Children’s Book Wardrobe Envy

This article on Jezebel detailing the many movie and television outfits that the author of the piece wished that she had hanging in her own closet got me laughing—and thinking about what characters from the world of children’s books have wardrobes I’d personally yearn for. It turns out, depressingly, that there are a good number of picture book characters who dress much better than I do.

Pretty much everything in Olivia’s closet is a thing of beauty but this, her signature look, is still her best. That splashy red! The sailor collar! Those stripey tights! The whole ensemble says, “I am playful, but underestimate me at your peril.” And who wouldn’t want a dress that said all that without you having to say a word?

Like me as a child, Ludwig Bemelman’s Madeline has to wear a uniform at school. Uniforms are meant, of course, to level the playing field–where everyone looks the same and can be treated like equals. Of course, as anyone who’s been forced to wear a uniform knows, there are many ways to make even an ensemble worn by the masses your own. This can be achieved through accessories, or simply the right attitude. Take that yellow hat and coat, a red neckerchief, and a whole lot of sass, and you have Madeline. Sure the tiger at zoo was intimidated. Wouldn’t you be?

While his cousin Peter went for a more classic look (though he was a tad too apt to wreck it when he’d assembled one), Benjamin Bunny had a jauntier style while it lasted. He knew how to rock a pair of clogs…and a tam-o-shanter, too. And in the words of ZZ Top, “Every girl crazy bout a sharp dressed man.” Or, in this case, bunny.

Kevin Henkes’ Lilly was a master of disguise, but also master at turning out a smart look. With her kickin’ red cowgirl boots, purple plastic purse, snazzy dotted dress, tail bow, cape, and hello, a CROWN, she is the undisputed queen of her world. I wish I had this dress and one tenth of her confidence when she wears it.

Does anyone exude hipster cool like Wilma does in the Where’s Waldo books? She’s never given the center stage treatment she deserves, but we all know that Wilma rocks the stripes and cap in a way that Waldo only dreams that he could. She wears practical shoes. She’s rocking the stripes in every wrong way. And like the honey badger, Wilma doesn”t care. Plus, she could single-handedly bring back the mullet. Not that this would be a good thing. I’m just saying Wilma could do it.

The Little Prince may not have figured out how to have a healthy relationship with the flora on his small planet, but he knew how to put an outfit together. From this bow-tied outfit, to his jaunty scarf, to starry shoulder epaulets the narrators draws on him in his final portrait, his outfits are indeed fit for a royalty.

To Celebrate Children’s Book Week, Let Them Eat Cake

Every year, the Children’s Book Council celebrates Children’s Book Week. As someone who spends a lot of time reading, editing, and even attempting to write children’s books, it seems only right to do something to mark the occasion. And what better way than with cake?

Let’s start with a classic, created by Sugar Therapy and originally discovered on Flavorwire, the only thing missing here is some Turkish Delight…though on second thought, perhaps we’re all better off without it.

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Then there are the modern classics—an almost-complete series of them!—found on the fabulous Cake Wrecks and created by Karen’s Specialty Cakes. These are almost guaranteed not to take a cue from Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans. Which means no vomit or booger flavors (thank goodness).

But let’s not forget about the picture books, as no proper celebration would be complete with out them. And I love both this book and this cake—found on Bookriot, and made by Cake Lava—more than I can possibly describe.

Harold and the Purple Crayon Cake

And because I’m a baker of sort as well as a children’s book editor, I’ve got my own children’s book cake to share—one that I made for my kiddo’s recent birthday. She’s more than obsessed with The Boxcar Children books right now and specifically asked for a boxcar cake. No problem, I thought—I can do that!

Turns out making a literary cake masterpiece isn’t as easy as it would seem at first glance. Getting the frosting to be an acceptable shade of red required copious amounts of red food coloring, which in turn got all over my hands, making me look like I’d just had some sort of bloody battle right in my own kitchen.

The black frosting was no walk in the park either.

Piping a thin line of frosting, like playing the game “Operation,” takes a very steady hand. Which apparently I don’t have. But none of this mattered at all, as the birthday girl was thrilled by the results—and positively gloried in her own literary-themed cake. Just like the magic of a kid finding the right book, it was magic to make this very shoddy little cake for the right kid too.

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Besides, it still tasted just fine. Happy Children’s Book Week!

 

Book Spine Poetry

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This is just what I came up with after a quick perusal of our bookshelves. If I’d had time to head to the library, this could have been a true masterpiece.

Too much work? Check. Needing a little procrastination break? Check, again. Wondering what to do to celebrate the looming National Poetry Month? Well, not as much, really (you can’t win them all). But armed with two out of three,  when I saw this post on the School Library Journal website the other day, I knew my path was clear.

I could have gone an actually poetic route here. I could have gone for something more philosophical. Instead, I opted for the silly and borderline gross route. What can I say? Anything that can work Harry Allard and James Marshall’s The Stupids Die into everyday life is a good thing in my book (and if you have not read this book, please run out and do so).

Want to procrastinate and come up with your own book spine poetry to share—or just want to peruse others’ works of genius? Then pop by here!

Happy Birthday, Beatrix Potter!

Today is Beatrix Potter’s birthday, and that means it’s time to break out her books and celebrate—at least in my world! Beatrix Potter has long (and I do mean long) held a special place in my heart.

Strangely enough, this place was not reserved when I was four or five. My love for her came just a hair later, in second or third grade I think, when I read a short biography of her in my reading textbook at school. I was fascinated. I was hooked. But up until then, I only knew The Tale of Peter Rabbit. And I wanted more.

Enter my mother, the person who single-handedly fed my obsession with literature as a child and encouraged my love of reading at every possible turn. She bought me copies of Beatrix’s little gems of books. Single copies, small collections of them—one by one, they made their way into my collection. Then came the tiny porcelain figurines of Peter and Benjamin Bunny, Hunca Munca rocking her babies in a tiny, stolen cradle, and musical Mr. Jeremy Fisher who held his fishing rod in front of an open book and played “Getting to Know You” in perfect music box notes.

I loved her artwork, and loved that such dainty little watercolors could dare to exist side-by-side with such stories of mayhem. My favorite was always The Tale of Two Bad Mice, but right behind that were Peter and Benjamin, Tom Kitten and Jemima Puddleduck, Mrs. Tiggy Winkle and Squirrel Nutkin. To this day, the literary pilgrimage I’d most like to take is to Beatrix Potter’s house in the Lakes District.

Throughout my entire life I’ve had literally obsessions large and small, but Beatrix Potter was my first and my most enduring. Which means that today, I’ll read through her books again, perhaps with a cup of tea in hand, and enjoy all the goodness (and madness) of them.

Happy birthday, Beatrix Potter!

The Tale of Peter Rabbit

Friday Afternoon Musings on Music and Writing

Narrative

The whole song acts as one long story, and a heartbreaking one at that. I can’t decide, however, if if this pre-music video recording of the band is a good or bad thing. On the one hand, no one has mucked a pretty awesome song with a terrible video. On the other, that hair–that hair!

Still love the song.

Expository

Sure, the video tells a compelling narrative story, but the lyrics themselves are part memoir, part history lesson, part description. I love that the lyrics work as expository writing, but with the marriage of words and visuals (pun only partly intended)—just as in a good picture book—something entirely different and more interesting is created.

Persuasive

Okay, so maybe I don’t personally find this one all that persuasive, but the object of Nelly’s affection seems entirely swayed by his suggestion that “it’s getting hot in here, so take off all your clothes.” Indeed, she seems to find it a singularly good idea and immediately complies. And, hey, just because it doesn’t persuade me doesn’t mean it doesn’t work for someone else.

And that’s what I’m thinking about on this steamy Friday afternoon. For indeed, it is getting hot in here, but unlike Nelly’s lass, I’ll keep my clothes on as I work, thank you very much!

In Praise of Writing Groups

At the moment, I am in two distinct writing groups. One is of quite long standing, one that has only just started up. One group gets together at pubs and restaurant where we spend hours talking about life and writing. One connects over email and Skype, allowing us to talk despite the miles between us. Both met this week.

I love writing group. Not only do I love the amazing and talented ladies in both groups, but I also admire and respect their opinions, and am endlessly grateful for their feedback on my writing. I’m also kind of in awe of their writing. Did I mention that they are talented ladies?

Sangria, tapas, catching up on life, books, gossip, you name it…and then there are the critiques.

The thing is, even aside from getting to spend time with some of my favorite people, I inevitably come away with hoards of ideas about how to revise a given piece of writing. Over the past week, for me that’s meant lots of ideas on how to rework two different picture book manuscripts.

All of which leaves me excited about revisions (did I just say that?)—and eager for next month’s meetings!

 

 

 

Book Love (Throwback Edition): The Monster at the End of This Book

Mike Smollin, The Monster at the End of This BookRecently, I reread The Monster at the End of this Book for school (yes, it’s good to be in an MFA program!). Now, it’s not like I hadn’t read this book an untold number of times before, both when I was a kid and to my own kid. It’s a serious good time as a read-aloud, as now two generations of my family can attest.

Here’s what I discovered when looking at it this closely: it’s a brilliant book. Really brilliant. If you’re going to adhere to Leonard Marcus’s words about a picture book being a dialogue between words and pictures, author and child, well this is the ultimate dialogue.

Grover begins this dialogue on the cover of the book, and immediately digs into the emotional problem of the story with, “WHAT DID THAT SAY? On the cover, what did that say? Did that say there would be a Monster at the end of this book???” Why yes, it did say that. And who can resist wanting to know more?

Especially since the book asks kids to become direct participants in the emotional problem and in the resolution. Grover tells the child reader, “Listen, I have an idea. If you do not turn any pages, we will never get to the end of this book.” And you just can’t help it—you have to turn the page.

Turning the pages means you’re participating in the joke. Kids know that Grover will be the monster at the end of the book, even if Grover doesn’t, which turns any potential worry about turning the pages despite Grover’s pleas into humor in a nonthreatening way.

On an even deeper level, the dialogue in this picture book also has to do with expectations. Set up to mirror the houses built by The Three Little Pigs, Grover first ties the pages together with rope (straw), then gets nails and wood to fasten them together, and finally creates a strong brick wall to keep the pages from turning. From their knowledge of The Three Little Pigs, children are led to think that perhaps the brick wall might actually do the trick and stop the book in tracks.

Mike Smollin, The Monster at the End of This Book

When the wall comes tumbling down kids get the added thrill of upended expectations.

In the end, when Grover discovers that “This is the end of the book and the only one here is ME!”, kids get the satisfaction of seeing Grover realize what they knew all long—and the reassurance that fears of monsters are unfounded and often just plain silly.

It’s comfort for a common fear delivered with a giant spoonful of goofy, funny sugar to help it go down.

 

Children’s Books Worthy of a Blizzard Read

A blizzard is coming—as least it is in our neck of the woods. The meteorologists are predicting more snow in the next two days than I’ve seen at one time in my whole life. Groceries have been purchased, schools have been cancelled, and hatches have been battened down.

And what could be better on an extraordinarily snowy day than curling up under a toasty blanket and reading a good book with the little person in your life?

Nothing really.

So here are a few of my snowy day favorites, in all shapes and sizes (and age ranges)!

The Snowy DayEzra Jack Keats, The Snowy Day:  Sure, this one is a no-brainer, but only because it is so enduringly wonderful. As a former city kid, seeing Peter venture out into the cityscape transformed by snow is nearly irresistible. And when he finally finds the kid across to hall in the end to share the snow with, it’s a thing of beauty. Lovely to look at, fun to read.

A Perfect Day

 

Carin Berger, A Perfect Day:  Gorgeous snowy artwork overlays handwritten notes as seeming an entire town’s worth of kids come out to frolic in the snow. At the end of the perfect day, there are warm hugs and even warmer steaming mugs of hot chocolate—and the promise of another perfect day in the snow tomorrow. A new favorite!

Virginia Lee Burton, Katy and the Big Snow

 

Virginia Lee Burton, Katy and the Big Snow:  Just because Geoppolis has had a blizzard’s worth of snow dumped on it doesn’t mean that life stops, and that people don’t still need to get places. Only Katy—tractor turned strong plow—can dig everyone out and get whole town running again. Girl power on the tractor level, and Virginia Lee Burton’s artwork to boot—it’s a winner.

Jennifer Plecas, Emma's Magic Winter

Jean Little and Jennifer Plecas, Emma’s Magic Winter:  Another new favorite, this sweet and gently funny tale of shy Emma finding her voice—with a little help from a new neighbor and their matching “magic” snow boots—has won over hearts in my house. Perfect for young independent readers, with a message about overcoming one’s fears that comes with a spoonful of sugar, and lot of fun in the snow.

 

Ernest ShackletonJennifer Armstrong, Shipwreck at the Bottom of the World:  Looking to share your obsession with Ernest Shackleton with the young person in your life? Wait, you’re not obsessed with Ernest Shackleton? This book will make you a convert. Details abound about this ill-fated trip of Antarctic exploration in which the ship got smashed on ice, the entire crew had to set up shop on the ever-moving ice—and not a single life was lost. Illustrated with some of Frank Hurley’s original photography from the ordeal, this also features some pretty awesome storytelling.

Jo March, Little Women

 

Louise May Alcott, Little Women:  Hey, the blog is named after Jo March. You had to see this one coming. The whole book is pure gold, but the wintery scene in which Jo first becomes friends with the ailing Laurie practically glows. Perfect with a warm beverage and someone who likes to snuggle up as you read aloud to them.

For everyone facing the storm today, bundle up, stay safe, and have fun!

Baking a Pie with a Little Bit of Picture Book Love

Hannah Whitty, A Little Bit of Love
Hannah Whitty’s lovely morsel of a pie, made with love.

A Little Bit of Love—a picture book story I wrote about a mother and daughter mouse duo who gather ingredients around the farm in order to make a pie with a little bit of love in it—was published by Tiger Tales way back in 2011. Turns out, though, that it doesn’t matter how long ago it was published to my daughter, because it’s grown in her affections as she (and the book) have gotten older.

Yesterday—for the very first time—my daughter and I launched a full-scale reenactment with some key differences:

The mama and small mouse go to the beehives, mill, huckleberry bushes, and dairy for their ingredients. We went to the grocery store.

Hannah Whitty, A Little Bit of Love
The mice went around the farm…we went to the supermarket.

Huckleberries don’t grow on every bush, especially in Massachusetts in February. So, we opted for strawberries. And, alas, there are no mills hereabouts to give us freshly ground flour (though we wish that there were), so whole wheat pastry flour it was.

Unlike the perfectly neat loveliness in Hannah Whitty’s illustrations, we made an unholy mess in our kitchen.

But we did still shake cream to make butter.

And we still rolled the dough as thin as a crumb. We even sealed the pie with a kiss.

Hannah Whitty, A Little Bit of Love
Rolling out the dough as thin as a crumb…and making a mess doing it.

 

We were covered in whole wheat pastry flour, smeared with cream and butter, and there were strawberries EVERYWHERE. But I wouldn’t have traded the experience for anything—story came to life for us on that snowy Sunday morning. And if ever a pie tasted like it had been made with love, well, this pie was it.

So if you have a snowy Sunday morning on your hands, and are looking for something sweet to nibble, here’s what we did:

Strawberry Pie (made with A Little Bit of Love)

strawberry pie
We dotted our pie with daisies to accentuate the love.

For the crust (makes two 9-inch crusts):

  •  2 ½ cups whole wheat pastry flour
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • 14 tablespoons of very cold butter (some of which we made ourselves)
  • Several drip, drip, drops of honey

Pop everything into the food processor and whirl it around until a dough form. Chill briefly, and then roll out on a well-floured surface. Press one crust into the bottom of the pie pan.

(Adapted from a Whole Foods recipe you can find here.)

For the strawberry filling:

  • 5 cups of strawberries
  • ½ cup of sugar
  • 3 tablespoons of cornstarch
  • a pinch of salt
  • milk to brush on top of the crust

Preheat the over to 400 F. Wash and hull the strawberries. In a large bowl, add the sugar, salt and corn starch and mix it well, and then get your pie crust and fill ‘er up. Use a small-sized cookie cutter to create the design of your choice for the top crust. We opted for tiny daisies, because that’s just the way we roll. Brush the top crust pieces lightly with milk, and seal it with a kiss (if you dare). Bake at 400 F for 25 minutes, and then at 350 F for another 30 minutes. Let the pie cool completely before you try to cut it. Feast on every last nibble.

(Adapted from the Neelys’s recipe here.)

 

 

 

Picture Book Stories–in 1,000 Words or Less

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Sure, they come in all shapes and sizes–but the norm for today’s picture book texts if 1,000 words or less.

Here is a question that has been plaguing me: why do picture book texts have to be  less than a 1,000 words? It’s not that some stories can’t be told in less than a 1,000 words—many can, and being able to create story and character in so few words is an art unto itself.  But why does the publishing world feel so strongly about this length (and, ideally, even shorter lengths)? Shouldn’t the word count fit the story?

I ask not just as someone trying to write picture books. I ask as an editor who’s part of this publishing world and as a mother of a kiddo who’s just old enough to read on her own, but still wanting me to read longer stories to her—and still wanting stories with pictures. So, longer picture books would be, for us, a boon. Sure, there are early readers. But having read an awful lot of them this year, the stories aren’t as rich and the illustrations aren’t of the same quality that you find in a good picture book.

So, that brings me back to the idea of a longer picture book (or storybooks).

As someone who grew up loving DuBose Heyward and Marjorie Flack’s The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes, and who has a keen appreciation of books like Michelle Knudsen and Kevin Hawkes’s Library Lion, I want more. And I admit, I want to have the freedom to write more…sometimes.

Should the word count fit the story? Or the other way around?