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.


Sunday, June 9, 2013

A Book in Eight Weeks! How Can This Be?

Actually, it was more like 17 years. One day in 1996, sitting in my office at the University of Florida, School of Forest Resources and Conservation, my mind wandered home to New Jersey and focused on the yard at my childhood home.

The house was purchased by my maternal grandparents in about 1920, shortly after my grandfather returned from World War I. In my mother's book, Seasoned With Salt, she tells of how her father and mother happened to come to own "Tongueslip." Grandfather Travis was then the minister of Watchung Avenue Congregational Church. One Sunday, following church service, he and my grandmother were standing on the steps of the sanctuary and she chanced to remark on the dilapidated Victorian mansion next door. With its wrought iron thistles, gingerbread scrollwork, sagging port-cochere and overgrown lilac bushes she saw it had a substantial amount of inherent charm. "What a lot one could do with that old house," she observed. From that slip of the tongue, curiosity sprouted and interest grew and within the year, my grandparents were the proud owners of Tongueslip.  It was where my mother grew up, and where my siblings and I grew up as well.

That July afternoon in 1996, my parents still lived in Tongueslip, but, in their 80's and 90's,  were both having health issues. I had decided to give up my job and return home to care for them. That July day, I was packing up my office preparing to move home. So my thoughts returned to that most special acre, nestled between the church yard and suburbia: that once-again overgrown acre of gardens, and lawns, the barn and the goose house.  I began to doodle a verse, capturing the images in words on an opened envelope.

"On the laundry lawn I see
     one brown bunny watching me..."

I'm not sure when it was that the envelope that I  tossed into a moving box that July afternoon first surfaced back at Tongueslip. But I stuck it in a notebook where it sat for another year or two, or three, surfacing periodically to be reread, and sometimes added to or revised. I have little treasures like that tucked in drawers and notebooks all over the house. Being a clutterbug, they remain, to remind be of happy days and lonely nights, of sad farewells and lost loves. I expect that almost every writer has these scraps of the past: notes and nonsense from or about old friends, old times or old loves tucked in diaries, family Bibles, school notebooks and shoe boxes.

The envelope had surfaced frequently enough that I finally put it in my most often used journal. It faced me each time I picked up that book, and served as a constant, barbed reminder of the dream of writing a book about things I love most: home and the world of nature.

When I saw the flier from the Montclair Art Museum, advertising a class in Writing and Illustrating Children's Books, I took out the envelope, typed up the words I had, and began to do some research  - after I signed up for the class on line. I'll blog later about what I discovered, but I will say now that when I shared my story with my class a few weeks later, they loved it. Kristine, our instructor, said she would love to illustrate it. I was touched, but replied that that was my job. And so I began...

Getting Ready for The 21st Century Children's Non-Fiction Conference

Next weekend I'm heading up to New Paltz, NY for the 21st Century Children's Non-Fiction Conference. Check it out at http://21cnfc.ezregister.com/

As a newbie in the world of writing for children, I thought this would be a super introduction to the craft, as well as a way to begin to network with  folks involved in publishing the kind of books I visualize myself creating. I found out about it from a website I connected to several years ago, John Bard's site on writing for children http://cbiclubhouse.com. Thanks for the great tip John.

It's been my dream, for more years than some of my readers have been alive, to write and illustrate books for children. I don't mean just any book, but a "forever green" book: one that children and parents will still be reading two or three or four generations from now. This will be my 5th career, if I count correctly. It's time to make the BIG dream come true!

I retired from teaching about five years ago, and determined to take my writing goal seriously. I wrote a novel for 8 to 10 year-olds my first year. Sent it in to an editor in New York and received a polite, if fairly nondescript rejection. I've piddled around with that manuscript a number of times since, but the passion seemed to have cooled.  My book was about a nice little girl, and it seems that these days mean girls are what sells. Then I saw an ad for a course on Writing and Illustrating Children's books, at the Montclair Art Museum. At the end of the eight week class, taught by Kristine Lombardi, I now have a dummy ready to try to sell. So the conference seemed like the next step. I'll blog later about how I got that far that fast.

Both Kristine and my classmates have been extremely helpful in revising my dummy. I signed up for a one-on-one session at the conference and was assigned to Roxie Munro. Roxie has been awesome in providing guidance in preparing for the meeting. Between these two knowledgeable young women, I feel confident that I am on the right track as I prepare for this new journey.

Things I will take:
1. A well designed "dummy" (a rough model of my book)
2. Two or three pieces of near-final art work
3. Samples of my illustration work in several styles
4. A pile of business cards with contact information included
5. "Give Away" postcards with a sample of my art work, a concise description of my new book, On the Laundry Lawn, contact information and a rebus showing how my last name is pronounced.
6. A few copies of a concise resume and my publication list in case some publisher wants more info.
7. A proposal for Roxie to review with me
8. At least one piece of art work to enter in the contest. I can leave my cards by the display for more publicity.
9. A bag with my art work on it and the name of my book, in which to carry all my materials, neatly and visibly.
10. My laptop, so I can blog with you and keep you up to date on how the conference is going.

The Birthday Blog

Today, my very special friend Jen, who runs Greenpointers gave me the super gift of helping me to create this blog. She is awesome at blogging and at lots of other stuff too. And like me, she loves birds and nature (and my son). AND, she's a professional photographer and she took my head shot for the blog. Thanks Jen!!!

Last year the two of them spent the whole day with us, but didn't know it was my birthday.This year is LOTS better. They not only brought me gifts, but they seemed to REALLY like the dummy for my soon-to-be book. And they, and my super spouse all gave me art gifts: watercolor pencils, brushes, drawing pads and a new portfolio. Thanks guys!!