Childish Nonsense

Exploring Children's Literature

Thank you, Maya

A lot of people have expressed their appreciation for Maya Angelou since her passing, but I really can’t resist putting in my two cents.

Caged BirdI Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was published when I was sixteen, an extremely formative age for anyone. As a junior at a nearly-all white school in the sixties, I was more than curious about the experiences of those on the other side of town. I read The Autobiography of Malcom X about the same time. I took the one African-American History course offered at my school.

What struck me most about Dr. Angelou was her guileless ability to tell a story. Her agenda was there, without a doubt, but you never felt she was preaching. She was just telling it like it is, as we used to say. And how did she do that? By being a masterful writer. That’s how.

A review of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings from The Washington Post in April 1970 (by Ward Just) said it very well. “It is personal. It is not propaganda .… It is one woman … writing from a talent so strong as to make each part of it immediate, direct, devastating, and – oddly – beautiful.”

Most of her works were – personal, talent-ridden, immediate, direct, and beautiful. You can take any line from And Still I Rise, a 1978 poem, and it will resonate. Of course, it’s better not taken out of context, but who could deny the power of

“Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave, / I am the dream and hope of the slave. / I rise / I rise / I rise.”

She knew how to make a point. And she clearly knew her place in history.

On a personal level, I want to thank her for being such a wonderful and inspiring writer. I want to write like she did. I want to make every word count and infuse each of those words with meaning and passion. But I also want to be the incredible person she was. Loving and giving and so self-assured that she enjoyed her notoriety and never shied away from it or her fans.

You can rest well, Maya, because you sure did well on this earth.

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Children’s Book Week

CBW_Poster-smallGo ahead. You can say it. It is that time again? Very funny. But the only time I stop talking about children’s literature is when I’m reading children’s literature or making a valiant attempt to write some myself. So there! Pffft! (Hope I spelled that correctly.)

Children’s Book Week was May 12 to 18 this year. Something is going on in every single state and the District of Columbia to celebrate children’s books. If it’s not too late, maybe you can join in. There is a good list of official events at  This event was established in 1919! So, if I’m too late, there’s always next year.

In my neighborhood (literally, in my neighborhood. I could walk there if I weren’t so lazy.), is the fifth annual Gaithersburg Book Festival ( I’m shocked this has become such a big event. Workshops, book signings, and general good times. All celebrating quality literature. Can’t beat it. And it looks like the weather may even cooperate.

That’s about it for this post. Unless you want to hear about some of my pet peeves. They’ve been especially peevish this week.


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I’ve been thinking a lot about diversity in children’s books lately, partly as a result of a grassroots movement among authors to get diverse books into the hands of children. For the past couple of weeks, authors have been Tweeting about this idea. Kate DiCamillo, National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature through the Library of Congress and current Newbery winner for Flora and Ulysses, has asked authors to read books celebrating diversity at local independent book stores this Saturday, May 17, as part of Indies First.

So, WHY do we need diverse books? The answer is very simple. We want diverse readers. And not just superficially diverse, but diverse in their thinking and outlook.

For years, Americans have been asking why Johnny doesn’t read. It always comes back to books not interesting him.  Why should Johnny read anything if none of the characters look like him or talk like him or have any experiences similar to what he goes through every day? Authors like Matt de la Peña, who actually knows what it’s like to be caught between two cultures, have started to provide more deep-feeling narrative to fill the gap. But kids need more, and at younger ages. Readers start loving books young.

As an incredibly white woman, I can also see why the white majority needs an education on the feelings, experiences, and just plain ordinariness of people of all cultures and sub-cultures. The world is changing, and change is not always bad. Kids need to see that.

Last, traditional publishers need to know that, unless they speak to all segments of the population, there is an impact on their bottom line.

I didn’t want to get preachy with this, but I did want to call attention to this movement. #weneeddiversebooks

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If you don’t think setting is important, just think of some of your favorite stories set in another place and time. Would Gatsby have been so great in 21st century Afghanistan? Would Harry Potter have been so magical in Antarctica? Would Scarlett O’Hara have had such an impact in the Hunger Games? (Okay, a big maybe on that last one.)

parkMany writers like to think of the setting as another character, requiring the same care as the main characters. And they may be right. But sometimes I think setting is as elusive as voice. Sure, you can tell the reader you’re in a park and that the weather is warm and sunny, but how does the park feel? That’s the challenge.

Thoughts that help me get the setting straight:

  1. Get your five senses involved. How does the park smell? Are there hot dogs roasting? Do sunbathers reek of sunscreen? Can you smell the honeysuckle? What do you taste? Is there sweat trickling down your face? Is that watermelon sweet and a little salty? Does it taste like home? Is there a warm breeze brushing your bare arms? Is the sun heating your face? Can you hear kids screaming with delight? A puppy yipping to get its favorite toy? The trees creaking in that breeze? What color is the sky? What else do you see? And just how do you convey all this information while still maintaining the flow of the story?
  2. Think about what the setting says about your characters. Would Gatsby attend a rock concert? Harry Potter sought challenges, but the reader was more likely to find him in a cemetery than a toy store. Would Scarlett O’Hara wear jeans?
  3. Think what the setting can do to advance the plot. You have this neat little park with flying kites, sunbathers, and joggers. What would a sudden thunderstorm do to that idyllic picture? Will all the park-goers go to the same shelter? Will they interact? Do they already know each other or are they just meeting for the first time?


Well, now that I have a setting, guess I’d better get to work on my story.

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What If?



I wanted to write something about plots. This is one of my weaker points. Googling “plotting,” knowing full-well it’s an ambiguous term, my computer shows hilarious results. “How to Tell If Your Cat Is Plotting to Kill You” was my favorite. Something about trying to seize control of Ukraine. Plotting functions on a graph – near and dear to my heart – not kidding. So, on to “plotting a novel.”

I get really great ideas. I do. I get all excited about getting them on paper. I even know where I want the story to end in most cases. But, somewhere in the middle, I get stuck. How do I make this unhappy, mean person see the light of day? Where is the turning point? The funny thing is, I can predict the next step in nearly every book I read and every television show or movie I see. (Just ask my poor, suffering husband.) Quite often, I know the next line of dialogue without having read or seen the story before.

Plotting must be a common problem, since the Google search revealed a lot of information. Plus, it’s a really common topic at writer workshops. Everybody has a method. In five steps. In eight steps. With index cards. Etc. Maybe I should try them all. Each method has its merits and should be a help in a logjam.  But, the real point is, each writer is different and must find her own method. Drat!

Here are just a few methods I found:

  1. Your basic Roman-numeraled outline – Somehow, trying to make a picture book this logical just doesn’t cut it for me.
  2. Start with a synopsis – This has a lot of appeal for me. I tend to write very short, then the story grows outward. Sort of like a fungus. Closely related to Start with the Ending and work your way back.
  3. Sit down and write – This is the basic idea behind National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) I think. Write whatever comes to mind and clean it up later. Or don’t. Some have a separate Stream of Consciousness method.
  4. Start with the beats – The events that must occur in each scene. I admit I’ve used this with some success. It helps prevent my assumption the reader knows what I mean. Also prevents reversing cause and effect. So-and-so says something bad. The main character reacts. Etc. Can be condensed to the Keystone Events for the entire story.
  5. Write it on index cards – This one I like very much. I have fond memories of writing research papers in high school entirely on index cards. Rearrange at will.
  6. Storyboarding – Like a movie in 2-D. Recommended for combining with index cards.
  7. Chapter by chapter – best for longer novels. Write each chapter like a short story.
  8. Take your characters out into the world – Go to Starbucks or the mall and think about how each character would act in this scene. This is dangerously close to a character topic, though. Also dangerous if you forget to go back to work.
  9. Beginning, middle, end – Which is fine, when I don’t get stuck in the middle.

There are a lot more methods, but most of them relate in some way to the nine above.

A post about plot wouldn’t be complete without mentioning all the graphs that show the exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and dénouement. (Had to say that just so I could use that last word.) Let’s just say a graph couldn’t hurt.

In the end, I just hope I’ve helped my own plot by reminding myself of all this. Happy plotting!

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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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Final Food Fight Story

Here’s our (very spiffy ) story.

Duncan Feeds the Animals

Duncan never knew that animal shelter meant all animals were welcome. He thought that, as a monkey, he had to live with his original owner or in a zoo. But, as a well-behaved, young, and healthy monkey, he ended up in a cage at the shelter.

His very first night at the shelter, he figured out how to leave his cage. Of course, it was a trick he wanted to keep secret, so he went back to his cage and locked it up neatly. None of the other animals did anything to share his secret. Gradually, he made friends and invited them to leave their cages at night.

When it became clear that Duncan would be going to a new home the next day, he wanted to share his good fortune with all the animals. So, he broke into the most delicious food he could find. Being a monkey, he knew that the most efficient delivery system involved flinging.

THWAP. The first to get served was Madame FiFi. “Fabulous. I’m sure they don’t have a beautician here,” said Fifi as she lap-lap-lapped the food from her ears as daintily as she could. She took a pawful of the gruel and flung it back at Duncan in thanks.

But Duncan had turned tossing apple chunks to the pot-bellied pigs and didn’t see the gruel coming. SQUIPFT! Landed smack dab on his behind throwing him arms flailing into the corn feed – ACHOO!

Ping, Ping Ping corn feed bounced off the metal cages, all the critters Skittered across the floor to gobble it up. PING PING PING corn rained down on all the cages. The hamster, running on his wheel, accidentally shot some carrots out of his dish. SQUAWK! shouted the parrot, trying to dodge the increasing confusion. He grabbed as many grapes as possible out of the tray and dropped them into the fish tank. The sea horse thought it funny, then, using the air hose,  he shot those grapes at the sleeping dogs.

SPLOOOT! One of the grapes went INTO a nostril. aaaAAAAchoooooOOOO the grape shot from the dogs nose ricocheted from the ceiling fat and SHOT straight into the lion’s mouth. The lion grabbed his throat with its paw. It gagged and gagged. Then it ROARED and ROARED.

The lion said, “Who threw that grape?” He clawed up his steak, aimed, and FLUNG it, hitting a donkey in the back. “Hey,” said the lioness,” that was dinner!” The donkey looked around trying to find the monkey. Realizing the only way to get Duncan to trust him was to join in the food flinging, the donkey tossed the steak KADOONK and it landed square at the feet of Pit Masterson, the meanest, snarliest, scariest dude in the shelter. But Pit was a vegetarian, and gagged. So he whizzed the steak towards Tippy the wildcat, who was very grateful for the meat.

At that moment, the shelter truck pulled into the driveway, tires squealing. Duncan raced for his cage and locked the door. The seahorse, who hadn’t heard the truck, launched four more grapes. They hit the keeper squarely in the forehead as she opened the door.

“Hey!” she shouted. “Who threw that grape?”

Then she saw the carnage. Carrots on the ceiling. Hamster pellets in the sink. Lettuce on the floor.

By that time, Duncan was snoring in the corner of his cage with no sign he’d ever left. He was ready for his new home.


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“I don’t know what anybody sees in Hamlet. It’s just a bunch of clichés strung together.”Shakespeare

Why do we study Shakespeare? Might as well ask why we learn to talk. Whether people know it or not, they are, in fact, using Shakespeare every day. (I feel the same way about math, but Will is gonna use up all the space here.)

I really do not care who wrote all that stuff. All I care is that someone wrote it all down. And I think most scholars believe it was all written by one person. Of course, there are always some who will dispute even that, but they will probably also argue whether the sun came up this morning. My real point is that none of us exist in a vacuum and you can cause a small ripple or a tidal wave. The trick is not to ignore the tidal wave.

Someone once concluded that the only body of work more quoted, at least in English, than Shakespeare was the Bible. That’s pretty good company.  I found thirty phrases generally attributed to Will without much effort. Guess we wouldn’t know what to say without him.

Admittedly, many of these are paraphrased quotes (I blame that on modernization), but these are all phrases heard every day and penned by Will over 400 years ago:

  1. All’s well that ends well
  2. Break the ice
  3. Brevity is the soul of wit.
  4. Catch a cold
  5. Dogs of war
  6. Green-eyed monster
  7. Heart of gold
  8. I have not slept one wink
  9. I must be cruel, only to be kind.
  10. In a pickle
  11. It was Greek to me
  12. Laughing stock
  13. Lord, what fools these mortals be.
  14. Love is blind
  15. Make your hair stand on end
  16. Set your teeth on edge
  17. Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.
  18. The play’s the thing
  19. The world’s mine oyster
  20. There’s method in my madness
  21. This is the short and the long of it
  22. Tis neither here nor there
  23. Too much of a good thing
  24. Unkindest cut of all
  25. Up in arms
  26. Vanish into thin air
  27. We few, we happy few, we band of brothers
  28. We have seen better days
  29. Wear your heart on your sleeve
  30. Wild goose chase

Next time, maybe I’ll explain why it’s futile to hate math.

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Food Fight Challenge

Food Fight 2014In honor of National Read Aloud Day, I’m participating in Marcie Colleen’s Food Fight Challenge. I start the story, then you continue it by leaving a comment. You MUST throw food and you MUST use onomatopoeia (splat, squish, bonk). Here is the link to other stories: Food Fight.

Duncan Feeds the Animals

Duncan never knew that animal shelter meant all animals were welcome. He thought that, as a monkey, he had to live with his original owner or in a zoo. But, as a well-behaved, young, and healthy monkey, he ended up in a cage at the shelter.

His very first night at the shelter, he figured out how to leave his cage. Of course, it was a trick he wanted to keep secret, so he went back to his cage and locked it up neatly. None of the other animals did anything to share his secret. Gradually, he made friends and invited them to leave their cages at night.

When it became clear that Duncan would be going to a new home the next day, he wanted to share his good fortune with all the animals. So, he broke into the most delicious food he could find. Being a monkey, he knew that the most efficient delivery system involved flinging.


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.