Friday, August 31, 2012

Join in the Process

Week of August 26, 2012: A Canon of Picture Books
Friday, August 31—Join in the Process

Today’s post is short and sweet (or at least short). I want to know what characteristics you look for in quality picture books. What inspires you? What intrigues you? What characteristics do you think are present in picture books that withstand the passage of time and are popular with one generation after another? What makes a picture book appreciated by both critics and children?

Post your thoughts below. Our ideas might contribute to our own canons of children’s picture books. Our ideas will certainly challenge us to improve our writing and strive to make our picture books be among the best

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Developing My Criterion

Week of August 26, 2012—A Canon of Picture Books
Thursday, August 30—Developing My Criterion


Have you heard the phrase, “Fake it, ‘til you make it”? That might very well describe my process of developing a criterion for selecting a canon of picture books. I’m trying to figure out things as I go along.


Here’s another phrase you may not have heard: “The process is more important than the product.” As I’ve been researching qualities of the best of the best picture books, as I’ve scoured the books on my shelves and looked a best sellers and award winners, as I’ve \given brain-time to consider what makes a great picture book great, I’ve been learning. This process of learning may be more important than the end product of a list of books. Who knows? Time will tell.

I have developed a first draft of my criterion for stellar picture books. Since this is a first stab at it, I’ll probably need to revise as time goes along. But, for now, below is my criterion for selecting titles to include in my canon of picture books. Consider this a rubric a way by which you judge a book.

Rob’s Criterion for Picture Books to Include In THE CANON

r A unique concept
r A book that is centered on children

r A book children will want to hear or read over and over
r A book an adult won’t mind reading over and over
r Memorable
r Meaningful
r A book that sparks questions, thinking, and conversation
r A book with meaning, but not with a moral
r A book the celebrates the different and unique

r Characters who are lovable, relatable, and memorable
r Characters who are human and flawed

r A book with universal appeal
r A book that introduce kids to new and exciting adventures, experiences, and worlds
r A subject that is unique, or a familiar subject addressed in an unique way

r A book with simplicity, but that is not simple
r A book that limits words to only the best ones
r A book with rhythm, pattern, and repetition
r A book with rich vocabulary

r A story that leaves room for the pictures
r Stellar illustrations that tell the other half of the story
r A collaboration that brings together text and art

Do any picture books have all of these qualities? I don’t know. But if such books do exist, they are probably few and far between. More likely, picture books that rise to the level to be included in my canon or yours, contain many, or at least several, of these qualities.

It’s Your Turn!
r Join the conversation. What other qualities or criterion for selecting outstanding picture books would you add to the list? Add a comment below.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Remembering a Proclamation

Week of August 26, 2012—A Canon of Picture Books
Wednesday, August 29—Remembering a Proclamation

More than a year ago a Picture Book Proclamation from several authors and illustrators appeared in The Horn Book and other publications, and was widely circulated. The powerful words of the proclamation contain information we could use to develop a criterion for a canon of picture books. The Picture Book Proclamation is shown below, you may also link to it at

So what criterion might we draw from the Picture Book Proclamation? Below are some things that stand out to me.

A remarkable picture book must:
. . . be fresh, honest, piquant, and beautiful.
. . . spark thinking and conversation.
. . . have meaning, not moral.
. . . center on children.
. . . be original.
. . . be a collaboration that brings together words and art.

For you (and me) to do:
Continue to read and think about the Picture Book Proclamation. What other truths can you discover that should be part of a criterion for a canon of picture books? 

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Discovering Books that Shaped America

Week of August 26, 2012—A Canon of Picture Books
Tuesday, August 28—Discovering Books that Shaped America

A current exhibition at the Library of Congress (and online) features “Books that Shaped America.” The list includes familiar titles and ones that are lesser known, fiction and non-fiction, adult literature and children’s literature. “This list is a starting point,” said Librarian of Congress James H. Billington. “It is not a register of the ‘best’ American books – although many of them fit that description. Rather, the list is intended to spark a national conversation on books written by Americans that have influenced our lives, whether they appear on this initial list or not.”

Don’t you love the idea of “a national conversation on books?” Perhaps we could call this list from the Library of Congress a canon of American literature. What I wish had been included in the exhibition and the many articles about it is the criterion for selecting the books. Of course, the criterion itself might spark another national conversation!  

Below is the Library of Congress’ “canon” of books that shaped American. Picture books are highlighted in red, and other children’s books are highlighted in blue.

American Cookery, Amelia Simmons
The American Woman’s Home, Catharine E. Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe
And the Band Played On, Randy Shilts
Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand
The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Malcolm X and Alex Haley
Beloved, Toni Morrison
The Call of the Wild, Jack London
The Cat in the Hat, Dr. Seuss
Catch-22, Joseph Heller
The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger
Charlotte’s Web, E.B. White
Common Sense, Thomas Paine
Cosmos, Carl Sagan
The Double Helix, James D. Watson
Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury
Family Limitation, Margaret Sanger
The Federalist, Anonymous
The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan
The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin
For Whom the Bell Tolls, Ernest Hemingway
Gone With the Wind, Margaret Mitchell
Goodnight Moon, Margaret Wise Brown
The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck
The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald
Howl, Allen Ginsberg
The Iceman Cometh, Eugene O’Neill
Idaho: A Guide in Word and Pictures, Federal Writers’ Project
In Cold Blood, Truman Capote
Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison
Joy of Cooking, Irma Rombauer
The Jungle, Upton Sinclair
Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman
The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Washington Irving
Mark, the Match Boy, Horatio Alger Jr.
Moby-Dick; or The Whale, Herman Melville
Native Son, Richard Wright
New England Primer, Anonymous
New Hampshire, Robert Frost
On the Road, Jack Kerouac
Our Bodies, Ourselves, Boston Women’s Health Book Collective
Our Town: A Play, Thornton Wilder
Poems, Emily Dickinson
Pragmatism, William James
The Red Badge of Courage, Stephen Crane
Red Harvest, Dashiell Hammett
The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne
Silent Spring, Rachel Carson
The Snowy Day, Ezra Jack Keats
The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. Du Bois
The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner
Spring and All, William Carlos Williams
A Street in Bronzeville, Gwendolyn Brooks
A Streetcar Named Desire, Tennessee Williams
Tarzan of the Apes, Edgar Rice Burroughs
Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston
A Treasury of American Folklore, Benjamin A. Botkin
Uncle Tom's Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe
Unsafe at Any Speed, Ralph Nader
Walden; or Life in the Woods, Henry David Thoreau
The Weary Blues, Langston Hughes
Where the Wild Things Are, Maurice Sendak

For you (and me) to do:
RStart reading through the list!
RSee what criterion we can ascertain by looking at the children’s books on the list.
RVisit the Library of Congress' online exhibit at

Monday, August 27, 2012

Quotes to Guide Our Path

Week of August 26, 2012—A Canon of Picture Books
Monday, August 27—Quotes to Guide Our Path

A canon of children’s picture books—the thought is so huge I have difficulty putting my brain around it. As I often do when I’m interested in a subject, or overwhelmed by its complexity, I turned to quotes from others to help guide my path. I’ve been reading lots of quotes about the importance of literature, the value of reading, the need for books, and so on. I’ve compiled a list of some of the more powerful quotes I found hoping that they would guide my path as I begin to develop my canon of picture books. I hope you find inspiration in these quotes as well.

Good children's literature appeals not only to the child in the adult, but to the adult in the child.

All the best stories in the world are but one story in reality—the story of escape. It is the only thing which interests us all and at all times, how to escape.
—Arthur Christopher Benson

Children are made readers on the laps of their parents.
—Emilie Buchwald

There is no substitute for books in the life of a child.
—Mary Ellen Chase

So please, oh PLEASE, we beg, we pray, Go throw your TV set away, And in its place you can install, A lovely bookshelf on the wall.
—Roald Dahl (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory)

Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.
—Frederick Douglass

The only books that influence us are those for which we are ready, and which have gone a little farther down our particular path than we have yet got ourselves.
—E.M. Forster

The destiny of the world is determined less by the battles that are lost and won, than by the stories it loves and believes in.
—Harold Goddard (The Meaning of Shakespeare)

You must write for children the same way you write for adults, only better.
—Maxim Gorky

Life-transforming ideas have always come to me through books.
—Bell Hooks

Words should be weighed, not counted.
Jewish folk saying

We read to know we are not alone.
—C.S. Lewis

I believe that good questions are more important than answers, and the best children’s books ask questions, and make the readers ask questions. And every new question is going to disturb someone's universe.
—Madeleine L’Engle

The things I want to know are in books. My best friend is the man who'll get me a book I [haven’t] read.
—Abraham Lincoln

I don’t want to write for adults. I want to write for readers who can perform miracles. Only children perform miracles when they read.
—Astrid Lindgren

There are many little ways to enlarge your child’s world. Love of books is the best of all.
—Jacqueline Kennedy

In every generation, children’s books mirror the society from which they arise; children always get the books their parents deserve.
—Leonard S. Marcus

When it comes to telling children stories, they don’t need simple language. They need beautiful language.
—Philip Pullman

‘Thou shalt not’ is soon forgotten, but ‘Once upon a time’ lasts forever.”
—Philip Pullman

Reading takes us away from home, but more important, it finds homes for us everywhere.
—Hazel Rochman

Story is the vehicle we use to make sense of our lives in a world that often defies logic.
—Jim Trelease

Not all readers are leaders, but all leaders are readers.
—Harry S Truman

The man who does not read good books is no better than the man who can’t.
—Mark Twain

For you (and me) to do:
RAs you read through these quotes, make mental or physical notes of the criterion for developing a canon of picture books that become evident to you.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Coming This Week!

Week of August 26, 2012—A Canon of Picture Books
Quote of the week:
There is more treasure in books than in all the pirate’s loot on Treasure Island.
—Walt Disney

Back in January, at the Florida SCBWI Winter Conference in Miami, I heard Lin Oliver speak. Lin is the co-founder and executive director of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. One thing that Lin said has been percolating in my brain since that conference—Develop your own canon of literature that means something to you.”

Since canon can be defined as a standard rule or criterion, I was left wondering how to develop a canon for myself. What standard rules, what criterion, would I use if I were developing my canon of literature, or of children’s literature, or specifically of picture books?  My thinking is still in flux, but I love the question.

Let’s think deeper this week about what standard rule or criterion could be used to determine what books should be in a canon of picture books.

Monday—Quotes to Guide Our Path
Tuesday—Discovering Books that Shaped America
Wednesday—Remembering a Proclamation
Thursday—Developing My Criterion
Friday—Join in the Process

Friday, August 24, 2012

Ask Yourself Three Questions

Week of August 19, 2012: Finding Stories Within
Friday, August  24—Ask Yourself Three Questions

No matter how many idea-gathering sheets I help student writers create, I still hear someone say, “I don’t know what to write about.” I tell them to look back at their idea sheets, look in their writing journals for ideas, look at our class chart of ideas on the wall, and so on, and still I’ll hear, “I don’t know what to write about.”

The same thing happens with adult writers. Put them in a conference session where someone gives a prompt or asks them to write, and about a third of the writers will sit and not write. Some will even say, “I can’t write on demand,” or “I don’t have anything to write about today.”

Some people call this writer’s block. Not me. I don’t believe in writer’s block. Have you ever heard a bus driver say, “I can’t drive today, I have bus driver’s block.” Or a member of your local fire station say, “Sorry, can’t put out your house fire. I have fire fighter's block.” Or a teacher say, “I can’t teach you today, kids. I have teacher’s block.” We all have to push beyond our feelings and wants and druthers, to do our job. If writing is your job (as it is for my students during their writing block), then I expected you to write! J

Here’s a strategy I use with a student writer who says he/she has nothing to write about.

Step 1: I say: “I’m going to ask you three questions. Answer each question quickly.”
Step 2: I ask three different questions off the top of my head. For instance:
          R  What’s your favorite game or sport? (The kid might answer: Soccer)
          R  What’s your favorite thing to do when you’re not  at school? (Answer:
          Ride my bike)
          R  What’s your favorite restaurant? (Answer: Golden Corral)
Step 3: I say: “So which are you going to write about today: soccer, riding your bike, or Golden Corral? (Or whatever the answers are.)
Step 4: The child makes a choice and I tell them to start planning their piece.

The same strategy might work for picture book writers who are stuck. I certainly can’t guarantee my students that three questions will lead to a great story, or guarantee you that three questions will lead to an award-winning picture book, but it might get you writing.

I focus on a writing craft and elaboration strategy each day with my students. I want them to practice their writing craft. So getting an idea—even from three questions—and beginning to write is the key to practicing their craft. I think the same could be true for all of us picture book writers.

Writing and writing and writing—that’s our key. Once you accept the fact that not everything you write will be published, you’re freed up to write. Sometimes you write to stay disciplined . . . sometimes to practice a craft . . . sometimes to get an idea out of your head . . . sometimes just to write.

In your writer’s notebook, or on a sheet of paper, list as many questions to ask yourself as possible. Then if the day comes when you have nothing to write about you can ask yourself three questions from your list! Below are some questions to get you started.

R What was your favorite vacation of all time?
R Who was your best childhood friend?
R What did you and your best friend like doing together?
R Who/what was your first pet?
R What’s your favorite holiday?
R What’s the best birthday present you ever received?
R When were you most scared?
R When were you most embarrassed?
R When did you learn a lesson?
R When did things not turn out the way you expected?
R When were you surprised—in a good way?
R When were you surprised—in a not-good way?
R When was the first time you felt loss?
R What was the first movie you ever saw?
R What was your favorite TV show when you were a kid?
R What smell reminds you of home?
R Not counting your own home, whose house did you spend the most time in as a kid?
R Who was your strangest neighbor when you were growing up?
R Who was your favorite teacher?
R Who was the worst teacher ever?
R What’s the most fun you ever had at school?
R What field trip do you remember most?
R When was the first time you really felt grown up?
R Who was proud of you as a kid?
R When did you disappoint someone?
R What did you collect when you were a kid?
R What instruments can you play?
R As a child, where did you go to be alone?
R Who could you always count on when you were a kid?
R Who disappointed you when you were  a kid?

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Memorable People

Week of August 19, 2012: Finding Stories Within
Thursday, August 23—Memorable People

Are there people in your life you will never forget? When I model write for my students, I often write about my Granny Raney; my brother, Butch (whom I paint as the worst brother ever); my grade-school friends Doug Nutter, Tony Miller, and Booger Davis; and my dog, Baxter. These are some of the memorable people in my life (and, yes, I consider Baxter a person).

The people you memorable (good or bad) can inspire your writing. You don’t have to use their names, or the exact details of the event (though you could), but you can be inspired by these people and their stories.

Use today’s idea-gathering sheet to generate more ideas for your writing. One of those memorable people in your life might just become a memorable picture book character in one of your books.

Memorable People in My Life

The Person

The Memory