By Miranda Paul
Summer's here! For librarians, that means big crowds during the day and more programming for kids. Many of the librarians I know are always on the hunt for a good read-aloud.
Read-alouds are my favorite kind of book to write. It's absolutely magical to watch a gym full of kids when we act out Water is Water together, or play the game in Whose Hands Are These? Read-alouds are great because they are appropriate for younger kids who can't yet read, or older kids who like to perform. Good read-aloud picture books lend themselves to movement, collaboration, or extension activities. (Perfect for summer storytimes!)
This summer, I have two new read-aloud picture books out--Trainbots and 10 Little Ninjas. Throughout summer and fall, my read-aloud books assist me in creating entertaining and engaging school visits. They make my job (or a librarian's job) easy!
If you're working on a picture book for kids, here are some tips that might help you craft an engaging read-aloud.
1) Read your book aloud. It's a no-brainer. Let others read your manuscript aloud too. Set your words to music, even, to make sure you're being consistent and that your words flow well. If you do, it might actually become a song!
2) Pace the story appropriately. Create a dummy if you need do, and don't worry if you can't draw. Think about where page breaks may fall. Study the picture book form to know how your story will function as a physical object in someone else's hands. A good read-aloud doesn't get bogged down with scenes that are too long or pass too quickly.
Example: In Trainbots, I chose to pace each scene with two lines that make a clear chugga-chugga rhythm whenever the action was moving forward. Trains make a very consistent sound and rhythm, so I built on that and then interrupted the steady rhythm in places where the scene "switches gear."
3) Add whimsy or wonder. Even with a scientific or nonfiction subject, fun and lightheartedness is always welcome.
4) Build anticipation. Similar to being clever and purposeful with page breaks, make sure that your read-aloud isn't only a list of concepts or a group of stanzas that could go in any order.
Example 1: In Whose Hands Are These? I started with easier occupations, and the riddles get more difficult on purpose. Kids playing the game know they have to anticipate the rhyme as well as scour the illustrations for clues. The classroom scene is purposefully placed last to create a "hits home" effect.
Example 2: Although the countdown in 10 Little Ninjas builds anticipation all on it's own, you'll notice that as the numbers dwindle down, the words get sleepier, too.
5) Finish strong. Your ending doesn't have to be loud or bold, but it should provide delight, satisfaction, resolution, or a clever surprise. The ideal ending will have kids cheering, "Read it again!!"
Happy summer reading, everyone!
Miranda Paul is an award-winning picture book author who has been repeatedly noted for her ability to craft delightful and interactive read-alouds. Her titles include One Plastic Bag, Water is Water, Whose Hands Are These? and Trainbots. Forthcoming works include 10 Little Ninjas (August 2016), Blobfish Throws a Party (Spring 2017) and Are We Pears Yet? (Fall 2017). Miranda is a frequent visitor at schools and libraries around the country, serves as the Mentorship chair for We Need Diverse Books™, and volunteers for SCBWI and Books for Africa. She believes in working hard, having fun, and being kind. Learn more about her and her books at www.mirandapaul.com.
Just when my son, Idris, was making his way over the hump from reading with help to independent reader and needed a little boost. Captain Underpants arrived on the scene just in time! Idris was doing his best to read everything put in front of him, but often times I could tell that he wasn’t thrilled to be reading another book about animals going on a picnic. The books he wanted to read were a bit difficult for him. I read to him, which was helpful, but I could tell he wanted to read the books that other kids in his class were reading.
We took a trip to the bookstore. I combed the shelves and the new releases table for something that would hook him. We sampled a few books, but Idris was more interested in the toy section. I began to feel desperate. If I didn’t find something soon, I’d spend the whole summer prying the TV remote out of his hand or worse yet, deleting his endless game apps from my cell phone.
We experienced reading slide last summer and I want to ensure that doesn’t happen again. I was about to give up hope, but I looked up at the top bookshelf and saw a familiar image, Captain Underpants, hilarious looking as ever.
“Hey Idris,” I said casually hoping this would be the one. “What about this book?”
He smiled wildly and I knew we’d struck gold.
That night we read a few chapters of book 1 together. We sounded out words between jokes and laughter. I remember seeing the series in bookstores years ago and I always wondered what the fascination was. After a few pages, I totally got it and Idris was totally enthralled. That night he slept with the book on his bed and rushed to grab it on the way to school in the morning. He’d ask to read it at night and talked to his friends and teachers about it at school. He was reading - still with help - but finally loving it!
The series has stood the test of time because it has all of the elements that kids love (boys in particular). I asked Idris what he liked about the book. He said, “It’s it was funny and felt real”.
I’ll add some writer’s notes to his list. The Captain Underpants series by Dav Pilkey is:
Unintimidating in length
Written with in short and snappy chapters
Written to let the reader in on little secrets that the characters don’t know
Crafted so that each book previews the next
There’s nothing like a good series to get a reader or writer hooked. Pilkey makes it all seem effortless.
Carol Higgins-Lawrence wrote her first story at the age of five. Her father paid her a quarter for it and she's been writing ever since. She's taken a variety of courses in writing for children. Multicultural perspectives are of particular interest to her. Carol is of Jamaican descent and was born and raised in Canada. She has a BA in Communications and Sociology and she has completed coursework towards a MA in TESOL. She has worked as a literacy educator for the past 15 years. She currently lives in Brooklyn, NY with her husband and two young children. You can visit her website at carolhl.weebly.com
Recently I watched a Ted talk by Matthew Dicks. He’s a masterful storyteller and his Homework for Life changed my perspective on writing and storytelling. His advice for finding stories is powerful and simple. He challenges us to take five minutes at the end of each night to really think about the day and write down the most story worthy moment: “When you start to look for stories in your life, you suddenly have stories well up”. He suggests that we ask ourselves:
Taking the time to really contemplate my day and find something story worthy has made me pay more attention to each moment. My Life’s Homework document contains thoughts like:
Don’t hesitate. Listen to Matthew Dicks Ted Talk and and take 5 minutes a day to contemplate your life and find the stories.
What helps you discover stories in your life?
Kirsti Call is a homeschooling mom of five. Her debut picture book, The Raindrop Who Couldn't Fall, came out in 2013 with Character Publishing. Her family band, Calling Out, plays songs written by her children. She contributes to Writer's Rumpus and co-coordinates Reading for Research Month, a challenge for picture book writers who use mentor texts to improve their writing skills. If you visit her house, you’ll likely find her reading or writing. You can find out more about her at www.kirsticall.com.
“I kept always two books in my pocket, one to read, one to write in.”
– Robert Louis Stevenson
When an author sits down to write a book, whom are they writing for: their readers or themselves? Are their central characters entirely made up or are they mildly disguised versions of themselves? Would they find the book that they are writing as interesting to read as they find writing it?
In children’s literature, these three questions hold true but there is an additional dimension that authors of picture books and chapter books contend with. That is memory and forgetting. How do authors remember themselves when young? What did they read then? Who were they? And what have they forgotten?
Carl Jung remarks that we are not who we think we are, we are who we really are. We are our own true self when very young. We have very original personalities and characteristics. We have selves that are separate and apart from the world and apart from what we will become. In growing up, that true self is about to undergo a great amount of changes, learning, joys, suffering, victories and losses. We will be sad and happy. Our true selves are about to experience a great adventure. Life will expect us to let go of a certain amount of that truth and originality. How much do we really let go of? What do we give up so as to take hold of our adulthoods or growing up? What do we forget? In the end, would we even recognize ourselves and would we even be able to write about them?
Writers of literature for young “true selves” somehow reach back into their own true self and create something new, for a new audience. Author/illustrator Antoinette Portis claims, “I would say that I write as a child. My writing teacher, Barbara Bottner, suggests that we each have an age we connect to the most, and that it’s productive to write from our point of view at that age. Not every book comes from my 6 year old self--Not A Box certainly did. I put myself back in my 6 year old self, and feel what I felt then.”
At the same time, other kid-lit authors admit to not consciously writing about or for their childhood selves. Author/illustrator Sergio Ruzzier put it this way, “I usually don't think about what I would have liked as a child, when I write. I think I write for myself, meanwhile hoping that other people, including children, will enjoy the same things I enjoy. It's true that my taste as a child and my taste now are not that different.” Who is that self? Mr. Ruzzier in 2015 might not be all that different from the little Sergio that he was.
To put down a new idea for a book or story, it always seems brand new at the beginning: coming out of thin air. But the true self has had to learn the clever art of hiding out in a grown-up world. Author Jill Davis writes, “When I write for children, I feel someone buried emerge--my private funny youthful storytelling self. And it's trying to grab attention in voice and attitude that can wink at a child and also entertaining, and make them think about something in a different way.”
I like the expression that Ms. Davis uses “someone buried emerges”. This is very spot on as it sums up the notion that there is something to unearth to be freed to create something new and original. Writing something new does not have to always be an unearthing of the true self but perhaps that the reason why authors write and want to write for young people, is that they have not forgotten their own distinctive truth.
Author/Illustrator Tracy Dockray had a slightly different twist on it. She writes, “I write something that I'd wished I'd read when I was young. Something that would transport me in an emotional way, or something that would make me not feel alone with a situation. Reading about someone going through the same experience as myself, sibling rivalry, not being the best in class.”
The experiences can even resemble adult truths, such as ambition, doubt, success or failure. “In Kid Sheriff and the Terrible Toads, I wanted to make an absurd book that pointed out how stupid grown-ups can be.” writes author/illustrator Bob Shea, “I like the idea of giving the kid protagonist the power since kids are so powerless. It has more to do with what I have learned as a grown-up rather than anything young Bobby Shea experienced, as cute as he was.”
Are they reaching back to their true selves and handing over a lesson that they have learned? Are they proving that they have not forgotten what they wanted to learn? Perhaps. But then again they know that they were once children and aren’t all children the same? Matthew Cordell, the author and illustrator of the poignant book on a very adult theme of disappointment and hope titled Wish admits, “I suppose I must, on some level, be thinking of myself as a child when I make my books, though. I can't completely NOT be doing that! It just doesn't seem a priority in my thinking for whatever reason.”
Whether authors think specifically about who they were or not, they are thinking of questions and bewilderments from childhood that they can now answer for the new reader (and most likely for themselves). As an adult reader of kid-lit, the opposite experience occurs. When I read a picture or chapter book and am very conscious that I am reading it as an adult but am I really all that grown up? A picture book or chapter book is automatically a special portal to that true self. I cannot say for certain that I am not my true self reading a book, looking for a reminder or answer that the author has considered. Is it my adult self or my child self that is engaged when leafing through a book created for children? I do not actually become young again, but I almost forget everything I have learned and start anew.
Therefore, is writing any different from reading? Have we let go, on an unconscious level, of who we have become to return to who we truly were?
Matthew Cordell goes on to say, “And I also think a lot about how my books will affect the adults that read them. Because I think all great picture books will satisfy these two different audiences (vastly different!) because both adults and children will be reading them.” In fact, those books that express a deep felt truth affects the different readers the same way, be they small or grown. It might be that kid-lit authors write books as adults for children when in fact we are writing books as children for adults.
In conclusion, the case may be that writers have drawn a difference that does not really exist. They have convinced themselves that they are creating something brand new that never existed before for a new audience that has just come along. But wouldn’t every author of books for children love the chance to sit down with their young true selves and watch as they page through the books that they themselves would be writing some day?
Writer Judy Katchke sums it up very well, “When writing books I don’t quite think of it as writing for children. Instead I write for the part of me that’s still very much a kid.”
Wouldn’t that be the finest experience for writers to have their true childhood selves offer their honest opinion as to whether or not their grown-up self is telling the truth or not?
This is my first blog for the splendid Children's Book
Academy. I am so honored to have the opportunity
to share what I have learned over the years about
creating books for children. I have worked on books as author/illustrator as well as, with other author's text. In all honesty, there is nothing like working in kid literature. It is one of the finest arts. The activity of making a book is so complex and challenging.
In the months to come, I hope to not so much instruct but inspire you to astonish the world with your books.
Bear with me while I work out the bugs of this blogging process, I promise that once I get the swing of it, we will both be learning something new.
For me, this process is "magic making". When I start art for a book, I begin with a pile of white sheets of paper, often twenty sheets for a 40 page book. I usually spend a week just staring at them before I make my first mark. I shuffle the papers, sharpen pencils, roll up erasers into smudgy balls and wait for that moment when I begin. It is frightening. Beginning something new always is. Have you ever stood at the sea's edge on a summer day, about to leap into the cold sea? It is something like that.
Suddenly, a brave spirit or wild whim leaps inside of me, I pick a blank page, mix my black gesso ink and hold my hand over the white sheet. I take a breath. And think a wish: "There is nothing to it, but to do it.."
Then I begin. Frightened and excited and fully alive. You have love that terrifying place, if you want to make art. But aren't you lucky if you do.
Pencils ready. Paper in place. Deep Breath. Wish.
Here I go.
Vincent X. Kirsch
VINCENT X. KIRSCH made his picture book debut in 2008 with NATALIE & NAUGHTILY, published by Bloomsbury USA. Since then, he has gone on to write and illustrate five more of his own books and illustrate three others. He lives in Los Angeles and is a member of SCBWI. Currently, Vincent is creating more picture books, chapter books and middle grade fiction, as well as, pursuing film and television opportunities for his characters and stories.
To learn more, visit: www.vincentxkirsch.com
(This photo was taken while on holiday in Antibes, France. circa 2012)
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