Wednesday, September 30, 2009

It's Writer's Wednesday and Rhyming Stories have been a frequent topic for questions lately. Rhyming books are some of my favorite read-aloud stories, but they are often a tough sell with publishers. Why?

The answer I hear from editors most often is that the writer has gotten so caught up in the cleverness of their rhymes that they've neglected to tell a good story.

One of the best suggestions I know is to set the rhyme aside and just write the story. Is it well plotted with conflict or a problem that is resolved in a satisfying and/or surprising ending? Are the characters interesting? Is the language appropriate to the story and engaging for the reader? Once you have a well-crafted story you may find that the rhyme is unnecessary. And if you are determined to use rhyme you can do that secure in the knowledge that you've created a solid story.

Another consideration that editors have is word count. Keep in mind that in the process of developing a rhyming text there is often a tendency to become more wordy than is necessary to tell the story. It's another pitfall you want to avoid on the way to completing a story that will enjoy publishing success.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Bedtime Stories are on my mind as I wait to welcome the newest edition to my extended family. I love the idea of fathers reading to their children so here are three fun bedtime books for/about dads, but with a twist.

Daddy's Song written by Leslea Newman and published by Henry Holt, has a father strumming his guitar as he sings rather than reads his little girl to sleep. The lyrics to his song are written in rhyming couplets, each full of fun and whimsy that readily lend themselves to reading aloud. The song begins, "If ice cream cones fall from the sky / And cats grow wings and start to fly" and continues on to the end with each imaginative line richly illustrated in a fanciful echoing of the text.

Night Shift Daddy written by Eileen Spinelli and published by Hyperion Books for Children, begins with the traditional bedtime ritual of Daddy tucking his daughter into bed, but then turns the story around. Daddy is heading to his job as a night janitor and returns home the next morning where the father/daughter roles are reversed as he is the one tucked into bed for a well-earned rest. This is another rhyming story, beautifully illustrated in glowing colors.

The title Once Upon a time, the end: (asleep in 60 seconds) written by Geoffrey Kloske and published by Atheneum Books for Young Readers, is the only hint you need to understand that here the bedtime ritual is turned upside down. Desperate to get his young son to sleep, a harried father meets his son's pleas for "one more story" with a strategy known by any read-aloud parent...leaving out a few words here and there to speed the story to its conclusion. The father's plan takes on a life of its own as the Three Little Pigs become two, Little Red Riding Hood is reduced to a two-beat poem and other tales are relentlessly shortened in ways that still convey their essence with hysterical accuracy. The increasingly fractured fairy tales are interspersed with not-so-subtle hints from the father "Why did the chicken cross the road? To go to sleep." The illustrations by New Yorker cartoonist Barry Blitt strike just the right tone for this irreverent bedtime romp. A word of caution though -- this story is more likely to produce giggles than sleep.

Here are the answers for last week's Famous Firsts:

1. "Ma, a mouse has to do what a mouse has to do." Ragweed by Avi.

2. "Everybody knows the story of the Three Little Pigs." The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs by Jon Scieszka.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

What Book Got You Hooked? That's the question at First Book. If you haven't cast your vote, it's time to get over there and let the world know what book from your childhood inspired a love of reading. Your vote will help determine which state receives 50,000 books for needy children.

Four days and counting. The opportunity to vote ends on September 30, 2009 at midnight (ET). First Book will publish the results of the vote and the Top 50 list of the books that got us hooked on reading in October.

Here are the new Famous Firsts. Yes, I know it isn't Friday. I was immersed in a new story yesterday and couldn't break the spell.

Famous Firsts

1. "Ma, a mouse has to do what a mouse has to do."

2. "Everybody knows the story of the Three Little Pigs."

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Writer's Wednesday
I'm hearing from a great many new writers who want to bring a stronger ethnic or cultural emphasis to the children's book market. It's wonderful to see the growing presence of culturally diverse characters. As a library media specialist, it is my goal to see every child represented in the collection. As a writer, I need to think carefully about how I'm crafting a book.

A successful story will be both universal and individual. What I mean by that is the theme is universal enough to appeal to readers of both genders and multiple social/cultural backgrounds and at the same time individual enough that each reader will identify personally with the character's trials and triumphs.

Here's a good example: Uncle Peter's Amazing Chinese Wedding by Lenore Look. You might ask how a story that reveals, step by step, the details of a Chinese wedding is universal. Granted that the context of the story is a Chinese wedding, but the theme is about jealousy and the fear the little girl (the protagonist) has of losing her special relationship with her soon-to-be married favorite uncle. As a consequence, the appeal is quite broad. All of my students, boys and girls alike, enjoyed learning something about another culture, but all of them understood on a personal level what the story was really about and could identify with the main character's feelings.

I'm sure all of you can think of similar examples. If you can't, you need to visit your local library or bookstore and catch up on your reading. I'll talk more about child protagonists in my next Writers Wednesday post.

Monday, September 21, 2009

A number of authors whose books have delighted children for decades have birthdays this week so I thought it might be fun to visit their work.

H. G. Wells, born 9/21/1866, is perhaps best remembered for his classic science-fiction stories -- War of the Worlds, The Time Machine, The Invisible Man and The Island of Dr. Moreau. However, Wells was a prolific writer penning short stories, essays and articles on politics and social issues. Together with Jules Verne, Wells is credited with creating a new genre of fiction that is still inspiring writers and readers today.

Taro Yashima born 9/21/1908, has earned three Caldecott Honor Medals for his books Crow Boy, Umbrella and Seashore Story.

You may not recognize the name Esphyr Slobodkina, born 9/22/1908, but I'm sure you'll remember her delightful book Caps for Sale. The book, first published in 1938, is still in print and has sold more than two million copies.

Wilson Rawls, born 9/24/1913, was inspired by his childhood in the Ozarks to write Where the Red Fern Grows. The story, an enduring favorite in both elementary and middle schools, relates the triumph and tragedy that faces young Billy as he attempts to train his beloved coonhounds Old Dan and Little Ann. The book was first published as a serial in the Saturday Evening Post in 1961. That publication was followed by a book the same year. The book became a movie in 1973 and a second film was released in 2003.

A Caldecott Medal for The Girl Who Loved Wild Horses is just one of the many honors earned by author and illustrator Paul Goble, born 9/27/1933. He turned his childhood interest in Native American culture into numerous Native American themed children's books that include: Buffalo Woman, Star Boy, and Dream Wolf.

Here are the answers to Friday's Famous Firsts --

1. "Mrs. Frisby, the head of a family of field mice, lived in an underground house in the vegetable garden of a framer named Mr. Fitzgibbon." Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert O'Brien

2."In the light of the moon a little egg lay on a leaf." The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle

Thanks to all of you who emailed answers and/or suggestions for future "Famous Firsts."

Friday, September 18, 2009

Shared experience is one of the best ways of building a love of reading with your children. I made reading aloud a priority for my children from the time they were born. Read-Aloud time is often associated with bedtime which is wonderful, but the possibilities are numerous. Enjoy the out of doors by reading at the park on a bench or under a shady tree. On a rainy day, toss a sheet over a table or a pair of chairs to make a cozy reading tent. Encourage your children to read to you while you're making dinner. Look for opportunities to connect.

This Poetry Friday is being hosted by Becky's Book Reviews. Drop in and enjoy!

Friday is "Famous Firsts" here at All About the Books so give these a try. Do you know the title and author of these children's books?

1. "Mrs. Frisby, the head of a family of field mice, lived in an underground house in the vegetable garden of a farmer named Mr. Fitzgibbon."

2. "In the light of the moon a little egg lay on a leaf."

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

It's Writers Wednesday: The Question is -- How do I find an agent?
Finding an agent is a very individual pursuit. First of all, do you need one? Not every publisher requires submissions through an agent, though there's no denying that agented material will usually receive more immediate attention from an editor. Ideally, your agent as a working relationship with various editors and therefore knows which people would be most receptive to your particular story. Finding an agent can take just as long as finding a publisher so the question is where to do you want to invest your time?

Most agents have a particular focus with regard to the material they are willing to represent -- children's book agents will be looking for specific types of stores -- YA, Middle Grade, Picture Book, etc. And withing those story types, they may have individual interests or things they don't care for such as sci-fi, fairytales and so on.

It's important to find out as much as you can about the agent you are planning to query. Most agency websites include bios for the individual agents that will provide this type of information. For resources on this topic see my 9/02/09 post: How Do I Get Published? I discussed researching editors and agents.

One of the great opportunities offered by SCBWI conferences is the chance to hear agents first hand and perhaps even meet them and pitch your work.

It's important to become as informed as possible. Here is a post by an agent that I recommend reading:Rachelle Gardner, Literary Agent: What I'm Looking For.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Thanks to all of you who emailed me first lines from some of your favorite books. You'll be seeing more Famous Firsts each Friday. Answers are at the end of my post.

September is Library Card Sign-Up Month so here are five library related books I'd like to share. One of my favorite read-aloud books for my very young students is Book! Book! Book! by Deborah Bruss -- Left alone on the farm after the children go back to school, the animals decide to visit the library to find something to read. The story is simple but engaging as the various animals take turns trying to get library books and there is a surprise ending that always earns giggles!

For older readers, there is the lovely non-fiction book My Librarian is a Camel: how books are brought to children around the world by Margriet Ruurs. Bookmobiles are great, but how do you get books to children in remote parts of the world? Ingeniously is the answer and this book describes some of those methods including by camel, elephant and boat. A nice reminder that books are cherished and readers will find a way. This book always makes my students think twice about telling me that getting a library book is too hard.

Librarians wear several hats; they tell stories, educate, and manage the collection. Here are three picture book titles that take an entertaining look at the way librarians do their job. Library Lion by Michelle Knudsen is the tale of a Lion who wonders into the library and is allowed to stay, but only if he's quiet. He forgets to use his "library voice" but it turns out he had a good reason.

The Library Dragon by Carmen Agra Deedy is a very funny look at one well-meaning librarian's attempt to care for her collection with dire consequences for her patrons.

What makes a perfect librarian? That's the question in Our Librarian Won't Tell Us Anything! by Toni Buzzeo. New student, Robert has been warned about Mrs. Skorupski, but he soon discovers that although she won't hand him every book he asks for, she does something even better.

As Promised here are the title and author answers for last Friday's Famous Firsts:
1. "Claudia knew that she could never pull off the old-fashioned kind of running away. "
From The Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E. L. Konigsburg
2. "There is no lake at Camp Green Lake." from Holes by Louis Sachar
3. "The night Max wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind and another..."
Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak

Friday, September 11, 2009

When I look back, I am so impressed again with the life-giving power of literature.
If I were a young person today, trying to gain a sense of myself in the world,
I would do that again by reading, just as I did when I was young.
- Maya Angelou -

One of the on going conversations that I have with my students in library is the importance and value of being well step outside the comfort of always reaching for the familiar author, or genre, or subject and explore something different. Our library is young, our school new, but nevertheless, the collection is diverse...and one of the saddest phrases a student can utter is, "I can't find anything to read." What the child usually means is that they can't find another book exactly like all the other ones they've read. I spend a great deal of time looking for ways to tempt my readers into new territory.

A favorite activity is something I call "Famous Firsts." I read the first line of a book to each class and challenge students to tell me the title and author of the work. Sometimes half the hands go up. Sometimes I'm lucky to find one or two students who know the work. Occasionally, I find a book that is totally unknown, in which case I'll read a few pages to tweak their curiosity. I'm no longer surprised by the sudden popularity a book attains from even so brief an introduction.

We're all about children's literature here so why don't you give "famous Firsts" a try?!

Can you name the title and author of each of these books? Resist the urge to Google. I'll list the answers on the next post.

1. Claudia knew that she could never pull off the old-fashioned kind of running away.

2. There is no lake at Camp Green Lake.

3. The night Max wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind and another...

I invite you to share the first lines from some of your favorite books.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009


Question of the day -- How do I get my manuscript really polished and ready for submission?

First of all, be prepared to rewrite until you cannot find a single way to improve your manuscript. In order to get the most out of rewriting, you're going to have to develop some objectivity about your work. One of the best ways is to take a break from your story. Put your manuscript aside and don't look at it for a week or two. Taking a break gives you a new perspective and a little distance will help you be more objective when it comes to revising your manuscript.

This is a good time to get some outside critiques. Find some objective readers who will look at your manuscript and give you feed back. I'm not talking about your children, your second grade class, parents, spouses or siblings unless they have a writer's background. The people who love us often want to be more kind than honest and we want OBJECTIVITY! Remember that critiques are a tool to help assess the work and make it better. They aren't personal. Then revise. Back to the readers, etc. Check SCBWI, your community college, local adult education center, and so on for writing workshops. These are all good sources for getting your work looked at and sometimes instructors have private groups that you might be invited to join.

One of the most helpful steps for me is to READ EVERYTHING OUT LOUD -- picture book, chapter book, it doesn't make a difference. If I find myself stumbling through a passage or subconsciously rephrasing a portion of the text, I know that's an area that needs more work.

Another good strategy to help you assess your writing is to find some successful, recently published books for your intended audience that have something in common with your story: subject, theme, style. Read the books and ask yourself what works? what doesn't? why? It's easier to take someone elses work apart than your own. Then apply what you've learned to your manuscript.

Find books that have been reviewed -- School Library Journal, Kirkus, Booklist, to name a few. Read the reviews. Ask yourself what a reviewer would say about your work. It's a good way to begin to understand what industry professionals are looking for in quality children's books.

One of the best ways to improve your writing is to read, read, read. It will develop your ear for language, improve your sense of pacing and rhythm, and enrich your general story sense.

Putting your manuscript aside doesn't mean stop writing. Work on another story. Research potential publishers or agents. Revision doesn't stop until you cannot think of any way to make your manuscript better. Even after you've begun submitting your manuscript, there will still be opportunities for revision. If your manuscript is declined, look at it as an opportunity for improvement. My work is as polished as I can make it before submission, but if the story comes back, I always see a way to make it better. As soon as I submit one story, I don't wait around for a response. I get to work on another book. Each new manuscript teaches me something and that ongoing process develops new insights I can apply to my story rewrites.

Monday, September 7, 2009

If I had to name the number one fiction genre currently the hit with the fifth graders, it would undoubtedly be Fantasy. Here are three fantasy books that are favorites with my readers.

Heroes of the Valley by Jonathan Stroud, published 2009 by Disney/Hyperion Books is the story of young prankster, Halli Sveinsson. When a practical joke goes too far, Halli is forced to set out on an epic quest that is layered over those of his heroic ancestor, Svein. Both adventures are set in a medieval world flavored with a dose of Norse mythology. The narrative moves seamlessly back and forth between Halli's adventures and the legendary Svein's providing a double dose of excitement.

I, Coriander by Sally Gardner, published 2005 by Penguin Books, is an historical fantasy/fairytale set in a seventeenth century London where magic and fairies are mingled with the harsh realities of everyday life. In Cinderella fashion, Coriander is left in the care of her abusive stepmother, but unlike the fairytale Cinderella, Coriander must orchestrate her own rescue. Told in first person by the heroine, Coriander relates her childhood struggle to use the magic powers inherited from her mother to protect herself and the fairy world where her mother was born.

The People of Sparks, sequel to the very successful The City of Ember, by Jeane DuPrau, is a far cry from the historical realm, taking place instead in a post apocalyptic world where resources are scarce and civilization is on the brink of destruction. Lina and Doon, the intrepid protagonists from the first book, lead the survivors of Ember to the town of Sparks where they seek refuge and form an uneasy alliance that is soon endangered by suspicion then sabotage. New characters are introduced and minor characters from The City of Ember emerge to continue the story and bring new tension to the narrative.

To check out reviews by youthful readers visit Scholastic's Kid's Page.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Do you have a Platform? If you are serious about a career as a writer or illustrator, it's time to leave that lonesome garret or studio and get yourself out there. Don't wait until you have a book you are trying to promote and sell.

Beginning right now, you can learn how to build a credible platform for yourself and your work by visiting The series starts today. That's all you need to know!!

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

"How do I get published?" That's the million dollar question!

The life of a writer has two components. There is the creative writing side and the business side and you have to work equally hard at both. The short answer is get a fabulous idea, write a marketable book, polish it until it is perfect, and find a publisher or agent who wants your work. If only it was that simple.

This is the number one topic anytime I do a workshop. So for all my writer friends out there -- I'm declaring Wednesdays to be Writer's Day on my blog. I encourage everyone to send me questions or make comments as we go and lets develop a dialogue on the topic.

When it comes to finding a publisher or agent for that matter -- you have to do your homework. This is an ongoing part of the business of writing. There are a number of books published every year such as: Writer's Market, Jeff Herman's Guide to Book Publishers, Editors & Agents (about 1000 pages), Writer's and Illustrator's Guide to Children's Book Publishers and Agents, Children's Writer's and Illustrator's Market. These books include information about the business, query letters, formatting, resources for writers, websites, etc. all very useful. Visit your bookstore or library and find the one(s) that work for you. Double check any possible choices at the publisher's or agent's website to be certain you have the most current information on submission guidelines. Editors and agents come and go. Houses shift their focus and some only accept submissions during specific times of the year. The SCBWI list serve has a wealth of helpful information as well.

Get the submission guidelines for anyone you are considering. They are often posted on the websites or you can request them by mail. If they say we want submissions in this form or that do it! If they say they don't accept your type of story believe them. Look at what they've published most recently to get a feel for their type of work. Publishers may be looking for books with specific themes or in certain genres, but chances are they aren't looking for another book that is too similar to one they've just published.

Keep in mind that a house may receive 20,000 submissions a year and only publish 10-20 books. The editors I'm speaking to tell me they are being extremely careful about the projects they are taking on...they're looking for the best of the best. Having said that, don't let yourself get discouraged. Remember that you can go into any bookstore and find books you love and other's that don't interest you at all, but they all got published somewhere. A work that doesn't suit one editor may really appeal to someone else.

The Gingerbread Cowboy Book Trailer