by Melissa Stoller
Ideas for children’s books are all around. Sometimes you find and harness them. Other times you may need to kick start the idea avalanche. Being open and receptive to thoughts, visuals, snippets of conversation, children's antics, pets, nature and science, current events, music, art, and just the world around you can often lead to a wonderful idea discovery.
Here’s the genesis of the ideas behind my three children’s books, inspired by my grandparents, a trip to a museum, and an observation on a walk around New York City:
THE ENCHANTED SNOW GLOBE COLLECTION: RETURN TO CONEY ISLAND:
The first book in my chapter book series is based on the story of how my grandparents met on the Coney Island trolley in the 1920s. My grandmother told this story many times and it was part of our family lore. I had wanted to tell the story for many years, and finally took a leap and started to write. Mining your family history can be a wonderful way to discover ideas and to memorialize treasured parts of your family legend.
SCARLET’S MAGIC PAINTBRUSH:
One day, I was standing in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, gazing at paintings by one of my favorite Impressionists, Monet. I wondered what it would be like to have a magic paintbrush and paint like Monet. From there, a series of “what if” questions entered my imagination. What if I could paint perfect paintings with a magic paintbrush? What if the magic brush was lost? What if it was found again? Ideas swirled around, and now my debut picture book with illustrator Sandie Sonke is out in the world! My love of art history and a little sprinkling of magic helped me catch this idea.
READY, SET, GORILLA!:
I happened to be walking along a New York City street and saw a huge billboard overhead that read, “Ready, Set, Go.” For some reason, the words, “Ready, Set, Gorilla” popped into my mind. I imagined a little gorilla racing, and shouting “Ready, Set, GOrilla!” to all his friends. A bit later, I imagined a little GOpher joining in the fun. I love puns and wordplay and enjoyed creating some fun in this story. I’m glad I was receptive and had an open mind when I saw that billboard. I’m so excited that this idea led to my newly releasing picture book with illustrator Sandy Steen Bartholomew!
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As you go about your daily routines, stop and consider that moments from your everyday world can lead to your next great children’s book idea. Happy creating!
Melissa Stoller is the author of the chapter book series The Enchanted Snow Globe Collection - Book One: Return to Coney Island and Book Two: The Liberty Bell Train Ride (Clear Fork Publishing, 2017 and Spring 2019); and the picture books Scarlet’s Magic Paintbrush and Ready, Set, GOrilla!(Clear Fork, Fall 2018). She is also the co-author of The Parent-Child Book Club: Connecting With Your Kids Through Reading (HorizonLine Publishing, 2009). Melissa is an Assistant and Blogger for the Children’s Book Academy, a Regional Ambassador for The Chapter Book Challenge, an Admin for The Debut Picture Book Study Group, and a volunteer with the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators/MetroNY. Melissa has worked as a lawyer, legal writing instructor, freelance writer and editor, and early childhood educator. Additionally, she is a member of the Board of Trustees at The Hewitt School and at Temple Shaaray Tefila. Melissa lives in New York City with her husband, three daughters, and one puppy. When not writing or reading, she can be found exploring NYC with family and friends, traveling, and adding treasures to her collections.
As a child, I resonated towards picture books that were scary, and though psychoanalysts might diagnose this is a morbid attraction to fear, I'd say it is pretty normal, (and so, I should clarify, would they). Fear in children's books comes in many guises, but good writers know to stay within certain boundaries. when dealing with young, impressionable minds. Let's take The Gruffalo, for example. Julian Donaldson and Axel Scheffler could not have hit on a more perfect blend of fear, fun and humour, for a generation of small readers. This delightfully lyrical book, relies upon a cycle of fear for its appeal - the mouse is scared of its predators, the predators are scared of the Gruffalo and ultimately, all of them are scared of the victorious trickster, the super crafty mouse. We cannot deny that most horror movies are built on the premise of a lone survivor triumphing over evil, and at a much less sinister level, isn't this what the clever and brave little mouse does? If victory for the underdog equals fun for readers, then this is a classic example.
The Gruffalo jumped instantly to mind when I thought of books for this blog, but what about Australian picture books? How do they shape up to their international cousins in the fear, humour and fun stakes? I am privileged enough to know three Sydney authors who have produced wonderful examples of how to maximize the appeal of fear as a positive construct for readers of picture books. Anyone remember The Dark, Dark, Night or The Berenstein Bears' Bears in the Night? These are the kinds of stories that stay with you as a child because of the thrill we experience with fear. Lelsey Gibbes and Stephen Michael King's Scary Night is a modern Australian classic that models some of these greats, yet turns them on their head with a terrifically unexpected twist, which undermines the concept of fear completely.
Apologies for the spoiler alert, but the cat, the hare and the pig end their terrifying midnight quest through the woods, with a visit to their friends surprise birthday party, thoughtful parcel in tow as their gift. The build up of scary tension throughout the narrative, is defused masterfully for kindergarten readers, who will be relieved to find out their heroes were really not in any danger at all. Is this not a useful lesson to learn about most of our fears? They are often exaggerated, irrational and not as real as we first thought.
And what about tackling more serious issues of childhood anxiety, in a way that is more fun than heavy-handed? Children's Book Council of Australia's Notable Book for 2018, The Scared Book, strikes just this careful balance. The true test of any picture book is its read-a-loud-ability and I've seen this one performed by the author, Debra Tidball, on a number of occasions. Apart from its meta-fictional skillfulness, it draws on the strange allure of monsters (vividly illustrated by Kim Siew), to capture the audience's attention, and then invites them to try a number of strategies for frightening the symptoms of fear away. Through fun, interactivity and laughter, the child reader is entertained and more importantly, educated in ways to confront and deal with negative emotions. The scariness of the monsters is completely undermined by the close of this much in demand bedtime story.
And finally today, I wanted to mention There's a Baddie Running Through this Book, a new release Australian picture book by author and illustrator on the rise, Shelly Unwin and Vivienne To. The illustrations in this book have an animated film quality, and the concept is so universal, that I can see it picking up rights in the USA, hopefully before too long. Again, this book is a performance favourite for kids, focusing on the rascally adventures of the loveable Baddie. Our fear of those on the wrong side of the law is engendered from a young age, but as much as we want to see the good guys win, we can't help being excited by the qualities of daring and rebelliousness exhibited by this particular character; a raccoon who steals snacks (Yogi Bear, anyone?).
Unwin capitalises on the classic construct of a chase. It does not seem like there is any hope for the good guys until the Baddie finally comes unstuck by his own actions. Order is restored as the Baddie is caught, but are we not just that little bit disappointed? The Baddie's pursuits are exciting and while he is not doing anything that is physically harmful to others, who could blame children for being a little relieved when we think there is a chance he'll be back for a sequel? It's all good harmless fun and kids love it.
And like all the titles I've included today, there is something really important about its use of fear as a narrative construct. If used in a responsible and mindful way by picture book authors and illustrators, it can instill a passion for reading and a healthy appreciation of the excitement we can experience from feeling scared. It is after all, just another one of the spectrum of emotions in life that children will experience, and if we handle it with fun and humour, it can be a useful lesson in building resilience.
Brydie Wright Bio
Graduate, Craft & Business of Children’s Picture Book Writing Course
Chief Editor, Sydney Mums Group and Reviewer, WeekendNotes and Just Write For Kids Books on Tour
Author of Daddy and the World's Longest Poo, IAN Awards 2017 Finalist, & Magic Beans from the Creative Kids Tales Story Collection
Website - Facebook - Twitter - Goodreads - Instagram
by Sarah Momo Romero
Although it still feels like summer in L.A., usually fall means crisp, cool weather, longer nights and the festive holiday of tricks and treats. It’s October and one of my favorite times of the year, Halloween, is coming up soon. This month, I wanted to share a few fun books for the occasion, with creepy, crawly creatures and spooky monsters, each with its own unique style of illustration.
An A to Z of Monsters and Magical Beings is one of my favorite books for Halloween. This picture book, written by Aidan Onn and illustrated by Rob Hodgson is like a fun A-Z encyclopedia of monsters, ghosts, ogres, and creepy beasts. The whimsical creatures, full of color and accompanied by short descriptions, aren’t too scary, but a fun way to discover the stories behind each magical being.
The fun textures, expressive patterns and different mystical creature from A-Z create a unique story on every spread, make this a fun book to read over and over again.
Monster and Son written by David LaRochelle and illustrated by Joey Chou is a warm and bubbly take on the traditionally creepy monsters. This delightful story, showing different monsters and their sons at play, showcase beasts, sea serpents, yetis and more in soft colors and enjoyable imaginary scenes. Even with signs of destruction throughout the story, this book creates a warmer, less creepy view of monsters and creepy beings.
And last, but not least is Ten Little Beasties, by Rebecca Emberley and Ed Emberley. This book cover initially caught my eye with its simple and abstract creatures staring back at me from a bright orange background. The story is a simple one meant for younger children, but an enjoyable one for them to sing, dance and count along with an accompanying song.
The beasties, starting from one and going up to ten, then back down again, dance along the colored background of each page. The simple shapes and spots of color on the beasts as well as the text, draw the eye in and make for a simple, but enjoyable quick read.
I hope you will enjoy sharing these picture books with your littles ones, whether you’re looking for a creepy (but not too scary) tale or an entertaining story full of song, these will entertain children and readers alike. What will you be doing this Halloween?
I will be celebrating the release of my debut picture book, Wake Up, Little Bat! At the end of the month with a book party at the Griffith Park Merry-go-round! If you’re in the L.A. area, and would like to join, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org for details. Special thanks to Bryan Patrick Avery for a feature of my book in last week’s blog post. Happy Halloween everyone!
Sarah Momo Romero is a Japanese Peruvian American artist, a graphic designer by day and children's book author and illustrator by night. She’s loved drawing and painting since she was a chiquita and now crafts stories of adventure and wondrous creatures. Sarah is an active SCBWI member who draws inspiration from her life in sunny Los Angeles with her husband/creative partner and dog/infamous escape artist, Peanut. Her debut picture book, "Wake Up, Little Bat!" is out now!
by Bryan Patrick Avery
Most of the magic tricks I perform are quite old. My favorite card trick, popularized by Nate Leipzig, is over a hundred years old. Every once in a while, I grab some new trick and add it to my repertoire. This happened recently when I got my hands on a trick called “Smooth” from Nicholas Lawrence. It’s a great trick where a container of lip balm penetrates a dollar bill without leaving a hole. The trick is awesome, and instantly replaced my very old pen through dollar affect.
This got me thinking about my collection of books. Many of my favorites are older books (from my childhood or even earlier). Recently, though, a few recent releases have made it onto my favorites shelf.
First up, “Wake Up, Little Bat!”, written and illustrated by Sarah Momo Romero. This recently released picture book tells the story of a little bat who’s different from the other bats. Unlike most bats, Little Bat sleeps at night and is awake all day. Realizing that he may be missing out, he tries his best to stay awake at night, but to no avail. Then, he makes an amazing discovery about the world during the daytime.
Little Bat explores this new world, and makes new friends. When he returns home, it is his family who feel they may be missing out. Sarah’s lovely story is made even more endearing by her illustrations which make the bats look cuddly and sweet. Kids (and adults) will love the subtle touches in the illustrations, and Little Bat’s facial expressions alone make this book worth reading. In all, “Wake Up, Little Bat!” is a wonderful story kids will want to read again and again.
Another recent release is Sherry Howard’s “Rock & Roll Woods”, illustrated by Anika A. Wolf. A grumpy bear name Kuda is made even grumpier when he discovers that his new neighbors make a lot of noise. As he voices his objections to the noise, he discovers that his friends aren’t bothered by it. In fact, they seem to enjoy it. Before long, Kuda realizes that, if he wants to be with his friends, he may have to get used to the noise.
Sherry’s use of onomatopoeia, and Anika’s clever art work, help tell a story that is even more layered than the reader may original think. As an added bonus, Sherry includes a very helpful author’s note on Sensory Integration and how it may affect those around us. Her touching note adds to the sympathy we feel for Kuda, and helps point out some of the many ways Kuda’s friends helped him throughout the story.
Released earlier this year, Varian Johnson’s “The Parker Inheritance” has quickly become one my favorite books. Twelve-year-old Candice and her new friend Brandon set off in search of treasure when Candice finds an old letter which seems to have been left behind just for her. The letter promises an inheritance of millions of dollars, both for whoever can unravel clues and solve the mystery, as well as for the town of Lambert, South Carolina.
Candice knows that her grandmother tried and failed years earlier, and she is determined to succeed. Johnson’s story follows her quest, while also going back in time to tell the story of what happened in Lambert so many years ago that affected so many lives, both black and white. By the end of this incredible novel, the past and present intertwine, setting the stage for a hopeful, if uncertain, future.
Whether you’re a fan of "The Westing Game" or "Native Son" (or, like me, both), “The Parker Inheritance” is for you. This book is destined to become a classic of literature.
Well, that’s all for this month. Happy writing (and reading)!!!
by Melissa Stoller
I recently enjoyed the revival of My Fair Lady on Broadway. One of my favorite songs from the musical is “Show Me.”
In the musical, Eliza Doolittle sings:
Words Words Words
I'm so sick of words
I get words all day through
First from him, now from you
Is that all you blighters can do
Don't talk of stars
If you're in love
I thought about the song’s lyrics in terms of the picture book writing guideline, “Show, don’t tell.” As Eliza Doolittle said, “Show me.” Authors must show the reader emotion and action with our words and illustrators bring those scenes to life with artwork. We never want to simply “tell” the reader what’s happening or provide an information dump. Sounds easy, but sometimes it’s hard to put into practice. I always go back during the revision process and examine every word and phrase of my manuscript to make sure I’m showing all the elements of the story and also creating moments to illustrate. For example, I try not to use the words “is,” “are,” and “was” as they often tell how someone feels, such as “She was sad.” Instead, I might write, “Shoulders slumping, she sighed and brushed away a tear.” Also, using lyrical and poetic language can show what you mean. So for example, instead of “She felt sick,” try “Her tummy bounced up and down like a roller-coaster and her throat burned like a firecracker.” Showing encourages the reader to connect and continue the story’s journey.
Here are three examples of recent picture books where the author executed the “show, don’t tell” rule.
1) “Grandpa’s eyes light up. ‘We’d just come back from picking blackberries along the muddy banks of the creek. Our berry-splattered faces gave Aunt Nelle’s cow such a fright, she didn’t make milk for days.’”
The Remember Balloons, Written by Jessie Oliveros, Illustrated by Dana Wulfekotte (by showing Grandpa’s bright eyes and the reaction of the cow, Grandpa’s memories come alive).
2) “When showers fill streams and shoots spring up, we say otsaliheliga . . . .“
We Are Grateful – Otsaliheliga, by Traci Sorell, Illustrated by Frané Lessac (the author uses imagery to portray springtime).
3) “What’s the racket?” Kuda asked. Rabbit’s foot thumpity thumped to the beat.”
Rock & Roll Woods, Written by Sherry Howard, Illustrated by Anika A. Wolf (the author uses onomatopoeia and alliteration, showing the reader a musical beat in this line).
And in my debut picture book, to show Scarlet’s anger I wrote,
“’Grrr, those are the clouds and stars outside my window.’ Scarlet stomped to her room.”
Scarlet’s Magic Paintbrush, Written by Melissa Stoller, Illustrated by Sandie Sonke.
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Next time you’re writing or revising your picture book manuscript, use active words, convey emotion and/or humor, depict movement, and “show, don’t tell.” And next time you see My Fair Lady, think of the song “Show Me” in terms of this picture book rule!
Melissa Stoller is the author of the chapter book series The Enchanted Snow Globe Collection - Book One: Return to Coney Island and Book Two: The Liberty Bell Train Ride (Clear Fork Publishing, 2017 and Spring 2019); and the picture books Scarlet’s Magic Paintbrush and Ready, Set, GOrilla! (Clear Fork, Fall 2018). She is also the co-author of The Parent-Child Book Club: Connecting With Your Kids Through Reading (HorizonLine Publishing, 2009). Melissa is an Assistant and Blogger for the Children’s Book Academy, a Regional Ambassador for The Chapter Book Challenge, an Admin for The Debut Picture Book Study Group, and a volunteer with the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators/MetroNY. Melissa has worked as a lawyer, legal writing instructor, freelance writer and editor, and early childhood educator. Additionally, she is a member of the Board of Trustees at The Hewitt School and at Temple Shaaray Tefila. Melissa lives in New York City with her husband, three daughters, and one puppy. When not writing or reading, she can be found exploring NYC with family and friends, traveling, and adding treasures to her collections.
We are so excited to be mixing things up at the Children's Book Academy, beginning with some delicious additions to the Blogfish. Meet our awesome new bloggers!!
Here's our lineup:
1st Mondays begin with Clear Fork/Spork editor/art director, former agent and former kidlit professor Mira Reisberg PhD who is also the Director of the Children's Book Academy.
2nd Mondays will feature super smart Melissa Stoller whose career is taking off with several new books.
3rd Mondays will feature Bryan Patrick Avery, published writer, man of mystery, and professional magician among other things.
4th Mondays will feature the fabulous debut author/illustrator Sarah Momo Romero.
And 5th Mondays will feature awesomely irreverent and super funny Aussie author Brydie Wright.
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