Um, First You Have to Write It: 5 Quick Tips for Picture Books

“I have a great idea for a picture book. How can I get it published?”

If I had a dollar for every time someone’s asked me that question, I could probably pay for the dental work to repair the teeth it’s caused me to grind into dust.

I can understand beginners asking the question. They assume that because picture books are short, writing them is easy. A happy hour tapping on a keyboard, a little consult with the Rhyming Dictionary, a quick pass through Spellcheck, and voila! Ready to send to a publisher.

Less easy to understand is a professional penning a 1,000-word article called “How to Write a Picture Book” which contains only 7 words actually dealing with the topic of writing, and they are these:

“You need to actually write the book.”

Really?  You do? But instead of telling them how, the author leapfrogs over this to more fun stuff like  finding an agent, illustrating your story, and promoting your published book.  Hard as it may be to accept,  aspiring authors are probably better served learning how to “actually write” a picture book before anyone goes stoking their fantasies about fending off all the publishers clamoring to sign them. So in that spirit I offer a few “actual writing” tips for picture books:

1. Think visually. By definition, picture books are a visual medium. Pick a concept or story line that’s illustratable. Someone thinking about something–moping, fearing, wishing— is not easily illustrated. The havoc a certain Cat can wreak on a home iscat in hat 2

2. Make sure there is some kind of tension. At the very least, there must be a need to find out what comes next. Young readers–just like old readers– must have a reason to keep turning pages. The driving force behind your story can be as complicated as  finding out who stole the bear’s hat, or if the Cat can put the house back in order before Mother returns. Or it can be as simple as just wanting to feel the exquisite comfort of bidding good night to every single thing in the Great Green Room as night falls.

3. Make that tension grow. Is it a humorous book? The humor should get funnier–the chaos caused by the mouse, or the Cat–should increase page by page. Is it a scary book? The monsters should get scarier on each page. A quest for something? The obstacles get harder and harder.

4. Give your character some character!  eloise

Think of the great children’s book stars:Eloise, Madeleine, Olivia, Frog and Toad, Max, Winnie the Pooh, Eeyore, the Cat in the Hat. They all have unforgettable personalities. You should be able to describe your main character in one or two adjectives: feisty, stubborn, self-pitying, irrepressible, mono-maniacal…

5. Make sure the ending is satisfying. Max  comes home to find… wild things….his supper is still warm. Your readers should say “Aaahh” when they come to the end. You’ve given them what they wanted, but not necessarily the way they expected it.

Your idea for a story has all those potential things–hurrah!  Of course, you still have to sit down and “actually write” it. Sorry, but you do. Can’t help you with that part. But when you’re done with the writing, get back to me; then we can talk about agents and illustrators, publishers and promotion and Pulitzer Prizes.

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Kennedy’s Death: The Day Before

I was lucky enough to be invited to participate in an event at Symphony Space in New York called “Nov. 21: The Day Before” which asked artists to create work around the idea of the day BEFORE Kennedy’s assassination.  Here’s the short essay I wrote, from the perspective of the 12-year-old I then was. (NY Times review of event.)

The photo is of me with two other artists who participated in the event: Sabrina Small (center) who created artwork to accompany my reading; and Mimi Herman, poet.

symphonySpace.jpg

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Little Beaver Set to Music (PowerPoint)

Thanks to composer William Trevaskis and Waterman’s Community Center on North Haven Island in Maine, there is now a “musical setting” for Little Beaver and the Echo. Trevaskis recorded me reading Little Beaver to the children of North Haven, while Lois Shapiro, a musician from Boston, accompanied  the reading on the piano. Many thanks to both William and Lois for making it all sound so good!

Listen/watch here: Little Beaver read by author, with music

NOTE: It’s in PowerPoint format. Click on “slide show” tab, and then on “From Current Slide”

Categories: Amy's Books, Children's Literature | Tags: | Leave a comment

Why I Don’t Write Poems

In honor of National Poetry month, I bravely post here my very first, and likely last, poem, inspired by Richard Blanco’s wonderful poem for the President’s inauguration, <a title=”One Today” href=”http://www.richard-blanco.com/inaugural-poet/one-today.php”>One Today</a>,  and by his  equally wonderful reading in Portland earlier this month.

Why I Don’t Write Poems

When it came time to pen

his poem about America, fellow

Mainer Richard Blanco wrote about

a school bus “pencil yellow.”

No one asked me to write that ode

but if they had

it would have been a

a school bus “mustard-yellow.”

And that is why

Richard Blanco is a poet

and I…

‘m not.

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Why Read Fiction?

 “It is difficult to get the news from poems, yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.” –William Carlos Williams

In  a hard economic world, where classrooms at every level seem increasingly designed to be vocational training grounds and little else, where the three RRR’s (which included reading and writing) are being replaced by the hot new acronym STEM, where the new Common Core language arts standards insist on a shift away from fiction into non-fiction (and by non-fiction they include maps, and menus and manuals), in a world where the man who spearheaded the Common Core notes that employers are not apt to ask someone to produce a “compelling account of his childhood” before tackling that market analysis…In such a world, why should fiction be a part of a child’s education?

Because fiction, as William Carlos Williams notes, provides life-giving sustenance:

It can be a friend when we’re lonely, a refuge when we’re overwhelmed. And children are often lonely and often overwhelmed.

It supplies the pleasure of recognition—wow, someone put my own thoughts into words—as well as wonder at the new: who knew?

It takes us inside ourselves. It takes us outside ourselves.

It makes us explore, as nothing else can, the most intriguing question of all: What if?

It makes the strange familiar—we don’t ever have to have lived on a farm to know exactly what Wilbur and Charlotte’s barn looks and feels and smells like.

And it makes the familiar strange: a boy’s bedroom becomes a kingdom of wild things.

It makes us stretch our minds and use our imagination and ask uncomfortable questions. It comforts, inspires and reassures. It scares and stimulates.

Absolutely, it’s important to be able to read maps, and menus, and manuals. And market analyses. It’s also important to be able to journey to where the wild things are, and back home again.

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Email of the Week

224028-LDear Amy
,

My husband Jim was curious where you learned the math trick that Aunt Mattie and Uncle Philbert talk about in the book [No More Nasty, p. 91]?  Do you know if it has an official name?  He was curious how the 3-digit method works.  My husband is good with numbers and my daughter was amazed that she could put the numbers in the calculator as quickly as her dad could solve them on paper using this new method.  Any information would be appreciated.

Thank you, Kim

Dear Kim,

The official name is “Multi-Qwik, Uncle Philbert’s Patented Homework Reducing Time Saving Three Step Multiple Digit Multiplication Method.” Really. It was invented by a friend of mine when he was in grade school, and it really does work. He figured out that he could do his math homework quicker that way, and he actually DID get in trouble with his teacher for doing his math this way, instead of how the book said to do it.
Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction. And it really is patented.
Yours,
 Amy MacDonald
P.S. Click here for Classroom Activities related to the Multi-Qwik math trick.

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Nice Review of “Big Front Tooth”

Review of “LIttle Beaver and the Big Front Tooth”

In the Daily Mail (gulp). Huge circulation but not my favorite newspaper.

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Little Beaver Illustrator Shares Her Sketchbook

Sarah Fox-Davies, illustrator of Little Beaver and the Echo as well as the just-out (in England) Little Beaver and the Big Front Tooth, shares some of her process in illustrating the new book. Read about it here.  Several sketches and a finished illustration are below…

Image:

Image

Thanks, Sarah! It’s a beautiful book!

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World Book Night & Early Childhood Authors Celebration

 

books-001
I recently completed a residency with Melissa Pellin’s Early Childhood Education class at the Region Two School of Applied Technology in Houlton, Maine. We worked over the course of the year on writing and illustrating a children’s book. The books were published in hardcover form,two copies each, complete with ISBN’s, and we celebrated on Friday with a book launch party, combined with a book give-away to each young author, courtesy of World Book Night. (The book: “local author” Steven King’s “The Stand.”).

It was an amazing experience for all involved, and kudos are owed to first-year-teacher Ms. Pellin for her hard work, and to last-year-Principal Michael Howard (he’s retiring) for his vision in making this happen. And, of course, to the authors and illustrators for their hard work and creativity.

I’m sure the future holds good things for Melissa, the graduating students, and Mr. Howard. Bravo!

Pictured here are eight of the authors with their books, and the gift they gave Mr. Howard to celebrate his retirement: a canvas covered in famous Maine children’s books, along with their books.

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The Right Word: or Eschew that Thesaurus

When I visit elementary classrooms, I frequently see a list, posted on the wall, of synonyms gleaned from a thesaurus for overused words like said. This is an admirable attempt on the part of teachers to add some freshness to student writing–though it can be overdone. (Let’s face it, sometimes said is the right word for the job.)

I’m asked a lot if I use a thesaurus to vary my vocabulary. I don’t. Aside from the fact that it seems like cheating, it also often produces an uninteresting word, or worse, one whose meaning is at best a close cousin to the one you need. As Mark Twain put it, “The difference between the right word and the almost-right word is the difference between lightning, and lightning bug.” The thesaurus often gives us lightning bugs when what we need is a paralyzing electric shock.

Instead of a thesaurus, I have taped to my laptop a list of words that I encounter when reading but that aren’t part of my active vocabulary. (As you probably know, our active vocabulary–the words we employ ourselves–is a fraction of our passive vocabulary.)  The hope is that having the words in front of me will encourage those words to slide from passive to active vocabulary. Currently on my list:  Svengali, discomfit, peroration, kewpie doll, bravura, captious, immanent, strangulated, sere, canard, valence, eschew, baleful, languor, coruscate, cynosure, and otiose.

Recently I was reading one of my favorite authors–the comic master P. G. Wodehouse (of Jeeves and Wooster fame)–and I started jotting down the words he used instead of walk. Jeeves the butler never walked into a room: he streamed, shimmered, floated, trickled, flowed, sifted, slid and trickled. Other, less reserved, characters surged round, rocketed, and bounded.

Would Wodehouse have found any of those words in a thesaurus under “walk?” Your Honor, I rest my case.

So, have I convinced you to eschew the thesaurus?

PS I’m curious to know what others have taped to their computers for inspiration?  And teachers: what techniques do you use to broaden your students’ vocabulary?

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