Childish Nonsense

Exploring Children's Literature

Happy Black Friday!

Okay. Do we all know what we’re thankful for now? Good. That’s a relief.lemming2

Now, about Black Friday. Toward the top of my list of dislikes is mindless crowds. I also don’t go to the grocery store the day before Thanksgiving. If we’re missing an ingredient, we’re missing an ingredient. I guarantee we won’t starve anyway.

Admittedly, I have never been to a Black Friday sale, so I may not know what I’m missing. But I never took LSD either, so the same applies there. I envision the sales as something like the Hunger Games for crazed shoppers. May the odds be ever in your favor.

Maybe I need to turn this into a children’s book. Seems like a vicious topic, but, then again, so did the Hunger Games. And that worked.

Little girl has three dollars to spend at the department store. They are supposed to have two-dollar sweaters and are giving away turkeys to the first 50 customers. She waits in line all through Thanksgiving Day and meets the craziest shoppers in the world. One lady is an ultimate shopper who feeds her family of six with coupons. One is a homeless mother, waiting with her two toddlers because she heard about the free turkeys. One is a young man who just likes to beat the system. Etc.

Not bad, but still not a picture book.

Snappy is a lemming whose lives alone in a burrow near the sea. He’s heard rumors that his family plans to jump off a nearby cliff when they migrate. He doesn’t believe it, but, oh, the rewards that await him if he survives! A warmer burrow and plenty of food. Do lemmings really commit suicide? Let’s hope not.

Did I mention I’m doing Picture Book Idea Month and that it’s hard to turn off the idea machine? When life hands you lemons (or is that lemmings), make lemming-ade.

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Good Grief


Picture received from Mrs. Kennedy in 1963 – sorry about the flash

On this, the 50th anniversary of the JFK assassination, a jumble of thoughts is running through my mind.

I had a very happy childhood. In fact, I once accused my mother of ruining my writing by making me too happy. The death of a President was one of the worst moments in my young life.

We had campaigned for JFK as a family. I remember his plane making a sort of whistle stop at the Des Moines airport. My dad lifted me so I could see, and I was a chunky little kid. I was most impressed with all the red hair, since I was a redhead.


Letter from Nancy Tuckerman, Mrs. Kennedy’s secretary

In fifth grade, my class regularly watched an educational (social studies) program on television after Friday lunch, so we were lined up in the hallway until the sixth grade finished their class. A rumor started at the front of the line. The teacher had been flipping channel s after their program finished and came across a news report. The President had been shot. Of course, none of us believed it at first. The sixth graders were pulling our legs. Less than five minutes later, we were in the auditorium with the sixth grade, watching in disbelief as Walter Cronkite tried to get more information. Soon, the entire school was in the auditorium. Teachers and everyone cried.

At age 10, I wrote a letter of condolence to Mrs. Kennedy and received a letter and photo from her secretary. A dear friend of the family, who has since died also, made a beautiful frame for that photo. I remember JFK’s funeral like it was yesterday.

That experience did a lot to form my outlook on life, though much of it is couched in flashes of memory and very strong emotions.


Program from 1958 conference with JFK autograph – obtained by my mother-in-law

Fast forward 50 years. My brother Dennis, for reasons I won’t discuss here, is very much involved in making sure that we don’t forget that children grieve and that their feelings deserve at least as much attention as do those of the adults around them. The trick is that children grieve differently from adults. The disbelief or bargaining may last longer for a child. In some ways, children’s emotions are deeper and more complex.

As a writer, I’m grateful to have these forceful memories to draw on when writing for children, though I sometimes need a reminder to think back on those times. It doesn’t have to be as big as an assassination, either. Even the death of a pet can be traumatic. Just want to make sure I recognize the grief.



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I Did Not Steal This Hat


All the threads coming together — hopefully.

Beginning. Middle. End.

Seems so simple, but this is one of the most difficult concepts for writers to keep in mind. We come with great ideas about which we can go on for 500 pages, then what? Oh, yeah. An ending. How’m I gonna get to one of those? Without naming names, even best-selling authors forget this simple mantra. I can hear one in particular saying, “I told the story. I’m done now.”  And then there are those whose story doesn’t get going until page 50 or so. Leaves you wondering how on earth you’re going to make it through the next 450.

So, what does a good beginning look like? Could be a killer first line. I always think of Dickens when this comes up. A Tale of Two Cities remains one of my favorite books of all time. Could it have anything to do with “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”? Hmm. Maybe. A grabber. A phrase that makes you think be it ironic or oxymoronic or just cryptic. Could anyone miss E.B. White’s meaning in “’Where’s Papa going with that ax?’”

Picture books present an exceptional challenge. Not only do you have to grab attention with very few words, but the attention you’re grabbing is fleeting and picky. Many small children choose activities based on split-second views of book and DVD covers. We can only guess what they’re thinking, but a grabber can be as simple as a fish with a hat a lá Jon Klassen’s This Is Not My Hat.  (Wish I’d thought of that. Also wish I had half his talent.) “This hat is not mine.” So? “I just stole it.” Okay, turning the page now.

Then you get to the middle. I, for one, get a terrible case of the middle slumps. I know where I started and where I want to go, but how do I get there without being didactic or sounding like I lost my train of thought? It’s not easy. Do you tell the backstory right away? “I stole it from a big fish.” Do you start the chase? Or do you grow a forest in Max’s room (Where the Wild Things Are)? Whatever you do, it has to be as unusual and unexpected as the beginning or the reader won’t be there for the twisted ending.

And here is where I don’t want to give away anything. I think I’m safe in pointing out that Max’s supper is waiting for him yet it was hot as in the forest. What makes that work? Not sure, but it may be that Max is everykid. We all like to romp with the monsters, but we all like our supper in the end. Until the monsters come again.

Remember, though, rules are made to be broken. Your picture book may be the one that proves middle, beginning, end is a good formula. Or middle, middle, middle. The point is, we need to tell a story.

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Getting to Know You

As writers, we hear a lot about getting to know our characters. In the abstract, that makes most of us very happy. This means we can have long conversations with ourselves at Starbucks and, when anyone stares, we can just explain we’re working out a scene. Hopefully, that will satisfy the starer.

But, what does this really mean for us? I’ve been working on a middle grade novel for about six years and it’s at least semiautobiographical. So I should know the main character pretty well, right? Oddly, it wasn’t until Mary Quattlebaum, speaking at the recent Mid-Atlantic SCBWI conference, asked the right question that a light bulb came on. I think I finally understand all that this character wants. It doesn’t matter what the question was. I’ve always looked at things a little sideways. I just needed someone to use the right combination of words at the right time to help me find her motivation. Writers must get to know their main character. Not to mention their antagonist and secondary characters.

And now I’m thinking of ways to apply all this to all my other works. I’m participating in Picture Book Idea Month (, which brings a whole new crop of stories and, with them, a whole new population of characters. It usually surprises non-writers just how difficult it is to write a picture book. Parsimony takes on new meaning when editors tell you to keep your story under 600 words. Which means we need to know our characters that much better in order to find the salient points. And the main character is often a small child, an animal, or an inanimate object. How does one get to know a Teddy bear? I suggest having the bear travel everywhere with you and maybe keep a journal of impressions. My friend Ellen Ramsey (Twitter handle @SowingIdeas) recently pointed me to an article about Brits whose Teddy bears tweet. ( The part I found most enlightening was that men are twice as likely to set up social media accounts for their bears. As for getting to know small children characters: color in a coloring book, go to the zoo, walk around on your knees, make a huge mess, jump in a pile of leaves, etc. (Okay, I admit this part isn’t hard work. The hard part is holding onto thinking like a child.)

The point is that no matter who the characters are, the writer must get to know them or they won’t ring true. Our youngest children are the quickest to spot phonies.


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Thankful for November

Robbie415087Thank goodness I’ve surrounded myself with wonderful and inspiring people. Writing really is such lonely business that we often forget there are thousands (millions?) of other people going through the same struggles we are.

Once again, I’m participating in Picture Book Idea Month, the brain child of Tara Lazar ( I know for a fact that Tara had no idea (get it?) what she was getting into when she decided to challenge her fellow writers to come up with at least thirty picture book ideas during the month of November. She regularly mentions how surprised she is at the number of responses to various posts on her blog. Face it, Tara. This is a GOOD idea. You have fans!

So, I’m off with a bang. Four ideas in my notebook so far and I’ve barely scratched the surface. Meantime, I’m still working on that middle grade novel and that nonfiction project too. Yay!

Last Saturday, I attended the annual conference of the Mid-Atlantic region of the SCBWI. Many thanks to Ellen Braaf and the other wonderful Virginians and Washingtonians.

I attend an awful lot of conferences and they often blur together in my mind, but there were several things about this conference that made it memorable. This conference regularly sells out, so there was no surprise that the room was packed. There were three main “talks.”

Editor Frances Gilbert from Doubleday reminded everyone that you have to tell your story. And remember that the current trend does little for the author whose book won’t be in print for at least several months. But I learned from her that Doubleday is currently revitalizing its children’s market. Very, very good news.

Author and all-around good pirate Mary Quattlebaum talked about character and how it affects story arc, motivation, and scenes. Her exercises involving motivation gave me some insight into a character I’ve been working with for years. One finds inspiration in the strangest places and at the strangest times. Latch onto it when it hits!

Keynoter, author Cynthia Lord, talked about how her award-winning book, Rules, got published.  I’ve heard some of this before, but it was well-worth hearing her current take on it. Like a fourth grader, my favorite part was where she passed around her Newbury Honors plaque for all to make a wish on. See, her wish was to BE a Newbury author. Now she can share the magic with others. Thanks, Cindy!

The editors and agents were also great. Good job, Mid-Atlantic!

So, on to the task of writing good literature and stuff.  🙂

P.S. Why post the picture of my cairn terrier, Robbie? Just because I can.


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