Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Best children's books of 2009

It's that time of year. All the review publications and media outlets are publishing their "best of" lists for children's books published in 2009. There are some great books on the lists, too. Books that I recognize as head and shoulders above my own effort. Even so, it's a bit of a pang every time I see a new one and Maggie's Monkeys isn't on it. Ridiculous, I know.

Some of the titles that show up a lot and that warrant attention from parents and book lovers are
If you're interested, here's where you can find some of the lists.
Congratulations to all the authors, illustrators and editors who produced these outstanding books! Thank you for enriching our world.

    Saturday, December 26, 2009

    Categories of Christmas

    I couldn't resist reposting this from Emily Reads because it's just too funny.

    A selection of Library of Congress (LC) subject headings for the holidays

    Shopping malls -- Religious aspects
    Muzak (Trademark) -- Psychological aspects
    Advertising -- Toys
    Advertising -- Confectionery
    Christmas show windows
    Avarice in children
    Temper tantrums in children
    Department store Santas -- Protection
    Christmas on postage stamps
    Camels in art
    Jesus Christ -- Nativity -- Juvenile drama
    Sheep -- Behavior
    Christmas decorations -- Risk assessment
    English holly -- Handling -- Accidents
    Christmas tree ornaments -- Materials -- Brittleness
    Christmas lights -- Defects
    Candles in interior decoration -- Safety aspects
    Christmas trees -- Fires and fire prevention
    Interior decorators -- Wounds and injuries
    Reindeer -- Flight
    Santa Claus -- Career in aviation
    Sleighs -- Handling characteristics
    Near misses (Aeronautics)
    Chimneys -- Design and construction -- Safety aspects
    Chimneys -- Accidents
    Sleep disorders in children -- Risk factors
    Christmas stockings -- Evaluation
    Confectionery -- Materials -- Sampling
    Toys -- Materials -- Impact testing
    Blister packs -- Materials -- Acoustic properties
    Unparliamentary language
    Jealousy in children
    Impulse control disorders in children
    Gift wrapping -- Materials -- War use
    Stress (Psychology) -- Religious aspects
    Behavior disorders in children
    Children in public worship -- Prevention
    Brussels sprouts industry -- Seasonal variations
    Christmas cookery -- Health aspects
    Hanukkah cookery -- Fiction
    Abdominal pain in children -- Risk factors
    Crying in children
    Household animals -- Effects of stress on
    Chocolate -- Effects of high temperatures on
    Norway spruce -- Effects of drought on
    Rug cleaning
    Christmas television programmes -- Psychological aspects
    Hyperactivity in children
    Intergenerational conflict
    Violence in children
    Headache -- Psychosomatic aspects
    Dreidel (Game)
    Child behavior checklist
    Herod I, King of Judea, 73-4 B.C. -- Philosophy
    Alcohol -- Therapeutic use

    Thursday, December 24, 2009

    Happy winter holiday!

    I'm sending out best wishes to everyone, no matter which holidays you celebrate (or, as in my case, suffer through). A little gift, to you from me. This is one of my favorite winter stories, The Tomten, a traditional story adapted by Astrid Lindgren (yes, the Pippi author). It's a quiet little story, so watch the video when you need a few minutes of calm. Winters come and winters go...

    Merry and Happy to all!

    Monday, December 21, 2009

    Head over heels

    The New York Times Book Review brought up what I've been thinking about the picture book Birdie’s Big-Girl Shoes by Sujean Rim. It's the story of a little girl obsessed about high heels. She feels beautiful -- glamorous -- when she wears her mom's stilettos.

    "Will she grow up caring only about looks and equating maturity with the size of her shoe closet, or is this the kind of harmless fun with which only the Politically Correct Police could find fault?"

    Perhaps I'm part of the PC Police, but I wouldn't buy it for little girls I care about. Even though Birdie decides to revert to bare feet in the end, I'm not interested in perpetuating the idea that shoes that can cause bunions, back pain, shortened calf muscles and ankle sprains make women beautiful.

    Wednesday, December 16, 2009

    Invitation to lurkers

    Dear readers:

    Take a peek at the description of Swell Books in the yellow bar above. When I started this blog, I wanted it to be more of a conversation than a monologue. I was hoping for an exchange of ideas and opinions.

    With the exception of a few faithful commenters, most of you who stop by here seem to prefer to remain silent. Maybe that's because you're used to being readers -- with its usual implication that you don't get to talk back to the person doing the writing. But the whole point of social media is that it's two-way! You get to add to or disagree with what the author says. You can suggest topics, like Carri did on the previous post, or just react.

    Now, I've been a lurker lots of times. I've read some discussion boards regularly for years and only rarely left a comment. Because I'm basically a pretty private person. I don't always feel comfortable putting my opinions or ideas in public arenas. So I get it. I get why you may prefer to read without participating. And if you do, I'm still grateful that you're visiting the blog.

    But I'm hoping at least some of you will reconsider whether you have something to add to the discussions here. Can you think of an example of a trend I've noticed? Have you had a similar experience with the publishing industry? Do you have a different take on a book I've mentioned?

    I'm inviting you to join in.

    To make it easier, I've added two features to the blog. One is a poll in the column on the left. This week's question is "What's your favorite Christmas classic?" Click on your answer -- or post another title in the comments.

    You also now have the option to check a reaction to any post. See the boxes just below the post. The options -- they're generated by Blogger, not me -- are funny, interesting or cool. If those don't cover it for you, you can always... you guessed it ... write a comment!

    I look forward to hearing from you!

    NOTE: The poll is now closed. There were only 4 votes, including mine, so there really wasn't a result.

    Saturday, December 12, 2009

    Wandering the library

    I'm at a library waiting while Abbie is in Mandarin class, so I took some time to browse the picture books. Some random reactions:

    Will Hillenbrand's illustrations for Sleep, Big Bear, Sleep! are wonderful. There's something really captivating about a childlike bear. I also love Jez Alborough's bear from Where's My Teddy? I wonder what it is: the hope that all big, scary things have a soft side? the desire of a big person to still be a child?

    (Aside: I was somewhat gratified to see that Hillenbrand, who lives in Cincinnati, doesn't keep his website up to date. Because I like knowing that successful people fall down on the job sometimes too.)

    Another book whose illustrations I liked was The Fantastic Undersea Life of Jacques Cousteau by Dan Yaccarino. Sort of retro in feel, but nice. Lots of information packed in, too.

    The Clever Stick by John Lechner is well done and has a good moral, but I guess what bothers me is the very fact that I think it has a moral. Perhaps a little too straightforward for my tastes. Interesting to compare it to the recent Not a Stick by Antoinette Porter and think about all the other picture books where a stick plays a major role: The Seeing Stick by Jane Yolen, Anansi and the Magic Stick by Eric Kimmel, The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats.

    A title I've seen mentioned a lot, partly because it was released about the same time as Maggie's Monkeys and both end up on lists of books about zoo animals (!), is Always Lots of Heinies at the Zoo by Ayun Halliday and illustrated by Dan Santat. Great title, great premise but I felt a little uneasy when it got into what various animals fattened their heinies on:
    "The panda's can is fattened on bamboo. The lioness's? On zebra and gnu."
    An unsuspecting parent could get drawn into a conversation he or she wasn't ready for with that one. Love the back cover illustration, though. After a discussion of how humans keep their heinies covered at the zoo, it shows the backside of a joyful-looking toddler in birthday suit.

    Wednesday, December 9, 2009

    Preying on my mind

    The immediacy and connectedness of the internet create some interesting dilemmas for writers. I follow a few editors' blogs and Twitter comments, which is great for helping me stay aware of what it's like on their end of the slush pile. They're also good reads -- it's no surprise that editors are good writers and interesting people.

    But it gets weird when I've actually submitted to one of those editors. Yesterday I got a request for a full manuscript from an editor I'd really love to work with, and later in the day saw a tweet from her about making a decision on a manuscript she thinks would sell but hasn't captured her heart.

    How I wanted to mention that tweet to her -- to encourage her to wait for something she falls in love with, whether it's my story or someone else's. But I think that would feel too weird and stalker-ish. I know editors view writers doing research into the market and publishing houses as a good thing, but how does it feel when we research them? They send blog posts and tweets out there into the world at large, so it's not exactly like pawing through their garbage. Is it?

    I suppose it's also possible that this editor could google me and find my blog -- this post, even -- so it could work both ways. Theoretically. Though an editor who tried to check out blogs for every writer who submitted to her would have no time for anything else.

    I think I'll err on the side of caution and not say anything. But I'm sending a message out into the ether: Please, all you wonderful editors who are deciding which books will end up in children's hands, follow your hearts.

    Monday, December 7, 2009

    The manuscript that came to dinner

    If you're interested in writing or selling picture books, check out the terrific post by Michael Stearns of Upstart Crow Literary. His description of what makes a successful picture book is right on target, though his assessment of why so many agents refuse to handle picture books is rather discouraging. Of what makes a picture book work, he says:
    It is about grace and the right words in the right place—much more akin to poetry than mere storytelling. The picture books I love are “language driven”—that is, are more about sound and rhythm and call-and-response than about, say, the devices of regular fiction—those things familiar from novels, such as extended scene and dialogue exchange and long descriptive passages. Picture book writing must be woefully dependent on the illustrations, else the manuscript is trying to do far too much, is the bore at the table who won’t let anyone else speak, won’t let the conversation come to life, and flattens the spirit of the evening.
    I'm going to use that image of a manuscript that tries too hard as "the bore at the table" to keep myself in check when I'm writing. Nobody wants their writing to sound like Monty Woolley.

    Sunday, December 6, 2009

    Leave the children out of this

    From Fox News:

    "Sarah Palin Stars as Heroine in New Children's Book

    The former vice presidential candidate is the subject of new book ' Help! Mom! Radicals Are Ruining My Country!'"

    I try not to pay too much attention to the radical right. But really.

    Wednesday, December 2, 2009

    Sylvester, put down that magic pebble!

    Nice guest post by author Bonny Becker (A Birthday for Bear, The Christmas Crocodile) at Maw Books on whether we've gone too far in sanitizing children's stories. This is a topic I've wrestled with often (as you may remember from this and that), as have most of the children's authors I know.

    Bonny cites one of my top all-time favorite children's books in her discussion, which is Sylvester and the Magic Pebble by William Steig. Could a story in which the child character disappears early on, leaving his parents grieving for much of the book, succeed today?

    One of the keys to many favorite stories is that the child is alone. Children love to explore ideas about what they could do if the limits of home and parents weren't there -- what kid could read From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler and not imagine living in the closest museum? But the reality that today's children are almost never outside the watchful eyes of some adult closes down a lot of story possibilities.

    Maybe that's why fantasy books have so much appeal right now. In those other worlds, children can be free. Which is easier for adults to take, with the children having magic powers and cloaks of invisibility and all.

    Monday, November 30, 2009

    Twilight zone

    With the buzz about New Moon stirring up Twilight fever again, I finally gave in and read Twilight this weekend. As a diligent would-be young adult author, I should have read it a couple of years ago. But Abbie (then 13) read it and gave me her opinion, which was enough for me. Because she's had enough trouble with friends who love the series, I won't share her take on it beyond saying that she found both Bella's character and the romance much too thin. I knew feminists weren't thrilled with it, either. (See Laura Miller's comments in Salon.)

    So I didn't expect to like the book when I opened it. But I didn't expect to be truly troubled by it, either.

    Yet I was. I've nothing against romantic fantasy, even for teenagers, but is this really what women want? To be helpless victims of their own passion? To have superficial relationships based on nothing more than beauty (on Bella's side) or smelling good (on Edward's)? Men who are basically made of marble?

    I want better fantasies -- and better realities -- for our daughters. Ones where they can be loved for who they really are, where they have the power to choose and shape relationships that are mutual, deep and fulfilling. Ones where they aren't always thinking they aren't good enough for their lover.

    As for the writing itself, the first book at least is generally competent, though on the purple end of prose. Of the commentaries I've read, Horn Book's review of the New Moon movie comes closest to describing the problems of the novel as I saw them — "the redefinition of conflict as prolonged miscommunication, the romanticization of obsession over affection, the passing off of incident as plot," says Claire E. Gross.Yep, that about covers it.

    I'm a longtime feminist, and something about the juxtaposition of Twilight and the Sarah Palin frenzy over the past couple of weeks leaves me feeling sad about the role models young women are exposed to.

    Anybody care to nominate female characters from current YA literature that are better examples of strong women in romantic relationships? I'm hoping there are some good counterpoints to Bella out there.

    Tuesday, November 24, 2009

    Fun with children's books

    Or what they're really doing in publishers' offices. The world's longest domino rally with children's books (possibly), from HarperCollins.

    And then over at Random House...

    Too much fun.

    Monday, November 23, 2009

    Unfinished stories

    With Thanksgiving just a few days away, I'm reminded that I have an unfinished attempt at a Thanksgiving story tucked away in my files. It was one of those ideas that never quite came together. I wanted to capture that steamed-up-windows feeling of an extended family crammed into one house, and the pang when someone is missing. I chose to focus on the moment when the missing person calls -- and everyone passes the phone from hand to hand, each person talking from his or her own special relationship with the out-of-town family member. For lots of families, I think, it's a nice interlude in the day.

    I thought it might be fun to share the start (rough as it is). For anyone who's interested in the process of writing, it might give insight into efforts that don't work out. This is overwritten and unfocused, and of course has the the little problem of no ending. But it has a germ of an idea behind it. At least, I think it does. What does anyone else think?

    Happy Thanksgiving to all!

    Pass Me to Grandma

    Thanksgiving Day was nearly perfect. Warm, buttery smells floated on the air. Cousins chased each other around the big table. Pies lined the countertops and folding chairs lined the walls.

    Almost everything and everybody was in place — everybody except the one person Hannah most wanted to be there. Uncle Phil couldn’t make it home from the city.

    Uncle Phil had always been Hannah’s favorite. He took her shopping at yard sales and they bought something purple at every one. He gave her a camera with a special lens that made things look bigger and they used it to take pictures of people’s noses. He taught her chess and didn’t let her win, but the first time she captured his queen, he let her keep the queen for always.

    But last summer, Uncle Phil moved away. And now Thanksgiving didn’t feel right.

    Hannah moved slowly while she set the table, trying to be happy like everyone else seemed to be. Then, just as she finished the last napkin, the phone rang. Aunt Jeanie dried her hands on her apron and answered it. “It’s Phil!” she announced.

    Hannah ran over to Aunt Jeanie and waited, shifting from one foot to the other, while she told Phil about all the food that was cooking and who was there. When it sounded like Aunt Jeanie was nearly finished, she reached up to take the phone. But Aunt Jeanie didn’t see. “Let me hand you to ...”

    Great Aunt Rita shouted into the phone like Uncle Phil was in the basement instead of on the phone. “So what are you doing up there in New York all by yourself on Thanksgiving, honey?”

    Hannah stood by the chair listening with her hands over her ears. Great Aunt Rita was so loud that Socks always hid when she came to visit, but Hannah liked the way her big laugh filled every corner of the house like the smell of bacon frying. “You won’t forget us plain folks at home once you get famous, will you?” Rita teased, and laughed, and listened, and laughed. “Let me hand you to ...”

    Grandpa had been smiling all day, but his whole face lit up when he took the phone from Rita. “How are you, son?” Hannah plopped on the rug to wait. Grandpa didn’t like to talk on phones, but he’d stay on the line all day for Phil. Hannah wondered if Uncle Phil would remember to ask for her.

    “Everybody’s here,” Grandpa was saying. “We’re just about to start the checkers tournament. I may win this year without you here to beat me.” Grandpa and Uncle Phil have the same smooth, deep voice, Hannah noticed. She closed her eyes. After what felt like a long, long time, she heard Grandpa say, “Let me pass you along to ...”

    Martin handled the phone like he held new babies, sure they would break. “Phil?” he asked hesitantly. “Is that you?”

    Hannah eased up next to Martin and leaned in close to the phone. She could hear Uncle Phil, far away, telling Martin he’d like New York. Restaurants, theater, museums. Uncle Phil promised Martin he’d show him around if he came for a visit, but from the way Martin ducked his head when he said, “Maybe I’ll take you up on that,” Hannah didn’t think he would.

    She reached out to take the phone, but wasn’t fast enough. Martin handed it to ...

    [Feel free to write your own ending. Post it as a comment if you like! Consider it wiki-storytelling!]

    Wednesday, November 18, 2009

    Evidence that I don't have a clue what's likely to get published

    If anyone had asked me, I would have said this title would never work as a kids' book. What kid even knows what a bunion is? And the story is in rhyme? No way. I'd have guessed that no editor would touch it.

    I would have been wrong. An editor liked it, reviewers liked it -- and I'm sure kids like it. Author Marsha Hayles has served up what Kirkus called a "bouncy rib-tickler."

    Bunion Burt had feet that hurt.
    They pinched and poked and pained him.
    The folks all knew
    ‘Bout Burt’s feet too-
    His bunions helped nickname him.

    I guess that's why it's a good thing there are lots of editors and publishers and book buyers. Because one person's take on things (mine, anyway) can be completely off base.

    Thursday, November 12, 2009

    Why writing books for boys makes me nervous

    This book was number 2 on the New York Times Bestsellers list for picture books this week. I might not have noticed, except that I was around my nephew over the weekend.

    Justin is 7 and we spent a good bit of time paging through the Jedi starfighters and battle droids while he told me about Geonosians and General Grievous. I didn't follow all of it, but he was very enthusiastic so it didn't matter whether I got every detail.

    I've been close to a lot of little boys in my life, but haven't spent much time with boys lately. (Justin lives two states away.) So I don't know if I can write authentically about boys' lives. Here I was, completely oblivious to the Lego Star Wars phenomenon and this book is the number 2 bestseller.

    I certainly write about boys. The narrator in Maggie's Monkeys is a boy. I also write books I hope boys will like. There are plenty of universal themes that relate to boys and girls no matter what times they live in. But could I make a boy a protagonist in anything longer than a picture book and hope to get it right? I don't know. Maybe I'd have to make it historical fiction (as in the 60s).

    I want to think I could write a convincing boy. I'm even enticed by the idea of trying. Not only because it would be a creative challenge, but also because there aren't enough books aimed at boys, especially middle grade and young adult books.

    Meanwhile, if you're looking for reading material for a boy, Guys Lit Wire was created to help connect boys and books, and does a great job reviewing titles that our sons and brothers might like.

    Sunday, November 8, 2009

    Escape from Disneyland

    I just picked up the edition of The Jungle Book illustrated by Robert Ingpen for my sister's family. It came out a couple of years ago, but I'd never seen it. The illustrations are simply incredible. Realistic and detailed yet richly evocative, they convey the dignity of Kipling's characters that Disney so unforgivably robbed them of.

    I'm sorry that so many kids (myself included) first encounter the clownish cartoon figures Disney created. They're amusing enough, but lack the depth and complexity -- and, yes, the brutality -- of the real story. I regret even more all the children who never read The Jungle Book because they believe they know the story from the movie.

    Anyone who wants to introduce children to this classic would do well to choose this version. Ingpen (great interview with him here) has illustrated a number of other classics, which I intend to seek out after seeing his beautiful renditions of Mowgli and friends.

    Wednesday, November 4, 2009

    Springing eternal

    I did it again.

    I don't submit to publishers as often as I used to, but I do have three or four manuscripts I still believe in enough to keep sending out. For the most part, I try to send them and forget about them. You can drive yourself bonkers if you don't.

    But I decided a couple of days ago that I should check my file to see what's out. With so many publishers taking the "no news is bad news" approach where they no longer send rejections, I have to remind myself whether enough time has passed that I should assume the publisher isn't interested. (It's an interesting "reject thyself" sort of exercise.)

    As I reviewed my submissions record, I noticed that one manuscript was at a house that still sends rejection letters. This particular editor usually responds very quickly, but this time it had been six months with no word.

    And -- for one ridiculous minute -- I thought what almost every writer has thought at some point. "Maybe it's in the acquisitions process. Maybe that's why it's taking so long to hear."

    Why do we do this to ourselves? We're so hungry for feedback and eager for good news that we try to read between the lines in rejection letters or extract meaning even from an editor's silence. "The editor said she's very sorry not to have better news. The last time she just said sorry, so she must have liked this one better." Or "She drew a smiley face on the letter this time, so..." Or "My friend got rejected in two months and it took me seven, so..."

    I know better. I know rejection letters and how fast they arrive aren't codes we're supposed to decipher. I know that a faster rejection may mean nothing more than an intern was helping wade through the slush. I know that a nice rejection letter may mean nothing more than an intern was writing the rejection letters. If I didn't know all that from my own experience, Editorial Anonymous' Eight Rules of Rejection would make it clear enough, specifically rule #6:
    6. Most rejection letters mean nothing. Nothing. (Except that you can cross that publisher/agent off the list.) You need to internalize this fact however you can. Chant it in the bathtub. Write it backwards on your forehead. Listen to a tapeloop of it while you sleep. No matter what the editor/agent says, no matter what words they use, rejection letters mean nothing.
     Even so, every now and then, I do it to myself again. I don't know whether that makes me pathetic or optimistic.

    Monday, November 2, 2009

    Reader of the free world

    No matter what your feelings about Barack Obama, I think we can all agree he knows how to read a picture book to children. I love how he engages the kids in this clip, especially when they all practice staring into the wild things' yellow eyes without blinking.

    Picture books should be shared like that, don't you think? With the adult and child interacting about the content, sharing their reactions, asking and answering questions -- pretending!

    I know a lot of busy parents don't spend much time reading to their children these days. I hope they'll make more time for reading picture books like this when they see how much fun it is!

    Saturday, October 31, 2009

    Scary Mary

    It's all a matter of perspective, isn't it?

    Mary Poppins is the first memory I have of going to the movie version of a book I'd read. I was disappointed that some of my favorite details were missing. As I recall (it's been a long time), it has something to do with the talking parrot on her umbrella.

    I've since learned to appreciate the different strengths of book and movie versions of the same story. But, a true reader, I almost always prefer the book.

    (I found this link on A Fuse #8 Production.)

    Wednesday, October 28, 2009

    Great Halloween costumes, part 2

    For those of you who have been breathlessly waiting since yesterday's post, here's the second installment of Abbie's Halloween history.

    As she got older, Abbie did more of the work of creating the costumes, so her ideas needed to be things we could pull off together. They were less structural, more closely following the human form. (I haven't watched all that Project Runway for nothing.)

    During the period of her interest in Greek mythology, we transformed Abbie into Medusa.

    Not an entirely unique idea, but well executed. It's the details that make the difference. Snakes everywhere, from her belt to her ring to tattoos on her face. The snakes in her hair were imposing.

    And Abbie made a stone face for the bag. Even for those who didn't know their Medusa lore, it was a scary touch.

    The next year Abbie went abstract. Can you tell what she is?

    We had fun making people guess. She's the seasons. From head to toe, winter, spring, summer and fall.

    The last year we spent a lot of time on a costume was also the first year she went trick or treating without me. She went as the Mona Lisa. I suggested buying a Mona Lisa poster, but she wanted to paint her own background and create the frame. Which she wore with straps, like a backpack.

    Already having long dark hair helped with this one.

    The following year Abbie was away camping before Halloween and got invited to a party without much notice. She didn't have time to execute her idea, but it was the ultimate challenge in translating the abstract into a costume. She went as hope. Long filmy dress, accented with touches that represent hope to her -- such as an egg. I liked that.

    Abbie will probably go out with friends this year, and will probably pull together a costume at the last minute from things around the house. It's more about her friends than about the costume now, and that's okay. It's as it should be. We had our time of creating great costumes, and it was fun while it lasted.

    Tuesday, October 27, 2009

    Great Halloween costumes, part 1

    Technically, this blog is about children's literature. So Abbie's Halloween costumes over the years aren't really relevant. But kids and imagination are, and it's the last week of October, and...

    What the heck. I don't have to justify what I choose to post about. If I want to depart from the topic at hand, I can. (Hey, I think I've just discovered the true attraction of blogging for professional writers: No editors. Of course, that's the scariest part too.)


    The story of Abbie and her incredible Halloween costume ideas, part I.

    Throughout Abbie's trick-or-treating life, I made her costumes. I have a little sewing ability and a ready glue gun, so it was fun.

    Early on -- before Abbie could express her own ideas about things -- I dressed her as the usual suspects, like ghosts and black cats. Then we went through a period where she picked and she was still sort of ordinary: Tigger, a fairy princess, a mermaid. I do a pretty mean mermaid's tail, if I do say so myself.

    But pretty soon Abbie decided she didn't like dressing up as anything other kids might be. Even though her costumes up until then had been handmade and unique, they weren't special enough.

    So at age 6 she decided she wanted to be a purse for Halloween. A purse -- an ordinary black woman's purse. I protested, not sure how to pull it off and imagining something rather ugly. But she was definite about it. She wanted to be a purse.

    This is what we ended up with.

    Adorable, right? It had oversized keys, comb and money, plus Abbie made a cell phone for the back pocket. People could actually put candy in the front pocket. It was a HUGE hit. Our neighbors still talk about the year Abbie was a purse.

    After that, Abbie was determined to have a costume with a high wow! factor. She'd come up with an idea and together we'd figure out how to execute it. There were some pretty iffy moments, but mostly we had a great time working to bring her imagination to life.

    There was the peacock, whose tail had to be able to fan. (My personal favorite. The tail trailed behind until she lifted her arms to make it fan out.)

    And the volcano, which doesn't show up too well. But her hair was the lava, sprayed red and with a glow stick to make it fiery. There are little trees and moss and rocks along the mountainside.

    We only had one failure along the way, which was the year she wanted to be the sun. I'm not sure why that one foiled us, but she looked more like a flower.

    She kept up the fun ideas until she got too old for trick-or-treating. Stay tuned for more great Halloween costumes, in which we try to turn Abbie into abstract ideas!

    Monday, October 26, 2009

    For your reading pleasure

    I like meeting other children's book authors. It not only allows me to learn more about the business and craft of publishing, but it introduces me to new books.

    When I met Heather Henson at Books by the Banks earlier this month, I was already familiar with her lovely picture book That Book Woman, which has won the Great Lakes Book Award, the Christopher Award, Parenting magazine best book selection and other accolades. It's illustrated by the incredible David Small and tells the story of the pack horse librarians who brought books to readers in the Appalachians in the 1930s and Cal, who "does not want to sit stoney-still reading some chicken scratch."

    I'd also heard of, but hadn't read, Heather's new middle grade novel, Here's How I See It--Here's How It Is. I brought home a copy and finished it in just a few days. It's a very well-told story about a girl growing up in a family that runs a summer stock theater in the middle of nowhere, just as Heather herself did. Junebug dreams of being a leading lady someday, but for now she's having a hard time getting noticed -- even in her own family.

    The book's strength is its portrayal of the range of emotions that Junebug experiences as she deals with her parents' separation, an older sister who actually gets to be on stage, a new intern who seems to be understudying her role as chief gofer and eventually an illness that threatens someone very dear to her.

    I also love the sense of place in these books, especially since they feel like places I've known.

    So if you're looking for gifts, or for something to read....

    Saturday, October 24, 2009

    Adventures of the politically correct

    I'm enjoying the brouhaha over the BBC changing the words to Humpty Dumpty.

    "Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall.

    Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.

    All the king's horses and all the king's men

    Made Humpty Dumpty happy again"

    Apparently in a change on another show, Little Miss Muffet made friends with the spider.

    Lots of jokes are floating around, of course. Peter Sagal of Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me provided new wording for other nursery rhymes, including "London Bridge is structurally sound."

    There's nothing for me to add, really.

    Wednesday, October 21, 2009

    Pippi's little sisters

    Fran Hawk, an author who writes about children's books for the Charleston Post and Courier, recently took note of a trend toward picture books with what she called "girls who are feisty, full of spirit, independent and strong-willed."

    Her column cited several examples of these feisty girl characters, including the girls in Harriet's Had Enough! by Elissa Haden Guest, Beatrice Doesn't Want To by Laura Numeroff, and Martha Doesn't Say Sorry by Samantha Berger.

    Hawk puts my own Maggie in this category, saying that she's one example of the kind of girl characters editors are looking for. She notes, "Sugar is off the table. Spice reigns supreme."

    I'm glad Maggie comes across as spirited and independent, but I was also kind of surprised. She isn't nearly as outspoken as Harriet, Beatrice and Martha. She knows her own mind, but doesn't really make a lot of noise about it.

    It's great that all kinds of girls show up in books for children. I can't help but notice, though, that in all three of the other examples cited here, the girls aren't human. What's more, another feisty girl who popped to my mind was Olivia -- another nonhuman girl character.

    Perhaps it's just coincidence that these outsized girl characters are portrayed as animals. I hope so, anyway. I can think of a few other recent heroines who are both feisty and human: Fancy Nancy, Imogene of Imogene's Last Stand, Tess of Tess's Tree, Zoe Fleefenbacher. So I hope we've reached the point where we can allow real little girls to be spunky. Brash, even.

    Because we've come a long way, baby. (If you're old enough to remember that awful advertising slogan, you know just how hard it was to get here.) Bring on the frogs and snails and puppy dog tails!

    Monday, October 19, 2009

    The moments I've been waiting for

    Those of you who know me -- which includes all but about four of my readers, I think -- will probably understand what a huge thing it is for me to be able to say this, but I had a great time promoting Maggie's Monkeys this month! The introvert in me took a back seat for once and allowed me to enjoy interacting with children, parents and other authors at two fall events.

    I worked an awfully long time to get here, so please bear with me while I revel a bit. (This is my blog, after all. Right?)

    First, the District A street festival on a beautiful sunny day let me meet readers like this one, who took her mom's instructions to read the book and decide whether to buy it seriously. She wore my pink monkey hat to do it:

    And it was even better that she decided it would be a good book for a young friend. For part of the day there was a steady stream of kids stopping by.

    I had the chance to try out my "find the invisible monkey" activity, which was a big success. I love that most kids just accepted my explanation that the monkeys showed up when they colored the boxes because they had a good imagination. (Never mind my special color-changing markers.)

    I even got into the spirit:

    Then a week later there was Books by the Banks, where I got to meet fellow children's book creators like Scotti Cohn, Heather Henson and Christina Wald. They were all friendly and generous and -- much to my surprise -- didn't question my right to be among their ranks. At the reception, I even got to wear a badge that said, "Linda Sanders-Wells, author."

    It was a rush to be part of a big crowd of people who love books. (Sorry about the photo quality.)

    The best parts of all were when a mom who had read the book started describing the plot to her friend and got choked up when she tried to describe how Jack ends up coming to his sister's defense and when a girl who was given the choice of all the books in the room to take home chose Maggie's Monkeys.

    I am thrilled to have the chance to do this. And humbled. Today I am one happy writer.

    Sunday, October 18, 2009

    Max and Declan

    Nice post on Where the Wild Things Are by Tracy at Tiny Mantras, including this comment:
    I simply loved this movie because of what it moved me to remember and the rich moments on new emotional terrain that it has given me to explore with my kid.

    Saturday, October 17, 2009

    Write on

    After piles of submissions that are based on photos of children in Halloween costumes acting out the parts or stories in rhyme about talking household objects, editors can be forgiven for getting cynical from time to time. But if those same editors could have seen the last meeting of my writing group, I think their faith in writers would have been restored.

    This month, as usual, we spent two hours or so talking about the craft and business of writing for children. One writer is painstakingly rewriting a novel that she's made major revisions on at least twice already, doggedly working to get it as good as it can be. One has been carefully rechecking references in a biography that's nearly ready for the printer, tracking down page numbers for a footnote. One was updating a market study for a publisher who responded to a query.

    We talked about Where the Wild Things Are (the movie) and the fact that Maurice Sendak refused to change the final line to "And it was still warm" to accommodate the publisher's concern about the food being described as "hot," part of another discussion about to what degree we should try to protect children in our fictional worlds. We talked about differences in what can be published here versus abroad, based on one member's recent experience at an international conference. We talked about the current state of bookselling based on another's experience at a trade conference.

    We also took home manuscript to critique and discussed feedback to other works in progress.

    In other words, we worked. This group of writers, some published and some not, does this every month and has been doing so for years. I've been on the fringes lately as I've been busy coping with other life issues, so I brought more of an outsider's eye to the process than usual. Sitting with them this week and seeing their professionalism and seriousness reminded me that for every poorly done celebrity title or derivative copycat book there are dozens of writers laboring away, trying to create genuine art.

    It's terrifically hard work to write for children, and I'm so proud to know authors who are giving it their best.

    Thursday, October 15, 2009

    Conflict of interest

    Nobody needs my opinion of the wildly popular and bestselling The Hunger Games and its sequel Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins. Not with reviews everywhere from Time magazine and Entertainment Weekly to the New York Times and Booklist raving about both.

    But I just finished Catching Fire yesterday, and I'm still trying to sort out how I feel about these two books. In both cases, I read them against my better judgment. I started because I wanted to see why Hunger Games was getting so much praise. It's part of what I do to stay on top of the young adult market. But these aren't my kind of books. I really don't enjoy violence, and they're about innocent teenagers being forced to fight to the death. There's a lot of pain and blood, and the horrors are very realistically drawn without being overly graphic. I was practically reading with one eye shut.

    After finishing Hunger Games and passing it on to Abbie, I could have stopped. Surely one book was sufficient for my market research and craft study. But I chose to read Catching Fire , too. And I read the whole thing in about three days. It's that compelling. I found it hard to put the book down -- hard to even catch my breath. So they're good books, clearly. Strong characters, a theme I love (the exploited rising up in rebellion) and pacing that never falters.

    But I'm conflicted. Do I like these books, or do I hate them? I have a few complaints about them -- not being a fan of cliffhanger endings, for one thing -- but those are small. Do I recommend you read them? I really can't say. You'll have to trust the NYT Book Review.

    I'm going to have to make up my mind about how I feel at some point, though. Because the third book comes out next year.

    Sunday, October 11, 2009

    Being Lois Lowry

    I wouldn't mind being Lois Lowry. The Giver and Gathering Blue, perhaps two of the most effective cautionary tales out there, are among my favorite books, but she also has the range to give us Anastasia Krupnik and the Gooney Bird Books. And the stamina to have written something like 40 books for kids.

    After all her accomplishments, including winning the Newbery medal twice, Lowry has just published her first picture book. Like we picture book writers need the competition!


    Lowry has ventured into picture books to tell her own story. Crow Call is about a day she spent with her father shortly after he came home from World War II. It captures the awkwardness of a child who barely knows her own parent and the special ways he reaches out to her -- a story that reviewers have noted will resonate with many children today.

    The illustrations, by Bagram Ibatoulline, are especially nice. Realistic yet evocative.

    Crow Call is a picture book in the old style -- what some people call a storybook. I don't know the word count, but it's clearly well beyond the 600 words or so that most publishers are looking for today. In fact, it could work as a short story without pictures.

    It also takes on a touchy subject, hunting. Even though shooting the crows is portrayed as necessary to protect crops, it's not something most authors could successfully work into a picture book.

    In other words, it's the kind of book that only someone with the talent, stature (and guaranteed sales) of Lowry can get away with.

    I don't usually think of myself as a curmudgeon, but this blog is starting to make me realize I must be. I haven't quite started using phrases like "back in the day," but I keep finding myself writing about how I regret the current state of publishing and literature. In this case, how I wish stories like this one could get published even if they weren't written by Lois Lowry.

    I'm going to work on that. There's no reason -- and certainly no benefit -- to comparing today's reading and publishing environment to that of the past. Plenty of excellent picture books are getting published today. Like Waiting for Winter by Sebastian Meschenmoser. Brand new, and a delight. And Meschenmoser isn't exactly a household name.

    So no more malcontent musings for me.

    At least, not this week.

    Thursday, October 8, 2009

    Slushing to judgment

    There's got to be a better way to handle slush. Doesn't there?

    I understand that the reason publishers either refuse to accept unsolicited submissions or take months to respond to them is that a lot of people who have no business sending out manuscripts send out manuscripts. I know editors are overwhelmed. Perhaps there's more garbage in children's publishing than anywhere because non-writers tend to think those cute little books with all the pictures are easy to write.

    I understand the seriousness of the problem. But I also know that the current system really stinks for writers who spend a lot of time learning the craft, studying publishers and struggling to submit work that's worthy of an editor's time. We get lost in the crowd and have to wait years for a manuscript to make it through even two or three publishers.

    Agents aren't a very good choice for many children's writers, especially those who write picture books, as most agents don't want to take us on as clients.

    It seems like there should be a solution that lets submissions from serious writers who know what they're doing bypass the mountains of slush or the bans on it. There are an awful lot of smart people in publishing, so come on! Let's figure this out.

    Maybe editorial assistants who make the first pass through submissions could rate or sort them, then send the authors and illustrators whose work meets their standards for professionalism a sticker or code to put on the next envelope so their submissions could get fast-tracked. (Yes, that would be subjective. Isn't everything in publishing subjective?)


    I don't know. Can't someone come up with a system that still leaves the doors open to everyone yet corrects this "festival seating" approach that creates mayhem and serves no one well?

    Fellow writers, do you have any ideas?

    Monday, October 5, 2009

    Mary on the Prairie

    In the most recent episode of the radio show This American Life, the subject was books that changed people's lives. One segment was called Little Sod Houses for You and Me and featured a New York woman who traveled to DeSmet, SD, on the trail of Laura Ingalls Wilder.

    It brought back happy memories of the time our family spent with Ma and Pa and the girls. Abbie discovered the books when she was about four and called all nine of them "Mary on the Prairie." (She favored Mary over Laura. Probably because Mary got in trouble less often.) We read them for our nightly bedtime story for a few months, learning about the details of frontier life as we went along -- how to dig wells or build a door with a leather latch.

    I found them a bit tiresome, to tell the truth. Especially The Long Winter, which seemed to pass almost as slowly as the actual winter in question. There wasn't enough of a story arc for me, and the basic plot was the same in every book. But we had such fun reading them together. We came to care for the people -- Mr. Edwards was a favorite -- and Abbie had special parts she wanted read over and over.

    Howard and I thought there should be a book of Ma Ingalls' homilies, since she was always offering plain homespun advice. I just searched for Ma quotes and found an inactive blog called What Would Ma Ingalls Do? It offered this quote:
    If wisdom’s ways you wisely seek,
    Five things observe with care.
    To whom you speak,
    Of whom you speak,
    And how, and when, and where.

    ~Caroline Ingalls
    Nov 1881

    Editorial Anonymous wrote about the Little House books and other classics recently, too, in response to a reader who noted that they have no plot. Basically, she said writers today shouldn't expect to get away with having no plot.

    For my own sake, I'm okay with that. I like plot. I don't especially want to read plotless books and certainly don't intend to write them. At least, not on purpose.

    But if Abbie and this woman Meghan from New York and thousands of other kids are entranced by the Little House books, isn't that an indication that rules like that are too limiting? That more kinds of books should be getting published?

    I'm just saying...

    Thursday, October 1, 2009

    The mysterious Mr. Sanders

    Can you guess why this is one of my favorite children's book illustrations?

    I wondered about Pooh's sign when I was a kid, and was disappointed that Mr. Sanders never appeared in the story. But it was fine, because Mr. Sanders was clearly an adult and adults had no business in the Hundred Acre Wood.

    Apparently, Ann Thwaite says in her biography of A.A. Milne that Mr. Sanders was named Frank, a printer and friend of Milne.

    Whatever. All I know is that Pooh and I are clearly distantly related.

    Although last night Abbie teased that I was more like Eeyore when I was doing a "resigned to failure" kind of riff. She's probably right. Eeyore is definitely my favorite Pooh character. Howard's too. What does that say about us?

    Wednesday, September 30, 2009

    A storybook life

    Wouldn't you just know that Jan Brett lives in a house like this? And raises chickens (I can't bring myself to use the article's phrase of "ornamental poultry").

    She met her husband, a bassist for the Boston symphony, while taking flying lessons. He caught sight of her flying upside down in an open cockpit. And she runs marathons and travels and describes herself as "very cluttery."

    No wonder she creates such wonderful books. A fully lived life is bound to engender lots of stories. I love the illustrations in The Mitten, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary -- all the wonderful details to discover, more every time you read the book. Brett says she works at the pace of an inch an hour!

    It's a good thing she works so hard to do what she does. Otherwise, I might feel just a tad jealous.

    Tuesday, September 29, 2009

    Phrases: The reveal

    Since I've had one request -- no, wait, I mean dozens of requests -- for the sources of favorite children's books phrases I wrote about in Going through a phrase, I thought I'd share them.
    And the not so tongue-trippingly paraphrased Linda can quote, how about you? is from Mr. Brown Can Moo! Can You?

    It's no coincidence that some of the best children's authors ever show up in this list. Judith Viorst, Sandra Boynton, Maurice Sendak, Dr. Seuss, Eric Carle... those are writers who know how to put words together!

    Thanks to Tracy for her favorites:
    And Sally for these:Anybody else want to join in?

    Wednesday, September 23, 2009

    Pass the crayons, please

    I'm writing this on a computer. I do almost all of my writing on a computer and have for 30 years (I was a cub reporter when newspapers first went electronic). So I'm pretty good at composing on a computer. It almost feels like second nature to me.


    When I'm writing fiction, I often use pencil and paper. Sometimes that's because I'm in the car waiting to pick up my daughter at school or because I just need a break from the screen. But most of the time it's because fiction comes more easily when I write by hand. It puts me in a different frame of mind, one that's less analytical and linear. The writing is more organic somehow.

    I don't write all my fiction by hand -- and I certainly end up on the computer very quickly after getting down those first scribbles. The revision process would be impossible any other way.

    But there's something about taking pencil in hand. Especially when I've hit a rough spot, it can help me find my way.

    I think it's because that's how I learned to write. When I was a kid who didn't have a head full of rules and expectations and just wrote, I used a pencil to do it. Before the nasty nitpicky* editor came to live on my shoulder and whisper all her distracting little criticisms in my ear, I wrote what I wanted to write. From head and heart to hand, no detours and no roadblocks.

    That must be why the physical act of scrawling words onto paper -- feeling the scratchiness of the pencil moving, the crumbs of eraser bits under my hand -- connects me with something authentic.

    I wonder if it works that way for any other writers. I wonder if it will work that way for children who have always had computers.

    I don't know. But I'm glad -- grateful -- it works for me.

    *The spell checker for Blogger didn't like this word, so I had to stop and look it up to make sure it was correct. No kidding. The editor wouldn't shut up until I did.