Month: April 2014

Z is for zoophyte

According to my New American Webster Handy College Dictionary, where I went looking for inspiration on this final day of the A to Z Blogging Challenge (!), a zoophyte is “an animal that looks like a plant, as a coral.”

I thought that was fascinating, so I went looking for more details.

According to Wikipedia, though applicable to real animals, the term is obsolete in modern science, and was once applied to legendary animals, as well. The Vegetable Lamb of Tartary was given as one such example.

The Vegetable lamb of Tartary is a legendary zoophyte of Central Asia, once believed to grow sheep as its fruit. The sheep were connected to the plant by an umbilical cord and grazed the land around the plant. When all accessible foliage was gone, both the plant and sheep died.

The plant is real (a fern going by many names, such as borometz), but it doesn’t actually produce sheep. Instead, a short length of the fern’s rhizome (root mass) resembles a lamb.

What an interesting legend. And what great picture book fodder! Turns out I’m not the only one who thought so.

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Granted, Friedrich Justin Bertuch’s Picture Book for Children (the source of the above illustration) doesn’t strictly follow our modern picture book’s format, but it just goes to show that you never know where a potential story idea might sprout and go, “Baaaah!”

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Y is for Yeti

Yes, I like monsters. And I love children’s stories involving monsters. Since previous posts have featured obscure creatures (Jackalope, Jabberwocks, and Krampi, oh my!), here’s a familiar monster: The Yeti, also known as the Abominable Snowman!

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Bonus points if you know the image source.

As this is a catch up post, I am keeping it silly and short. In the spirit of fluff this was, hands down, the most awesome thing I found on the subject:

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It’s a Ye-tie! Get it?

This catch up post is brought to you by another day of post-work delirium. I hope you have enjoyed it.

X is for (E)xperimentation

Yes, I’m cheating a little. I didn’t really feel like writing about x-rays or xylophones.

I think that experimentation is key to crafting compelling and marketable stories around unique ideas. And even though the author may be dealing with a fictitious world, there is much that can be borrowed from the scientific method and applied to the creative writing process.

  1. Ask a question

Authors must ask many questions concerning the characters and worlds they are attempting to create. While those answers are subject to revision, they must serve and strengthen the story. The answers that the author chooses must also hold up to public scrutiny.

  1. Do background research

This is absolutely beneficial if the story calls for it. Maybe your protagonist is a farmer. Is the author already uniquely qualified to write (authentically) about farmers? Maybe he grew up on a farm, or his farmer grandparents have regaled him with tales of crops and livestock since he was an infant. If not, research will help to fill the knowledge gap and lend credibility to the created voice.

  1. Construct a hypothesis

I think this is an important step when deciding on a story for that early idea. It’s part of the question and answer process. Let’s say I’m going to write that story about a farmer, and I’d like to incorporate a magical cow. The first question I’d ask myself is how did my farmer get his magical cow? My initial answer (which I’ll call my “hypothesis” until I’m certain that the explanation fits perfectly into the finished story) could be that one day, as my farmer was wandering through a strange barren field, he stumbled upon a lone cow. Spooky!

  1. Test your hypothesis by doing an experiment

The “experiment” is writing the story. The story results from the initial idea, and the chosen answers for a series of questions sparked by that idea. Those answers are arranged in an order that makes sense. As answers are decided on for initial questions (how’d my farmer discover his magical cow?), more questions emerge (when did my farmer realize his cow was different?), Where certain answers aren’t fitting well, changes and fine tuning is required.

  1. Analyze your data and draw a conclusion

Your data is your rough draft. Your analysis is the personal and peer review process. Your conclusion will be one of two: It works! Or It doesn’t work, yet! When it doesn’t work, it’s time to adjust the experiment!

  1. Communicate your results

Once you’ve finally reached the ‘It works!’ conclusion, submit it!

W is for Where the Wild Things Are

Ask people to name their favorite picture books, and, invariably, Where the Wild Things Are tops the list. As recently as a 2012 reader survey, it was voted the number one picture book by SLJ. And in case you didn’t know, I’m a pretty big fan (cough, profile picture, cough).

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In honor of one of my great inspirations, here is a list of lesser known facts about the picture book we all know so well.

  • Published in 1963, author and illustrator Maurice Sendak started working on the book years earlier in 1955.
  • Originally titled Wild Horses, Sendak came up with the idea to change the title to Wild Things following dissatisfaction with his early horse sketches.
  • The term is said to have been inspired by the Yiddish expression “vilde chaya,” meaning “wild animals,” in reference to rambunctious children.
  • In developing the look for the creatures that populate the land of the Wild Things, Sendak referred to caricatures he had drawn in his youth of visiting relatives.
  • These relatives, who young Sendak considered repugnant for their cheek-pinching, bloodshot eyes, and yellow teeth, were poor Jewish immigrants from Poland. Relatives who stayed in Europe were killed in the Holocaust.
  • The book met with a harsh reception upon publication. It was panned by early critics for its “scary” and “subversive” subject matter, and it was banned from many libraries. It was also deemed controversial for its “supernatural elements.”
  • But its undeniable popularity among children, who clamored for it in libraries it hadn’t been censored, helped convince critics to reconsider their positions.
  • One earlier review in a Cleveland newspaper noted, “Boys and girls may have to shield their parents from this book. Parents are very easily scared.”
  • By 1964, the book had won the Caldecott Medal as the previous year’s most distinguished American picture book for children.
  • One reason often cited for the book’s enduring popularity is its examination of a child’s confrontation with anger. Sendak noted, “From their earliest years, children live on familiar terms with disrupting emotions…They continually cope with frustration as best they can. And it is through fantasy that children achieve catharsis. It is the best means they have for taming Wild Things.”
  • Here’s an excerpt from an interview with Stephen Colbert in 2012 (4 months before Sendak’s death).

Colbert: You’ve expressed frustration in the media…that all they ever want to talk about is Where the Wild Things Are.

Sendak: True.

Colbert: Let’s talk about Where the Wild Things Are.

Sorry, Mr. Sendak. We just can’t get enough.

Sources: Wikipedia, pen.org, SLJ Top 100, The Colbert Report

V is for Verse

Are you one of the bold few brave enough to challenge the conventional wisdom echoed by agents and editors, alike? Don’t write picture books in verse.

Maybe you’ve read your fair share of Dr Seuss and concluded that this isn’t so hard. Have you ever sat down and tried? Trust the experts on this. It’s harder than the pretty, polished end product would have you believe. And there are way more rules governing verse than you may even know exist.

If poetry is not your strong suit, the publishing industry very plainly asks that you kindly don’t submit manuscripts that show your ignorance.

But maybe, despite the warnings, verse beckons.

If you are new to the rules of rhyme, I recommend visiting Angie Karcher’s excellent Rhyming Picture Book Month (RhyPiBoMo) page.

Angie has celebrated April by providing a poetry crash course via daily blog posts featuring invaluable lessons, terminology, exercises, and an array of talented guest bloggers who have already succeeded in doing what they aren’t supposed to do: Submitting and publishing rhyming picture books.

It’s too late to register as an official RhyPiBoMo participant, but it’s not too late to check out all of Angie’s great work. Be sure to start from the beginning!

U is for Underwear?

I went to a Barns & Noble picture book section last Sunday for research (oh, who am I kidding? For fun!) where I saw London and I saw France… Meaning, I picked up on a peculiar trend.

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While hunting for a copy of Creepy Carrots to show my boyfriend, I lost count of the number of covers that donned the unmentionables. What gives?

For starters, we have Todd Doodler to thank for the prominent Bear in Underwear series, which, in addition to being silly, appears to be a tool for encouragement and positive associations for children who are transitioning to their big kid pants.

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But the underwear didn’t stop at bear. Oh no. For there were even more unnecessarily dressed creatures gracing the cover of Animals in Underwear ABC, by Todd Parr. Why are all the Todds of the kid lit world conspiring to write about underwear?!

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Breaking with my Todd conspiracy theory are author Laura Gehl and illustrator Tom Lichtenheld (of Goodnight, Goodnight, Construction Site fame). But judging by this cover, I’d say that this underwear trend is getting a little crazy.

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Also popular were the more predictable staples such as pirates and dinosaurs.

As well as books depicting each plus underpants.

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Oh, come on! Now you’ve just gone too far.

What trends have you noticed in children’s literature lately?

T is for Time Management

If you’re like me, being a published writer is something you are actively trying to achieve. You may also be struggling to meet your various writer needs (to learn, absorb, grow, explore, experiment, network) in light of other demands (hello full time corporate job, social life, pets, chores, errands, Game of Thrones, etc).

So I went looking for tips on how writers can maximize what precious little free time we do have.

According to a Writer’s Digest article by Victoria Lynn Schmidt, you may have a bigger free time balance than you previously realized. The trick is identifying those moments and seizing them. I, for one, make it a point to use my lunch break for writing. Call it antisocial, but this usually means leaving the office so I don’t get pulled into conversations with colleagues. I also try to do a little writing in the evening, however Schmidt recommends setting your writing appointment in the AM, before the day’s distractions are running full-steam.

For those of you who sometimes enjoy a dose of adult humor with your rather forceful encouragement, visit this “pep talk” from Daniel Dalton in Writers on Writing. If blue language isn’t your thing, I’ll clean up one of Dalton’s excellent suggestions: Establish a specific writing goal (ex: type 100-500 words every day), prioritize that goal, and then resist the urge to go beyond that goal. Why? If you stop writing when you still have more to say, you’ll invest in tomorrow’s momentum.

What are some of your personal tips and tricks for staying on track and prioritizing your writing time?

S is for SCBWI’s Summer Conference

I’m having another lazy A to Z blogging day, so allow me to make a quick plug for SCBWI’s 43rd Annual Summer Conference in Los Angeles. Registration for the event started April 21st, and the early bird price is available until June 15. The conference will take place August 1-3, including a optional day of intensives on August 4. This will be my first year attending and I am very excited.

R is for Repeat Readings

In his meditations about being an adult re-reader, editor Verlyn Klinkenborg had this to say about child readers in his 2009 New York Times article:

The love of repetition seems to be ingrained in children. And it is certainly ingrained in the way children learn to read — witness the joyous and maddening love of hearing that same bedtime book read aloud all over again, word for word, inflection for inflection. Childhood is an oasis of repetitive acts, so much so that there is something shocking about the first time a young reader reads a book only once and moves on to the next. There’s a hunger in that act but also a kind of forsaking, a glimpse of adulthood to come.

What makes children want to read certain picture books over and over and over again?

According to Trevor Cairney, Ajunct Professor of Eduction at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, there are many reasons, including:

  • They desire a repeat of the pleasure that they’ve just had.

  • With repetition the task of reading becomes simpler and faster due to the familiarity of characters, plot and language.

  • The reader/listener can see new things when freed from the restraints of the new or the novel.

  • Re-reading offers the opportunity to reflect on and savour the language, the richness of the characters and the events that these characters have experienced.

  • Repetition creates ‘more space’ to engage at the personal level and become ‘lost’ in rich intertextual experiences as they relate the events of the book with those in their own lives, and other books, films and television that they have experienced.

So what makes certain picture books more re-readable than others?

From what Cairney describes, it’s a book that causes pleasure and continues unpacking itself when return visits reveal new tidbits that were missed during the first, second, or third readings.

Along with rich language, the illustrations reinforce the allure. As a young reader, I could spend hours poring over the meticulous and hilarious details that went into the illustrations for Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs by Judi Barrett.

I recently had a similar response flipping through a copy of Shark vs Train by Chris Barton and Tom Lichtenheld. Visual gags add another dimension making picture books satisfying and second-glance worthy.

What are the picture books that kept you coming back for more, either as a child or as an adult reader to children?

 

Q is for Character Quirks

Quirks, when done well and used in moderation, can help to make characters more interesting and memorable. For example, who doesn’t remember Elmer Fudd’s peculiar manner of speech, where Rs and Ls turn into Ws? Shakespeare never had a better Romeo.

“What wight thwough yonduh window bweaks!”

And did you know that Google lets you change its search engine language to “Elmer Fudd”?! How’s that for a legacy?

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What are some of your favorite fictitious character quirks?