As writers, we have to look for inspiration wherever we can find it. Sometimes it’s in what we see, hear or feel, and sometimes it’s floating in the air. The seasons are changing and pumpkin spice, apple cinnamon, and firewood are some of my favorite scents in fall. They conjure up feelings of coziness and warmth. When I close my eyes and smell cinnamon, I immediately see plaid blankets, and forests of fall leaves.
My daughter was coming down with a cold this week and I used the tried and true remedy of rubbing Vicks Vapo Rub on her chest and back before bed. She hates the smell. I, love it! It’s one of the most comforting scents I’ve ever smelled in my life. That’s because the smell instantly transports me to my childhood bedroom. My father is rubbing Vicks on my back, and tucking my bed sheets tight. Then he’s turning on the humidifier on the nightstand and I’m watching the steam rise like a genie’s lantern. “You’ll feel better in the morning,” he says. He wipes my runny nose before kissing my forehead.
Another scent that transports me is the smell of ripe nectarines. When I smell them, I’m instantly 7 years old on summer break running into the kitchen to get a glass of Kool-Aid. There’s a basket filled with juicy fruits on the counter. My mother is washing the dishes in our kitchen. She’s craning her neck to see out the window to check out what neighborhood kids my brother, sister, and I are playing with. She’s wearing an apron, one of many that she’s sewn.
My daughter always comments on the way her friend’s house smells. “It’s a combination of incense and cookies baking,” she tells me. She’s totally right. I’ve been there many times over the years and couldn’t quite put my finger on the scent. It’s a family and a home that we love and is filled with happiness and ease.
If you’re searching for inspiration, look no further than your nose. The scents you love or the scents you hate may lead you on a journey. There maybe a story, setting, character, adjective or verb there that leads you to write something magical.
Check out Kenard Park's new picture book Goodbye Summer Hello Autumn for even more sensory inspiration!
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
Righting the Wrongs: Can Little Black Sambo be fixed?
Butter. Pancakes. Purple shoes with crimson linings. What's not to like? Quite a bit, actually in Helen Bannerman's 1899 picture book about a little boy who uses his fabulous wardrobe to turn a dangerous situation into a delicious feast. Little Black Sambo is a book that has been seen as so desirable that it was illegally reprinted all over the world and yet so incredibly offensive that it has been removed from libraries and then recreated and republished in a more sensitive manner several times. Why not just leave it in the past? What about this story has impacted us as a culture that we feel the need to reclaim it and make it into something else that doesn't hurt us?
The story is culturally inaccurate and the early editions rely on highly offensive images of Sambo and his family. While clearly set in India (the locale for tigers and ghee), Sambo is an ugly caricature of someone of African descent. Is the narrative itself offensive? No, it's a story about a child who is able to outsmart dangerous tigers and eats a ton of pancakes with his family in celebration.
Early criticisms of the book that surprisingly did not object to Sambo's appearance included commentary from two prominent African-American librarians; Charlemae Rollins from the Chicago Public Library and Augusta Baker, soon to become head of children's services at the New York Public Library objected to "unsanitary use of butter taken from the ground" (pancakes were cooked in this butter, created from the tigers chasing one another in a circle until they melted into butter). The depiction of brightly colored clothing was also a sore spot, the implication being that blacks have a "primitive love for bright colored clothes." A third issue was the enormous number of pancakes consumed (Black Mumbo ate 27, Black Jumbo ate 55, and Little Black Sambo ate 169), which intimated that blacks had huge appetites.
Some of the reclaimed versions, like Fred Marcellino's 1996 version (HarperCollins) change the setting and race of the characters to make the story line up with an Indian backdrop. The Story of Little Babaji was well-received and made a break with the past associations by dropping Sambo's name in favor of an Indian identity.
Julius Lester and Jerry Pinkney did a beautiful job with Sam and the Tigers in 1996 (Dial), but opted to make Sam African-American in their version. The setting is an imaginary place called Sam-sam-sa-mara, where animals and people "lived and worked together like they didn't know they weren't supposed to." In Jerry Pinkney's forward, he says that Little Black Sambo was the only picture book with a black child that he remember seeing when he was a kid. When he discovered that there were as many as fifty versions of the book, he felt the urge to "right the wrongs." Pinkney found his research to be "liberating."
The idea that instead of walking away from the images that cause us so much pain and damage, we can take control of them and create something beautiful is indeed liberating. Painful images are still being published in books, as we have seen with A Fine Dessert (2015, Schwartz & Wade) and A Birthday Cake for George Washington (2016, Scholastic). Because of social media, immediate discourse occurs and all voices have the opportunity to be heard. Opinions are far from unanimous on these topics, but the fact that the white white world of publishing can be called out by those who take issue with racial depictions in children's literature is significantly more gratifying than waiting the nearly 100 years it took for Little Black Sambo to be righted.
For next month's post and moving forward, please send me questions and topics that you would like to discuss that involve libraries, books, diversity, and the children's literature community. firstname.lastname@example.org
Fifi Abu spends her days surrounded by books that have already been created and the rest of her time writing and illustrating books yet to be born. She looks forward to a day when all children can see themselves reflected in the books they read. Ms. Abu holds a master's degree in children's literature and a master's degree in library science, is an active member of SCBWI and a Children's Book Academy graduate.
Not long ago, I was one of many happy students taking picture book/chapter book writing and illustrating classes at Children’s Book Academy. A very important part of the course program was participation as a member of a Facebook group where we were free to communicate as well as share ideas and progress with each other.
On a whim, I started posting what I called “Today’s Very Good Questions”, which were a series of questions that might unlock a part of our brains to help us define and refine our writer’s voice and vision.
I enjoyed doing it so much that I often asked them in casual conversations with friends.
Therefore, I thought I would include a month of "very good questions" here for you to ponder, one day at a time or perhaps when you have a stretch of time to tap into a forgotten or neglected font of inspiration deep within you.
I have no particular logic or reason for listing these in the following order. This is simply how they came to my mind. I had so many questions in mind that I made this list for a 31-day month.
Here it goes. See what comes to mind! Write your answers down in a notebook and perhaps an idea or two for books will spring from your answers. You never know. Do you?
I was strolling through the archives and came across this wonderful post from former blogger, Newberry Honor winner Audrey Couloumbis. Audrey is the real deal brilliant and I love pretty much everything she does. I especially liked this post full of nuggets of wisdom for writers, so am re-posting it here. I hope you get lots from it. Please leave a comment at the bottom. - Mira
Children can't keep many of their flaws and failures to themselves, given the wide audience of attentive adults and interested peers in their lives. Rarely are they able to mount a reasonable defense for misbehavior, misguided responses, or simply not thinking about the consequences of their actions.
Generally, their mistakes tell us something about our similar weaknesses; if not our misbehavior, then our unguarded responses and poorly thought-out reactions.
Often, that's why they're in such big trouble. We're embarrassed.
Fear. Humiliation. Insecurity. Vulnerability. Inability. Shame. Guilt.
We all have several moments we can remember,
feeling any, and probably all, of these emotions. We have an experience that makes us afterward more guarded, even secretive.
If asked about a particular event, we reveal only the most trivial bits of information, the parts that make us less the engineer of the train that pulled us along this disastrous track, more the hapless caboose, and hope that will also make the whole thing far less interesting.
The most inspiring novels I’ve read lately have, at the root of their characters’ stories, negative experiences and emotions as the key learning experience. To write these stories requires a kind
of courage; first, as we face the blank page and
our store of memories, then, as we share the hard parts. Whether physical or emotional; genetic or circumstantial, bad experiences have shaped us
all, perhaps more firmly than individual good experiences.
But when we write, we’re doing just the opposite, we’re trying to make what might otherwise read as a generic event more personal, more relevant to the life of the character we write about. That’s how we hope to validate the experience of our young reader (and the older one), who might otherwise live in self-imposed isolation.
We want to take the story to a place where our character finds they have inner strength and some control in their lives (mostly, that's where we want to go). But to do that, we have to find a way to say, “Me too, I’ve felt that way too. And you and I aren’t the only ones.”
Why choose to write about a negative experience? Why not find a positive that teaches the same lesson?
It takes a seriously introspective person to learn something from a positive, and introspection is something few of us take time for as we twitter our next significant update on being stuck in traffic or having a cold.
And, I'm sure you know this as well as I do, no one reads Cinderella to find out how good the stepsisters were to her. No. We want to read about how she picked herself up from the ashes and carried on. With help from her fairy godmother, okay, but still. Up and onward, baby.
So that's where much of our writing energy goes, to pumping up the plot, event by dastardly event. And the reader loves it. But to give those character's some heart, to make those events more meaningful and the whole of it thought-provoking, we have to give the story something of ourselves.
To put a little of your own real experience into your intergalactic warrior's life, let her remember a key moment with her (your) mother.
Decide what lesson in compassion your bear hunter needs to learn, think of some of your own cringe-worthy errors in judgment, and figure them into the story.
To understand how your character feels in a moment you've never experienced (and you're glad of it), think of your most unshared fear, and undercover of the story, share it.
And then, ease the pressure.
My daughter once said to me, "Mom, I don't want to find anything funny in this," but I still think it helps to lighten a difficult moment when we can.
Audrey Couloumbis is headed out to the garden to fight the good fight another day, wearing mud-encrusted boots and pyrethrin-laced clothing, trailed by two bunny-chasing poodles. I wish you an excellent writing day (which I had last night.)
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