Childish Nonsense

Exploring Children's Literature

Back At It

This is unabashedly personal, so read if you want to know about ME.

I knew I hadn’t posted anything on here in a while, so I looked back to see how long it had been. Maybe that wasn’t such a good idea. Four months is quite a moratorium.

I did complete Picture Book Idea Month, and I even got a few workable ideas from that. And I’m working on a couple.

National Novel Writing Month saw a good first week, so I got a good start on one of my middle grade ideas – a hybrid of two ideas I had worked on before. Nothing is ever wasted.

After that, came holidays, a personal writing retreat, a new critique group, the opening of registration for our regional SCBWI next month, and a trip to New York for the SCBWI conference there. Whew!


Two different manuscripts found their way to the writers roundtable in NY. I got a lot of great feedback on both, so, naturally, I have even more work to do than before. Many words of wisdom flew around during the main conference. Queries should remain relevant to the work you’re trying to sell. Diversity is good, but not just for the sake of diversity. Common denominators for good middle grade writing include: know your market, know your reader, use an authentic voice, be original, write about things that matter, characters should stand out, include surprises, and leave the reader with something of substance. Endings are also important.

Next, I’m planning to participate in the great Reading for Research Month challenge conducted by colleague Carrie Charley Brown, which involves a lot of note taking and trips to the library for picture books. Yes, I AM a glutton for punishment.

Oh, and the last book I finished was NOT a children’s book. For a book club, my husband and I read Deep, Down, Dark: The Untold Stories of 33 Men Buried in a Chilean Mine and the Miracle That Set Them Free by Hectór Tobar. It’s a very engaging account of the mine disaster from 2010. All the men survived. I remember being gripped daily by the news stories for the two months they were buried. The author did a great job of putting a face on the men, their families, and the rescue team. Highly recommended.Deep Down Dark

On to the next project.

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LA – Worth the Trip

logo-scbwiThis is a little long, but it was a really great conference.

Knowing that not all of us can make the trip does not in any way keep me from getting excited when I go to the SCBWI Summer Conference in Los Angeles. The atmosphere is infectious, the people are wonderful, and I learn so much. Over 1200 writers, illustrators, editors, agents, and others gathered to learn and draw energy from each other.

I can truthfully say I enjoyed every single event I attended, though I did need to take a breath a couple of times. Keynotes included:

  • Mem Fox, who not only was riveting with reading her books to us, but shared a lot about her process,
  • Meg Wolitzer, who can do it all,
  • Adam Rex, who knows how to make a picture book,
  • Dan Santat (What can I say?),
  • Jane O’Connor, a lively talk on creating characters,
  • Varian Johnson on doing the work,
  • Molly Idle, who says “Yes, and …?” a lot,
  • Deb Halverson, who knows an awful lot about the market,
  • Stephen Fraser, who shared many shining examples of great literature,
  • Shannon Hale, who wants boys and girls alike to enjoy enjoyable things,
  • Dan Yaccarino, and
  • Kwame Alexander, who slam dunked it.

And then we all said “Whew!” and collapsed.

Seriously, though, I also attended wonderful breakouts by Kathleen Krull and Paul Brewer, Bonnie Bader, and Kristy Dempsey; intensives by Paul Fleischman and by Arthur Levine; a very informative discussion about LGBTQ issues; the marathon regional advisor training; and the sparkling and shining Saturday poolside party.


Here are some of the keys to the kingdom I gathered.

Mem Fox on picture books:

  • “Great art communicates before it’s understood” (TS Eliot)
  • A deep sense of rhythm can’t be taught. It must be caught.
  • It’s only the comfort of the right words in the right place that bring children back again and again.
  • It looks easy, but time is not the only consideration.

Kathleen Krull and Paul Brewer on adding humor to nonficition: Some subjects aren’t as funny as others, so you may need to work to find an angle to add humor. Sacajawea: Lewis and Clark would be lost without me. Sonia Sotomayor: I’ll be the judge of that. Lincoln was a funny guy and told jokes. The Beatles were hilarious in their interviews. Cultivate your own sense of humor.

Dan Santat on creativity:

  • Think about why you like things.
  • Study the fundamentals, but be flexible.
  • Learn by imitation, but be careful.
  • Start improvising.
  • Immerse yourself fin life and culture.
  • Think about craft first and foremost.

Varian Johnson on doing the work: Show up for work even if the muse doesn’t.

Stephen Fraser recommends the following middle grade novels as reference for various reasons:

  1. Charlotte’s Web (EB White) – Carefully crafted writing
  2. Stone Fox (John Reynolds Gardner) – Drama
  3. Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles (Julie Andrews Edwards) – Imagination
  4. The Clockwork Three (Matthew J. Kirby) – Inventive and mixes genres
  5. Heart of a Samurai (Margi Preus) – Bringing history alive
  6. Holes (Louis Sachar) – Take two years or more if you need it to write a great story and for its humor (Don’t be afraid to be funny.)
  7. James and the Giant Peach (Roald Dahl) – Having fun unapologetically
  8. Junonia (Kevin Henkes) – Writing to the emotional age
  9. Missing May (Cynthia Rylant) – Place can be a character
  10. Sarah, Plain and Tall (Patricia MacLachlan) – Make each word resonate
  11. The Secret Garden (Frances Hodgson Burnett) – Let joy spill out
  12. Harry Potter (JK Rowling) – Don’t be afraid to write a long book. Good books can be enjoyed by all ages.

Kwame Alexander on taking the creative leap:

  1. You’ll never make it if you don’t keep shooting.
  2. Work harder.
  3. You must have a good game plan.
  4. Loss is inevitable.
  5. Grab the ball. Take it to the hoop.
  6. Real teammates cheer you on.


There was way too much at the intensives to even begin to share. I highly recommend them to attendees.

Hope you enjoyed this little peek at LA.

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Of Website Crashes and Such

Computer warningYesterday, while the gadget geeks were busy crashing the Apple website because some new doodad was on the market, a mighty group of writers and illustrators crashed a site because the tribe is on its way to Los Angeles. (I wonder if the word “crash” makes Sally Crock cringe since Harrison Ford landed his plane across the street from her house. She was one of the first on the scene and was no doubt grateful he didn’t land it IN their house.) Those gadget geeks have nothing on children’s book creators.

Why? Why did we all have to get on the site right away? Basically, the reasons that we didn’t want to miss the camaraderie, learning, sharing, and inspiration.

Camaraderie: I once told Steve Mooser I’ve never met anyone through SCBWI who I don’t consider to be a friend. It’s true. This is a great group of people. And the regional advisors, who were mostly if not entirely responsible for crashing the site, are a special breed. Physically spending time with them keeps my cockles warm.

Learning: The SCBWI Summer Conference always has some amazing workshops. There is something for writers and illustrators, newbies and veterans, fiction and nonfiction aficionados, self and traditional publishers, and those interested in other issues. SCBWI is known throughout the industry for attention to craft. We all want to give children quality literature.

Sharing: I’ve said it before. This is the most generous group of people on earth. They’ve all been there. There is nothing they won’t share about their journeys. Networking is essential to success. Of course, a good share of them are also introverts, which makes it difficult to initiate the networking. But, once attendees get the hang of it, business cards are out, books are shared, etc.

Inspiration: The keynotes are always fantastic. I go home ready to work and get those manuscripts polished and out the door. Gotta love it.

So, you can have your iWatches or whatever the heck those things are called. I’ll read (and write) my books.

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Further Adventures in Conferencing

Okay, I’ve been conspicuously absent for a few weeks. Please forgive my scattered brain. I never did quite learn what my mother tried to drill into me: “You can’t do everything.” I do try to say no and cut things from my life, but it never seems to work. And so I end up doing a few things not as well as I’d like. Something always suffers and it was Childish Nonsense in this case.

Sitting down at the Spring 2014 conference

Sitting next to Giuseppe Castellano at the Spring 2014 conference

Lest it appear that all I do is attend conferences, let me assure you that is not quite true. I do spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about conferences, but this is because, with my partner Sue Peters, I organize our regional conferences. But, face it, conferences are some of the best things about SCBWI. They are inspiring and educational, a great opportunity to meet the powers of the industry, and a really good way to get out of the house.

March 29 was the spring conference for the Maryland/Delaware/West Virginia region of the SCBWI. It’s the first one I remember being so well-attended.

The international organization changed their website ( in October 2013. Our region now has a website ( as part of that project, and one of the features is event registration. In the long run, this is going to be a blessing. In the short run, the roll out has been plagued by bugs and a steep learning curve for the users. I apologize to anyone who had problems registering. We did our best to help, though we couldn’t always work the problems through. I promise it will be better for September. Fact is, I’ve literally used computers since the beginning of the pc age (we once had a Commodore 64, which we hooked up to the television) and have always kept trying different things until I found something that works. I sometimes forget others don’t work the same way, so please bear with me.

So, with our fantastic speakers and the fact that generated a sell-out crowd, I ended up talking to my laptop and to the inimitable Josh Smith at headquarters quite a bit. And pulling my hair out. Not bald yet.

To top it off, our efforts at providing quality audio-visual presentations were less than successful. I apologize for this also.

Our speakers: Lesléa Newman, author, spoke about her book October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard. She had me in tears talking about this young man’s tragic death. Giuseppe Castellano, art director at Penguin, was well-received with his inside look for artists. Alex Arnold, editorial assistant at Katherine Tegen Books, conducted a workshop on plotting. Tara Lazar, author of Monstore, talked about the journey from concept to picture book. (Who, what, where, when, but WHY?!) Debra Hess form Highlights was great talking about nonfiction. Christa Heschke, agent at McIntosh and Otis, spoke about the query process. Social media was the first topic for Sara D’Emic, associate agent at Talcott Notch, and her client Rori Shay, author of Elected. Alyson Heller, associate editor at Aladdin, spoke about the importance of first chapters. Other afternoon sessions included one on query letters, one on characters, and one on websites.

It was a fantastic conference, but I was really exhausted afterward. Whew!

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New York 2014 Conference Buzz


Big giant head in hotel lobby sporting Suess hat for the children’s writers

Another amazing SCBWI conference is in the bag. Just a quick run through of my notes. Hope this helps some who couldn’t be there, but there’s nothing like being there.

The overall theme was the seven essentials for children’s literature. Some speakers really took this to heart. Others did not.

I did not attend a Friday intensive though I did help with the registration for this event. I hear the intensives were great.

There was a party for industry professionals Friday night, along with the illustrator portfolio showcase. A lot of freaking talent in that room! My Co-Regional Advisor, Sue Peters, and I used the opportunity to start seeking speakers for regional conferences. (Sneaky RAs)

Saturday began with introductions by Steve Mooser and Lin Oliver. With 1085 registrants, 153 were men (up a little), 867 were women, and 65 were apparently neither. 47 states (no Dakotas or Hawaii) and 20 countries were represented. The joke contest was to write a headline for the Winter Olympics starring a children’s book character. Boy, was I surprised to actually win with the first one that popped into my head: Team Rapunzel Best in Curling. Some other good ones: Steve Mooser’s Does a Russian Bear Putin the Woods? And Lee Wind’s Vladimir Putin’s Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Gay. At least we have fun.

Jack Gantos gave the opening keynote. He spoke about his process. He even shared photos of his writing desk at the Boston Atheneum. For picture books, he makes a 16-square grid. Starts with character introduction, setting, problem, action, action, emotion, crisis, resolution, solve problem, and end. One of his best points was that the best stories have two endings – a physical one and an emotional one. After writing, he moves on to a focused re-write, concentrating on one issue at a time.

I attended the morning breakout session on Creating Nonfiction with Debra Dorfman and Marisa Polansky from Scholastic. Their seven esssentials consisted of:

  1. Explore your interests
  2. Explore your strengths
  3. Explore your audience
  4. Explore your bookstore, school book fair, school book club
  5. Explore the opportunities
  6. Explore sources
  7. Explore publishers

Of course, being from Scholastic, they had some really good examples to back up each point. They mentioned they’re always looking for that unusual idea that speaks to kids. Biographies of little-known people or about quirks of already-famous people are a plus. Combining ideas, like their new Dinosaurs (or sharks or dolphins) in a Box are great. (This is a nonfiction book, a fictional story, poster, and flash cards boxed together.)


Some of HMH’s recently published picture books

My afternoon breakout was with Jeannette Larson of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, speaking about Writing Picture Books. She had a list of essential ingredients for a great picture book (originality, rhythm, economy, conflict, wholeness, purpose, and authenticity) and a list of ingredients of a writer of great picture books (curiosity, love of language, observance, flexibility, patience, courage, and honesty). Originality means yanking out those clichés. Rhythm means making your text readable, especially out loud. Economy means making every word do its job. Conflict is not about arguing. Wholeness = beginning, middle, and end. Purpose is not about a message. Authenticity means it’s truly child centered.

She also came with great examples. She says that picture books matter, especially in emotional terms, because you never know what the ripple effect will be.

The afternoon keynote was given by author Elizabeth Wein, who spoke about accepting responsibility for everything you write or do. She said that maintaining grace in the face of success will win you a lot of friends.

After that was a discussion panel about banned books.

The evening began with a dinner hosted by the individual regions. It was great to meet with some of the people from our region. I was so glad to see that each of our regional states was represented. And the mini cupcakes were scrumptious.

Later, I had volunteered to attend a social especially for brand new SCBWI members. I’d forgotten how energetic and inspired new members are. What a wonderful group of people!

Sunday morning was the time for award presentation. Tomie dePaolo, at 80, and Jane Yolen, at 75, were unbelievable. I adore them both.

Kate Messner gave a great talk on the Power of Failure. She spoke a lot about not looking at so-called failures as failures, but turning them into learning opportunities and one more step forward. She used her speech at a TED event in 2012 as one example and invited us to be brave. Failure teaches us to celebrate the dance and gives us a chance to start over.

The last panel on Sunday was about the Art of the Picture Book. Five established illustrators (Marla Frazee, Peter Brown, Oliver Jeffers, Raul Colon, and Shadra Strickland) and Arthur A. Levine talked about the direction of the industry, about mistakes and moving on, and on art notes from writers and how aggravating those can be. (This came up more than once during the weekend.) Illustrators want to bring a different dimension to a project. One illustrator wanted to make the point that the writer and illustrator don’t collaborate. The words and pictures collaborate.

Nikki Grimes gave the closing keynote. As a poet, her process is very different. She usually starts with individual pieces (poems) and then ties them together. She approaches them like a jigsaw puzzle.

After the door prizes, I said a find farewell. The hotel staff continued to call us the children’s writers group and kept asking when we were coming back. Very soon, I hope.



Gearing up for two big events here.

The NYC SCBWI conference starts in two weeks. Two weeks! Yikes!SCBWI conf

First, I would like this winter weather to come to a screeching halt. I won’t be responsible for my actions otherwise. When I was in my 20s I took the attitude of “no one is going to tell me I can’t go somewhere.” In other words, if the weather was bad, I was more likely to try to go out. This was not total recklessness, just a sort of claustrophobia and definitely self-determination. Now, I see a flake and I go into hibernation. Not sure which me will emerge if the weather is bad when I want to go to NYC. I have a feeling I will revert to my 20s self.

Second, I am SO excited for some of the sessions. I like to get myself revved up for these events by reading something by all the keynoters. I’m happy to report I’m having a ball. What a great group of authors. My favorites so far are the wonderful characters created by Sharon M. Draper, but I also love Elizabeth Wein, Kate Messner, and Jack Gantos. Who wouldn’t?

Third, I’m going to NYC! There are two great children’s literature related exhibits within walking distance of the Grand Hyatt, where the conference is being held. The New York Public Library (yes, the one with the lions out front) is showing The ABC of It: Why Children’s Books Matter: Meanwhile, the Morgan Library has The Little Prince: A New York Story: Just hope I get to see one of them. So much fun, so little time. Then there’s some of the best shopping and eating in the world. Oh, my!

A month later, my region, Maryland/Delaware/West Virginia, is holding our annual spring conference. Sue Peters and I are doing a great job dividing the duties but we can’t divide the worry. Registration has been a little rocky with our new website:, but we think we have it under control now. BTW, the SCBWI team in Los Angeles has worked many long and frustrated hours on making the website work for everyone. It hasn’t been easy. A great big thank you to Sally Crock, Josh Smith, and Chelsea Confalone. Travel arrangements and AV needs are in process, and we’re still tweaking the program for the regional conference.

So, I’ve been a little busy with prep. And I love it.

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Running Start on 2014



So, after reflecting on 2013, my next step was to start making a plan for 2014. As with a lot of ideas that goal-oriented, it’s often advisable to break down the tasks into smaller increments and concentrate on one action at a time. Goals should be identifiable, quantifiable, and attainable.

Let me outline the goals I set for this past week and where they led me.

  1. Read and critique works of others. Check.
    • Read and reviewed a manuscript for a member of my online critique group.
    • Finished and reviewed Sarah Sullivan’s All That’s Missing. Highly recommended.
  2. Sign up for 12×12 in 2014 ( Check.
    • Signed up for gold level and participated a lot on Facebook group.
  3. Begin other challenges. Check.
  4. Revise a chapter a day for novel. No.
    • Well, that was overly ambitious, but I did get through three chapters.
  5. Advance on all current picture books and start thinking about new ones. Check.
    • Two canine-related and the rhymey one
  6. Progress on nonfiction book. No.
    • Note to self: Only 24 hours in a day.
  7. Work on getting registration ready for regional conference in March. Check.
  8. ADDED: Pay attention to new opportunities.       Check.

I’m sure I’m forgetting a lot of details, but, again, there are only 24 hours in a day. Keeping track of all of this is helping me modify the goals for next week and make more plans. Hopefully, there’s some information in here that can be of help to other writers.

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Getting Down to Business

HappyNewYearWhere to start? Where to start?

As “they” say, it’s always best to start at the beginning.  And so, what the heck IS the beginning, considering I’m in the middle of a hundred different things?

I think “It was a dark and stormy night” is out.

So is “It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.”

Even “Where’s Papa going with that axe?” is taken. Drat!

So, following the advice of several experts, including the incomparable Katie Davis(, I decided first to take stock of my writer-related accomplishments of 2013. Hey, even I am impressed after writing it all down. No wonder I’m tired. (And this doesn’t even take into account that I had a bout of shingles in August.

  • In January, I began a major revision to my middle grade novel, my baby that I’ve been working on for years. I’m happy to say the first pass through is completely finished and now I’m adding scenes and polishing.
  • In March, Sue Peters and I took over as co-regional advisors for Maryland/Delaware/West Virginia SCBWI. I feel like I’ll find my sea legs by the time our term is up. It’s a big job. I did get the privilege of conducting a meet and greet in West Virginia. What a wonderful, talented group of people. Part of that was a sneak peek at Sarah Sullivan’s amazing debut novel, All That’s Missing.
  • In August, Sue Peters and I attended and worked at the LA conference of the SCBWI. If you ever get the chance to attend, do it! This community will blow you socks off. Support up the wazoo. So much information I can’t possibly absorb it all.
  • Also in August (Can you tell August was a big month?), I purchased a suite of book review websites, Also still finding my sea legs on this.
  • In November, I participated in Picture Book Idea Month and came away with well more than 30 good ideas. And they’re still generating. Four of them are now rough manuscripts.
  • I read and reviewed 87 books, according to Goodreads.
  • I also continue work on a middle grade nonfiction book. I find having more than one project often keeps me from getting bored and lets some projects simmer when I get stuck.

So, what does all this mean?

  1. I can accomplish a lot if I keep myself organized.
  2. I’m learning a lot and always improving my skills.
  3. Goals, plans, and keeping organized are very, very important.
  4. 2014 is gonna be great!

Resolved …

In my observation, the vast majority of people claim not to make New Year’s resolutions. And yet, we keep talking about it. So there must be something to the sense of renewal and reassessment inherent in a new year. (Or it could be media hype.) Maybe we’re just making plans. Maybe we are hoping for something better. Maybe we really are making solid goals. One thing’s for sure, we should steer clear of things we have little to no control over. I’d like to resolve to win the lottery, but the universe probably won’t listen to me.

Part of the problem with such things is that they set us up for failure. It’s all in how you approach your plans, I guess. I love traveling, but at least half the fun for me is making the plans. Airlines, hotels, how we will get around, and what there is to see. But then I relax and roll with the punches. Because it’s usually the unexpected that makes a trip memorable. Like the tram passenger in Prague who fought with the driver to help an elderly woman. That was not on my list of events to witness.

So, here are some things in my plans. Can’t wait to see how the plans turn out. In January, I plan to participate in three different writing challenges. I will sign up again for Julie Hedlund’s 12×12 challenge ( I fizzled on this one in 2013, but I’m feeling much more organized this year. And I did learn a lot from the forums. Julie provides so much to participants that she charges for this opportunity, but I’ve decided it’s well worth the cost for me. I’m also planning to Start the Year Off Write with Shannon Abercrombie (, twenty-one days of writing challenges and sharing. Meg Miller helps picture book writers revise drafts during ReviMo (, a week of blogs.

All of these challenges have wonderful blogs with guest bloggers and great advice for writers. There are many other challenges out there. Sub Six, Alayne Kay Christian’s challenge, which encourages submitting picture book manuscripts to editors and agents, comes to mind.

Let me say these are not the end all and be all of my writing for January, but these are some of my plans. In fact, I’m hoping they will inspire me to keep working on the projects I already have going. I know the camaraderie, support, and tips are invaluable in such communities.  Sitting back and waiting for the unexpected.

In February, I will be in New York at the winter conference of SCBWI. I’ve been to this conference before but never as a regional advisor. We do work for our supper, but seeing such events from a different angle is always fascinating. I’m planning to be lucid enough to discuss my current projects with other attendees. What a challenge!

Of course, that’s just a few of the plans for 2014. Hope yours are shaping up too.

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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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