Sunday, December 29, 2013

Decluttering for Creativity's Sake - New Year Thoughts for the Author/Illustrator

2014 is the year I WILL become a published author. How do I know? Because the publisher that is currently holding my proposal for a children's book has promised to get it moving early in the new year. If this doesn't happen, I will send it elsewhere. While I work on being patient with publishers, I will continue working on other projects, including possibly self-publishing a wonderful story, for adults,  that is just about ready to go. It's a story of love and of war and of how two families became one, through a series of amazing coincidences.

But where will I work? My studio, which has doubled as a guest room and Santa's workshop over the holidays, is totally out of control. The lovely new pencils and sketch books I received for Christmas have no place to call home, and I can't find the right papers to move on with my illustrations for the book that is under consideration. When I get the call, I need to be ready to get back to work on illustrations. Clutter has taken over... again!

I thought I'd try a few strategies for clutter control that I found in the Internet. Since much of the clutter from the studio was moved to another bedroom to make space for company, I thought I'd attack that room, which HAS seen the light of day in the past month. A bed full of clutter from the studio disappeared in less than an hour. I turned on some music, set my phone alarm for 30 minutes,
and got to work with one bag for recycle, one for trash and another for donations. Everything that was on the bed is now in a proper bag or is located where, or near, where it belongs in the studio or various closets. It took less than an hour.

While clearing up this clutter, I also came up with some possible strategies for the studio. I see now that I need bins or shelves for the many types and sizes of paper, page covers and laminating pockets I use. I also need bins or boxes for materials for different projects: genealogy, the current book, two up-coming books, the foundation I run and my card-game business, Copy-cology (c). It is clear that I need some type of shelves in the closet to organize wrapping paper, fabrics, gift bags and various craft supplies.

I also need to work at getting rid of things I don't need and letting go of things that have emotional glue all over them. Today I managed to let go of a number of papers, including the networking plan I created for a university class I used to teach and a crossword puzzle I created for that class. The new year needs a new mind-set. If I created those things 16 years ago, I can certainly create the same things or better ones now. Some of this material might be on an old computer, but accessing old files is yet another challenge for the year ahead. One of the lines I loved from the Internet pointed out that, if your home is full of clutter, there isn't room for all the good things you want in life.

So tonight I will plan and search for organizing tools, and tomorrow (before the new year even begins) I will attack the studio and make it mine once more. Then I will begin to polish "The Mexican Blanket," and work on illustrations for my children's book. The author/illustrator will be back on track for 2014: the year my first book is published!

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Holiday Herald - The Art of Christmas at My House

     Of all the arts and crafts projects I have ever created, I think my Advent banner is the one of which I am most proud. During a particularly difficult December about 33 years ago, I made this banner from scraps of felt and bits of craft materials I found in my sewing basket. Finances were tight that year, and I made do with what I could find. The banner, itself was ready on the first day of December, but many nights I stayed up late piecing together the ornament for my son to put on the tree the following morning. A few were patterned after pictures I found in magazines or books, but most were works of heart.
     The Advent banner has hung in my homes in four states, and traveled with my son and me when ever we went "...over the river and through the woods to Grandmother's house." It is a constant in my Christmases, whether a child or a spouse shares the trimming of the tree each year. I was deeply touched when my husband's niece called to ask for pictures of it, as she wanted to recreate it for her niece and nephew.
Holly, Jolly Dragon
      It's fun to choose the ornament each day from the bright red basket with it's cheery holiday bow. Some have special significance. The sleigh with a gift in it always goes up on my son's birthday, which falls on St. Nicholas Day. I usually put the wreath ornament up the same day I put the evergreen wreaths on our doors. The snowflake is added the day of the first December snowfall, and the tree on the day we put up our tree. Santa arrives on the tree on December 24th, and the star goes atop the tree on Christmas morning. So, in a way, the banner is the diary of our Christmas preparations.
     We have a drum for the drummer boy, a lollypop, a candy cane, a gingerbread boy and a Christmas mouse. More spiritual symbols include an angel,  one of the abiding shepherd's sheep, a candle, a sprig of holly and an evergreen wreath. Santa, a toy train, a teddy bear
and the Cat-in-the-Hat's hat are joined by dinosaurs,
a trumpet and a bell.
                                                                           For the crafters among you, the ornaments are
stuck to the tree with Velcro (c) dots. Before it is fully dressed, the dots are white balls on the tree. They are interspersed with shiny snowflakes sewn to the tree. Each ornament is slightly stuffed with batting to give is a 3-D look.


      Each ornament is about 2 inches high. Some have googelly eyes. Some include bits of ribbon or bells. Each is hand stitched with love and stuck together with craft glue and affection. This is a treasure that I hope will become an heirloom for future generations.

Stuffed Teddy
So in the days and weeks ahead, as we continue to dress the house for the holidays, write Christmas cards and letters, listen to hymns and Christmas songs, and read beside the fire, the banner, created for my little boy, will be a constant reminder that the days are drawing nearer to the special
day when we received that most
special gift: Jesus, the Christ Child.

As I wait til after the holidays to hear more from my publisher about my book proposal (I got another encouraging email this week) I plan to work on another story which I think I will self-publish. I will get back to work on my illustrations and, of course, create a Christmas letter for my husband and me to send to family and friends. I will also create some new Christmas decor, and bake dozens of cookies and batches of granola. The Longest Night is closing in on us, and I will endeavor to fill these short days with creativity and the spirit of the season.


Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Stories are Calling to Me...

Sometimes, it's nice to just let the wind blow your creative spirit where it will. As I wait to hear details from the publisher, I continue to stir up new stories in my mind. This morning's email in-box contained a message from Liz, who just may become one of my new best friends. She was writing to let me know she has read my text and seen my illustrations and is moving the process on. "It's a lovely story with beautiful illustrations!" She tells me the team will be reviewing my book proposal and she will keep me posted. Can you hear me smiling????? I signed my return email to her, "Hopeful Author-in Waiting." Keep your fingers crossed for me, please.

 This last weekend was a picture-book-perfect weekend in Vermont. We drove up Friday for the annual barn dance at Olivia's Crouton Kitchen. If you don't know about Olivia's Croutons, check them out on line. They are the yummiest, and Francie, Olivia's mom, has come up with new gluten-free versions of croutons, crackers and stuffing mix too. Francie is our niece and we LOVE going up to the farm she and David live and work on. The traditional croutons are made in the barn at the farm, and each year, on Columbus Day Weekend, they hold a barn dance for family, friends and neighbors. We figure there were over 200 folks there this year. Great food, great fellowship and a wonderful time to be in Vermont. The weather was magnificent and you could have fooled me that the foliage was past peak!

Francie and David's farm reminds me SO much of one of the books I most loved reading to my son: Our Animal Friends at Maple Hill Farm, by Alice and Martin Provensen. After my boy was grown up, I spent years looking for a hardcover copy of this (before Google made such searches simple). All day on Saturday, as we were working to get everything ready for the barn dance, I kept glimpsing perfect images for a picture book, and overlaying them with illustrations from this classic in my mind. The dogs, the chickens, the horses, the fall colors and pumpkins and sunflowers. I am SO ready to sit down and write the story that Francie gave me the title for. I won't tell you any more about it, except to say that this is the title character.
My camera was busy clicking all day and well into the evening. As we gadded about purchasing pumpkins and searching for sunflowers, collecting chrysanthemums, getting gourds and investing cash in Indian corn, I was collating colors, tracking text , creating context and conflict and beginning the book in my brain. SO much fun!!

Here are a few images which one day you may see in illustration form in my new classic. (Oh let me dream!!! I KNOW I'm so far ahead of myself, but if I can dream it, I can do it! Right?)

Welcome to the Barn Dance
We never did find mums, so I arranged corn stalks, sunflowers, a bit of sumac and the pumpkins. Great nieces and nephews spent the morning carving  jack-o-lanterns that lined the path to the barn doors. A pot of petunias from the patio lent a bit more color and, "Viola!" Martha Stewart couldn't have done better.

The Provensens wrote about each animal on their farm. We had chickens and roosters wandering at will. Amazingly none of the five dogs (three visiting pooches including our Mugo, and Rufus and Maggie who live on the farm) chased the little feather balls, but the great nieces and nephews found a stash of eggs in the hayloft. The two horses quietly watched the action, between nibbles of grass and handfuls of hay. Pigeons were displaced from their perches in the upper barn and we swept and cleaned and disinfected places where food and folks would be congregating. Fairy lights were lit in the barn and while the musicians got their equipment set up, and company began to arrive with pans of pork and casseroles of coleslaw, containers of cookies and plates of pies, we set out the spiral hams, the rolls and mustard.                                                     
Pastoral Pasture

As the long day of preparation drew to a close, the evening of entertainment opened. That barn was full of so many stories, so many characters and incredible food, family and friends, that "I could write a book!" doesn't even begin to cover it. Traditions in rural America are the stuff of so many classics, we'll just have to hope that the bookshelves have room for one more. It's on its way. SO don't expect me to be raising my hand to volunteer for much this year or next. I have a mission! The stories are out there calling to me: begging me to write them down and to share them with you. SO here goes...
On the Cusp of the Barn Dance.

Friday, October 4, 2013

While I Wait... Keeping Skills Sharpened

While I wait to hear from a publisher, I am keeping busy and trying to keep creative juices flowing. 'Have spent lots of time in the yard, around the laundry lawn, weeding, watering and doing general fall clean-up. Our scarecrow, Jeremiah, has returned for another season, and the October decor in the yard is coming in to focus. Some other visitors to our yard this week have included a preying mantis, downy woodpeckers, robins, a golden-shafted flicker, several types of warblers and a great blue heron, which may save me the trouble of setting up an aquarium indoors for the gold fish from the pond. I think the circle of life is turning here at Tongueslip. My 6 year-old giant goldfish, Draino, has not been seen for several days. He may be flying over New Jersey wetlands in a new form.

Jeremiah II is the latest version, created to replace the original that teenagers swiped from the yard year before last. This version is fairly well secured, and we'll hope he stays with us at least through the Christmas season, when he will don his Santa hat and a warm scarf. I couldn't resist the LED pumpkin. We saw one in a neighbor's yard last week (even before October arrived) and when I saw it at our local hardware store, my 20% off coupon called to me. My patient husband smiled when I marched home with it after I went to check out the non-functioning orange lights for the fence. Since I only needed a new fuse, rather than a new string of lights, it seemed reasonable to spring for the pumpkin. It is so lightful!

Writing this week has been focused on the program for the 61st Ole Bull Music Festival. The event takes place on the 26th of this month, in Galeton, Pennsylvania, and I have much writing and designing of ads to do. Last night I did an abbreviated retelling of the story of King Hakkon of Norway and his escape from the Baglers. I discovered a charming rendition of this story by Lise Lunge-Larsen, with lovely illustrations by Mary Azarian. Look for The Race of the Birkbeiners at your library or independent book seller.

I try to fill the festival program booklet with information and trivia about Norway, and the history of the Oleana Colony that violinist Ole Bull tried to establish in Potter County, PA. Although the colony failed, it sowed seeds of music in the ridge and valley provinces of the Commonwealth. The program this year includes a retelling of the saga of Hakkon, a list of words we use that have Norwegian roots and some troll tales. Check my website, for more on this topic.

From trolls to Brownies... Brownie Scouts that is! This week I had to create a Kaper Chart for my Brownie/ Jr.Scout troop. Kaper Charts are a Girl Scout tradition, designating assignments to be done by each Scout at a meeting or at camp. My chart defines the responsibilities of each job and allows for the movement of girls from one job to another. The avatars for each girl were colored by them after I drew three versions of Brownies and Jr Scouts. The girls colored them at the last meeting and they are now laminated and have Velcro (c) dots so they can be moved from one job to another.
I'm pretty pleased with how this projected turned out. It also proved to me that I can draw people (if not overly realistic ones) so maybe I can get on with a new picture book I am considering. The idea was generated following a creative meeting with one of my friends and cheerleaders, Andrew. Following a productive chat with him, I am seriously thinking of revamping a chapter book I wrote and turning it into a picture book. So creative juices are still flowing and the always inspiring beauty of autumn nature in the Northeast is energizing me.
'Hoping all my readers are keeping up with THEIR creative projects too. This season is a wonderful one for finding inspiration. If you haven't read this one, although it is a week late, please take time to enjoy one of my favorite seasonal verses.

By Helen Hunt Jackson (1830-1885)

    THE golden-rod is yellow;
        The corn is turning brown;
    The trees in apple orchards
        With fruit are bending down.
    The gentian's bluest fringes
        Are curling in the sun;
    In dusty pods the milkweed
        Its hidden silk has spun.
    The sedges flaunt their harvest,
        In every meadow nook;
    And asters by the brook-side
        Make asters in the brook,
    From dewy lanes at morning
        The grapes' sweet odors rise;
    At noon the roads all flutter
        With yellow butterflies.
    By all these lovely tokens
        September days are here,
    With summer's best of weather,
        And autumn's best of cheer.
    But none of all this beauty
        Which floods the earth and air
    Is unto me the secret
        Which makes September fair.
    'T is a thing which I remember;
        To name it thrills me yet:
    One day of one September
        I never can forget.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Making the Deadline: Submitting the proposal



I had set September 20th as my personal deadline to submit my proposal to a publisher. Today, on 9/20/13 I dropped hard copy of my proposal at a publisher's and also sent the proposal via email. SO now the waiting begins. 

Since my last blog-post I redid two illustrations and completely reformatted one page using PhotoShop. I bought the program this week, and my friend Maddy showed me the basics. It really is amazing what it can do, even without an experienced operator!

I learned how to make pages, how to erase, how to add and edit text, how to work on layers. It's really a super tool. I thought that technological applications had no place in my hand drawn art. But it's so neat the way that you can modify a drawing, move elements around, copy all or segments of a drawing. For example, this box turtle can now be introduced into other pages than the one on which he was originally drawn.
Box Turtle
He was on a page that was originally formatted to be vertical, but now the page is horizontal. I was able to redesign the page in a few minutes, rather than having to redraw eleven images. I was even able to re-size things to better fit the new format. PhotoShop is still a mystery to me in many ways, but it has saved me hours of work and it was certainly a big part of what allowed me to meet my deadline.

So what now? I have submitted a proposal. I know that it will be weeks - or more probably - months, before I hear back from the publisher. So what will I do while I wait? This weekend and next week I will focus on other projects: the program for the Ole Bull Music Festival, creating my fall garden and making a kaper chart for my Girl Scout Troop. But the following week, I plan to get to work on other illustrations for my book. 

It has become clear to me that, just as the text improves with each revision, so the illustrations become more finished with each iteration. Every time I work with pen or pencil, I find new ways of making the illustrations come to life. Working on the same drawing over a period of time allows the drawing to evolve. I see the early versions of some of the pictures and I wonder that I thought they were pretty good. Now I see how very much better they have become with repetition and revision.By the time the book is published, I hope that they will be something to truly enchant my young readers.

I will also continue searching for pictures on line and in nature to use as references.
Photos like this one of dew on clover will help me to improve the drawing of clover wet with dew. I will continue to study other artist's work. My dear friends Gene and Ashley just sent me a wonderful book called Show and Tell by Dilys Evans. It promises to provide hours of enjoyment and many revelations about other artists and their work in illustrating children's books. There is so much to learn!

I'll be busy reading for the Book Fair, gardening, Scouting and working for The Spunky Norwegian Foundation, but I'll be on the lookout for emails or letters so I can report to you on the next stage in writing and illustrating a Caldecott winning book.

Til then, I will work on polishing my writing, my illustrations and my patience. I expect they will all be stronger by the time I hear "Yay" or "Nay."

Monday, September 9, 2013

What Keeps Me From Writing

It's 9 days into September, and I am not much further along with my writing and illustrations than I was on the 1st. What is my problem?  In a word, overcommitment.
Stave Church at the Ole Bull Museum  

Planning for my Girl Scout troop, volunteering at the library, working on a variety of projects for The Spunky Norwegian Foundation, keeping up two of my three websites ( and, blogging, FaceBooking and reading for the book fair. It all takes time. I think I need to do less FaceBook, to start with. Unfortunately many of the other projects are in crunch mode, or will be if I don't keep up with them. Sigh! Less TV will help too, but a lot of my time on TV is multi-tasking doing email/FB or blogging while keeping one eye on the U.S. Open, "Who Do You Think You Are?" or other faves.

Today at the library, I picked up another book to read for the book fair and told my friendly librarian, Nola, how much I had enjoyed two others I've read this week. For those who don't know me personally, I have served as the Book Fair Ambassador at the school where I used to teach, for the past four years. This involves reading as many of the books we'll be selling as possible, so that I can help students find books they will enjoy reading. So far this year, I've read 46 books, including 10 for the book fair. I have eight more books in my fair pile so far, and have read a lot of the other books we'll be selling in previous years, so I'm doing reasonably well on that schedule. I have 'til the beginning of November to get really into the mode. Of course, by then, I also have to come up with a cool costume to go with the theme "Reading Oasis".  Suggestions are welcome!

Nola said I should blog on the books I liked, so, Nola, this one's for you.

The books I read are ones featured by Scholastic on their Book Fair website, best-sellers from a variety of book lists, or books that our committee chooses as "special orders" for a variety of reasons, including that the authors are visiting our school.

I have noticed that many of the books have quite different themes from past years.  Hold Fast by Blue Balliette and Almost Home by Joan Bauer, both deal with the topic of homelessness. In our current economic situation, it seems like a very important topic for young people to be able to read about, since they, or their friends or classmates may very well find themselves in this situation at some point. Both books handle the situation with great sensitivity and are more thought-provoking than depressing or worrying. I enjoyed both and look forward to meeting Blue and hearing about her writing when she visits our fair in November

The two books I read this week that particularly struck me were Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper and Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz. The first is about an eleven year old girl with cerebral palsy. While it is a novel, it clearly reveals much of the reality of life with this dreadful disease: how it effects the individual and his/her family, as well as how others perceive the wheel-chair-bound person. It helped me to better understand our church-friend, Joseph and his frustrations in trying to communicate with me and others. It has made me much more aware of the concerns and challenges facing special needs students in schools everywhere. This book would be an awesome book-club pick for students in communities or schools with CP students or others who are being mainstreamed. 
Dante and Aristotle, in the second notable book of this week, are teenaged residents of El Paso, Texas. Both are loners, until they meet at the swimming pool one summer and Dante volunteers to teach Ari to swim. This is an extremely sensitive coming-of-age book with a gay-self-discovery twist. A great read for boys who are trying to figure out those big secrets of the universe: Who am I? What is love? Where do friendship and loyalty fall in the greater scheme of things? What is the place of family secrets in a teen or a grown-up world? 

There are so many wonderful books out there!! I better quit blogging and get busy making another one!! Let me know what you think of these books. I'd love to hear from you.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Recording FIrst Weeks at College: E-Books vs Paper and Pen

Lots of you have probably seen the article that appeared in the Star Ledger yesterday. If you missed it, it's worth a look, whether you have a child going to college this year or not. It's an interesting view on then and now.

The blog got me thinking about my first days and weeks at Boston University, where I spent my undergrad years and set the goal of writing and illustrating a Caldecott-winning children's book. The first thing I noticed about the article was something I've been noting for several years. College begins WAY earlier than it did in the 1960's. My first day of college (Moving In Day) was Sunday, September 8th, 1963. Like the author of the blog above, I had no computer, no Apps, no cell phone and no clue!

No iCal and no iPad, so I bought a paper calendar. It was a Charles Schultz, Peanuts calendar with a square for each day. Even without a digital camera and Instagrams, without a computer and without a single App, I can tell you where I went, what I wore and what the weather was like every day of my first 4 months of college. I can tell you when I met my college boy friend and when I visited my newly-wed sister and her husband. I can tell you how I wore my hair  and when I did volunteer stints at the University radio station (WBUR). I know when I first learned a number of folk songs and when I got home for Thanksgiving vacation.Yes, I have a great memory, but I also have that Peanuts calendar in which I drew each day of those first four months in Boston. Art endures in a way that electronic records don't. Maye this is part of why I still believe in real books, as opposed to e-books.

This is what my first month looked like. Well, the Saturdays don't show, but I can tell you that on my first Saturday it was sunny, I wore a turtleneck  and an a-line skirt and attended three open-houses at three different fraternities on Bay State Road. I also met a cat.

The next day, which was partly cloudy, I wore a jumper (probably my rust colored corduroy one), with a black turtleneck. I went to church at Marsh Chapel and went for a motorcycle ride, I think with a housemate's boyfriend.

It was my third day in Boston that some of my housemates took me to meet some of their friends, and I met the boy I dated for the next two years. It was Tuesday, September 10th and we all played guitars and sang folk songs. My long hair was braided that day.

So what does this have to do with writing and illustrating? Well, I was illustrating my life and making "journal entries" about my daily life. It was these "in the moment" sketches that allow me the joy of reliving those months with rich detail fifty years later. It is this illustrated calendar that could provide me with a fine primary source if I ever choose to write a book about college life in the 1960s, including the historic event shown by the black draped frame and flag at half-mast on Friday, November 22nd. I spent most of that day working at the radio station and most of that night crying on my boyfriend's shoulder.

If you have a child going off to college this month, plant this idea (an illustrated journal - on paper) which he/she can look back at 50 years later. Stories and pictures and books on paper will outlast electronic diaries and FaceBook Timelines. Despite great strides and wonderful aspects of technology in publishing, I am banking on books on paper well in to the future.

Here is one way in which I envy today's students regarding "real" books. I remember the cost and the weight of the books I had to buy and lug around campus. One semester I had 17 novels to read. (Tell your students not to take two novels courses the same semester). It would have been a lot easier to read those books on a Kindle, I bet. And less costly too.

New technologies allow me to "take notes" quickly with my camera. For example:

Gazpacho with additions

City crest with murcielago (bat)
                                    Candies in store on Calle Di Pi, Barcelona

So use the technology. Record the moments. Draw or doodle. But whatever else you do, keep drawing, taking photos and journalling, so that you can write and illustrate rich, real, readable stories to share with the world.  And save important things on paper!

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Reading About Writing and Writing About Reading

One of many books recommended to me recently is A Family of Readers: The Book Lover's Guide to Children's and Young Adult Literature. It has sat in my "To Read" pile, but is now on it's last renewal from the library, so I finally put it at the top of the pile. On this rainy afternoon, listening to rain on the cabin roof and looking out over the alternately silver and pewter surface of Lake Hopatcong, I lost myself in back-stories of some of the finest children's literature currently residing on the shelves of bookstores and libraries around the world.

I loved the segment by Naomi Shihab Nye with the story of the grandfather who woke his grandson each morning by reading him poetry. What an inspiring and gentle way to begin the day: it certainly beats waking up to the world news and traffic reports.

I wondered at the interview with Maurice Sendak about his triumvirate of books:  Where the Wild Things Are, In the Night Kitchen, and Outside Over There. I will have to add the latter to my pile. Somehow I missed it. I totally got it that Sendak didn't need to, and didn't want to, do a reprise of Where the Wild Things Are. Some books stand alone: no sequels or prequels required. Do we need a Polar Express II? I think not.

As both an author and illustrator, I found nuggets of wisdom in "The Pictures" by Margot Zemach and "Design Matters" by Jon Scieszka. The essay, "How to Read the Pictures:John Steptoe's Baby Says," also provided food for thought.

New ideas from "The Pictures," included the idea that you can have things in the pictures that are never even mentioned in the text. The dog Margot added in "The Three Wishes," wasn't part of the story, but she used it to reflect and assist in revealing the emotions of the characters. It's nice to know that she, like I, researches deeply to make her illustrations believable and convincing.

"Design is an essential part of any picture book." This is both the lead and the final sentence in Scieska's essay. I am trying to do as he has done: make design almost invisible, and yet let it do all it has potential to do in making an excellent picture book. From the size of the book and the font, to the colors and use of spreads and page turns, design elements make the difference between a script and an award-winning Broadway show. Every new iteration of the book brings me closer to a finer design. 

I find that thinking in two-page spreads is essential to designing my artwork. I am tying to think creatively about providing the reader with the keys to various dimensions of my book. If I just print in a foreword that this or that is included in each picture, I think some of the magic will be diminished. But if I don't give the reader a hint, a child may miss some of the fun of the book. I will have to keep working on this. Something to think about while watching the clouds forming in late afternoon sunlight on the lake.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Keeping on Track - What is Important and What Really Isn't?

Goodness Gracious!! It's been 18 days since I blogged!! Where does the time go? Summer heat, 50th High School reunion planning, crises in an organization, The Ole Bull Music Festival Awards Concert, church events, supervising home repairs... that's where the time has gone. SO what have I accomplished?

1. Two new websites: and

2. A new concept for the altar at church: "Social Justice on the Altar." This Sunday, in lieu of flowers from my fairly-fried garden (where the major life form is weeds), I placed a model of a Navajo weaver's loom on the altar, along with two cushions woven by Anita K. Jackson.  The model loom was a gift from Anita too. Anita is a master weaver in Arizona who I "adopted" through the Adopt-A-Native-Elder program 10 years ago. I added an insert to the church bulletin, telling everyone about the ANE program, and saying that, rather than giving them flowers to look at this week, I am sending an extra $25.00 to ANE to help someone in Anita's community. You can learn more about this wonderful program at

3. Made the program and served as Mistress of Ceremonies for The 60th Ole Bull Awards Concert at Merkin Hall in New York. A fine time was had by all and the young musicians were inspiring!

4. Planned out the first 3 months of next year's Girl Scout meetings for the troop I co-lead.

5. Helped host a KidSave adoption event at my church (and baked gingerbread for the All-Church-Birthday Party).

6. Picked out tile, planned a pattern, kept everyone up to date on events in the home-improvement project and in my non-profit (The Spunky Norwegian Foundation), began to put together this year's program booklet for the Ole Bull Music Festival in Pennsylvania, volunteered at the library, created a storyboard and some preliminary sketches for a book for a friend, pulled a few weeds, did some laundry, watered the yard and garden, cooked a few meals, read five books.

So maybe that's why I haven't blogged, haven't drawn, haven't revised text for my book.

It's the "URGENT" vs "IMPORTANT" conundrum. If you haven't read The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People you might give it a whirl. I've done all the really urgent things on my list. There are a few left, but they aren't imminently urgent. I have begun to work on several important things that will  be coming up in the next few months. I'm trying to keep them from becoming urgent. They are all important. But I have gotten enough of a space cleared that I think tomorrow I can get back to work on THE important thing: my children's book. Tomorrow I have pledged myself to do a new drawing, one of the revisions I've determined is needed before I can submit to a publisher.

I've also thought a lot about who that publisher might be, and - after reading A Corner of White - and the acknowledgements in it, have decided I may submit to Scholastic, through one of the folks I've met volunteering as Book Fair Ambassador at the Scholastic Book Fair at the school where I used to teach. She told me once she'd love to see my work. Maybe it's time. Most other publishers I see as good matches aren't accepting un-agented or unsolicited manuscripts. We'll see. But tomorrow will bring me one illustration nearer to my goal.

 To summarize:
      A. Clear the decks of truly urgent things.
      B. Decide what is really important.
      C. Put in a bit of time on future important things.
      D. Clear a day to work for a concentrated time on something that is truly important.
       E. Accept that much of what today or tomorrow seems  urgent, isn't important. Don't spend time on these things.

I know the weeds will still be there next week so I can clear out the driveway or my wildlife garden then. Or next month. Or next spring.  But tonight I have blogged and tomorrow I'll be that much closer to my Caldecott winning book!

Sweet Dreams!

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Martha Speaks With Me - The Importance of Consistency

Happy 4th of July everyone. Today it's too hot out to do much more than hang out a load or two of laundry, and then sit inside in the cool. I DID clean the fishpond filter, trying to clear up the water. Of course,  we attended our hometown 4th of July parade. Watching the parade set me to remembering  parades in my youth, when gangs of youngsters would clip playing cards to the spokes of our bicycle wheels with clothespins, and weave red, white and blue crepe paper through the wheels, joining in the joy of being part of the day. These days, I sit and watch, though in fairly recent years I have taken part.

This is a photo taken by my friend Louise Osborn Quinby, a photographer of note, from Victoria, B.C.  It was about 5 years ago and the banner my man and I are carrying is one I made from handprints in felt. Each was traced from the hand of a member of our church. The rainbow ribbon and rainbow handprints are part of our Peace and Justice theme at FCC.

Thoughts of old times with old friends brings me to today's topic. Susie Meddaugh, author and illustrator of Martha Speaks and its sequels, is a hometown girl. We were in high school at the same time, and her Uncle John is a dear friend of ours. So when Susan was in town last week, we spent tea-time chatting about children's books.

Susan was gracious enough to invite me to bring my dummy and my artwork to show her. As we paged through the dummy and I explained changes that I've made in recent weeks, Susan nodded and smiled and provided encouraging remarks, until we hit the page with  five baby birds. She stopped dead, and looked at me. "Do you really want the birds to speak?" she asked.

This, from the lady who made her incredibly popular dog talk after it ate alphabet soup! Well... hmmmm? But Susan was so right.  She had caught something I had totally missed. My book, which is a counting book (among other dimensions) will probably be categorized by the Library of Congress as a "concept book." I wish it would fall under "nonfiction," but I doubt that it will.

Susan pointed out that my book truly is nonfiction. Plants and animals are realistic looking, scientifically accurate, and they behave like the real thing. "Why then..." she asked, "would baby birds be counting out loud?"  Thank you Susan, for showing me another pitfall I almost tumbled into: inconsistency. I have been working diligently to make the art work consistent, but hadn't picked up on that glitch in the text.

Children are a very special class of readers. They trust us, authors and illustrators, to do it right. That is why books like The Lion and the Mouse, by Jerry Pinkney are such a joy. From the Eurasian eagle owl and the African spiny mouse to, what I think may be African violets (though I'm sure his research was more thorough than mine), Mr. Pinkney's world is built on fact. Like my rabbit that looked like a sack of fur, the natural world in children's story needs a true and real skeleton of facts to make it come to life convincingly. 

Nature is so astoundingly beautiful, I take real pleasure in drawing bark that looks like the actual bark of whatever tree I am considering. I strive to draw feathers that truly are structured to allow my birds to fly.  So I encourage you to look closely at the world around you. When you are building worlds for children, give them a firm foundation in fact. Martha and her dog friends have skeletons that are true to life, even if her soup is spiced with a soupcon of imagination to allow Martha's voice to be heard and understood. Susan and Martha, I have heard what you are saying and thank you for your advice and council on my journey.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Revising the Dummy - Making a Caldecott-worthy Children's Book

My critique with Roxie Munro, as well as comments from Peggy Thomas, John Bemelmans Marciano and Laura Purdie Salas got me thinking about my book dummy. I thought I had it all together when I left for the 21st Century Children's Nonfiction Conference a little over a week ago. Everyone I had shown it to before the meeting  loved it. Some of them are published authors. So why am I even thinking about revising it?

To make it better... to bring it closer to the standards to become an award-winning children's book...because there are things I now see that could make it better, stronger, more publishable, more readable. I want my book to be a joy for an adult to share with a child, and vice versa. 

This week I took eight fairly recent Caldecott winners out of the library. I read or reread them all and studied how they were put together. I looked at end papers, at title pages, at page layouts and art work. I considered the stories themselves. I read reviews of many of them. I compared and contrasted amounts of white space and bleeds. Did the books have double spreads? Did they have rhyming text? Did they have text at all? (Not all did.)

Once I had completed this analysis, I took a hard look at my dummy and compared it to them. Here are some things I discovered.

1. None of the eight had rhyming text. It has been a long time since a rhyming book has won the Caldecott. I haven't found one since Frog Went A-Courtin' in 1956. 'Could have missed one. Will keep looking. I've looked at 35 this week.
2. All of them had some double spreads, and some single page illustrations.
3. In all of them, most of the illustrations were full bleeds (the illustration goes to the edge of the pages). There were several winners I did not take out that have each illustration framed, but I was particularly interested in how other illustrators handle bleeds.
4. Two had illustrated end papers (as does my book) and most of the rest had colored endpapers.
5. Almost all had cover art that wrapped around to the back of the book cover.
6. All of them began the story on the second page after the title. Many of them included artwork that created a double spread behind and through the front matter on the page behind the title page. Several also made a double spread of the first page of the story with text only on the right page.

Roxie and her husband, Bo Zaunders, had both suggested a wrap-around cover. That is one of my first next steps. The full bleeds will be a challenge for me, but I have created new thumbnails of the entire book with full bleeds on many/most pages. I've realized, with help from a discussion with my friend Andrew Taylor (another aspiring children's author/illustrator), that I probably need at least one page with illustrations of all my creatures in the scene at the same time. This may help me to address the concern that Alyssa Pusey pointed out,  regarding the presence or absence of a narrator in my story. Thanks to my friend, Madhavi Jandhyala, for helping me to revise thoughts on this page.

Reconsideration has also led me to eliminate the repositioning of text and illustration in my back matter section. I had originally thought to position them so the book would have to be turned 90 degrees to read the back matter. I now see that this would distract from the experience of parent and child, and would break the child-parent-book circle. I love the image of a child sitting on a parent's lap with my book, discovering the world I am presenting to them.

My librarian friend, Nola, reminded me that the Caldecott committee changes every year, so judges may not always be looking for the same things. Still, former Caldecott winners remain my standard. I read and analyzed about ten more winners while working at the library yesterday. What high bars some of them set. I think my favorite (this week) is The Lion and the Mouse by Jerry Pinkney. He inspires me to carefully consider every leaf and every blade of grass.

So now I need to redraw several illustrations, create the new page(s) and redesign the back-matter. I guess I'd better stop blogging about it and get to work! All you creative types out there need to do the same. I love the Andy Warhol quote that appeared
on my FaceBook page this morning.

Go create! And keep cool if you can.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Baiting the Hook - Applying Lessons from the 21st Century Chidren's Nonfiction Conference

What is sharper than a porcupine quill, sweeter than Vermont maple sugar candy and more essential to life than oxygen?    Have I got your attention ?

It's a good hook! Like a quill, it goes straight to the point and is difficult to remove from the reader's or listener's memory.
Peggy Thomas
Mary Kay Carson
 Like maple sugar candy, it concentrates the essence of your story in a small, digestible package.

To a writer, it is essential, since it is what gets us published.

Mary Kay Carson and Peggy Thomas were the first to mention hooks at the excellent nonfiction writer's conference held this past weekend in New Paltz, NY.  Many thanks to Lionel Bender and Sally Isaacs for organizing it. I came away from the conference feeling like a Macy's balloon: pumped up and floating on a high generated by kindness, generosity and a cache of information substantially exceeding my expectations. I also got a bird's-eye-view of the world of writing and publishing nonfiction for children.

For the many published authors and illustrators present, I have no doubt there was much to learn, especially regarding new technologies and trends in publishing. For newbies, I suspect it was overwhelming. Fitting somewhere between the two, my perspective may be somewhat unique.

I went to this event with a dummy and the hope that I could learn what I needed, and make the necessary connections, to get my first children's book published. I am a published author. I've had articles published in refereed professional journals and I spent much of my academic career writing and editing publications for a variety of audiences. I recognize that any piece of writing takes time, revision and patience to get to press. It also takes a certain amount of good fortune. I won't say "luck," because that implies a totally random element. It seems to me that preparing the way for good fortune to meet you involves some digging and planning, as well as a good deal of work.

I will blog later on the importance of preparation and planning, but in this blog the hook is the thing!

No less than five times, I missed real opportunites to pitch my book to a publisher, because I didn't have a hook. When asked what my book was about, I gave a brief overview and summary of the content and format. But there was no hook, and the bait wasn't pungent enough to attract any of the fish I was hoping to land.

Here is what I now know about hooks:

1. You need one!!
2. A good one will get you, your query letter or your manuscript noticed.
3. Lack of one will lose you in the slush pile or the crowd.
4. It must be short enough to pitch in an elevator ride between floors: No more than 3 or 4 sentences!
5. It must be true.
6. It should use active verbs and few adjectives.
7. It shouldn't give away the story.
8. It MUST leave the reader wanting to know more.

You need to brainstorm with yourself and write something quickly. Make it catchy and energetic. Look at what you've written and check it against this list. Then revise. Revise again. Now read it to a friend. Then revise it again. Think about it after rereading your book/article. Revise the hook again. Read it to another friend, or a total stranger at the library or in a grocery line. Ask them if they are interested in knowing more. Listen to what they say. Revise.

Remember, like the Vermont maple sugar candy, you need to distil the essence of the story and concentrate the message into a tiny package. Once you think you have a really good hook, ask a  writer friend what he or she thinks.  Revise. If you have a friend or family member who is a pubished author, ask them what they think of it. Revise.

Know that if you have 2% sugar maple sap, you need 30 gallons of it to make one gallon of syrup. This needs to be boiled down still further to make the candy. You can see that it takes a lot (of work, revision and thought) to make a little (concise, to-the-point hook).

I'm thrilled that Roxie Munro likes my hook!
Roxie Munro & Nancy Pi-Sunyer

Best of luck with yours. If you want to try it out on this blog for comments, feel free. But don't give away your story!

Sunday, June 16, 2013

21st Century Children's Nonfiction Conference - Day 2

Vicki Cobb
Vicki Cobb, author of many books including the classic, Science Experiments You Can Eat, gave the keynote address, "Winning the Nonfiction War." It was an interesting journey through Vicki's life, and the story of her evolution from a girl without a voice to a woman with a cause: Bringing science into the world of children. She made it clear how this is different from bringing children into the world of science! Vicki's remarks on incorporating voice into science writing for children resonated with me. I clearly remember how I felt when my publications at various universities were edited to totally remove my voice. They became technical writing, as opposed to communication with my target audience.

Lou Waryncia
Lou Waryncia, of Cobblestone Publishing,  illuminated our group regarding "the vibrant, vast world  of publishing children's magazines." He opened a universe of opportunities for us, describing some of the many publications he oversees, as well as dozens by others companies. I was particularly pleased to see "Kiki" a magazine designed to empower, rather than to objectify young girls. Lou spoke of the importance of building a relationship with an editor, the components of a good non-fiction article, and the best strategies for engaging an editor when you send a proposal. For those of us with aspirations to write books, he pointed out that magazines are a great way to showcase our writing skills and style. He told us that images are always welcome, including charts and graphs, as well as photos or drawings.

Vicki Cobb used "Google Hangout"in her workshop to introduce us to her iNK Think Tank© program which brings authors into classrooms via distance technology. It was a delight to meet authors and teachers/librarians who have participated in the program. Dorothy Patent joined us from her summer home in Missoula, Montana to share her experiences incorporating writing and research in a classroom half way across the country. I loved how she described the kids waving to her on screen and greeting her with "Hi, Dorothy," as they entered their classroom.  Sarah Svarda, who was in Tennessee, described her cooperative program with an author. She called the interaction between the author and her students "...a true mentoring experience," and asserted that when students use authors to design and carry out a project of their own, it is much more powerful than a simple school visit. As a former 5th grade science teacher, I can clearly see how this mentoring project could be a formidable enrichment tool for any curriculum area (writing, history, science, and more). Thanks to all four of the participants who joined us long distance.
Alyssa Mito Pusey

Alyssa Pusey's presentation lived up to its title by providing us with a well-stocked toolbox for making a nonfiction trade book. Her pointers were clear and incredibly useful, from the point of view of a prepublished author and illustrator. Tools included: Point of View (your voice or the voice of your character), Research (the importance of thorough and accurate source excavation), Structure (how the book is laid out, reading level selected, back matter considered and whether or not it includes layered text), Clear writing (concrete, precise, well scaffolded), Visual aids (clear, accurate, engaging photos charts or drawings). Certainly any author who follows Alyssa's guidelines and uses the tools she provided us will have a product worthy of careful consideration by a publisher, so long as you have targeted your query or proposal effectively. 

Our second day also included a panel discussion on "The Future of Children's Nonfiction." Lionel and the panel assured us that paper and ink books will be around for some time to come, but they also enlightened us regarding several publishing houses ventures into digital publishing both for books and for enhancement to reading materials.

I had my first critique with author/illustrator Roxie Munro. More about that later, but I will say that it was delightful, informative and incredibly useful in helping me to rethink several aspects of my current project. I'm very glad I had done my homework, since a critique session requires both parties to be prepared. I strongly recommend that hopeful authors take advantage of such critiques at any of the numerous forums where they are available. It is SO worth the price!

                                                                   Thanks Roxie!!
Thoughtful Roxie Munro

Friday, June 14, 2013

21st Century Children's Non-Fiction Conference

While making the drive to New Paltz today I was listening to classical music on the radio. Couldn't find much else. How about a children's book based on Edvard Grieg's Peer Gynt Suite. I still remember it from 7th grade music class. Cool music!!

Nancy (me) with some of my art work
Arrived at the campus a bit early and, after some internal debate, decided to set up my illustrations in the art exhibit area. I put up my bunny, the clover illustration and three sheets of Copy-cology© drawings. All the other work was major realistic (looking like photos) and somewhat intimidating, but I figured, here I am. Why not test the waters? I stood back and watched after I had gotten the art work set up. The first two young women who were looking at the exhibit stopped. One said to the other "Don't you wish you could draw like that: so scientifically correct?" I asked another budding author to snap a picture of me and my work.Very exciting for my first exhibit! We'll see how the voting goes on Sunday.

A lot of people seem to like the work. One woman told me that when she is ready to publish a story she is working on, she would like me to illustrate it. Very gratifying!! She is considering starting her own small publishing company, so we'll see what comes of that!!

The intensive session I attended this afternoon was very informative. Peggy Thomas and Mary Kay Carson, both published authors, spoke about the publishing  process. They both are well published by a variety of companies. We learned a lot about the dos and don'ts of writing query letters, submitting proposals, relating to editors and illustrators, and dealing with contracts. In one exercise they had us fill in the following blanks about our current projects:

My non-fiction idea is....                                                                
Mary Kay Carson
My target market is...
My target age group is...
Does it have kid-appeal?  (What/how?)
Does it present new information?
Is it a new slant on an old topic?
Does it fill a niche?  That is, does it fill a need that is not already addressed by other books?
What research is needed?
Does it fit into a curriculum?
Can I deliver this book as a finished product?

Among many other useful pieces of information, they reminded us not to take rejection personally. Publishing is a business and we need to not think of rejection as a personal attack.
One major message they both agreed on was TARGET! TARGET! TARGET.  Before you even THINK of submitting a book, check the competition. See what other books are published by the same folks, and only submit to companies that say they are interested in that kind of product.
Lionel Bender (right) co-chair and designer of the conference with Jon Sprout, singer/songwriter.

Lots more happened, but I'm too sleepy to go on here and now. More tomorrow from a delightful and very informative conference.

Monday, June 10, 2013

The Evolution of Illustrations : Why Being Pushed is a Good Thing

On the first evening of my writing/illustrating class at MAM (The Montclair Art Museum), my instructor gave us several handouts, including one that showed how to lay out a book with thumbnail sketches. She explained what usually goes on each page. She also shared a current dummy of one of her books with us. Everyone was enchanted...or entranced...or overwhelmed. Everyone wanted to have a dummy of their own.  But most of us were not ready for that step...yet.

I had decided to use my 17 year old poem as the text for a picture/counting book, I chose to focus my homework assignments, whenever possible, on my chosen story. The class had received my story very positively during a critique session, so I decided to begin on the illustrations. The second week of class my assignment was to pick one page from my book and illustrate it in three totally different ways. Since I had already decided that I wanted to do the book in my favorite medium (ink and colored pencil), this was a challenge. I had considered other options before, but had chosen not to use them.

Ink & Colored Pencil
Now I was going to have to push myself to create in a different way. First I did the easy one. I rendered one page in my chosen manner. I liked it. It was detailed and scientifically accurate. It was colorful and fun. It told the story and enhanced the counting concept of the book. I really liked it.

I wanted to leave it at that, but my homework was not complete. Sigh!!  I forced myself to try watercolors. My old watercolor set was not completely dried out, just mostly. A few tubes of colors were useable, so I unearthed my brushes and gave it a try. To be honest, I was rather intimidated, as watercolors had always seemed beyond my ken. My Grandmother Travis was skilled at watercolors. My friend Carol had given us a gorgeous watercolor of wisteria for a wedding gift. I knew the medium could be mastered, but I didn't think it was going to be by me!

Watercolor Paints

I played, and worked, and experimented, and watched a dozen "YouTube" videos on watercolor techniques.  Who knew there were so many things one could do with those concentrated tubes of color? A little lifting with paper towel. A dab of wet in wet. A slash of dry brush. It all came together. I ended up with an illustration I was willing to share. Not bad. Not great, but not totally embarrassing.

Now what could I choose for my third medium? I had played a bit with collage in the studio at the Eric Carle Museum of Picturebook Art in Amherst, Massachusetts when I had visited that extraordinary site. If you haven't been there, GO!! One time when I visited, Hardie Gramatky's daughter was there, discussing and reading her father's classic, Little Toot. What a joy to learn more about that old friend from my childhood. On that visit, I also learned a bit about Carle's collage techniques, and how he went about creating papers to cut and paste for his charming illustrations in The Very Hungry Caterpillar.

Using the recently resurrected watercolors, and a fun fan brush I  recently purchased, I created some unusual patterns. While they were drying, I used crayons and did some rubbings of various textures I found in my studio. Then I sketched my basic design in pencil and began cutting a pasting. The result was bright and cheery. Not realistic in the least, but possibly something that young children would find inviting. I would love to hear which picture you like best, and why.