen, look closer, and soak it in. 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?
Meera: Yes! Coincidentally, it’s about a very creative person. My next picture book, BETWEEN TWO WORLDS (Spring 2021), is a biography on Amrita Sher-Gil, the Indian-Hungarian artist who was a pioneer of modern Indian art. And I can’t wait to see the creativity Ruchi Bakshi Sharma will bring to the illustrations. I’m also working on edits for another picture book (yet to be announced) and I’m enjoying the collaborative process with my editor and illustrator. I have another idea for a book for which I’m trying to draw from within to find the best way to tell the story.
Candice: That sounds amazing! I love creative coincidences. Thank you for being here with us as we listen, look closer, and wonder at words, Meera. And congrats on A GIFT FOR AMMA’s release!
Want to travel within this lyrical, colorful story? Be sure to request it from your local library or independent bookstore. They do so much for our communities and need our support during this pandemic. You can find it online at bookshop.org which also supports local indie bookshops (you can pick your own local indie if they’re an affiliate. If not, it goes into a pot to be divided among indie bookstores.)
Meera Sriram grew up in India and moved to the U.S in 1999. An electrical engineer in the past, she now enjoys writing for children, leading early literacy initiatives, and advocating for diverse bookshelves. Meera is the author of picture books, The Yellow Suitcase (Penny Candy Books, 2019), A Gift For Amma: Market Day in India (Barefoot Books, 2020), and the upcoming title, Between Two Worlds (Penny Candy Books, 2021). She has also co-authored several kids’ books in India. Meera believes in the transformative power of stories and likes to write about people, places, and experiences less visible in children’s literature. For more information, visit meerasriram.com
Mariona Cabassa studied illustration at the Massana Art School and completed her postgraduate degree at the School of Fine Arts in Strasbourg, where she also learned how to speak French. She has illustrated more than 80 books in Spain and other countries. She lives in Barcelona, Spain.
Call to Creativity: is there a subject in children’s literature that you’d like to see more of on bookshelves? Think about ways you could put a new, creative spin on a book of colors.
Yes, I know Autism Awareness Month is April – not August. But they both begin with the letter ‘A’. And autism is a lifelong condition. It does not go away when spring ends and summer begins. It does not go away when a child grows up and turns 18. Approximately 1 in 59 children has been diagnosed with some form of autism spectrum disorder, according to the CDC. I am neuro-diverse. I recall the day I stumbled on the website nldline.com while helping a library patron search for books on learning disabilities for math rather than language. My eyes opened wide. There were people with the same issues as me! What joy! My own neurologically atypical existence was complicated by the fact that I am an immigrant. By the time I was ten, I had lived on three continents, and spoke three languages. That could be why my issues and challenges were not taken seriously and sometimes attributed to cultural difference. When I was growing up in the 1960s, little was known about neurodiversity. I had difficulty in group conversations, so I tended to stay to myself – and came to believe I was shy. (I’m not). Even as an adult, group conversations still pose a problem. I don’t read body language well so I don’t know when it’s ok to speak – so I either stay quiet or interrupt. I was told I was immature and would grow up eventually, or that I was lazy and not trying hard enough. Now I know that I have slow processing speed, and that is why everything takes longer. Yet no matter how hard I tried, I kept failing at certain things. I never learned to ride a bike, or to throw and catch a ball. We tell our kids, “You can do anything if you try.” But this is not true. Not only will I never be a brain surgeon – I’ll never be a ballerina because I have dyspraxia. I’m a klutz. We’re all different – and that makes for an interesting world. No matter which spectrum we belong to, everyone has strengths, and everyone has challenges. All humans are equal. All have dignity. I have gathered some recently published books that feature neurologically diverse characters. Most are fiction. The last two are nonfiction biographies About Temple Grandin, a neuro-diverse woman whose contributions to science and inventions resulted in groundbreaking improvements for farms worldwide.
A Friend for Henry
by Jenn Bailey, ill by Mika Song. Chronicle Books 2019. 32 p. ; 535 words. 2020 Schneider Family Honor Book. In this story about searching for a friend in a new classroom that is too loud and too close, Henry’s analytical, literal personality comes through. A touching story that will appeal to anyone looking for friendship but especially to those with neurological differences.
How to Babysit a Logan
by Callie Metler-Smith, ill by Cindy Vattathil. Clear Fork Publishing 2019. 32 p; 407 words. What a great message about how a pet can be a best friend. Such a wonderful bond between the cat and the boy! Shows we all need and can give support. Beautiful illustrations and a great story for all kids! The cat, Thunderbolt, explains how he spends his time making sure Logan is safe and loved. A beautiful bond between a pet and an autistic boy. encourages discussion and understanding about what life is like with autism. informational in such an easy, conversational tone
This Beach Is Loud
by Samantha Cotterill (au/ill), Dial Books, 2019. 32 p.; 318 words. Even fun things can feel overwhelming. For all children – but especially children on the spectrum – new things and things with sensory overload can be overwhelming. This book does an excellent job of portraying this feeling, and the tension is resolved joyfully at the end. This book also shows the use of calming activities like breathing and counting. As a word nerd rather than a picture person I found some of the circular text that goes off the page very difficult to read.
Too Sticky! Sensory Issues with Autism
by Jen Malia ill by Joanne Lew Vriethoff. Albert Whitman, April 1, 2020. 32 p.; 1,005 words.
The own-voices book portrays sensory issues and Holly’s struggle well. We see the MCs feelings and the support she gets from her family. The slime science experiment relates to STEM concepts. It shows empathy. However, I thought for a picture book at over 1,000 words it was a bit too long. Also, the child-protagonist is constantly prodded by adults and does not solve her own problem.
Noah Chases the Wind
by Michelle Worthington ill by Joseph Cowman. Redleaf Lane (an imprint of Redleaf Press), 2015. 32 pages; 449 words. Winner of the silver medal in the Moonbeam Children’s Books Award in the Picture Book 4–8-year-old category from Independent Publisher ; Winner of the Gelett Burgess Children’s Book Award The first two lines say it all: “Noah knew he was different. He could see things that others couldn’t.” The rest of the story shows the beauty of being different. This is a story for every child who feels different or sees the world through a different lens – not just those on the spectrum or with sensory integration disorder. This whimsical story also highlights Noah’s special interest in weather.
The boy who said nonsense
by Felicia Sanzari Chernesky ill by Nicola Anderson. Albert Whitman & Company, 2016. 32 pages; 862 words. Celebrates diversity. Because Tate doesn’t communicate like other children, it takes time to recognize is special gift for math. Shows we’re all unique and need to be valued for our gifts in spite of challenges we may have.
Cy Makes a Friend
by Ann Marie Stephens ill by Tracy Subisak. Boyds Mills Press, 2019. 32 p.; 252 words. A wonderful, fun read! Many children have trouble making friends because they are shy or different. This is a great book for everyone who feels vulnerable and is afraid to reach out to make friends.
Benji, the Bad Day and Me
by Sally J. Pla, Ill by Ken Min. Lee & Low Books, 2018. 32 p. Everyone has a bad day occasionally. This story reminds me of the classic Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. But here, the main character Sammy’s brother Benji, who comforts him, is autistic. The book touches on the feelings not just of those who are neuro-diverse, but their siblings. The author notes, “It’s important to note that no two autistic kids are alike, and their needs and behaviors will always be different.”
by Julia Cook, ill by Anita DuFalla. Boys Town Press, 2018, 32 p. In this first-person narrated story, Zak, a boy who is autistic, shares his quirks, interests and view of life. However, the author fails to address uniqueness – because no two people on the spectrum are alike – and describes some autistic traits as gifts, confusing many readers. The author needs to learn more about the subject before attempting to write about it.
All My Stripes: A Story for Children with Autism
by Shaina Rudolph (Author), Danielle Royer (Author), Jennifer Zivoin (Illustrator). Magination Press, 2015. 40 p. Gold Medal, Mom’s Choice Awards Zane the Zebra has many stripes! The book brings an important message about accepting our differences. After a troubling day at school when his autistic qualities – sensory issues, inability to communicate with his classmates, wanting to do a project differently and not understanding figurative language – make him feel different, his Mom explains that only one of his stripes is autism. He has many other excellent stripes, like honesty, curiosity, caring, and navigation. Zane feels better about himself and comes to understand that all the stripes together make him who he is. There are many pages of helpful information in the backmatter. The problems with the book are that some of the incidents would not really happen. No teacher would leave a kid behind during a fire drill, cowering under the desk until the firemen arrived.
A Manual for Marco: Living, Learning, and Laughing With an Autistic Sibling by Shaila Abdullah, ill by Iman Tejpar. Loving Healing Press, 2015. 36p. This book is written from the point-of-view of an eight-year-old girl learning how to deal with her autistic brother Marco. Presented in a notebook format, she writes down the things her brother does. The reader sees the importance of acceptance and love. Backmatter contains a list of of things to remember to make life with an autistic sibling easier. Also included are resources for more information about autism.
How to Build a Hug: Temple Grandin and Her Amazing Squeeze Machine by Amy Guglielmo , Jacqueline Tourville , and Giselle Potter et al. Atheneum Books for Young Readers , 2018 ; 48 p. A wonderful story about overcoming obstacles, especially emotional and sensory ones. A wonderful story about overcoming obstacles, especially emotional and sensory ones. The story begins with a problem and shows how Temple felt as a child, how she found her own unique and creative solution from experiencing the world around her. The backmatter author’s note shares more about Temple Grandin and her amazing scientific contributions as a pioneer in her field.
The Girl Who Thought in Pictures: the Story of Dr. Temple Grandin By Julia Finley Mosca Ill by:Daniel Rieley. The Innovation Press, 2017. 40 p. Written in rhyme with beautiful illustrations, this account addresses Temple’s challenges and accomplishments. The story shows how being inclusive makes a positive impact on everyone. Backmatter includes a letter from Temple Grandin, interesting details from the author’s interviews, a timeline and a two-page prose biography.
I hope this blog post finds you all having a great summer in our new normal. Today I am thrilled to have Beth Anderson as our featured guest. As you know, she is an accomplished writer focusing on narrative nonfiction and historical fiction picture books. Her quote “Writing is Mining” holds such truth. She describes writing in these genres as digging for those special memories, emotions, and meaning. Beth has wonderful strategies for showing in these areas.
TS: Beth, thank you so much for being our guest today and congratulations on your October release of “Smelly” Kelly and His Super Senses: How James Kelly’s Nose Saved the New York City Subway. Whether drafting or revising, how do you know when it is necessary to show action, scene and sensory elements?
BA: Thank you so much for inviting me to share some thoughts on the essential “show vs. tell.”
I believe in action wherever it makes sense – the more the better. Keeping the characters active keeps the reader turning pages. Actions reveal character so it’s a huge part of the emotional arc. But there also has to be the flow in and out, along with weaving in needed context. Constant action for the sake of action is exhausting!
Scenes carry the emotional arc of the main character as well as the plot. They move the story forward, stepping-stones in the character’s transformation that build to the story’s end. If a scene doesn’t serve that purpose, then it needs to go or be revised to carry a piece of the emotional arc. Sometimes, even “internal” scenes can be active. Here’s an example from Lizzie Demands a Seat with the additional challenge of required context:
She eyed empty seats. Despite being born a “free black” in a “free state,” she’d never been treated as equal. She’d been rejected, restricted, and refused by schools, restaurants, and theaters. Suddenly late-for-church wasn’t as important as late-for-equality. Lizzie stood firm.
Finally, the driver held up the reins. “We need to go.”
Scenes play out best with action, and if you can use action to transition between scenes, do that, too. “Smelly” Kelly and His Super Senses, releasing Oct. 13, was a huge challenge regarding transitions between scenes. There was so little information on James Kelly’s days in the NYC subway, all I had were anecdotes with the potential to be priceless scenes. I had to find a way to organize them with a special “heart” thread and effectively transition between scenes to avoid an “episodic” feel. Here’s an example of an active transition that lets us pause with the character and progress to the next scene:
“Exhausted, he paused and peered through the crowd gathered at the movie poster. Even superheroes needed help.”
And here’s an example from An Inconvenient Alphabet where I used imagery to actively transition. Instead of saying that Noah Webster wanted to reform American English spelling, it became:
“Armed with the twenty-six letters of the English alphabet everyone knew and loved, Noah launched a spelling revolution—ready to turn “rong” spelling into “rite.””
Sensory elements enrich the reading experience by inviting readers into the moment, immersing them in the setting, and connecting readers to characters on multiple levels. As you will see in “Smelly” Kelly’s story, I use sensory elements liberally!
TS: Are there specific strategies, tools or resources you use to incorporate more showing/descriptive language?
I use the online thesaurus a lot. If you can find just the right word, it can make an illustration note or other words unnecessary. For instance, recently I replaced “took” with “claimed.” It made a huge difference—adding attitude.
I can’t resist onomatopoeia. But besides sounds, I also ask myself – What would that look like? In “Smelly” Kelly, there are lots of stinks. Instead of trying to describe the stink in the New Yorker Hotel, it was more fun to show the reaction to the smell.
“Maids pinched their noses. Guests fled. Engineers analyzed and pondered, but they couldn’t figure out where the leak was coming from.”
I also try to “show” emotions, especially what cannot be shown easily by an illustrator. When Kelly realizes he’s not doing enough, I tried to show that feeling of inadequacy:
A broken steam line blasted water pipes.
Kelly shook his head. Someone could’ve been burned. Sniffing wasn’t enough. He needed to listen, to hear sounds no one else heard.
There’s some physical movement there, but mostly I take you inside Kelly’s head. And that’s another powerful way to achieve more showing. Many writers call it psychic distance. Once I learned about it, my writing changed and became more immediate. The example above doesn’t say “he thought” or “he scolded himself” or “he realized.” Cutting the “head verbs” eliminates that filter between the reader and the character. It’s like the difference between indirect speech (He told me to stop.) and direct speech (STOP!). If you go straight to the words or realization or thought, the reader feels it as the character, and it eliminates the “telling.”
TS: 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?
BA: Sure! I looked back at an early version of “Smelly” Kelly and His Super Senses. Here’s one line that was very “telling”:
“He settled into an apartment and took a job with the subway.”
Because that involved an action (took a job in the subway) that set off the whole story, I needed to show motivation and the emotion behind that decision. It evolved into a scene with “showing” and delightful illustrations:
James set out to find a job, but, as always, his incredible nose proved troublesome.
He felt a rumble below the sidewalk and peered through the grate. The damp air bristled with mystery.
TS: 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?
BA: Generally, I think showing appears in scenes and telling in transitions. Emotion and important action pieces require showing. That’s what keeps your story alive, where you want the reader to connect. Telling can speed up the narrative to get to the good stuff, but too much can bog it down. Showing and telling are intertwined with pacing, characterization, and point of view. It’s truly a complicated dance. When I researched to prepare a presentation on point of view and really examined how it works in a picture book, I found that the “camera” goes in and out—and that in and out is achieved with showing and telling, and also involves “proximity.” Just another reason to read and analyze LOTS of books!
TS: Wow, Beth! You have given so much to think about. Your knowledge and command over the elements are so strong and comes through your writing vividly. Thank you!
Beth Anderson, author of Lizzie Demands a Seat, An Inconvenient Alphabet, and “Smelly” Kelly and His Super Senses, is drawn to stories that open minds, touch hearts, and inspire questions. A former educator who has always marveled at the power of books, she hopes that voices from the past will help children discover their own. Beth has more historical gems on the way!
We hope this blog post finds you all safe and healthy during this very uncertain time. Recently, I had the opportunity and privilege to speak with Jolene Gutiérrez about her two debut books. I first met Jolene in the Children’s Book Academy where we both took Mira Reisberg’s amazing picture book course. For both for us, this class has changed our lives. Jolene’s first release is the adorable picture book entitled Mac and Cheese and the Personal Space Invader, releasing on August 11, 2020, with Clear Fork Publishing. Her second is Bionic Beasts, a middle-grade nonfiction book releasing October 6, 2020, with Lerner/Millbrook Press. What an exciting time for this very hardworking mother and full-time librarian who, by the way, is also remotely teaching at this time.
TS: Welcome Jolene! Thank you for taking the time to share some of your writing strategies. Whether drafting or revising, how do you know when it is necessary to show action, scene and sensory elements?
JG: What a great question! When I’m revising my story, if I can’t visualize a scene or if the story is “sagging” in some way, I look at these elements. Action, scene, and sensory elements might show up in my writing when I’m drafting, but I try to focus on them during my various rounds of revision. With middle-grade fiction where I have the luxury of using more words, I work to make sure scenes are very sensory in order to connect readers to the story—so that students who might struggle to visualize things have some sensory connection that will draw them in. With picture books, though, I think some of the scene and sensory elements can be left to the illustrator.
And action is so important! I’m the school librarian at a school for diverse learners and have a large ADHD population. When I’m writing, I think of the action-packed, information-filled, or funny books that hook my students as readers and try to emulate that style. When I’m revising, I tend to set my manuscript aside a bit and work on other projects. When I come back to my manuscript with fresh eyes, I read chapters aloud to myself and try to ensure that there is a purpose to every character, every setting, and every scene—that they are all working together to move the story forward.
TS: Are there specific strategies, tools, or resources you use to incorporate more descriptive language?
JG: I try to put myself in my character’s shoes even if the story isn’t first-person, I try to involve the senses as much as possible, and I like to use dialogue to put the reader (and myself) in the scene. I also use passive verbs a lot in early drafts and try to catch that in revision and switch to active verbs.
TS: Could you 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?
JG: Sure! Our words are so limited and the story is so dependent on illustrations in picture books, so finding an example was a little challenging, but here’s a scene we can compare:
Early draft of Mac and Cheese and the Personal Space Invader:
During snack time, I sit next to Nina. When I lean close to see what she’s eating, she moves away.
Published version of Mac and Cheese and the Personal Space Invader:
At snack time, I sit next to Nina, squeezing in close, just like Mac and Cheese do. Nina frowns and leans away.
We’re in first person for both of the scenes, but I think the published version is more powerful because language like “squeezing in close” puts the reader in the scene. We’re also reminded that Oliver, our main character, gets close to Nina because squeezing in next to a friend is something classroom guinea pigs Mac and Cheese would do. Also, in the old version, Nina “moves away,” but in the published version, she “frowns and leans away,” which is more descriptive and hints at her emotions.
TS: 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?
JG: I’d say show us as much as possible—put us in that scene so we feel like we’re experiencing the story! But there are some things you just have to tell us or your book will be unnecessarily long. We don’t need to experience every hour of every day with characters, for example, or showing would become tedious. Telling is a great way to quickly impart information to the reader, and sometimes that immediacy is needed to keep the momentum going in a story.
TS: Thank you so much Jolene for sharing your tips and strategies. I love how writers have such a variety of different techniques to convey their stories.
Below is Jolene’s contact information, bio, and links to preorder her terrific new books! Congratulations Jolene!
Bio: Jolene grew up on a farm in northeastern Colorado and now lives in a suburb of Denver, where she’s been a school librarian for 25 years. She spends her days sharing children’s books and her nights writing them. She’s a wife of 21 years and a mama to two teenage humans and three preteen dogs. Jolene is an active member of SCBWI and The Author’s Guild, a We Need Diverse Books mentorship finalist and a Writing with the Stars mentee. She is the author of Mac and Cheese and the Personal Space Invader (Clear Fork, 2020) and Bionic Beasts: Saving Lives with Artificial Flippers, Legs, and Beaks (Lerner, 2020). Learn more at www.jolenegutierrez.com.