Tag Archives: Craft

AN OCTOPUS IS BORN

The Benefits of Being an OctopusWe Emus are fluffing our feathers in proud excitement to announce that Ann Braden’s MG novel The Benefits of Being An Octopus will celebrate its book birthday tomorrow, September 4th.  If only we had tentacles to wave in joy as well!

Read on to learn more about the book’s amazing author and her axe-shaped necklace, about how teachers can’t wait to use it to help students expand their empathy, and how librarians can advise patrons on its appeal factors. We’ll also have a whole ‘nother post about the benefits of being an actual octopus!

 

An Interview with Ann Braden

by Anna Redding

Anna: This book is written in first person. To do that, you really have to know your character.  Zoey’s voice comes through crystal clear, illuminating her world

and way of thinking right out of the gate. It’s so well done, I have to ask, was that something yVersion 3ou focused on crafting or did Zoey’s voice come to you with this kind of clarity?

Ann: Zoey’s voice came to me like that. It’s hard to describe, but in my heart I was Zoey when I was writing the book, so I just wrote down what I knew she would say or think.  For me, it wasn’t about craft, it was just about listening.

Anna: When we first step into this incredible story, we step into a Zoey’s fascination with Octopuses (which we learn from her, doesn’t have to pronounced octopi, thank you very much). What is so brilliant, is that you suck us right into her irresistible curiosity, her enthusiasm, her lovable personality. The connection between reader and Zoey is immediate and as deep as when you bump into a new true best friend. Which is important, because this makes it possible for us to really go “there.” And, in this case,you are illuminating a story that often goes untold in America. Tell me about your decisions in crafting this aspect of the book.

Ann: When I was in the very early stages of conceptualizing the book, I read The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery, and I was utterly captivated. I loved that octopuses were so much like us –they form relationships,have different personalities, and are super intelligent – yet they had evolved in such a different way. I think there are parallels of that amongst people, too: we all have different experiences growing up (some vastly different), but at the end we’re all trying to do the best we can. And the more I explored the connection between octopuses and Zoey, the more she became just as obsessed with octopuses as I was. 

Anna: At the same time, this story will be familiar to many readers who see themselves and their families in these pages… and yet their lives and experiences are often not on the subject of books. Have you heard from readers or teachers about what an important story this if for readers to be truly ‘seen’?

Ann – Yes. For kids growing up outside of the white, middle class culture, books that also take place in that culture can be an extra reminder that they don’t belong. (And of course, on the flip side of this, kids who are growing up in that culture can too easily ignore the range of other experiences if that’s all they see.) When I was teacher myself, I taught in several different schools, and I knew that there were kids like Zoey in every single one of them. My gut told me this had to be true on a broader scale, and the feedback I’ve been getting from teachers has confirmed that. And too often those kids have become so good at making themselves invisible that they fall through the cracks. But when we have books that discuss the issues that are central to their lives (but are rarely talked about in school) we are creating an opportunity for those students to see themselves as valued and to potentially connect in a way they hadn’t before. And EVERY SINGLE STUDENT deserves to feel valued and connected. 

Anna: I loved what School Library Journal had to say about THE BENEFITS OF BEING AN OCTOPUS in their starred review: “Heartbreaking, beautifully written…Braden’s story raises many thought-provoking and timely questions about the difficulty of escaping poverty and the prevalence of fun violence.” That is such a powerful summary of a powerful book. What do you hope readers will take away from the pages of your book?

Ann: I hope that they come away recognizing their own strength (even if it’s not something that can be seen by others)and realize that how much money someone has has nothing to do with how hard they are working. And that no matter how powerless you feel, you always have the power of your voice.yelling emu

Anna: This is a ‘must-read’ for schools and classes. How can teachers tie this into curriculum and for students, who are inspired to take action in their own communities, what ideas do you suggest or resources can you point them to?

Ann: I’m really excited about the conversations this book has already started. And since the book brings up topics that aren’t often discussed, it can be good to have supports in place. Here is an Educator’s Guide that I put together in partnership with Equity Solutions, a non-profit focused on leading powerful conversations about economic class with people from all kinds of class backgrounds. Besides discussion questions, it includes extension activities, such as analyzing a budget of someone who only gets paid minimum wage and working to find the common ground of a controversial topic in the community. I also created a Flipgrid where educators can reflect on key questions in the books and discuss. Plus, the introductory video on the Flipgrid highlights a few key ways to make sure that discussions of the book are empowering for kids. 

Anna – Lastly, sometimes in life, in the most difficult of circumstances, you can see a lifeline emerge from the fog. For Zoey, it’s joining the debate club. What would you say toreaders about paying attention to those unexpected lifelines?

Ann – We never know where a choice will lead us, and it’s amazing what can happen when we say “Yes” to things. Even a small step forward can shift the ground beneath us in the best of ways. Still, sometimes if your head is down and you’reworking as hard as you can, no matter how many steps forward you try to take it seems like nothing will ever change. That’s when we need to be able to rely on allies who are ready to listen and those who are ready to team up and work to change the  underlying systems that make it so hard for some to make end meet. We all have to look for the opportunity to be lifelines for each other. Because when you’re in that fog, it’s often not possible to do it on your own. We have to remember that we’re all in this together.

Anna – Okay, one more question. For all readers (of all ages), there is a message about taking hold of your own potential, which is why this book is hopeful. What would you say to us about this idea of claiming your own power as your hope?

 Ann – Our own power is the tool that is ALWAYS with us, whether we can see it or not, and it’s up to us whether we wield it. When I was about two years into leading a movement in support of common ground gun laws in Vermont, something that I had never thought I would do and something that taught me I was far stronger than I had thought, I was catching my breath in the midst of months of 60-hour weeks. And in that quiet moment I was reminded that way back in middle school I had also discovered that I was stronger than I thought because that was when I first got into chopping wood. In that moment, I splurged on a small axe charm and I hung it around my neck because I knew there were many more steps I needed to take to help get gun laws passed, and I wanted to make sure I always remembered my own strength – and most importantly, remembered to wield it.Silver-Axe-Accessory

 I kept that necklace around my neck in am-packed statehouse committee rooms and when I was the target of online bullying. And those people who were trying to intimidate me into silence weren’t able to. Because at the end of the day, my eyes were focused on the kind of civil discourse I believed the issue deserved and I had faith in myself that I could help make that happen. That’s why I had hope, and, ultimately, landmark legislation was able to get passed. Zoey’s situation is similar. She had hope because she had memories of what her mom used to be like, and she found a way to keep her eyes focused on what she loved. And when that hope was combined with her courage to use her voice, it shifted the ground beneath her. Maybe all kids get that same chance to find their voice and use it.

 


The Realities Students Face: A Discussion with Teachers

by Kat Shepherd

Ann Braden’s long-awaited debut, The Benefits of Being an Octopus, is a powerful read that is sure to be a staple for schools and libraries for years to come. It received a starred review from School Library Journal, and it’s gone into a second printing before it’s even been released. Following the story of seventh-grader Zoey, it is a deftly-told tale that is both heartbreaking and hopeful. Octopus highlights struggles faced by students living in poverty, and takes an honest and compassionate look at how those struggles play out both inside and outside the classroom. Zoey’s teacher, Ms. Rochambeau, plays an important role in Zoey’s life, so I decided to invite some educators to share their thoughts on this beautifully-written novel.Octopus123

Q: When I read Zoey’s story I so wanted her to have that fairytale ending where everything works out perfectly, but the ending of this book, while hopeful, isn’t that perfect fairytale. Why is it important for kids to have books that don’t always have the perfect happy endings we want for characters?

Erin Varley: There are so many books out there that already have the fairy tale endings, so it’s just as important to have a lot of books that don’t have that ending. Life isn’t fairy tale perfect and kids figure that out really fast. In fact, for kids like Zoey, they figure it out too fast. For a kid to see that life, while not perfect, can still offer hope, well that’s just as important. Kids know when they are being lied to, and sometimes fairy tales can seem like that. They don’t buy the lies. Books like Octopus offer an alternate path that still is positive, but also realistic.

Kristin Crouch: I love the ending and agree that it not being perfectly wrapped up is a strength of the novel. In my school, I have so many fifth graders in transition. I’ve taught children in shelters, children who’ve moved several times through a year, children who move in with friends (resulting in 14 people in one two bedroom apartment), children in houses that have been condemned, children living in hotels until a new apartment is found (and those are just housing transitions!). Ending the book with Zoe in transition shows my students that transition is not, in and of itself, an ending… It proves what the teacher tries to convey to Zoe~ that she is not the product of her circumstance. She can, and will, make more of her experiences, but that doing so is not a quick, easy fix. It will take years of working hard to overcome her challenges.

Jennifer Druffel: I loved that it was not a fairytale ending! Kids need realistic books that mirror their own lives and see characters that can be strong despite their circumstances. Also, for kids who have never experienced such hardships, it helps them put themselves in someone else’s shoes and be less judgmental about their peers’ circumstances.

Cassie Thomas: Real life is not perfect, in any way. It’s so important for kids to be able to relate to stories, and if every student just reads books where everything turns out good in the end then in their life they may feel defeated and unsure. Every year I read Each Kindness by Jacqueline Woodson out loud to kids and the ending is not happy, it’s not perfect, but it’s real, and it leaves my students with jaws dropped and questions. Then they realize that in life they don’t get happy endings for every single thing. It’s a great message to have discussions over.

Q: Many adults have concerns that books dealing with issues like poverty and domestic violence are “too adult” for children to be exposed to. As a teacher, how do you respond to those concerns?

EV: Well, first I like to make sure each parent is heard. To be honest, I defer to the parent. If a parent tells me they don’t want a certain title being read by their child, I respect their wishes. However, I don’t remove the book from my library. Just because the book isn’t right for one certain child, doesn’t mean the same thing for every child. There might be another child in that same class that finds that book to be a lifeline, as I know Octopus might be.

KC: While I’m on the bandwagon that yes, these topics and concepts are too tough for kids, the fact is the kids who are exposed to it must know they are not alone. They are not invisible, they should not be hiding, and they will get through it.

JD: I would never force a student to read such a book. And if a parent is concerned, I’d ask them to read it first before they let their child read it so they can be the judge for their own child, but NOT for other people’s children!

CT: I teach 5th grade, and this comment irks me in a lot of ways. These students are SO mature and they truly know so much already. If they don’t, they are so eager to learn. When discussing social justice last year I had some outside people say this exact same thing, and my response was Do you know what your child is watching on TV? On their iPad? What the lyrics in their music actually say/mean?  Because they do, they totally know. They are smart and they want to be treated like an adult, especially at this age. I make sure I choose my words wisely, but we do have discussions. The reality is that some kids in class ARE experiencing that life, who are we to act that it doesn’t happen when it is reality for some.

(Name Withheld): When I read Octopus I immediately said… “THIS is what my kids deal with.” Honestly… this book is exactly what some of my kids go through on a daily basis. The trailer park, watching their younger siblings, new boyfriends/girlfriends all the time. Not that this makes any of the parents bad people or bad parents, and I know that everyone is doing the best they can, but I know that some of my students deal with a lot and have a lot of responsibility that I never had as a kid. Which makes this book even more important to include in my library!! It is the first book I’ve read that I really felt MY student’s struggles come through.

Q: When you read this book how did you envision it as a teaching tool in your own classrooms?

EV: I’m not sure I plan to read this book as a read aloud, but def as one to include and book talk in my classroom. I thought perhaps an excerpt would work as a discussion tool. Many tough topics are written with grace and hope, and kids need to see that tough times are not the end of the world, that things can get better, and that sometimes people need help or are doing the best they can in that moment.

KC: I was hoping to use this book to spark a discussion about verbal abuse. What it is, what it can sound like, and how it can affect your own thoughts about yourself and your abilities. From there, I was hoping to discuss negative and positive self talk as well. Even the character of the boyfriend’s father who lived in the house added to the stress. While he was less insulting toward the kids, they were living in a home in which people didn’t adore them~ they barely tolerated them. This affects the psyche, and I want my students to be able to recognize it so they can try to protect themselves any way they need to.

JD: I would book talk this book to my classes and then students can choose to read it if they wish!!

CT: As an educator I can’t even begin to explain to you the quiet importance that Ms. Rochambeau plays in this story. This will be a book that will not only be a very vital window for students to look in, but also a mirror to know they aren’t alone. Ann has touched on topics that I know for a fact students experience, or something similar, on a day in, day out basis, but are not quick to speak up. I feel as though all middle grade students and teachers need to read this book, and soon… One of our school wide behavior expectations is empathy and this book provides the opportunity to teach and understand empathy in Zoey’s life.

Q: I love that Ann views books as means of bridging the divides between people, as is evidenced in her excellent podcast with Saadia Faruqi. One thing I loved about Octopus is that it delves into the the complexity of issues that are often painted as simple black-or-white answers in the cultural narrative. What can educators do to help students find the complexity in these hot-button issues?

JD: It would be awesome to have a book club of students discuss this and their opinions on those issues!

CT: A way that I foresee us bringing up the complexity is giving multiple experiences and then having discussions, constantly. Everyone’s story isn’t the same in real life and Zoey’s story is one that some may relate to in SOME ways but not all ways, or the entire way. Another way is that I love for students to start figuring out solutions. What could we do as a community to help make these situations better.

Q: My husband, who grew up poor, talks often about how profoundly his life was impacted by a teacher who encouraged him to apply to a free Jesuit high school in Manhattan. He is still moved when he talks about what it meant for him to have an adult see him and believe that he had something great to offer the world. Jarrett Krosoczka still remembers being in school and having an author visit from Jack Gantos. Jack complimented Jarrett’s drawing of a cat, and it’s part of what encouraged him to become an author/illustrator. Zoey has Ms. Rochambeau. Who were those adults in your lives that encouraged you, and how do you see your role as teachers in helping kids reach their potential?

Octopus123 EV: I think about coaches first, actually. I was so involved with swimming and my coaches were the ones who stick out in my mind. They believed in me and saw potential in me that I didn’t always see. Encouraging kids and helping them see their good and their successes are what I try to do as a teacher. Always staying positive and helping develop a growth mindset are also things I try to encourage.

JD: I strive to let EVERY child I teach know they are valued for who they are. I notice strengths in each child and point them out often. I listen to let them know their voice is important. I can only hope that this will make a difference!!

CT: One of the educators who played the biggest role in my life was my middle grade creative writing teacher. I was going through a lot. Bullying was unbearable (to the point where we moved my 8th grade year), but Mrs. Ward helped me learn to write, how to escape that reality that I was dealing with and get thoughts out on paper through poetry. I was published. I was proud. I was finally happy. I knew that at that moment I wanted to be that light for students. There were a lot of teachers who weren’t there for me because they were friends with the parents of the students who were being ugly, so they just brushed my stresses aside. I knew then what I did NOT want to be as an educator. I feel that it has helped me significantly in building relationships and also with helping place that heart print book in the hands of a child who needs it. I don’t ever look at myself as a “savior” but an extra mom so to speak. I have told them I wear many hats as a teacher and I want nothing more than our classroom to be a safe place for them. So far it has proven to be just that.

Many thanks exceptional educators like Erin, Kristin, Jennifer, Cassie, and others for taking the time to chat with me and celebrate the debut of The Benefits of Being an Octopus. We are so excited to help welcome this wonderful book into the world!  For teachers who want to join this discussion, please visit Ann’s Octopus Flipgrid.


The Appeal Factors of Being An Octopus

by Christina Uss

Let’s not forget how librarians are going to get this tender, tough, many-tentacled story into the hands of readers. I was lucky enough to get some training as a library assistant last year and learned about successfully matching a reader with their next read as a reader’s advisor.  One of the keys to advising wisely is ferreting out a book’s APPEAL FACTORS, which turns out to be way cooler than solely recommending titles by t

200px-Easy_cheese2

he same author or the pushing the newest thing in the same genre. Thanks to the metadata librarians at NoveList, we’ve got a whole list of potential appeal factors, and I consider it an honor to be the first to point out to all librarians how they might describe The Appeal Factors of Being An Octopus:

  • Character – the main character is believable, relatable, courageous, likeable, spirited, strong, and well-developed. Kids are going to wish Zoey was their big sister, especially those who already know all about the eight-armed juggling that comes with taking on caregiving tasks for siblings (and sometimes parents) at a young age.
  • Writing Style – candid, compelling, engaging, with well-crafted dialogue. The book satisfyingly fills our minds’ eyes with rich details that make Zoey and her friends and family come alive (and our minds’ mouths with the comforting scrunch of Easy Cheese and crackers.)
  • Pace – intensifying. Will everything work out for Zoey and her family? How??
  • Storyline – both plot- and character-driven, mixing uncertainty in plot with Zoey’s determination
  • Tone -often intense with an emotional edge, moving from heartwarming to heart-wrenching, hopeful, sobering, eye-opening, thought-provoking, with a strong sense of place.

I can’t wait until Tuesday when my library system will load in its first copies of this fabulous and I can start advising readers to check it out!


Ann Braden writes about kids struggling to find their voice despite the realities of life, and about cultural divides and possibilities for bridges across.  She writes because even when life is throwing the entire kitchen at you…there is HOPE.  Come chat with her on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.


Ann's schedule

 

 

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Filed under Book Launch, Interviews, Launch, middle grade, Persistance, Reaching Readers, Uncategorized

Book Resources for The Nian Monster

Xingling, the main character in THE NIAN MONSTER, is a resourceful girl. When confronted by a ravenous monster, she keeps her wits about her in order to fend Nian off. She’s not afraid to ask for help, either. Over the past year, I’ve been thinking a lot about how to get THE NIAN MONSTER into the hands of readers. I heard over and over how everybody loves freebies. So in addition to swag like bookmarks and magnets, I decided to offer additional book-related resources. And, like Xingling, I reached out and asked for help from my community — the wonderful kidlit community.

Here are a few of the resources that were created for my book:

A Teacher’s Guide: Arguably, not every picture book needs a teacher’s guide, especially if it’s fiction. But I felt that there were enough cultural and geographical aspects to my book that a teacher, librarian, or parent might appreciate a guide with more information about Chinese New Year, curriculum-related activities, and discussion questions. I discovered that teacher’s guides can vary in length and cost. Being a debut author, I opted to hire Anna Chan Rekate, a debut teacher’s guide writer, but also a very experienced elementary school teacher. Anna did an amazing job — she even included a personal recipe for sesame noodles! You can download a copy of the teacher’s guide here.

A Book-Related Craft: I confess, I LOVE crafts. My basement is filled with boxes of craft materials and random objects that I save just in case I might need them for a craft. I did a lot of crafts with my sons when they were younger and I knew it would be great to have an activity for after my story time events. Kids love things that they can make themselves and bring home, plus it connects them to the story in a different, more tactile way. The incredibly creative Kirsten Cappy of Curious City (try saying that 3x fast!) developed an origami bookmark craft and illustrator Alina Chau drew the Nian Monster so that it looks like Nian is “eating” the corner of your page! Download the template here and make a Nian bookmark with your kids (or for yourself)! Kirsten and her intern Sophia even made an instructional video, which you can watch below or on YouTube.

nian-monster-finished-origami

The Nian Monster bookmark will chomp on your page!

 

An Event Kit: I knew I needed to reach teachers and librarians, but I was at a loss about how to do so. Again, Kirsten Cappy came to my rescue. She has access to an extensive network of educators. Kirsten recommended creating an event kit so that educators could make story time with THE NIAN MONSTER an interactive experience. The event kit includes instructions and a template for creating a giant Nian mask. An adult can pretend to be Nian or the kids can “feed” Nian fish, noodles, and sticky rice cake just like in the book (fake fish are used — no live fish will be harmed during story time). The event kit is available at Curious City.

Here's me channeling my inner Nian Monster!

Here’s me channeling my inner Nian Monster!

Whether your book has yet to be sold or is headed for publication, it’s not too early to think about what kinds of resources you want to offer your readers. I added an Author’s Note to THE NIAN MONSTER when it was still in manuscript form, explaining the symbolism of the Chinese New Year foods in the story. If there’s an aspect of your story that you think readers would like to know more about, you might consider adding a short Author’s Note as well. And if you decide against it, there are plenty of opportunities to develop and offer educational resources after publication.

Good luck and thank you for celebrating my book launch week with me! Don’t forget to leave a comment on this post (or any EMUs Debuts post this week) to be entered into a giveaway of THE NIAN MONSTER.


andrea-wang-author-photo-2016

Andrea Wang’s debut picture book, The Nian Monster (Albert Whitman & Co., December 2016), is a Chinese New Year folktale retelling set in modern-day Shanghai. She has also written seven nonfiction books for the educational market and is working on a middle grade novel. Andrea is a former environmental consultant and now writes full-time. She recently moved from the Boston area to Denver, where she lives with her husband, two sons, and a dog that will do anything for food. That pretty much describes her family, too.

You can find Andrea online at http://www.andreaywang.com, on Twitter under @AndreaYWang, and on Instagram as @andreawhywang.

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Filed under Book Giveaway, Book Launch, Book Promotion, Education, Picture books, resources, Uncategorized

The Emotional Response

I’ve been trying to find my way through an early draft of a new piece and have been reminded why going deep into character is so difficult, and so necessary.

The third lecture of my first day at Vermont College of Fine Arts was given by Louise Hawes. She described what she called a novel’s “desire line” – the engine that drives the story, the longing for something. The desire line exactly balances the story arc in reverse, because readers want the protagonist’s desire to be satisfied at the end of the story.

Asking “what” your character wants is the first important question any writer should ask. Asking “why” they want it is one way to get to their deepest desire.Children Playing

Louise gave us all an exercise: she asked us to dig deep and speak to the kid we were at an age when we were most vulnerable. Speak to the child inside, and find her desire. Then she gave us ten minutes to write a letter to that child asking why she wanted what she did, and what it meant, and reassuring that child that she was not alone.

At first, you could have heard a pin drop in the room, a full room – I’m guessing a hundred people. Then sniffs. Then some of us (yes, I’ll confess, I was one) were openly weeping. Why? Because we were tapping the core of our own oldest dreams and desires. We were acknowledging longing and loss.

This acknowledgment for our characters (and, as we write, for ourselves) is painful but essential.

If we know our character’s deepest desires, at a time when he or she was at their most vulnerable, we tap into universal longings. And by bringing universal longings to life on the page, our readers can connect.

Effectively, we tell readers, I hear you. I get you. You are not alone.

That’s why I write. I want to express the universal longings and desires that bind us together as human, as vulnerable, as unique and yet as all the same. Boy, it’s hard.

But it’s also so important.

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Filed under Advice, Writing and Life

How to Build Character(s)

Memorable characters, like my husband’s aunt pictured here, demand your attention. How will their story unfold?

We all have goals, things we want to work on to become better writers and hopefully better people as well. Lately, for me, a key writing goal has been to build authentic, well-developed characters.  I struggle with this. Possibly because I’m an introvert who invests way too much effort trying not to ruffle feathers or let too much emotion or opinion come spilling out in the presence of anyone other than my spouse (lucky guy). I’d hate to give people the impression that I am not as emotionally stable as I might appear.

I also worry that pouring too much of a character’s inner workings onto the page will feel contrived or manipulative, that her struggles will be perceived as insincere, unearned.  Obviously I have to get past this. A fictional person on a page will never become the sympathetic, living, breathing hero of the story if readers have no clear view of her heart and mind.

birdbybirdI turned to Anne Lamott’s BIRD BY BIRD for wisdom. It takes time for us to know our characters, she says. We should ask ourselves “what happens in their faces and to their posture when they are thinking, or bored, or afraid. …Why should we care about them anyway?” Further on she writes, “Squint at these characters in your mind, and then start to paint them for us.” She explains that they should have flaws, but they should also be likeable, or at least interesting–and they become interesting if they possess clarity of vision in surviving the struggles they face.

And my favorite paragraph: “A writer paradoxically seeks the truth and tells lies every step of the way. It’s a lie if you make something up. But you make it up in the name of truth, and then you give your heart to expressing it clearly. You make up your characters, partly from experience, partly out of the thin air of the subconscious, and you need to feel committed to telling the exact truth about them, even though you are making them up.”

So I’ve been trying the method acting approach: using my own life experiences and feelings to inform my characters. Yes, they suffer through situations and events that I will never face, but the emotions and motivations they feel, those universal human truths, are the same. The process is a basic free association exercise. I sit down with pen and paper and choose a scene to work on. I decide what emotions my main character would be feeling in that scenario and just start writing, no editing allowed. The results are liberating. Even though much of the writing will need heavy revision or may even be scrapped altogether, the emotional truth that spills out is new for me, and holds real promise. I think. I hope. Time will tell.

How do you bring your characters to life? Tell us what works for you!

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May Arboretum 027Christine Hayes writes spooky stories for middle grade readers. Her debut novel, THE MOTHMAN’S CURSE, is due out spring 2015 with Roaring Brook Press/Macmillan. She is represented by Ammi-Joan Paquette of the Erin Murphy Literary Agency.

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Filed under Advice - Helpful or Otherwise, Character Development, craft~writing

Need some writing inspiration? Turn on the radio.

A glimpse into my iPod.I’ve long had a pet theory.

Picture books and pop songs are pretty similar things.

Sure, the format is different. You process one through your eyes and the other through your ears.

But, they both have the same goal.

To convey a story or emotion using a very limited number of words in a very specific format in a way that is catchy enough that people will want to read or listen to it again and again and again.

They both also suffer from the same misconception.

That good ones are easy to write.

Anyone can scan the shelves of a bookstore or surf their car’s radio settings and then declare, “There’s nothing good out there. I could write something better than this drivel.”

But anyone who’s ever tried putting pen to paper or fingers to guitar strings to actually come up with something that works knows writing something as memorable as Hanson’s “MMMBop” or Carly Rae Jepson’s “Call Me Maybe” is way harder than it seems. So is coming up with picture book classics like Ezra Jack Keats’ The Snowy Day or Margaret Wise Brown’s The Runaway Bunny. It’s easy, as Joshua McCune pointed out in his last blog post, to get lost in the weeds.

How do you get unstuck?

You have to ask yourself …

What’s going to get into someone’s head and stay there, so that years later, some words or notes will flip a switch and make the whole thing comes flooding back?

I recently saw some comments from the the band Hot Chelle Rae about songwriting that I think really apply to picture book writing too. Hot Chelle Rae is a newer band — and, yes, I do have three of its songs on my iPod — but I admired one of its singles from the first time I heard it.

“Tonight, Tonight” has well-written lyrics (which include a rhyming reference to actor Zach Galifianakis) and a very catchy hook of a refrain. (“La, la, la. Whatever. La, la, la. It doesn’t matter. La, la, la. Oh well …”) Check it out here. You know you want to.

Here’s what lead singer Ryan “RK” Follese, who’s the son of Nashville songwriters Keith and Adrienne Follese, says.

“My dad told me early on that writing hit songs is just like your batting average,” Follese says. “He reminded me that Barry Bonds hits 70 homeruns a year, but he doesn’t hit a homerun every time — it’s maybe one out of ten. So if you want to write hit songs, you’re going to have to write 50 songs for your first record, which is what we did. We threw out loads of songs.”

Every picture book writer I know has the same story. Lots of attempts. Lots of times they thought they might have gotten it right only to find out it still wasn’t there. Lots of setting manuscripts aside or abandoning them altogether as they learned more, got better and became better judges of their own work.

The hard part can be knowing when to throw something away.

But Follese says it’s easy.

All the members of Hot Chelle Rae write, and the band also works with other non-band-member songwriters. As Follese notes, “We have a rule: The best song wins.”

That’s a good rule for picture book writers to follow as well. It’s easy to get caught up in something you have an emotional attachment to, when what you really should be asking yourself is, “Of all my works in progress, which is really the strongest?” And, “What can I write next that will be even better?”

I find that I sometimes listen to pop songs for picture book writing inspiration. Not in subject matter, but in structure. How did they handle that rhyme scheme? What makes that refrain so memorable? And I know some authors come up with playlists for the book they’re currently writing featuring music that supports their characters, mood or theme.

As I said, the link between pop songs and picture books is a pet theory of mine.

But, I did think there was one glaring exception.

Despite these similarities, I thought you’d never see a picture book where the author inserted him or herself blatantly into the book.

It happens all the time in pop songs whether it’s Usher chanting his name rhythmically in the background of “Scream,” Nicki Minaj telling everyone exactly who she is in “Super Bass” or all the references to Chaka Khan in “I Feel for You.”

“Ha,” I used to laugh. “It’s not like you’d ever see me insert a paragraph of text in my next manuscript that simply says ‘Pat Miller. Pat Miller. Pat Miller.’ It just wouldn’t work. Besides, I’m not famous like Usher, Nicki and Chaka. Who would even care?”

But then I saw Chloe and the Lion (Hyperion Books, 2012) by Mac Barnett and Adam Rex, and my theory was shot to smithereens. (If you don’t have the book handy, this video gives you an idea of what’s going on.)

So, I was wrong.

But, that’s OK. I guess I can just quote Taylor Swift’s recent Top 40 hit and say, “Never say never …”

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