Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Writing the Picture Book, An Interview With Author Margo Candelario

For several years I’ve taught workshops based on writing for children and teenagers. As part of the course I usually try to include at least one session on the difficult topic of explaining death and grief to young children. Looking to the Clouds for Daddy by Margo Candelario is one of the best books on the loss of a parent I’ve come across in a long time. Its treatment of the subject is heartfelt and deeply personal without being sentimental or “preachy.” The text is both poetic and conversational; the artwork by Jerry Craft is first-rate and solid. Like all top picture book artists, Craft has managed to create illustrations that go beyond simply filling out the text. The innovative artwork flows across the pages and creates what could almost be described as “mini-chapters.” Best of all, the compelling mixture of words and pictures drew me in as a reader. I could easily imagine a small child wanting to sit with this book, reading and re-reading it over and over again. The girls in the story are so appealing and the memories they hold in common are so endearing that readers will want to hold on to this story for a very long time.

1. Margo, please tell us the story behind you writing this book.I wrote Looking to the Clouds for Daddy a little over ten years ago in an attempt to document the conversations I overheard my children having about their father who had recently passed away. The dialogue and physical expressions were so powerful that it was necessary to transfer the feelings to paper for their well being and for others suffering from the loss of a parent by means of death, divorce or separation.

2. What was your writing process like getting the story down on paper?
There was no “technical process” of writing and re-writing for this project. I jotted a few comments and quotes down on post-its, put myself in the moment of the conversation, recounted the day’s activities, visualized the climate—literal and temperament—and then just let the story flow. It wasn’t very complicated because the characters are real, the situation was real, the questions were real and in-the-moment; they demanded truthful answers so I didn’t need “fill” dialogue.

3. Do you have any stories to share about taking the book out into the community now that it is published?The girls and I receive different reactions. Young people are fascinated and intrigued with meeting the characters in the book. The illustrations are so vivid and lifelike along with the use of personal photographs which enables the reader to identify with the family and its crisis. Children appreciate Real Life and identify with truth, so meeting the girls at book signings drives the purpose home. The reaction I get from the adults is teary silence and a head nod, with utterances of unfinished business, and the cold reality that there is never any closure with unexpected death. The book crosses over from children to adults because of its universal language so it allows for kinship.

4. You write poetry. How has that helped you to write a picture book?I’m sure there is a link, I’m just not sure how direct it is. My poetry is on another plane. I write poetry for the feelings I no longer verbalize as a single parent and widow.

5. Are you working on anything new right now?I am working on another story about the girls; people are looking forward to their next trial and triumph.

6. Do you have any writing advice for new picture book writers?Yes, keep the writing simple, truthful, energetic and write with purpose. Remember that children are people in small bodies who often have more sense than tainted adults.

Tip of the day: Read Looking to the Clouds for Daddy, Illustrations by Jerry Craft; Karen Hunter Media. ISBN 978-0-9820221-7-7. Be sure to check out Margo's website at Perhaps you have a personal story to share with small children, too. The picture book format could be just right.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Writing the Picture Book

Writing a picture book is not easy. Which is probably why I’ve always wanted to write one, kind of like wanting to climb Kilimanjaro or run a marathon—could I really do it?

For one thing, I’m wordy and I know it. Confining myself to the equivalent of writing child-friendly haiku to tell an entire story isn't my style. For another, I just don’t think I have the kind of whimsy that appeals to very young children. Not that I haven’t tried. My first attempt was a book based on an adorable litter of kittens. I called it This Little Cat and submitted it to about a dozen houses. To my astonishment, the book was taken seriously (I must have done something right!) and received personal rejections from all the head acquisitions editors I submitted to. But the letters were still rejections. Eventually This Little Cat went on to be rewritten and reworked as “The Cat Circus” a poem that was published in The Divine Feline, an anthology of cat stories, poetry, and artwork.

That project is quite a few years behind me now, but I’m thinking (uh-oh) of trying another one. I know a new manuscript is going to take a long time: getting those word choices “word perfect” is a challenge indeed. To help me get into picture book mode, every few months I like nothing better than going to the library to spend an afternoon reading my way through the children’s section (although they’ve just got to do something about those low shelves and pint-sized chairs…).

Several weeks ago while I was there I gathered up some of the books scattered on the tables. Right away two things struck me: most had been favorites of my own as a small child, and all were about animals; talking animals nonetheless. Among those I particularly enjoyed were Millions of Cats by Wanda Ga’g; The Story of Babar, The Little Elephant by Jean de Brunhoff, BunBun at Bedtime by Sharon Pierce McCullough, and Astro Bunnies by Christine Loomis. Like all good picture books, the stories were not only illustrated with care and imagination, but they held my interest from beginning to end as complete “plot lines” centered on charming and believable characters.

After several years of doing this kind of research, I’ve come to some conclusions about why so many picture book manuscripts are rejected:

1. Too many characters; side stories; subplots. Published picture books have page lengths that rarely, if ever, vary. Like all books, they’re printed in multiples of 4. Baby or board books can be as short as 12 “pages,” but the general rule for a picture book is 28 or 32 pages depending on end papers, etc. The longer, more text-driven “story book” can have 48 pages. Those pages have to be coherent and focused.

2. Too many words. The PB word count is short. 1500 words is really pushing it and heading for rejection. I suggest scaling back—way back. 250 to 500 words are about right. With picture book text, less is always more.

3. Don’t illustrate your own work even if you’re a professional artist. Simply send in your text typed in the exact same manuscript form as a 350-page novel. If you are a professional artist seeking to illustrate children’s books, submit your artwork to the publisher’s art director according to their guidelines.

4. At the same time, there is absolutely nothing wrong in making a “dummy” mock-up for your own purposes. In fact, you should! One quick way is to simply fold 8 pieces of paper in half, giving you a little booklet of 32 pages. Play, draw, write and see how your story and line breaks work against the pages. You can also get a good idea of where “double page spreads” will give an illustrator something to really illustrate.

5. Your words should always inspire your illustrator. With that in mind, you don’t need a whole lot of description, sometimes none at all. The pictures will take care of that for you. But your words you do choose must be picture-generators.

6. Should you rhyme? As a general rule, I know editors like to say “never,” but then you will see rhyming text everywhere picture books are sold or read. Like talking animals, it really “depends on what the animals are saying,” as one well-known editor once put it. I think this “rule” about discouraging rhyming text started because of the amount of doggerel coming over the transom. To create good, clever rhyme is an art, and a difficult one at that.

7. Stories about inanimate objects. Just—don’t.

8. Talking animals (again). Some editors say “no,” and I say “phooey!” with one exception: religious or praying animals. You have no idea how many manuscripts I have been given to critique or edit that have included religious animals. I find them weird and I think most editors do, too.

9. Moralizing. Would you like your next exciting romantic suspense to end with: “Okay folks, listen up: lying, cheating, stealing, and killing are bad things and will make your nose grow crooked…” You wouldn’t do it to an adult reader, so please don’t do it to a kid!

Tip of the day: Okay, go write the next great picture book and make me proud! Spend some time at the library re-reading your favorites and checking out new titles. If nothing else, you’ll have a wonderful “artist’s date” reliving some of the best moments of your childhood.

Next post: a special interview with picture book author Margo Candelario on her new book, Looking to the Clouds for Daddy.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

All About Better Than Perfect (Sort of)

Good news: Better Than Perfect has now been officially released and is for sale on, my website, Barnes and Noble, and anywhere else that sells books.

From the back cover: Can anyone be ‘better than perfect’? That’s the question lonely teenager Elizabeth Haddon struggles to answer when she is sent from England to live with relatives in Auckland, New Zealand. Arriving in the dead of winter, Elizabeth soon falls under the spell of her beautiful, but enigmatic cousin Ravenna who insists the most important thing in life is to ‘fit in.’ Elizabeth, who wants only to be accepted by her new family and their affluent social circle does her best to comply until she starts to see the cracks; cracks that turn into virtual canyons when tragedy strikes.

Yep, it’s a New Zealand story all right: dark, satiric, and ultimately (I hope) redemptive.

For a long time I’ve battled with “what New Zealand means to me.” For those who don’t know my background, I emigrated there from California a few weeks after my seventeenth birthday when my father, a New Zealander, decided he wanted to return home. For years I suppose he had imagined happy family reunions with me and my little brother being best friends with our extended family. And for awhile I suppose we were. Then real life took over, kind of like when they say that wherever you go you take yourself with you. We might have been thousands of miles from home, but we were still Americans. My mother was angry and depressed by the move, my father did his best to put a good face on things, and my little brother grew up wild. I stayed for as long as I could, eight years, and to this day don’t know if they were the worst or best years of my life. During that time, I was a displaced Persephone; my journey truly one of descent. For a year before I went to the university I studied nursing, until I could no longer bear working with the child abuse victims passing through the hospital wards and I became ill myself. Things I witnessed in New Zealand continue to haunt me: acts of violence borne of frustration from people trapped by weather and circumstance “with nowhere to go.”

My escape during those years was to immerse myself in New Zealand art and literature which I still think is some of the best in the world; precisely, I believe, because of the restrictions living on a tiny island at the bottom of the world can bring. It all started when I was in my one and only year of NZ high school and the late poet James K. Baxter visited the school a few months before he died. There isn’t room here to adequately describe the impact that visit had on me, but Baxter remains one of my most important literary influences to this day. Barefoot, red-eyed, straggle-haired, and draped in an ancient gray thrift-store suit, Baxter was as different from anyone I had known back in the San Fernando Valley could be. He may have been sick and dying at the time, but he could still recite his poetry with the power and madness of some Biblical prophet whirled in from a demonic wilderness. John the Baptist without the favor of God comes to mind. Baxter’s words and images burnt themselves into my memory; it is impossible to forget him and his rendition of “Thoughts of a Remuera Housewife.” I had only been in the country a few months, but already I knew what he was writing about: a suburban world so precisely “New Zealand” and yet so universal in its theme of “going through the motions” that it seemed to contain the whole of human experience in its brief stream-of-consciousness stanzas. I never forgot it and eventually it became the inspiration for me to write Better Than Perfect. I start the book with a quote from the poem: "….No, it’s not/ a world at all, but Pluto’s/ iron-black star; the quiet planet furthest from the sun." A few brief lines that sum up everything living in New Zealand was like for me.

Several meetings ago my writer’s group experimented with a technique adapted from Judy Reeves's A Writer’s Book of Days: write a full page as one sentence. We used the suggested prompt of “It’s all you could expect.” This is the unedited, raw version of what I wrote:

It’s all you could expect, my father said when he carried the sheep carcass up the hill toward my parents’ house, the lights shining like a beacon for the shell-shocked stragglers who still managed to make their ragged way up from the beach below where glass littered the tide pools and my brother caught minnows the size of his small hands when no one was looking and my mother sat in her room all day and night, shutting her ears to the sheep screaming and my father preparing to play Abraham sacrificing his first-born because God had commanded him and it was his right, his role, his dignity that was on the line and not some sob-story about “Daddy please just listen, just give me this one last chance to find the path I’m supposed to take,” and when the tide came in and crashed against the tide pools full of tiny snails and one-legged octopus, when my brother ran outside to hear the commotion and when even my mother unplugged her ears to hear the waves, the crashing, the thunder, the shouts of the drunken tourists demanding their rights on their beach on their land, then it all seemed like a Greek tragedy caught in the wrong place and the wrong century and all I could think of was opening the sheep pens and calling out the animals one by one before there were any more deaths, any more blood sprinkling this holy night of my father’s anger and his wish to follow a jealous God’s commandments.

Is it true? Yes and no. As another writer, Eunice Scarfe, so wisely says, “Any story told twice is a fiction.” This and Better Than Perfect are my stories told twice.

Thought of the day: What are your stories "told twice"?