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?