February 24, 2011

6-1/2 Tips to Help You Create Picture Books with HeART by Author/Illustrator Janeen Mason

I've had the pleasure of knowing Janeen Mason, artist and friend extraordinaire, for more than a decade. Janeen has a remarkable spirit of giving, and today, she's sharing her favorite quotes, a peek behind the scenes at the making of a picture book, a precious photo and wise words.

As if that weren't enough, please enter for a chance to win Janeen's brand new book -- GIFT OF THE MAGPIE. (Details at the end.)

"Look at a child's face as you read an illustrated book to him. He is utterly lost in the pictures, his mouth is open, his eyes are wide, it's as if his mind has left his body. It's as complete an immersion into a work of art as a human being can ever hope for. It is pure seeing." - Zora Charles

Janeen Mason writes and illustrates award-winning children's picture books. She uses her brilliant sense of color to transport us through each one, and she's now on her fourteenth. Mason says "Children's picture books are a primary source of inspiration which have enormous consequence in our culture. They provide the introduction to a lifetime of creative imagination and appreciation for the arts. This is powerful juju in a landscape of ever accelerating technology."

Janeen is a popular speaker on radio, at schools, libraries and in workshops. Awards for her books include the Ben Franklin Award (silver), the U.S. Maritime Literature Award (gold), the Moonbeam Children's Book Award (gold), the Mom's Choice Award, the iParenting Award, and in 2010 she was a finalist in the Book of the Year Award. Mason has received a Lifetime Achievement in the Arts Award. Her large scale fine art hangs in the collections of Burt Reynolds, Reba McEntire, Evan Lloyd and S. Kent Rockwell. Ms. Mason was recently featured with the MacArthur Award Winner, Dr. Edith Widder, on NOVA Science Now.

Ms. Mason is active in the arts. Appointed by two senate presidents, she is serving her second term as a member of the Florida Council on Arts and Culture, currently as the vice chairman. Memberships include the board of directors for the Arts Council of Stuart and Martin County, the board of directors of The Friends of the Blake Library of Stuart, Inc., the Florida Association of Public Art Administrators, the Florida Reading Association, the Children's Book Council, and SCBWI. As the Illustrator Coordinator for the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators in Florida for the last five years, she produced annual "Illustrator Intensives" where she hosted well-known contemporary children's book illustrators as guest instructors in retreat settings.

A solo exhibition of 100 original picture book illustrations from her books visited six Florida museums and galleries and is scheduled for three more in 2011. In 2010, her art celebrated a one-woman exhibit for three months in the 22nd floor gallery of the Capitol Building in Tallahassee, Florida.

6-1/2 Tips to Help You Create Picture Books with HeART

by Janeen Mason

"Artists effortlessly speak across time because the technology of the human soul does not change." -Wynton Marsalis

Truer words have never been spoken. But creating a beloved children's picture book that will be enjoyed over and over again requires sophisticated tools, tinkering and tenacity.

1) Start with a story idea that you love, love, love. "Gift of the Magpie" presented itself as an idea when I worked in a studio that was built in 1926. It was near the Manatee Pocket on the Atlantic Coast of Florida, where the wind whistled through the high windows and through the 20' door in the back. At a certain time of year crows would flock to the power lines that stretched across the courtyard in the back. Their cacophony every evening made me stand at the door and wonder "WHAT?" Clearly they were reporting the results of their daily quests... and I wondered, what if you were a crow whose wings didn't flap to the same drummer? What if you were interested in... say... shoes instead of green beans?Would you tell your best friend? Would he understand?

2) Sketch thumbnails with joy and abandon. Remember when you were a child who was too innocent to fear failure and brave enough to feel emotions?

3) Take your story to your writer's group. Don't have one? Join SCBWI and find one. Workshop your material with other children's writers and illustrators. Attend conferences. Meet people who can help you polish your work to perfection. Be open to suggestions that resonate. This particular story was originally titled "Max and Regina", but when one of my brilliant writer friends, Jill Nadler, read it and whispered, "It's like Gift of the Magi", I thought she said "Magpie", and a whole new vista opened! Max and Regina turned from crows into their corvid cousins, and "Gift of the Magpie" was born. Magpies, by the way, with their white breasts and white striped wings are much more graphically interesting on the page.

4) When your work is ready and the members of your critique group smile and nod and offer up their blessings, it's time to submit. I recommend buying the Annual Exhibition Catalog of the Original Children's Picture Book Art Exhibit at the Society of Illustrators in NYC. You'll find the names of the editors and the art directors who worked on every book in the exhibit. It is a concentrated way to shop for who might be interested in your style, your sense of humor.

5) A contract arrives, you've read it carefully, sought counsel if you were sans agent and found yourself confused... (I type every contract into my computer. It is the only way I can "read" legalese. When I find something that confuses me, I highlight it and bring that up with my attorney.) When my sketches are approved, the work on final art begins... In my studio everything goes up on the wall in front of my drafting table where I can watch the whole book come together like a puzzle. It will never be seen this way again, but I am comfortable weighing it as a whole composition, darkening - lightening, working on balance.

6) "The best picture books are more than text and art bound together. They are small movable sculptures: a combination of kinetic art and performance art." - Lolly Robinson.

Let me introduce you to my boss . . .

(This is Keira, one of Janeen's grandchildren.)

1/2) Back to work! You've gotten this far, surely there is another idea that is scratching at the door now... whining to get out.

To win a copy of Janeen's delightful new book, GIFT OF THE MAGPIE, about which Kirkus says, ". . . the artwork is an impressive display, as riotously colorful as a bowlful of jelly beans," simply click the follow button on the right and leave a comment below.

The winner of the autographed book will be announced Thursday, March 3rd, so please check back to see if you've won.

Thank you, Janeen, for sharing your art and heartfelt words with us.

February 23, 2011

And the Winner Is . . .

My friend, Random Number Generator, chose the winner of the fabulously funny, autographed copy of IS YOUR BUFFALO READY FOR KINDERGARTEN? by Audrey Vernick.

Before I announce the lucky winner, I want to thank both Audrey Vernick and her lovely agent, Erin Murphy for sharing their wisdom about elevating quiet books in their popular blog post.

Now, three cheers for our winner . . . JEN SWANSON!!!

February 18, 2011

Young Writers Workshop at the Library

When Carol, the head of the children's department at our local library, asked me to give a young writers workshop, I was delighted.

Carol and I have been friends for years, and I love Jupiter Library. It's where I took my kids when they were little. Now, they drive me there!

As the young writers workshop drew closer, more and more kids signed up. It seemed a certain teacher was giving extra credit. And practically a whole writing club (Thanks, Lori!) showed up. And homeschoolers and . . . OH MY!

We'd capped the event at 25 kids, but 35 kids (and parents) showed up.

It was so much fun.

We ate granola bars and had a blast brainstorming, creating quirky characters and playing a game that showed the power of nouns and verbs.

One young writer came up with a character who was 100 years old, but still stuck in kindergarten. Another handed me a book she'd written and asked me to take a look at it. Another asked how she could get published before she graduated from high school.

Everyone left with a page listing Internet resources, great books for young writers and tips for crafting good stories.

A huge thanks to Carol for inviting me, Lori for helping me, my friend Linda Marlow for being there and helping and to Ms. Bourne, our sons' third grade math teacher. They adored her. I adored her. When she walked into the room, I nearly fell over. But instead I gave her a big hug.

Thanks to all and . . . YOUNG WRITERS ROCK!

February 16, 2011

Agent Erin Murphy and Author Audrey Vernick -- Elevating Your Quiet Book to the Next Level

I'm so excited about today's guest bloggers!

At the 10th annual FL SCBWI conference in January, there was much buzz about one workshop. QUIET BOOKS: "Shhh!" by Erin Murphy and Audrey Vernick.

Erin and Audrey graciously agreed to share some of their excellent advice from that workshop. Today, this dynamic agent/author duo offers 6-1/2 Ways to Elevate Your Quiet Book.

(After reading, please scroll to the end for your chance to win a brand new, autographed copy of Audrey's book, IS YOUR BUFFALO READY FOR KINDERGARTEN?)

Meet agent Erin Murphy . . .

Erin Murphy founded Erin Murphy Literary Agency http://emliterary.com/ in Flagstaff, Arizona in 1999. She works with publishers of all sizes all over the U.S., and has placed clients' books with every major children's house in New York and Boston, but she cut her teeth in regional publishing. Erin represents writers and writer-illustrators of picture books, novels for middle-graders and young adults, and select nonfiction. She is especially drawn to strong characters and heart-centered stories—stories that others often consider "too quiet."

Meet author Audrey Vernick . . .

Audrey Vernick is the author of Is Your Buffalo Ready for Kindergarten? and its sequel, to be released in June, Teach Your Buffalo to Play Drums. She also wrote She Loved Baseball: The Effa Manley Story, a Junior Library Guild title that was named to the ALA’s Amelia Bloomer List. In September, Audrey’s debut novel, Water Balloon (which is no longer too quiet) will be published by Clarion Books. You can visit her website at www.audreyvernick.com and her blog at http://shelovedbaseball.wordpress.com.


AV: I have attended writing conferences and listened to speakers who fired me up to a point that I couldn’t wait to get home and start a new project so I could apply all the bits of genius I had just heard.

Likewise, I’ve read others’ conference notes and thought, wow, how trite.

I think on some level, we all know most of this stuff and it all depends on where you’re at when you hear it again.

I was in the exact-right place when Erin and I had a talk, one we often refer back to, about how to take your quiet book to the next level. We offer six and a half of those points here, in case you’re in a similar exact-right spot.

EM: I’ve always been attracted to quieter stories as a reader, and as an agent, have found some of my biggest successes with books others have found too quiet. I think these books have their own, very loyal readership and can definitely find their homes.

There’s no easy way to define “quiet books,” but if you’ve gotten the “too quiet” comment in rejection letters, this advice is for you.


AV: I had written a quiet novel. I knew this because when an earlier version had been submitted, just about every editor said it would be hard for the book to stand out on her list. I knew I needed to rewrite, and I suspected I needed to add one thread, one more plotline or SOMETHING that would elevate it. Erin helped me define what that meant—elevating it.

EM: Sometimes “too quiet” means “too familiar” or “too mundane.” Bring out what is unique in your story. And flesh out the most appealing parts—if there’s a romance, for example, bring it to the forefront. Agents, editors, and readers all love romance!

Sometimes an element has to be brought in to add tension—like a ticking clock. My client Conrad Wesselhoeft’s debut novel Adios, Nirvana http://www.indiebound.org/book/9780547368955 has a lot riding on the deadlines the main character is facing.


AV: I have decided that next time around, I’d like to skip the part where I first write a novel that’s too quiet. I have a tendency to be too kind to my characters. One thing I plan to do in my next novel, probably before I start writing it, is think about what I can do to make my character very uncomfortable. I suspect I will have him or her make a very bad decision.

EM: In Audrey’s forthcoming novel, Water Balloon (Clarion, Sept. 2011) http://www.houghtonmifflinbooks.com/catalog/titledetail.cfm?titleNumber=1462667&searchString=water%20balloon, she added a scene that made me so uncomfortable when I read it that I had to stop and take a break. I was yelling at her: “Don’t do it! Don’t do it!” It involves her main character committing social suicide without realizing what she’s doing is such a huge mistake. That one scene really brought the whole novel up a notch—especially because one of the things that is most important to this character is her friendship with two girls who seem to be leaving her behind as they all grow up.

Taking away a character’s support systems, making him face his worst fears, putting in danger the thing she loves most—all of these can elevate a quiet book to something much more.

I can think of lots and lots of books that might have been thought of as quiet if the situation the main characters were in weren’t so extreme:

Speak http://www.indiebound.org/book/9780142414736,

Story of a Girl http://www.indiebound.org/book/9780316014540,

If I Stay… http://www.indiebound.org/book/9780525421030


AV: If it were up to me, I’d just write books about characters living their daily lives. I’m interested in details, relationships, what things a character finds funny. I suppose plot and setting and all that nonsense matter too, but for me, character is key. I want to read about characters who live on in my mind long after the book is over.

EM: I am such a sucker for falling in love with characters. If a book has not just a main character but also secondary characters I love and want to spend time with, if I’m sad to see them go when I turn the last page, I’m really sold. I think of

The Penderwicks http://www.indiebound.org/book/9780440420477 and

Saffy’s Angel http://www.indiebound.org/book/9780689849343, and from my own list,

Eighth-Grade Superzero http://www.indiebound.org/book/9780545096768,

Palace Beautiful http://www.indiebound.org/book/9780142417454, and the forthcoming

One Day and One Amazing Morning on Orange Street http://www.indiebound.org/book/9780810997196 as books whose characters I felt complete affection for—and I could feel the authors’ loving affection for them, too. (Which doesn’t mean the authors treat those characters gently, by any means…)


AV: One way to figure out if your book is a quiet book is to try to come up with a one-sentence summary. I kind of hate this advice, because I’m terrible at it. But it’s a good exercise to try. An editor will have to pitch it in order to acquire it. Identifying the weak parts of your pitch might help you identify those areas you need to strengthen in your story.

EM: The pitch should emphasize the unique rather than the universal. Hint: Read the brief descriptions of books being sold on Publishers Marketplace http://www.publishersmarketplace.com/ . (Sign up for the free weekly “Lunch” and read through the announcements faithfully.) You’ll start to get a sense for the ones that are most effective, and that will help your own pitches.


AV: Many books that make a lot of noise are kind of quiet at their heart, but have taken readers to a place they can only dream about. If you remove the royal elements from The Princess Diaries http://www.indiebound.org/book/9780380814022 , you may be left with a pretty quiet book. If you’re struggling for a way to pull your book out of the too-quiet pile, is there an element of wish fulfillment you can add?

EM: This is another way to take out the familiar and insert something unique. What if the group of girlfriends at the heart of your story had most of their conversations not at the school cafeteria, but at an afterschool job in a high-end clothing boutique occasionally visited by celebrities, or mixing tea leaves and rolling out croissants for a tea-and-pastry shop? A book like Anna and the French Kiss http://www.indiebound.org/book/9780525423270 cleverly takes a high school friendship-and-romance story and places it in a swanky French boarding school, and poof!, there’s a terrific and sexy marketing hook.


AV: We interrupt this blog post to remind readers that it’s very easy to forget to, say, write well and truthfully, while trying to juggle all these other tricks to make your book less quiet. But at its core, this is really the number one bit of advice. Write your heart out, make all your characters three-dimensional, likeable but flawed, and when you’re in the writing zone, forget about everything else.

EM: A lot of books that might be tagged “literary” might have once been “quiet,” but the writing and the voice have been polished and crafted to such an extent that what readers notice is the beautiful writing and construction, the way all the parts work together so seamlessly, the way it sticks with them long after they finish reading. Craft is the most important thing when you’re writing quieter stories.


AV: A truly awesome title can, I believe, go a long way toward distracting an editor from the fact that you might have written a quiet book.

EM: When coming up with a list of possible titles, don’t just think of the tone they carry and how they reflect the story and its themes. When you’ve got it down to a shortlist, also think of what visuals those titles evoke. (Don’t suggest these visuals in a cover letter, by the way! Just be aware of the possibilities.) If an editor starts visualizing a cover as soon as she hears a title and pitch for a manuscript, she’s going to give it a serious look.

If you'd like a bit more of Erin Murphy's wisdom, please check out her blog post at SHRINKING VIOLET PROMOTIONS. Her ideas about what success really means garnered dozens of comments and put this author's mind at ease.

Enter to win an autographed copy of Audrey's new book: IS YOUR BUFFALO READY FOR KINDERGARTEN?

To enter, click the "follow" button on the right and leave a comment. One lucky winner will be chosen at random Wednesday, February 23rd. (PLEASE CHECK BACK TO SEE IF YOU'VE WON BECAUSE I WILL NEED YOUR MAILING ADDRESS.)

Thank you so much, Erin and Audrey!

February 14, 2011


Book covers have two jobs -- to attract potential readers and to give a hint at what the book's about.

I'll go so far as to say the cover of a book is a promise to the reader of what lies inside those pages.

And frankly, I'm pissed off about a couple recent covers.

My biggest pet peeve is about the book MILO (Sticky Notes and Brain Freeze).

Doesn't this look like a fun, silly book about a few kids having a good time on a summer day? It's not!

Is MILO funny? You betcha. But it's also heart-breaking. MILO is NOT about having a good time on a summer day. It's a beautiful book about a kid learning to come to terms with his mother's death. And when I got to the end, I cried my eyeballs out! That cover did not prepare me for the intense reaction I'd have to the book, and it pissed me off.

MILO is going to be so helpful to a child dealing with the death of a loved one, but will the child even pick up the book with such a silly, fun-loving type of cover?

I hope the publisher changes the cover to reflect the truth of this book for the paperback version so the right kids will get hold of it.


Cartooney, right? Total silliness? Nope. It's got a smart, savvy deaf character who tries to assimilate into mainstream high school.

Absolutely delighted to see there is a new cover for the paperback. Check it out . . .

Listen publishers, I know DIARY OF A WIMPY KID is selling more books than imaginable, but please, PLEASE don't portray every book as the next Wimpy Kid. Unless it really is like Wimpy Kid.

For example, meet BIG NATE by Lincoln Peirce.

This is a wonderful series that's "like" Wimpy Kid, except with a character that I feel has more heart and empathy. I love this series . . . and the cover is perfect for what's inside.

I've had librarians complain that the cover for HOW TO SURVIVE MIDDLE SCHOOL was a little too silly and misleading for some of the seriousness and heartbreak inside the covers.

While I love the singing hamster cover, I can understand and appreciate their point.

This happens in picture books, too.

I'm a huge fan of Marla Frazee's work. Did you see her new book, BOSS BABY?

It's hilarious and true with illustrations that enhance the story and humor. And it has a perfect cover . . .

Did you know Marla Frazee illustrated a book called MRS. BIDDLEBOX about -- to borrow the words of the amazing Judith Viorst -- a "terrible, no good, very bad day?"

The late author, Linda Smith, wrote this gem of a picture book -- one of my favorites -- while she was going through treatment for breast cancer.

Here's how it begins: "On a knotty little hill, in a dreary little funk, Mrs. Biddlebox rolled over on the wrong side of her bunk."

This book -- its honesty about a grim reality, perfect poetry and imaginative, dark illustrations -- helped me get through treatment for cancer eight years ago.

I love this book. And I love the cover . . .

But guess what? The powers that be at the publishing company thought it was too dark, too dreary. So they had Marla Frazee create a new cover . . .

I hope the new cover helps sales, but I will cherish my copy with the darker cover, the one that conveys a promise, a promise on which the book absolutely delivers.

Rant over.

February 11, 2011

What Does the Public Library Mean to You?

I was so moved by this man crying over the closing of his neighborhood library.

Growing up in a working class neighborhood in Philadelphia, the library was a safe haven for me as a child. I don't want to imagine what my childhood would have been like without my neighborhood library. It is the reason I am where I am right now. It provided everything I needed for FREE, which was all we could afford back then.

It breaks my heart to hear about library closings in Philadelphia and many other places. And it's happening in the poorest areas, where they can least afford to lose such a valuable resource.

What does your neighborhood library mean to you? What did it mean to you as a child?

February 9, 2011

Ways to Persevere at Writing by Danica Davidson

Danica Davidson is a young, enthusiastic writer who got in touch with me with a few questions about the writing biz.

Perhaps I should be asking her questions. Even though she's young, she's ambitious and dedicated, and probably has already written more than I have!

Today, she's written a GREAT post about perseverance . . .

Danica Davidson has been writing since a young age. She is currently seeking to publish a YA novel and has sold a few hundred articles to more than thirty magazines, including Booklist, Ms. and Publishers Weekly. Please check out her website at www.danicadavidson.com or follow her on Twitter @DanicaDavidson



1. It usually isn’t easy to break into the publishing world, but keep going. Very few writers make it into the business right away. Most of us have to work hard at it for years. I had a dream of being a professional writer at a young age and have been working toward it since then. Yes, I actually showed up at writing conferences and the likes at age eleven and tried to show people what I was writing. At the time, they assumed someone my age couldn’t write and ignored me, which hurt. Since then I’ve continued to plug away. I’ve built up a strong résumé on freelance work and am now doing what I can to publish a YA novel.

2. Be creative. I regularly read advice on how to become a professional writer and I follow this advice. However, I also seek to come up with out-of-the-box ways of trying to get my name out there. By doing this, I’ve managed to get myself covered by such places as the Los Angeles Times and Guide to Literary Agents. For the Los Angeles Times, an English teacher who’d read my novel called the paper and got them interested in me; since I knew she liked my book, I had asked her if she would call. For the Guide to Literary Agents, I got in contact with the place myself and showed a previous interview, asking if I could write something similar for them.

3. Remember to write. Sometimes we get so consumed with showing people that we’re writers that we . . . well, forget to write. Or we lose time to write, because we’re so busy networking or being busy with other tasks. It’s one thing to say you’re a writer, but the really important thing is to be a writer.

4. Go with what you love. Many people — and I’ve been guilty of this, too — try to write what we’re “supposed” to write instead of what we ought to write. If we ought to write something, it comes to us. If we try to write something we’re “supposed” to write, then odds are we’re going to be much less successful. I’ve tried for years to get into literary journals because I thought they would make me look sophisticated, but I’ve yet to be published by one. However, I have managed to sell a few hundred articles to other magazines, so I guess I’m doing something right in a different genre.

5. Don’t let rejections stop you. I haven’t let them stop me, and I’d be lying if I said I haven’t gotten quite a few rejections. I got the most when I was trying to become a freelance writer since I was young and untested. I was a high school student who had to earn her own money because of family circumstances; I turned to freelance to get me the income I needed and also in hopes it might help me in publishing my novel. At first, magazines kept saying No due to the fact I didn’t have a professional résumé. But then I started to get into a few places, and once I showed I was reliable and good at the job, more places began to have me write for them.

6. Different experiences, including hard ones, will help with your writing. Most high school students I knew in their senior year were partying and looking forward to college. I was working three part-time jobs, earning my diploma through independent study, and trying to become a professional writer. This was never the life I pictured for myself. But I also know it strengthened my writing and gave me a new perspective on the world.

6-1/2. Enjoy your writing. If you’re persevering despite the odds for a career as a writer, it ought to mean you really love writing. I know I do. That’s why I continue with the freelance, and that’s why I’m working hard to publish my novel. I can’t imagine doing anything else.

Love that last line, Danica. I can't imagine doing anything else either, especially when it means I get to meet lovely, fascinating young people like you. Thanks, Danica!

February 7, 2011

Happy PUNday!

Mondays stink!

So I'm renaming today PUNday. And to celebrate the new day, here are a few fun puns a friend recently sent:

1. A rubber band pistol was confiscated from algebra class, because it was a weapon of math disruption.

2. Atheism is a non-prophet organization.

3. Two hydrogen atoms meet. One says, 'I've lost my electron. The other says 'Are you sure?' The first replies, 'Yes, I'm positive.

4. Did you hear about the Buddhist who refused Novocain during a root canal? His goal: transcend dental medication.

Oh, I can hear you groaning from here.

Feel free to PUNish me with your own groaners. Come on. I dare you!

February 1, 2011


Wendelin Van Draanen is in the house at Wild About Words and she's sharing her 6-1/2 tips for things to think about before writing series fiction.

Wendelin is an amazing human being, author and band member. Check out the organization she and her husband, Mark, created to get kids fit and get them reading.

It's my pleasure to introduce Wendelin Van Draanen and her . . .

6-1/2 Ways to Get Serious About Writing Series Fiction

WENDELIN VAN DRAANEN is the author of dozens of books for young people including the popular Sammy Keyes series, now in its 13th installment, the Shredderman series, and The Gecko & Sticky series. Her stand-alone novels include Flipped, which was recently made into a major motion picture directed by Rob Reiner, and The Running Dream which has just been released. For more information, visit Wendelin Van Draanen's website at www.wendelinvandraanen.com

If you think she looks glamorous, check out her fun blog post about the movie premiere for Flipped. (This is such a sweet, family movie.)

While I love Wendelin's books, my personal favorite (so far) is Swear to Howdy. It's a gem of a middle grade novel.

Her brand new book, The Running Dream, is getting great reviews. Here's a short YouTube trailer:

And now, without further ado, here are Wendelin's 6-1/2 things to keep in mind before you begin writing a series:

1) What you establish in Book 1 you have to live with for the entire series.

2) If you need to get out of what you’ve established in Book 1, your readers will know you’re cheating.

3) Series work best if the characters evolve.

4) Evolution does not mean a sudden radical departure from established characteristics. That’s cheating, too.

5) Technology will change faster than you can write your next installment so avoid too much technological detail in your story.

6) Your brain is not a bible. Start one early.

6.5) Series are the underdog of literature. You’ll have to work extra hard to earn respect.

Thanks, Wendelin!