Zen & Pen: Are You Ready to Be a Student—Again?

This week I came across a video by one of my favorite authors, naturalist Sy Montgomery, who’s often described as a cross between Emily Dickinson and Indiana Jones—what’s not to love about that! As a resident bird-nerd, her Birdology is one of my favorite books.


She mentioned a quote frequently attributed to the Buddha, though some think it has theosophist origins. Either way, it’s instructive: “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.”

I’ve been thinking about this lately—the different ways that we are students, and the various forms in which our teachers appear. For me, last month, they were fiction and nonfiction picture books. I participated in writer-educator Carrie Charley Brown’s March challenge, Read for Research Month, otherwise fondly known as ReFoReMo, where we studied mentor texts of our own choosing, and where Emu’s own Penny Parker Klostermann was a contributor.

At first, I thought I’d only participate sporadically—I want to do this, but do I really have the time? I’ve been feeling overwhelmed by things like promotion (for another post!), trying to write new manuscripts and just the every day stuff that needs to get done. But once I started, I was hooked. Since I primarily write picture books, I already read a lot of them. But this was taking the time to look more closely,


to get under the skin of the story, seeing the bones, the story’s structure, the way its muscles, rhythm, refrains, and repetition are bound together. Finding a story’s heart, and something somewhat more elusive: its soul.










It has been enlightening, and liberating. Not because I’ve never done this before, but because I was ready to be a student, to see these stories as teachers, and uncover what my works in progress were really about. I usually read a picture book and I love it, or like it. I may find it kind of meh (or maybe, I even hate it—I’ll keep those to myself). So I tend to have an almost visceral, emotional reaction—I laugh, chortle, cry, gasp—and now I would take this one step further, dissecting the HOW of this reaction.

I have several works in progress that were all rather meh. One near to my heart was a fiction picture book about two rat sisters, pets of two human sisters, modeled on our own pet rats, Nera (who died on Christmas day 😦 ), and Lucia.


But I was stuck in reality for the first draft—it was a rescue story, of a rat trapped behind the refrigerator (which really happened to Nera); I ventured away from that in the second and third drafts, but still, the story wasn’t really feeling like it was going anywhere. Then, I decided that it was time to step away from my words entirely, and let some other books teach me about possibility. And what a world of difference it has made! I’ve changed everything about the story—it has moved from fiction, to nonfiction. The voice, which had been somewhat lyrical in tone, is now humorous and ironic—at least I hope it is! I found the heart of the story I wanted to tell.



And most of all—I had fun doing it! It’s not there yet, but it feels like I’m heading in the right direction.

While writing this post I was also reminded of grad school, when I studied under the late poet-activist, June Jordan, whose teaching strategy was to have us write what she called “imitations.” We would slip on the skins of other poets, and try out their voices. Imagine writing an “imitation” of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl or Emily Dickinson’s I Heard a Fly Buzz? Challenging indeed!

We can slip into the skins of picture books by writing or typing out the text. The act of doing this helps us to feel its rhythms, the pulse of the story in our fingers. To absorb it even more fully (and better yet, read it aloud while doing so). I’m not an illustrator, but one could do the same with images, “imitate” or mimic an artist’s style, feel the line, smell the color, hear the scratchboard. Sometimes though, our stories need to steep a bit longer, like a good cup of tea.


Reading mentor texts, gaining perspective,  enabled me to let go of the words themselves, black and white on the page. Sometimes that’s the hardest thing to do, even though we know, deep down, that it’s essential. There is so much to learn, even if we’ve been writing a long time, by opening ourselves and our hearts to being a student.


The ReFoRe challenge let me play, and experiment, and be, and that is the way of finding our true stories.

So, who are your teachers: literal, literary, or perhaps figuratively speaking?

Where, when, and in what form will they appear?


Here’s to being ready!


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Maria writes fiction and nonfiction picture books while dog Becca snores at her feet. This is what they do when they’re not writing (or snoring).  Her debut picture book, Penny & Jelly: The School Show, illustrated by Thyra Heder will be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in July 2015, with a second Penny & Jelly book to follow in Spring 2016. Maria has both fiction and  nonfiction picture books forthcoming from Roaring Brook Press,  Aladdin Books and Boyds Mills Press. She is represented by Ammi-Joan Paquette of Erin Murphy Literary. To learn more, please visit her website: mariagianferrari.com, or visit Maria at Facebook.

Photos of Maria & Becca by Monogram Arts Photo.


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26 responses to “Zen & Pen: Are You Ready to Be a Student—Again?

  1. Beautiful essay, Maria – and so true!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. mariagianferrari

    Thanks, Carole 🙂


  3. So much truth here, and as hard as it can be, it’s necessary work. When I need to feel inspired and schooled, I go back to Madeleine L’Engle or Guy Gavriel Kay. Their work feels so effortless (though I’m experienced enough now to know it is not) and is so full of wisdom and humanity. That’s what writing is all about for me — not that I get there on most days. *sigh*

    Liked by 1 person

  4. tamaraellissmith

    Maria! Do you know how it often happens that the right thing comes at just the right moment? This post! Yes! I am smack in the middle of my own picture book revision and have been struggling to find its heart. And I, too, most often have a visceral reaction to a story but can’t quite articulate the WHY. Sometimes the heart of a story just comes through. But sometimes, a lot of times for me, the heart might be there but the structure of the story is hiding it. You have been a teacher for me here. Thank you. ❤

    Liked by 1 person

    • mariagianferrari

      Thank you, Tam, for your kind, sweet words 🙂 You seem to be always ready for those right moments!! I’m thinking of your last eloquent and touching post, on the gift of getting both your son and a book deal. May we all be always open & ready 🙂


  5. Lois

    Thank you, Maria, for a beautiful and inspiring read!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. mariagianferrari

    Thanks, Lois!! I can’t wait to read your inspiring words in Paper Wishes next January!! 🙂


  7. You not only opened your mind to being a student, but opened your heart to sharing your story! I love this, Maria, and I am thrilled that ReFoReMo was an eye-opening experience for you. Thank you for the shout out, and thank you for being an important part of the experience. We are family!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. mariagianferrari

    Thank YOU, Carrie 🙂


  9. Cathy Ballou Mealey

    ReFoReMo was a super opportunity to focus on craft and study what works well for the stories we want to tell. My “teachers” are the little ones, whose requests and reactions to stories can always surprise and delight us. While gathering ReFoReMo books at the library, a little man marched up to the desk and asked for books on “shoulders.” The librarian looked blank, and I was desperately trying to think of books on human bodies. In the silence he clarified, “You know, army guys.” 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  10. mariagianferrari

    So cute, Cathy! 🙂


  11. So true! Thanks for sharing your post! My teachers are my “old” teachers…the real people from my past who motivate me–Mom, HS/JH English teachers; the people in my present–family and writerly friends; and my literary “idols”.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Carrie’s month of digging into picture books was wonderful. Loved your post today – finding the heart of the story is a must for sure.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. rubineleanor

    Thanks, Maria, I often go back to “Kitten’s First Full Moon” to be reminded how few words are needed, how much black and white images can convey, and how important the rhythm of image and text moving across the pages can be to the power of a picture book. I need to absorb these lessons again and again and this “teacher” is always there when I’m ready for her. Loved your post: thanks again.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. mariagianferrari

    Thank you, Elly! I should definitely re-visit Kitten. It’s such a simple, elegant book that uses white space so well. Thanks for the reminder 🙂


  15. Wasn’t ReFoReMo great? I felt like I gained a lot. It was interesting to see the book choices and the reasons for those choices. I have a feeling the month’s post will serve as a reference for me as I work on future stories. I really need to go back through and make notes for my files. I only made a couple in reference to my current WIPs.
    Glad it was such a great month for you, Maria. Thanks for sharing your experience in this post 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  16. mariagianferrari

    It was! I took a ton of notes, but they’re all handwritten. Typing them up may be a future project when I have more time 🙂


  17. “We can slip into the skins of picture books by writing or typing out the text. The act of doing this helps us to feel its rhythms, the pulse of the story in our fingers.” This is such a cool idea, and so beautifully said. I’ve written a lot of fan fiction, and I agree that there is a lot of power in imitating great voices and structures.

    Liked by 1 person

  18. mariagianferrari

    Thanks, Megan 🙂 I have never written fan fiction, but I LOVED Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl–such a great book!


  19. Pingback: Guest Post by Maria Gianferrari, Author of Penny & Jelly The School Show | Miss Marple's Musings

  20. Pingback: Picture Books About Animals and Friendship

  21. Pingback: Meet PENNY & JELLY, and Maria Gianferrari too! | bildebok from Cathy Ballou Mealey

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