Friday, May 31, 2013

A Don't-Miss Interview

Books—What  a Trip!
NPR aired a wonderful segment today (and an article on their web site)—“Field Trip! 10 Books That Will Send Kids Exploring!”—with Los Angeles children’s librarian Mara Alpert. Alpert writes, “When I recommend books to children or grown-ups, I can almost always get them interested if I add “Oh, and after you read this book, you could go on a field trip to the museum/zoo/baseball stadium/library . . . or just take a little road trip!” Spring 2013 has been a very good year for children’s books that spark the imagination and make kids (and grown-ups) want to do a little more exploring.” Then she goes on to list ten fantastic books—including some fascinating picture books.

Read the full story at: At the same site you will find a link to Renee Montague’s interview with Alpert.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Danger! Danger! Danger!

This is a new poster to hang over my classroom library. Isn’t this the perfect way to imagine the adventures that are hidden in all those books on the shelves?

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Writing Ailments

Self Diagnosis

Is your writing under the weather these days? Has your get-up-and-go got up and went? Do you feel dizzy and weak each time you sit down in front of your computer? If so, you might be suffering from one or more common writing ailments. A little self diagnosis might just be the thing you need in order to remedy your situation.

This ailment is a inflammation that can cause your butt to not stay in your chair long enough to complete a piece of writing. Symptoms include stacks of unfinished manuscripts, blank electronic documents, scribbled lists of ideas, and stories that end with ADD MORE HERE.

This illness will drain the blood (and the life) right out of you and your writing. Overwork-it-emia is a frequent condition of perfectionists, pleasers, people who belong to multiple critique groups, and those who just won’t let it go. Symptoms include thirty or more drafts of a manuscript, more notes than actual word count, and multiple colors of revisions on a single document.

This condition involves trusting others more than yourself. What-do-you-think?-pathy is also a frequent condition of perfectionists, pleasers, and people who belong to multiple critique groups.

This painful condition results from a lack of ideas, or the perception of a lack of ideas. A good brainstorming session often can ease the pain.

This disease results from an overflow of blog post input. The illness is found in those who read multiple writing, editing, and agent-related blogs daily; blog about the blogs; email friends about blog posts they’ve read; and repost blog posts on social media sites. The overflow of input can cause a manic cycle that prevents the writer from actually writing.

This hardening of the writing life can result from a single bad critique, lack of self-confidence, the interference of other life priorities, etc.

These opposite sides of the same coin can cause writer paralysis. Some patients are so afraid they might fail that they simply don’t try. Others, fearing that they might actually succeed, also succumb to the paralysis.

Most common writing conditions can be treated with one or more of the following remedies.

Identify the one reason, cause, or excuse that is the root cause of your affliction. Then cut that thing out of your writing life.

This non-surgical approach requires the repeated placement of a butt in a chair and the application of fingers to a keyboard.

Critique-group Therapy
While many writers take a regular dose of Critique Group, the actual practice of discussion, revision, and editing of writing following the recommended dose is required for the therapy to have its full effect

If you can diagnosis the ailment that is chronically keeping you from realizing your writing dreams, then you can begin to take steps to cure your affliction. An accurate diagnosis can lead to positive results. All writing ailments are treatable and a patient who continually treats a recurring ailment can expect a full recovery.

Monday, May 20, 2013

A New Brainstorming Tool

It All Adds Up!

We all are always looking for that next great picture book concept. Sometimes we just need a new tool to inspire us. Below you’ll find my latest brainstorming tool. I thought you might want to give it a whirl.  
The process is simple. First, brainstorm as many characters as possible for each letter of the alphabet. For instance, for the letter Bballerina, baboon, bat, baseball boy, bicycle, balloon, boa constrictor. Nothing is too wild or crazy or silly when you’re brainstorming. Don’t stop to worry about how you would plot out or write a story about a particular character, just let the ideas flow and jot them down. Continue with each letter of the alphabet.

Then follow the same process for the problems characters might face in a picture book story. Again, nothing is off limits when brainstorming. For instance for the letter Hchased by a hippo, hide-and-seek, Help Wanted sign, hiccups, first haircut, helium-filled balloons floating away.

Now the fun begins. Mix and match your characters and problems. Perhaps you have a baboon going for his first haircut, a ballerina with hiccups, or a baseball-playing boy who’s caught up in a game of hide-and-seek on the baseball field. No combination is too wild when you’re brainstorming. Any character can be added to any problem.

Finally, see what ideas inspire you. Obviously not every combination will work. The best ideas will most often be the ones you can’t get out of your mind, or the ones that seem to play through your mind like a movie. When that happens, get to your keyboard and start writing! 

Friday, May 17, 2013

Lee & Low Contest

New Voices Award

Lee & Low Books has announced that they are accepting submissions for their fourteenth annual New Voices Award. The Award is given for a picture book manuscript of an unpublished writer of color.

The Award winner receives a cash prize of $1000 and the standard Lee & Low Books publication contract, including their basic advance and royalties for a first time author. The contest is open to writers of color who are residents of the United States and who have not previously had a children’s picture book published

Last year, less than 7% of children’s books published were written by authors of color. The New Voices Award was created to help new writers of color break into the publishing world. Past New Voices Award-winning books have gone on to win major awards such as the Ezra Jack Keats Award and the Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe Award for New Talent.

For award and submissions information visit:

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Picture Books--Any Time, Any Place

50 Places to Read a Picture Book

1.                    In a lap.
2.                    In a bed.
3.                    In the tub.
4.                    In a class.
5.                    At the dinner table.
6.                    In a tent.
7.                    Under an umbrella.
8.                    On the couch.
9.                    In a comfy chair.
10.             At the library
11.             In the hospital.
12.             At your grandparents' house.
13.             In the lunchroom.
14.             In a tree house.
15.             At a book store
16.             Under a tree
17.             At a picnic table.
18.             On a boat.
19.             On a plane.
20.             On a train.
21.             On the subway.
22.             In a taxi.
23.             On a bus.
24.             At the park.
25.             At a museum.
26.             At a friend’s house.
27.             At day care.
28.             In a doctor’s office.
29.             On a military base.
30.             At the computer.
31.             At the beach.
32.             In a cabin.
33.             On the ferry.
34.             On a dock.
35.             At a restaurant.
36.             At a church or synagogue or mosque.
37.             In a sandbox.
38.             On the playground.
39.             In a shelter.
40.             On the porch.
41.             In a swing.
42.             In a barn.
43.             In a garden.
44.             In an RV.
45.             At the mall.
46.             On a potty chair.
47.             At an amusement park.
48.             In a rocking chair.
49.             On vacation.
50.             Under the covers.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Rekindling the Magic

Kindergarten Memories
When I was a five-year old, public schools did not offer kindergarten. So most kids entered first grade without any preschool or kindergarten experience under their belts.

My parents decided to send me to a private kindergarten. My Uncle Richard and Aunt Beck sent my “twin cousin” Linda (we were born two months apart) to the same kindergarten. So every day after my brother and sister, Butch and Patti, and Linda’s sister, Lou Ann, had gone off to Bingham Elementary School we headed for the Cherry Street Baptist Church kindergarten.

I don’t have tons of memories from that time, but I do remember lots of crayons, lots of making and doing, playing, puppets, singing, rest time, more playing, performing a holiday concert, reading books, even more playing, Windmill-shaped cookies, and our graduation ceremony with homemade hats and tassels. Kindergarten was a magical place.

Do you remember when kindergarten was . . .
           . . . a place for socialization—at time to learn to work and play together?
           . . . a place where play was consider the work children did?
           . . . a place where a paint easel was sitting in a corner and every took turns
creating masterpieces?
           . . . a place with a block center, puzzle center, a book center, and a home
          living center complete with a small wooden stove, refrigerator, dining 
          room table, and baby bed?
           . . . a place where a nap was encouraged?
           . . . a place where your made things, grew things, tried things, and cooked
          a tasted things?
           . . . a place where free play was not only encouraged, but expected?
           . . . a place where you used your imagination, made up stories, created
          games, used whatever you had to do whatever you could dream up?

The kindergarten teachers I know (and I know lots of good ones) still want their students to have all those experiences, but they also have tons of expectations, learning goals, and outcomes to accomplish. Did you take tests during kindergarten? Neither did I. But that’s the nature of education today. Kindergarten can still be magical—but it takes lots of effort to make it happen. Things have changed.

Now I in no way begrudge teaching math concepts, letter and sound recognition, reading skills, and scientific method, or anything else to kindergarteners. But I do wish those five-year-old kids had more time to be kids.

That may be where picture book writers come in. Our books—the stories we tell and the illustrations we create—might just the thing to help teachers and kindergarteners rekindle some of the old magic of kindergarten. Our stories can . . .
           . . . take them to places they’ve never been.
           . . . introduce them to cultures they’ve never seen.
           . . . let them imagine what could be, what might be, and what they wish
          things could be.
           . . . allow them to question and wonder.
           . . . provide an opportunity for them to laugh hysterically, feel deeply, and
          even once in awhile shed a tear.
           . . . show them they are not alone—others have similar thoughts and
          feelings, hopes and dreams.
           . . . give them new games to play and ideas to explore.

Your writing and my writing has a bigger purpose than sitting on a book shelf. Our stories can do more than be a read-to-me before bedtime. Our books can compliment and complete the world young children find themselves in. We can provide the experiences they are missing and allow them to enjoy their childhood just a little bit more. Come to think of it, I guess that’s what picture books have always done.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

From Soup to Bouillon Cube

Picture book writers often wonder how to boil down their book into a few sentences for a cover letter, or to even fewer words to form an elevator pitch (or these days, a Twitter pitch). A helpful analogy for the transformation of a story into a synopsis and then into a pitch is to think of a pot of homemade soup, a can of condensed soup, and a bouillon cube.

Picture your story as a steaming pot of soup—steeped with richness, nuanced with seasoning, teaming with meatiness, hearty vegetables, and homemade noodles. The pot of soup has taken hours to create and you know as soon as someone dives in to enjoy your creation, he/she will emerge licking the spoon. Like your soup, your story is deliciously memorable, and it’s one of those things readers will want to enjoy again and again, serving after serving.

Condensed soup has everything that pot of yours contained, only smooshed into a small can. By opening that can and dumping its contents into a pot or bowl, it can soon be heated up to something that gives all the flavors of the original (but with a lot less leftovers). The synopsis of a story is the condensed version. It must contain the same deliciousness as the story itself, but be told succinctly, in far fewer words. In fact, if your story was around 500 words, that synopsis should be 50 words or less. The condensed version should leave the reader satisfied on the one hand, and hungry for more on the other.

I haven’t seen bouillon cubes in years. We used to cook with them a lot when I was growing up. I remember in a corner of our pantry sat a small plastic jar filled with eight or ten foiled-wrapped cubes. Unscrew that lid and you would smell the richness of the bouillon cubes right through the foil. Basically, a bouillon cube is your pot of soup in a dehydrated, super-concentrated form. That little cube is meant to contain all the richness, meatiness, and flavors of the original. That’s true with a pitch, too. In one or two sentences (the dehydrated, super-condensed version) you must identify the main character and concept of the book. Just like the bouillon cube, the pitch must immediately awaken the reader/listener’s senses and make him/her desire to dive into the full pot . . . I mean, full story.


Let’s use my book, Cowboy Christmas, as an example. To taste the full pot of delicious soup, you can order the book through Amazon ( or Barnes & Noble online ( Read and enjoy. (Yes, that was shameless self-promotion!)

Three weathered cowboys—Dwight, Darryl, and Dub—are stuck out on the range at Christmastime, roping steers and wrestling longhorns. They’re feeling low-down and miserable thinking Santy Claus has missed them all together. But a wonderful surprise awaits them back at camp—and it’s just what they need for a rip-roarin’, merry-makin’ cowboy Christmas.

Can Santy find cowboys out on the range? The Circle D dudes are afraid he can’t. But a rip-roaring cowboy Christmas surprise awaits them back at camp.

Try it yourselftake one of your delicious stories and boil it down to a synopsis and then  create an even more concentrated version by writing a pitch. While you're at it, why not enjoy a bowl of soup?

Monday, May 6, 2013

Who Me?

An Unexpected Role Model

After posting my speech from the first-books panel following the FL SCBWI Annual Meeting in Miami, I was swamped with emails, posts, tweets, and letters. I was overwhelmed by everyone’s kindness and generosity. And I was also a bit overwhelmed that I had become a role model of sorts to some people. Folks wrote things like:

“Way to stick up for your writing! That’s what I want to do.”
“So glad you didn’t let anyone talk you into changing your story!”
“My critique group always puts down my work, too. I’m going to stick to my guns like you did.”
“In a consultation someone suggested I change my story and I refused to—just like you.”
“I bet that woman who criticized your work is sorry now.”

To tell you the truth, I began to worry that I might have misspoken or not communicated clearly in my speech and subsequent post. So let me clear up a few things about that speech and post (just in case). 

r The woman I met at SCBWI LA who shared so many pointers about what editors were and weren’t looking for in picture books was only trying to be helpful.
r Two critique groups had critiqued my story and I had paid for two critiques with one of my mentors before taking the manuscript for critique in LA. The manuscript had gone through major revisions several times.
r The fact that I found an editor who loved my story—despite it having three main characters, adult characters, being a holiday book, etc.—was totally serendipitous (some would even say lucky).
r The editor did require more revisions before and after acquiring the book.
r I believe in knowing the market and making my work marketable.
r I believe in critiques and always want to hear what others have to say in order to make my work better.

Years ago, when I worked for a publishing company that served a particular niche market, a new editor was added to our team. Matt was gung-ho, full of ideas, and always ready to point out what he didn’t think was working or what he thought wasn’t meeting the needs of our customers. Frankly, Matt didn’t know our customers or our history. He jumped on any bandwagon that rolled by. Though I pride myself on being a creative out-of-the-box thinker, I found myself needing to reign Matt in.

One day he said to me, “Rob, I just like to color outside the lines.” I replied, “You have to know where the lines are before you can color outside them.” Matt didn’t understand what I meant. I hope you do. If we don’t know the expected, the required, the norms of something, then we can’t push up to the limits and break through to new, uncharted territory. Aimless scribbling with our crayons isn’t the same as artfully drawing beyond the prescribed lines.

As I continue in my picture book journey, I want to remember to:
r Seek out critiques.
r Listen to my peers (and those who are one or more steps ahead of me in the field).
r Never think that I know more than others.
r Value editing and revision more than writing.
r Strive to be marketable, while pushing the creative boundaries of the market.