Monday, June 30, 2008

The Caldecott and Newbery Awards Banquet, 2008

Last night I had the opportunity to attend the Caldecott and Newbery Awards banquet in Anaheim, California. It was an experience I’ll never forget. As you certainly know, this is the “Oscars” for children’s book writers. The participants were first wined and dined in a great ballroom and then the awards were officially presented.

Brian Selznik received the Caldecott Medal for his book, The Invention of Hugo Cabret. He explained that his intent was to use cinematic elements in a chapter book where pictures helped tell the story. He said that one of his inspirations was author Remy Charlip, whose book Fortunately, Unfortunately uses the power of page-turns as a tool to build suspense. Brian initially wanted to create one picture per chapter, but ended up with 300 pictures in a 500-page book. It's a unique work, and I can remember months ago that some people were questioning whether it really could be classified as a picture book at all. In the end, his ingenuity won over the Caldecott Committee who reported, in so many words, that they had never seen anything quite like it before, and doubted they would ever again. If you haven’t picked up a copy, you should. This is a book full of suspense, hope, adventure, with wonderful pencil illustrations that depict cityscapes, expressive characters, and fun surprises. It'll be great to read this with my children.

As part of his acceptance speech, we watched a funny PowerPoint presentation using Mr. Selzniks' illustrations set to dramatic music. Young Hugo wakes and seems to be startled to learn that Brian is at the awards banquet instead of him. We see Hugo running through the Paris streets and riding a train. It was very funny, and ended to thunderous applause.

We also were entertained by the truly marvelous Laura Amy Schlitz, recipient of the 2008 Newbery Medal for her book, Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Her talent for storytelling was more than apparent in her delightful speech. She stood to the far right of the podium to address the audience in monologue-fashion, and related an experience of catching a child on the playground who had climbed too high and was afraid to get down. Laura had underestimated the force of that 55-pound falling child, who knocked her on her behind, then got up, dusted herself off and told her simply, “Thank you.” Laura related the story as being similar to the wallop she felt after first learning she had received the Newbery award. First the wind was knocked out of her, but then she appreciated the warmth that came from the acknowledgement.

She shared a funny account of how she would often answer students who questioned her about a scar on her forehead from having moles removed. "Do you want the true story, or the interesting story?" she'd ask. She'd then tell a marvelous, magical story about an encounter with a bear, leaving the children mesmerized. But despite reassuring them afterwards that the story wasn't true, the students seemed to WANT to believe it, anyway. Facts are important, she said, but stories are what really move us. Her acceptance speech was so entertaining that we listened with rapt attention, laughed, and were touched. Later there were whisperings that these were the "best" Caldecott and Newbery speeches ever given.

Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! is another must-have, and will certainly be used for years and years to come by classrooms and schools all over the country. It’s a collection of short one-person acts, highlighting various characters from medieval times, from noblemen to peasants to thieves. She wanted to provide a way for students who were studying medieval times to each be a star. It’s a truly remarkable piece of work.

The awards banquet left me inspired, overwhelmed, and wanting to reach within myself to become a better writer. Every author dreams of winning such an award, but for me what was most inspiring was learning about two authors who had a particular vision and didn’t set out to do what everyone else has already done. Their unique books break the mold and certainly earned these distinctions.

“Write the book you want to write,” Brian Selznik reminded us.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Lovin' California

Today I’m writing from inside the Desert Palms hotel in Anaheim, California. I’m sitting right now in the lobby, looking out from a sunny window at Katella Avenue by Disneyland. My family was with me earlier in the week, where we spent two days at the big “D” and California Adventure, and stayed overnight in the Staybridge Suites. We had an incredible time. Disneyland is immaculate, beautiful, and continues to upgrade its rides and entertainment while still holding on to the classics we all love. I’m a nutty Disney fan. Have you ever seen those commercials where the parents are there with their kids and suddenly they turn into kids, too? Yep, that’s me.

Anyway, we went on a ga-zillion rides, especially our favorites like Indiana Jones, Pirates of the Caribbean, and Space and Splash Mountains. We loved trying out the “Hollywood Tower of Terror” and “Soaring over California” from California Adventure. But the highlight of our trip was the fulfillment of one of my childhood dreams. We ate dinner at the Blue Bayou restaurant. It’s the one that you see with the colorful lanterns at the beginning of the Pirates of the Caribbean ride. It wasn’t cheap. But the memory was worth every penny.

So at the end of our trip the kids all went back to stay with their other parents (you know, the musical houses game that children of divorce have to play) and my husband returned home while I stayed in Anaheim for the ALA Convention. (ALA stands for American Library Association). Imagine an enormous convention center filled with exhibits from every publisher you’ve ever heard of in your life, and three times that number of publishers you haven’t. They are all proudly displaying their books, new and current releases, and designating their award winners with big stars. They also have their most celebrated authors signing books, many of which they give out to participants for free or very reduced prices.

Today I had the opportunity to meet Mo Willems, and was very excited when he remembered COOL DADDY RAT and described the artwork by Mike Lester and said he liked it. That ROCKS! I also got to meet Nancy Paulsen of Penguin Young Readers and many editors, authors, and marketing people from HarperCollins and Putnam. It was fun to see my books on display. I didn’t do any signings…I’m still a newbie. That’s one eye-opener for new authors who go to these things. You think with two or three books you might be considered a “real” author, but you realize you’re still quite a ways from being real. You’ve got to have more than a handful of books to be given signing time.

Shannon Hale was there with Nathan Hale, and I got a copy of their new graphic novel. (I’ve always thought that term was weird because it sounds like a book full of indecent stuff. But it’s really novel in illustrated form, a bit like a sophisticated comic book.) I’ll be driving back home Tuesday with Rick Walton, Mette Harrison, Will Terry, and Nathan Hale. Great authors and illustrators. Great company.

Oh, and I’ve got enough autographed books to cart home that I’m sure to make one big long scrape along the freeway, paving a trail from Cally back to the Utah mountains.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

My First Bound Copy of Bedtime at the Swamp!

Yesterday I got my first bound copy of BEDTIME AT THE SWAMP in the mail! My publisher sent it--what a nice surprise. I think Macky did an amazing job on the illustrations. Last night, I got to read the story to a group of my nieces and nephews. My littlest red-headed niece kept saying, "Monster Bim Bam Boo! Monster Bim Bam Boo!" It was so cute. She also had memorized parts of COOL DADDY RAT, and she could predict when it was time to say, "ZOW" and "POW" and even tried a little scatting. There's nothing more fun than seeing a two-year-old scat. It was such a great time. That's the beauty of picture books--when they are read together, you can share an intense moment of bonding. You're in close proximity, sometimes as close as a snuggle or hug, pointing at observations, and sharing an experience together.

By the way, if you've purchased a copy of one of my books and would like it signed, contact me via email at

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Skip to My Lou, My Editor

Lost my editor, what do I do?
Lost my editor, what do I do?
Lost my editor, what do I do?
Skip to my lou my darling!

I'll get another one, prettier too.

I'll get another one, prettier too.
I'll get another one, prettier too.
Skip to my lou my darling!

(Wait...shouldn't that song be "Skip to the loo, my darling?" As in, skip to the bathroom? I mean, who is "Lou" anyway?)

I’m teasing. But editors have lives just like everybody else—and sometimes they jump to a new publishing house, become the unfortunate victims of downsizing or mergers, decide to stay at home and parent kids, take up copper mining, or whatever. So occasionally authors who have worked with a particular editor for months or years get the news that he/she is no longer the contact on the book anymore. This can be very disheartening, and even a little scary. Sometimes editors take a book along with them to their new house so it suddenly has a new publisher, which has happened to some authors I know. And sadly, other times the book may be orphaned and possibly even be pulled from production. Most of the time, a new editor picks up the baton.

I’ve had three editors for Bedtime at the Swamp, and just learned my third editor is now leaving to work for a different house. This particular editor I actually got to meet in person, which is a rare thing indeed. She had traveled down to my area for a writer’s conference and I re-arranged a family vacation just to attend and meet her. Only a few months prior I had lost the second editor for mysterious reasons. That was hard, because we had worked together for several years, and really hit it off. She was very excited about the book and was responsive, complimentary, and eager to help in any way she could. It was almost like chatting with an old friend. Suddenly she was gone, and I wasn’t even able to say goodbye.

Now editor number three, the one I met in person, has also moved on. Fortunately I got a reassuring email from the original editor who acquired my manuscript (editor number one), and so I’ve come full circle. Are you confused yet?

My Putnam editor for COOL DADDY RAT and THE MIDDLE CHILD BLUES had been with me all along, and that does make things less bumpy. She’s been a delight to work with.

Still crossing my fingers on a manuscript which is being seriously considered by a publisher I haven’t worked with yet. It’s a long, agonizing wait…(sigh) just part of the process.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Happy Fathers Day to Cool Dads Everywhere!

Happy Fathers Day to all you jazzy, fun-loving, scattin', tappin', snappin' Dads who'll dance in the city with your kids. Be sure to take them out to the places you work and play--and let them see you doing what you do best. Remember, you only stay "cool" for so long.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The Wheelchair Project -- Writing for Charity with Shannon Hale

I'm very excited to be involved in a terrific event this July, initiated by the one and only Shannon Hale, and involving some other amazing children's book authors. The following text is quoted from her blog:

This summer have unfettered access to professional children’s authors, all in the name of charity! Saturday, July 19, several local authors will host a Writing for Charity event in Salt Lake City, with all profits going to The Wheelchair Project. Come hear writers talk about their process, how to write for a young audience, storytelling tips, and the ins and outs of the publishing business. In addition, have your picture book text or first page of your novel (the most important page!) workshopped by professionals.

When: Saturday, July 19, 9 am to 1 pm
Where: Salt Lake Main Library, 200 East 400 South, Salt Lake City, Utah
Cost: $45 (should be tax deductible!)

Event breakdown: 9:00 am -- Registration
9:15 - 10:15 am -- Panel discussion in the auditorium
10:30 - 11:15 -- Break out discussions in topic groups
11:30 - 1:00 -- Small group workshops

Authors include Brandon Mull, Shannon Hale, Mette Ivie Harrison, Ann Cannon, Kristyn Crow, Becky Hickox, Kimberley Heuston, Anne Bowen, Aprilynne Pike, Ann Dee Ellis, Mike Knudson, and Wendy Toliver.
Space is limited, first come first serve. To reserve your spot, mail in the $45 registration fee.

Mailing address: 1176 E 2620th N, Provo, UT 84604-4132
Make checks to: "LDS Philanthropies" (the organization that runs The Wheelchair Project) and write "Wheelchair" in the memo line.
Also include: Your name, age, phone number, and area of interest-- picture book writing, fantasy novel, or realistic fiction novel.

On the day of the event, bring 15 copies of the first page of your novel or picture book text (maximum word count: 300 words) for some hands on workshopping.

100% of the proceeds (after the nominal location fee) go to The Wheelchair Project, a wonderful charity that donates new wheelchairs to people in third world countries, many of whom have never had one. A wheelchair can completely change the life of a disabled person, offering mobility, increased independence, and a chance to go to school or find employment. Because this charity is administered by volunteers with LDS Philanthropy, there is no overhead and every penny donated goes directly to purchasing wheelchairs. This is not a religious charity--the wheelchairs go to the needy regardless of their faith. Thank you for supporting this extraordinary cause!

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Lights, Camera, Action: Why Picture Book Writers Should Think Like Screenwriters

I have this theory that picture book writers would probably make good screenwriters, and vice-versa. That’s because both the picture book writer and the screenwriter have to think in visual scenes. A screenwriter must always consider what the audience will see: who appears in the scene, what they're doing, what the setting is like, and how the camera is angled. On a smaller scale, the picture book writer must do the same, because the picture book is also a visual experience.

I received a manuscript to critique several years ago that comes to mind now. The writer had created an entire story with a grandfather lecturing his grandson as they sat in a living room. Hmmm. So… let’s think like a screenwriter for a moment and imagine that an audience is going to pay for a ticket and watch this manuscript portrayed as a film on the big screen. Would it be entertaining? An entire movie filmed with two people sitting on a couch?

To be fair, I suppose some fantastic director could possibly pull this off. I'm sitting here trying to think about movies where the setting hardly matters and is very confined. How about The Breakfast Club..would that qualify? It has a group of students in detention, and much of the movie takes place in the school library. Yet, still, the characters move around, sneak out, change locations, etc. Let me try to think of another one. Panic Room? In that movie we do get to see the villains, who are outside of the room, trying to get in, which creates a lot of tension. (If you can think of a better example, let me know. I’m sure there must be a movie out there which takes place in one room.) How about The Big Chill? That’s one house, not one room. But notice how in movies where the setting is fairly irrelevant and doesn’t change much, the characters must be extremely intriguing. For example, the Breakfast Club is certainly character-driven. We get to eavesdrop on these teenagers of differing social status confess their personal struggles to their peers.

Mo Willems’ pigeon books, like Don’t Let the Pigeon Ride the Bus, have almost no setting. There are no fantastic scene changes, and certainly the pigeon could be sitting on a couch for most of the book and it wouldn’t matter much. Yet the books work. They work BIG time. How? Well, it’s the pigeon. He stands right in front of the readers and talks to them. He engages them in a conversation. He’s drawn simply, like a child’s sketch come-to-life, which is fun for kids. And he’s funny. He’s child-like--even a little bit naughty. (You see...he has some important SpongeBob elements.) A character this engaging can bypass the need for an interesting setting.

So the grandfather-talks-to-grandson manuscript might work if the characters were somehow remarkable. What if grandpa is trying to tell grandson a story and grandson is simultaneously morphing into the characters of the story? Or what if he’s growing bigger with every page turn, until he topples the couch? What if grandpa becomes more and more villainous as the story goes along? Maybe grandson asks hilarious questions during the discussion? (Not really fulfilling as a story, but interesting at least.) In most cases, something visually interesting must be happening to the characters in a picture book. And typically, this requires movement. Action.

“Yes,” you say, “but can’t we just illustrate the discussion they are having?” Not a great idea. A good topic for another post.

In my view, the grandpa-and-grandson-on-the-couch manuscript would not work well as a picture book. Just as it would be quite challenging to create a movie filmed in one small space, a picture book with no action or scene changes would be a tough sell. Could it be done? Maybe, with some kind of brilliant twist. But if the characters are actively experiencing things in the present, the reader is more likely to turn the page. (Or watch the movie.)

As you write a picture book manuscript, take a moment and put on the screenwriter’s hat. What is your audience going to see and experience? Will it work, visually?

Of course, I’ll sit on the pigeon’s couch and chat with him anytime.

Saturday, June 7, 2008


There’s an old Twilight Zone episode where this guy runs around and realizes to his horror that he’s all alone in a town. He runs into the movie theater, stores, and although there are signs of life, he can’t find a real human being anywhere. Frantically, he keeps searching. Yet all along, he’s actually hallucinating. He’s really strapped to probes in a pseudo-spaceship, being tested to see how long he can stand having no contact with people before he loses his mind.

This has been a weird weekend, and I can relate to this guy. I'm in a strange zone where nobody is returning my calls or emails, and I've even got two manuscripts being looked at seriously, but not a word yet from anyone. It's silent. So silent. Too silent. Tick, tick, tick. WHERE IS EVERYBODY?

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Good for Chuckles

So I got an email alert for COOL DADDY RAT... from a certain book website... and it had all the particulars right (publisher, price, author, illustrator, ISBN #) and then gave this description of the book:

"Completely revised and updated, the Second Edition of this comprehensive text details the basic, in-office diagnostic and therapeutic procedures commonly performed in treating dogs, cats, and rabbits. Step-by-step instructions on restraint, anesthesia, surgical technique, and medical management are provided and include the whether to in addition to the why to and how to. The book discusses purposes of the procedures, indications, precautions, possible complications, equipment needed, and preparations. Superb line drawings of procedures explicitly demonstrate operational motions as well as pertinent anatomic relationships."

Hey! I didn't know I'd written a surgical manual for pets! I'd hate to see the surgical technique performed on some poor animal whose vet is using COOL DADDY RAT as a guide. ZOOBY ZOOBY ZAT ZAT A DIDDY WAAAAAAAAAAAA!

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Listening to Chimes

I’ve actually got a moment right now where the house is still and quiet. I can't hear children--only the noise of the aquarium humming (I didn’t realize it made that sound) and chimes playing outside in the blowing wind. This is a rare occasion—one that must be taken in with a deep, nourishing breath. There are times when the noise level is so great in my house, and the word “Mom” is repeated so many times in a five minute period that I’d like to run screaming down the street. For example, this morning we were getting ready for church and I could hardly think straight. One kid needed me to find him a belt, another couldn’t find his shoes, one daughter needed her hair fixed and two daughters needed a referee for their squabble because one said the other was—gasp--“staring” at her. One son needed insulin and another needed me to magically dry his just-washed undershirt in thirty seconds. Meanwhile, my husband was frustrated because he needed to create a typed sign-up list and the printer wasn’t working. Somehow, I was supposed to resolve this problem, too. Then, when he opted to use the printer in his police car, he managed to lock himself out with the keys still inside. I ended up driving our half-dressed motley crew myself as he stood in the driveway attempting to break into his own patrol car with a hanger.

Life is joyous. I can hear chimes.