Favorite Children’s Books of 2016

Today I’m posted as part of a blog party hosted by the wonderful Eileen Manes, a picture book writer who blogs at Pickle Corn Jam. Ten of us are writing about one of our favorite books of the year — here’s mine! At the bottom the post, you’ll find links to the other blogs.

One of my favorite books when my children were small was City Animals by Simms Taback. I had always wondered about early childhood’s obsession with farms. Why is it necessary for babies to know that cows moo and pigs oink? Most of them won’t encounter these animals in everyday life. Why is this somewhat anachronistic knowledge is among the very first things we impart?

That’s why I loved Taback’s lift-the-flap book. After three clues, these animals revealed itself. I’m a PIGEON! I’m a SQUIRREL! I’m a MOUSE!  These were the animals that my inner-ring-suburban children were likely to encounter (they encountered the mice with far more delight than I did).

This year’s City Shapes, written by Diana Murray and illustrated by Bryan Collier (Little, Brown. June 2016) does the same reimagining to the classic shape book that Taback did for animals, and it elevates it. Shapes can be well, two-dimensional, but this book is anything but.

The young girl in City Shapes encounters CIRCLES, SQUARES, and TRIANGLES in her own city neighborhood in Murray’s flawless rhyme and Collier’s gorgeous realistic watercolor and collage illustrations. These shapes move and live, and these words are vivid and playful.

I love the specificity and sense of place here,  I’d like to see similar journeys in more diverse, real places with other children.

But in the meantime, there’s even a pigeon!

“the pigeon flies back through the night cityscape/as city lights sparkle, SHAPE after SHAPE./But her heart starts to ache for the SHAPE/she loves best./The SHAPE that is home—/her warm CIRCLE nest….”

And now for the other writers and their picks for favorite children’s books in 2016:

Ready for the rest of our 2016 recommendations? Just follow the links! 

 

 

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Five Things Writing Novels Taught Me About Writing Picture Books

I write for children of all ages. Two years ago, when my first middle-grade novel, Deadwood, was released, I wrote a post called what What Writing Picture Books Taught Me About Middle-Grade Novels.

This month, my first picture book, Mira Forecasts the Future (illustrated by Lissy Marlin), hit the shelves. So now I take a look in opposite direction to assess what writing novels taught me about writing picture books.

5 things novels taught me about writing picture books

1. Nobody’s perfect.

When beginning to write picture books for young children, many writers have a tendency to want to model good behaviors. But good behaviors don’t make good stories.

Writing and reading novels prove that flawed characters are interesting characters. They make mistakes. They grow. They don’t have to be good influences.

Sometimes picture book readers — agents, teachers, parents, even kids — will call out characters for the wrong things they do, feel, or are. But the interesting, imperfect characters get your attention, and it’s the interesting, imperfect characters who have room to grow. That leads me to my next point.

2. Everybody arcs.

In my favorite books, every character wants something. Every character has their own story and growth. Even villains are the heroes of their own stories.

In a novel, there’s plenty of room to infuse each character with their own motivations, narrative, and character arc. This deepens the emotional impact of the plot and characterization, even if minor characters do much of their growing behind the scenes.

There’s not as much room in a picture book, but there also aren’t many characters. If you can make every character vibrate with their own motivations and change in the course of the story, your picture book will pack more resonance into 300 to 800 words.

3. Know your backstory (but don’t tell it all).

One of the biggest temptations when writing a novel — especially a big, juicy fantasy or historical — is to put all the worldbuilding and research on the page — addendums, family trees, glossaries, maps, footnotes with the history of the centuries. Sometimes this works. Sometimes it’s just an info dump.

When writing novels, you make a critical decision about what backstory not to include. Just because you know something doesn’t mean your reader needs to — the hidden history of your world makes the story more real even if you never put it in the foreground. That’s why it’s called backstory — you can’t show perspective and dimension unless there’s something in the background.

Of course, the few hundred words of text in a picture book don’t allow foreground backstory. The lesson from novels is to know the backstory even if you don’t tell it. If you understand your characters outside of those 300 to 800 words, if they live for you as people (or bunnies or sentient shovels), you’ll have a richer story.

4. Trust your reader.

One reason novel writers leave out backstory is that they trust their readers to pick up allusions and make connections. But can you do that when writing for very young children?

Yes. Your child readers may have only few years behind them, but they’ve accomplished hugely impressive cognitive growth before listening to or reading your story. They understand more than you think they do, and they are capable of understanding so much more than that if you give them a chance. So give them a chance.

5. Be in it for the long haul.

Writing a novel takes stamina. Even a short middle grade novel is 30,000 words. Adult novels are 80,000 and more, and don’t even think about the number of words in a multibook series. You have to write a lot of words, many days in a row or over the course of months or years until you reach the end. Then you revise, again and again. It’s a long haul.

A picture book is shorter than 1000 words, the amount many writers strive to draft in a single day. A picture book manuscript often doesn’t take long to write compared to a novel. But it’s still a long haul.

The individual manuscripts may be short, but shorter isn’t easier. Every word counts. You’ll probably rewrite each one. You may start from a blank page sometimes. You’ll workshop. Revise again.

And still, that first book you write probably won’t be published. Probably not the second. Maybe even your 10th manucript still won’t interest an agent. Maybe it will take your 15th or 20th to get published. And then maybe you’ll write 10 more before you get published again.

Picture books may be short, but they’re not a short cut. Every road in the writing business is a long one. Shorter isn’t easier. Younger isn’t lesser.

Writing is hard for every age. When it works, the writer finds the story, and the story finds the reader. And novel or picture book, that’s what makes it worthwhile.

Read the original post on Project Mayhem >>

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Not Only a Children’s Writer

How my daughter’s Mo Willems biography report made me realize I don’t value my own work enough

My second grader was assigned a Great Americans biography project. To help her decide on a subject, we checked out biographies of Elizabeth Blackwell, Mae Jemison, Mary Cassatt, Victoria Woodhull, Sonia Sotomayor, and Maria Tallchief — great American women who made achievements in medicine, science, politics, and the arts.

Despite reading those fascinating stories, the Great American my daughter chose to write about was Mo Willems.

My first thought was that he is “only a children’s writer.” I wanted to tell her to choose someone more important. And that says a lot more about me that about him.

Willems has won six Emmys for his work with Sesame Street. He has three Caldecott honors. He won two Geisel Medals and Geisel honors five times. He has written and illustrated more New York Times bestsellers than I have manuscripts in my trunk.

He is far more accomplished in his career than I even hope to be in mine, so what does that say about how I value my own career as a children’s writer, with one novel published and one picture book to come? It shows that I don’t value my own career enough — I have internalized that I am “only a children’s writer.”

Read the rest of the post at Project Middle Grade Mayhem >>

Mira Gets a Cover

For a picture book writer, seeing the illustrations for the first time is like attending a surprise party for the words you wrote. You are surprised by your own story.

When I saw Lissy Marlin‘s illustrations for MIRA FORECASTS THE FUTURE, I was surprised, amazed, awed, delighted. She had transformed and expanded my story in ways I hadn’t imagined. My simple beach setting had been transported to Boardwalk Empire (the G-rated version).

One aspect that did not surprise me was Mira, the clever, sunny girl who learns to predict the future — or at least one aspect of it — by using science instead of clairvoyance. Lissy drew her exactly as I pictured her. Seeing her on the page as I had seen her in my head was an even better kind of surprise.

Now I can finally share the cover of MIRA FORECASTS THE FUTURE (Sterling Children’s Books, June 14, 2016) and the first glimpse of the Mira and her world.

First the front:Mira Cover

 

 

 

Then the back:

Cover_Mira Forecasts the Future-back back

Now the whole beautiful thing:

Cover_Mira Forecasts the Future-front and back

I can’t wait to surprise you with the middle when it is released on June 14, 2016!

 

Surprise! MIRA is on Goodreads, where I learn many things

I adore Goodreads — I visit every day, both to update my own reading (just exceeded my 2015 Reading Goal yesterday!) and to stalk my author profile. So today I noticed that my book doesn’t have any ratings. My first reaction was to wonder where the reviews went — until I noticed that it’s Mira Tells the Future, my upcoming debut picture book! Surprise!

Then I see that my incredibly talented illustrator Lissy Marlin is listed, so I don’t have to wonder how to announce her involvement. Surprise! (I can’t wait to be able to share the cover and Lissy’s art for Mira, but not yet!)

Then I see a release date — May 3, 2016. Surprise!

And I look the title up on Amazon and you can already pre-order it. Whoa.

Maybe Goodreads can tell the future. Or perhaps a catalog update got loaded. Either way, I predict that May 3 will be a very good day.

So now you can add Mira Tells the Future to your Goodreads to-read list and pre-order it at Amazon. And why not add me as a friend, leave a book review, and judge my bookshelves while you’re there?

Five Things Writing Picture Books Taught Me About Novels

I am a middle-grade writer first, but not only.

I read so many picture books when my children were young that I wanted to write one. Finally an idea hit me, and the story flowed out in a sitting. But that was the beginning — that story required many, many more sittings, drafts, and subsequent stories that improved on my first effort. As simple as a picture book manuscript looks, it’s hard to write one.

Switching gears between middle grade and picture books creates challenges, but it has its lessons. Here’s what I’ve taken into my middle-grade fiction from my efforts to write for younger readers.

5 Things Writing Picture Books Taught Me About Writing Novels

1. Let story guide progress.

When I was beginning to take writing seriously, I believed that a writer ought to write a thousand words a day. But if you’re writing picture books — where the average published book is 500 words — if you write a thousand words, you’re probably doing it wrong.

That’s not to say that high word counts are wrong for all writers, but it’s not how I measure progress now. I try to use scenes as markers — I’m telling a story, not stringing together words by the thousand. Word count is a simple metric to use when it works, but it can lead your story astray if you race after numbers.

2. Every word matters.

When you revise a picture book, you look at every word. Every one is a decision — is it the most precise one? Will it be understood by the reader? Is it colorful enough, fun enough? Can the sentence be said in a more concise way? Can the whole sentence go?

When writing and revising a novel, most of us won’t take that kind of care on every word unless we don’t care if we never have time to write another. But every word still matters. If not, it shouldn’t be
there.

3. Let go of what doesn’t work.

I can’t speak for other picture book writers, but it takes me a lot of ideas to find one that I can execute well enough to put in front of my agent. And then it takes a good number  of manuscripts before my agent finds one she feels is commercial enough to put in front of editors. I’m not sure how many stories it takes to find one editors will buy, but fingers crossed that my time will come.

That winnowing process has taught me to let go of ideas and stories that haven’t found a home, even if I love them. That’s harder to do for a novel, which is a bigger commitment of time and craft.  But sometimes you do have to let go and move on — which can mean leaving a favorite scene on the cutting room floor, shelving a problematic manuscript unfinished, or trunking a book that didn’t find a publisher. Hard, but not every story will find a readership, even with the possibility of self-publishing.

4. Leave room in the text.

For a middle-grade writer writing picture books, one of the biggest adjustments is leaving room for the illustrator. That means not describing what can shown in a picture and not trying to control the illustrator with too many notes.

For a novel, it means not overdescribing what the imagination can fill in. Don’t underestimate your reader. Young children understand more than they are often credited with. So do older readers — write up to them, not down.

5. Let go of control.

Picture book writers do not usually get to choose the illustrator, nor do they have veto power over the illustrations. Sometimes that can yield unexpected results in the wrong way, but in the best collaborations, the illustrator will bring more to the book than the writer ever imagine.

The same is true for novels. Once the story has been published, the writer does not own the story any more. It belongs to the reader. Sometimes readers misunderstand authorial intent. Sometimes they hate the story with burning intensity.  Sometimes they love it. But love it or hate it, once they’ve read it, it’s part of their understanding of the world. That’s the gift the writer gives, and the gift the reader gives back.

 

Read the original post on Project Mayhem >>

 

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That Middle Grade Voice

The long and the short:
Character sketch for a chapter-book-
turned-picture-book-turned-
middle-grade story


By the time I was middle-grade age, I wanted to be a writer, but for grownups. It was only as a grownup that I found my voice writing for middle grade. It’s not a coincidence I moved from writing for adults straight past YA to middle grade. Those were the books that made me love reading, and it turned out that I have a middle-grade voice.

Not-blurry middle-grade voice

So what’s middle-grade voice? It’s elusive — one of those “you know it when you see it” things. You know it whether it’s Lemony Snicket’s wry, formal omniscient or Rachel Renee Russell’s effusive, run-on first person. And while the lines might be blurry, middle-grade voice itself never is. It’s clear and succinct — no words wasted, whether lyrical or comedic, prose or verse.

Once you have that voice, it’s a bit persistent.

The long story of a short story

Once I decided to write middle-grade, I wrote two novels. (The second written  turned out to be Deadwood, which releases June 24 from Spencer Hill, and the first of which has not yet decided what it will turn out to be). Then I had a great idea for younger story — a chapter book featuring second-graders. The draft was 6,000 words, and I loved it. But I was between agents, and my querying efforts yielded exactly zero agent requests — chapter books are not great agent bait. My single request, actually, was from an editor in an early reader/chapter book imprint who found the voice (third person, whimsical) to be charming but the story too thin for 6,000 words.

Read the rest of the story on Project Mayhem >>