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2018: A Year of Writing Success

Children’s author Julie Hedlund, challenged participants of her 12 Days of Christmas for Writers series to post SUCCESSES (rather than resolutions) on our blogs this year. She believes the way New Year’s resolutions are traditionally made come from a place of negativity – what DIDN’T get done or achieved in the previous year.  Instead, she suggests we set goals for the New Year that BUILD on our achievements from the previous one. I decided to participate in this Anti-Resolution Revolution!

But before I share my list, I’d like to think back to this time last year. I rang out 2017 on a beach in Rio de Janeiro, celebrating with our new son-in-law’s family and friends.

Since the August 2017 wedding and reception (not far from our home), I had written almost nothing and barely kept up with my critique group and picture book reviews. Early in September, my husband had left his job at a boarding school to run a start-up. We had to move fairly quickly from school housing and from a too-small condo near NYC (2 separate moves!), and then consolidate/downsize in a new place, also in metro-New York. Moving coordination became a full-time pursuit! Midway through move #1, my 96-year-old mother peacefully passed away; between moves, one of my son’s best friends tragically left us all too soon. As 2018 began, I wondered if/whether I’d ever get my writing “career” back on track or even find my desk under the stacks of boxes that filled our new home.

With this background in mind, I’m amazed to realize that I did enjoy writing success in 2018 and to share these with you:

  1. I participated in Tara Lazar’s fabulous StoryStorm in January, discovered 30+ ideas in my muddled brain, and completed a new manuscript from one of those ideas.
  2. I rejoined 12×12 as a Gold member. I didn’t complete anywhere near 12 drafts (nor was it ever my intention to do so), BUT I completed 4 new manuscripts and polished up several others, attended several inspirational and helpful webinars, met new friends and critique partners via the forum and submitted to nine 12×12 agents.
  3. I attended the New Jersey SCBWI conference in June and the NJ SCBWI Fall Craft Day. Although I’m an off-the-charts introvert, I socialized and volunteered at the June conference to facilitate networking.
  4. In October, I participated in Marcie Colleen’s fabulous Study Hall, where I critiqued the works of 5 fellow picture book writers and received critiques from them and Marcie on 4 of my manuscripts. I also discovered that I liked the discipline of setting aside specific set times daily to write, something I intend to carry forward into 2019.
  5. I submitted a manuscript to the Rutgers One-on-One Plus Conference, and my submission was accepted. Not only was this a huge confidence builder, but I received helpful comments on my manuscript from an editor who kindly offered to look at a revised draft (he has that now).
  6. In addition to the 12×12 agents, I submitted to a handful of agents and editors I met at conferences or whom I learned were open to submissions. I also started tracking submissions and agents/publishers of interest better than I had in the past.
  7. Since early 2016, I’ve been reviewing picture books weekly as part of Susanna Hill’s Perfect Picture Book Friday. I posted 50 reviews this year of picture books with a focus on international authors and illustrators, stories from around the world, and social justice themes, including immigration, In September, I expanded my focus and now post a “Perfect Pairing” of two additional picture books each Tuesday. As a result of this expansion and better social media efforts, blog readership has increased, as has my picture book reading. I even managed to score a few pre-publication review copies and meet a few authors and publishers.
  8. Trying to stretch myself further and give back to our kidlit community, I volunteered to be a Cybils judge. Although I generally read picture books only, I agreed to serve as a Round One judge in the poetry section: reading a total of 49 books ranging from picture book anthologies to YA novels in verse over the course of 2 months. I discovered that I truly enjoyed reading many of the YA and MG novels in verse and that writing in verse, especially using first-person point-of-view, is a wonderful way to tackle difficult subjects. I also became a well-known face at my local library and visited other libraries in the region.
  9. Sifting through a dusty moving box filled with grad school notes and papers, I stumbled upon research I had done 20+ years ago about people and events during the Progressive Era in America (late 19th century and early 20th century). Not only was I surprised to find several subjects worthy of picture book biographies, but I also realized I was excited to pursue writing a picture book biography. With that in mind, I’ve been busy reading as many picture book biographies as I can find and researching my subject further. To spur progress, I signed up for a Highlights non-fiction master class next summer. First draft here I come!
  10. I participated in Vivian Kirkfield’s 50 Precious Words Contest last spring and Susanna Hill’s wonderful contests, including the recent holiday contest. Finishing the year with a tie for 4th in that contest was a further confidence booster, and I have plans to revise and expand that story.

As 2018 ends and a new year beckons, I’m excited to offer this glimpse into my writing journey. I look forward to looking back on this post next December and updating/expanding the writing successes!

Happy New Year! May you find success and happiness in whatever you pursue!

PPBF – Polar Bear Island

As my last Perfect Picture Book post of 2018, I wanted to feature a new picture book that I first learned about from two friends who had interviewed the author and reviewed the book, that concerns welcoming others in a very kid-friendly way, and that is full of wintry fun. I think I’ve succeeded! And, as it’s my last post of 2018, I want to wish all who celebrate a blessed Christmas and everyone a wonderful New Year! See you in 2019!

Title: Polar Bear Island

Written By: Lindsay Bonilla

Illustrated By: Cinta Villalobos

Publisher/Date: Sterling Children’s Books/2018

Suitable for Ages: 3 and up

Themes/Topics: inclusivity; polar bears; penguins; differences; immigration; welcoming others

Opening:

POLAR BEAR ISLAND was peaceful and predictable. Parker, the mayor, planned to keep it that way.

But Kirby waddled where the wind blew, and today she was floating toward paradise.

Brief Synopsis:

When a penguin lands on Polar Bear Island, shares new items and ideas, and then her family joins her, the polar bears are happy to try the newcomers’ treats, except Mayor Parker, at least at first.

Links to Resources:

  • Check out the maze, word search, and other activities in the Activity Kit;
  • Become an AmBEARssador and welcome newcomers, learn about other countries, and much more;
  • Check out the Discussion Guide for more ways to explore the themes in Polar Bear Island;
  • Enjoy some wintry fun: sledding, skiing, ice skating, hot cocoa, and maybe even a snow cone or two. Like Kirby and the penguins, you even could design your own wintry gear.

Why I Like this Book:

Polar Bear Island is a fun book to read and reread, but it contains an important message about welcoming others, too. Kids, like young polar bears, are often open to new ideas and new friends. But narrow-minded adults, or polar bear mayors, may have other ideas and try to keep things always the same or to themselves. But when the newcomers come to the rescue, even a grumpy old bear can’t resist.

Among the many picture books about immigration and welcoming newcomers I’ve read (and regular readers know that is many), I think Polar Bear Island is one of the better ones for younger children to help build empathy for newcomers, as it provides concrete examples of how newcomers enrich communities, and it shows how ridiculous and wrong grumpy old bears (and people) can be. I think kids especially will enjoy reading about the penguins’  inventions that are fun to say and try to picture (or even make). Who doesn’t love “Flipper Slippers”? Or a sled that’s a bed?

Villalobos’ illustrations are equally fun and child-friendly. And although the setting is a white snow-covered island set in a blue sea inhabited by, you guessed it, white polar bears, Villalobos manages to include many bright and colorful details, like the bright Flipper Slippers and hats on every penguin.

A Note about Craft:

In Polar Bear Island, Bonilla makes difficult subjects, immigration and welcoming “others”, accessible to young children. How does she do it? First, she introduces readers to Parker, the mayor, who is a caricature of a character: the proverbial grumpy old bear who even underlines “other” in the sign that states they are not welcome. Bonilla then sets up an absurd situation: a penguin, normally found in the Antarctic, travels by boat (suitcase in flipper) to the Artic. As the pair, and others, interact, Bonilla slips in playful language, like Flipper Slippers, my all-time favorite. Finally, Bonilla and the team at Sterling created an awesome Activity Kit, a Discussion Guide for teachers, parents and librarians, and even an AmBEARssadors Program – sign me up!

Visit Bonilla’s website to learn more about this storyteller and children’s author; see also an interview and review of Polar Bear Island at Maria Marshall’s The Picture Book Buzz, and an interview and review by Kathy Halsey at the Grog.

Villalobos is a Spanish illustrator. See more of her work at her website.

This Perfect Picture Book entry is being added to Susanna Hill’s Perfect Picture Books list. Check out the other great picture books featured there!

Perfect Pairing: Christmas is for the Birds (Count)

I think I mentioned at the outset of this blog series that one of my goals is to pair two different books that complement each other because of theme, common author and/or illustrator, or for some other reason. One of today’s books is non-fiction, and the other book is fiction, but they converge on one topic: the Christmas bird count. I think it’s a perfect time to feature these books, as readers can participate in the count now, regardless of whether you live in the country, the city or somewhere in between.

Happy counting, happy holidays to those celebrating Christmas next week, and happy New Year’s to all! As both of the next two Tuesdays are holidays in the US, I’ll be back with my next perfect pairing in January. 

Counting Birds: The Idea that Helped Save our Feathered Friends

Author: Heidi E.Y. Stemple

Illustrator: Clover Robin

Publisher/Date: Sea Grass Press (an imprint of The Quarto Group)/2018

Ages: 3-7

Themes: non-fiction; biography; birds; citizen science; Christmas bird count

Short Synopsis (from Goodreads):

Every day kids learn how they can help protect bird species, near and far, with Counting Birds—the real-life story of bird counting and watching.

What can you do to help endangered animals and make a positive change in our environment? Get counting! Counting Birds is a beautifully illustrated book that introduces kids to the idea of bird counts and bird watches. Along the way, they will learn about Frank Chapman, who used his bird knowledge and magazine Bird-Lore to found the first annual bird count.
 
Bird counting helps professional researchers collect data, share expertise, and spread valuable information to help all kinds of birds around the world, from condors to hawks to kestrels and more.
 
Counting Birds introduces kids to a whole feathered world that will fascinate and inspire them to get involved in conservation and become citizen scientists.

Read a review and an interviewwith Heidi E.Y. Stemple at Picture BookBuzz.

Finding a Dove for Gramps

Author: Lisa J. Amstutz

Illustrator: Maria Luisa Di Gravio

Publisher/Date: Albert Whitman and Company/2018

Ages: 5-7

Themes: Christmas bird count; intergenerational; family; loss

Short Synopsis (from Goodreads):

A boy and his mom continue the family tradition of participating in the annual bird count. Since Gramps went South for the winter, the boy hopes to spot Gramps’s favorite bird for him—a dove! But with so many different birds in the nature preserve, will he be able to spot one? This heart-warming family story about nature celebrates a holiday census that was first started in 1900 and happens every year.

Read a review and an interview with Lisa Amstutz at Picture Book Buzz.

Hawk seen in park across Hudson River from New York City

I paired these books because readers can learn the history of the Christmas bird count in the non-fiction Counting Birds and see its importance to one boy and his family in the fictional story, Finding a Dove for Gramps. Utilizing the information in the back matter of both books, readers then can participate in the bird count themselves.

Looking for similar reads?

See, Owl Moon, Jane Yolen (1987) (the daughter in the story is the author of Counting Birds) and Crow Not Crow, Jane Yolen & Adam Stemple (2018).

Hester Saves Christmas – Susanna Hill’s 8th Annual Holiday Contest

Dust off the decorations. Strike up the band. Bake, bake, bake and bake some more (especially if it’s chocolate). It’s time for

Susanna Hill’s 8th Annual Holiday Contest!

The Contest:  Write a children’s holiday story (children here defined as age 12 and under) about A Holiday Hero!  Your hero’s act of heroism can be on a grand scale or a small one – from saving Christmas to leaving a fresh-baked loaf of Challah bread for a homeless person to something like Gift Of The Magi where two people give up the thing most important to them to be sure someone they love has a good holiday.  Your hero can be obvious or unlikely.  Your story may be poetry or prose, silly or serious or sweet, religious or not, based on Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa or whatever you celebrate, but is not to exceed 250 words.  Entries are posted, or linked to, Susanna’s post. Grab some cocoa, scurry over & enjoy some wonderful holiday stories! You’ll be glad you did (and so will the writers, if you leave comments).

And now, for my 246-word entry…

Hester Saves Christmas

Hester loved jingling bells, the scent of sparkling pine trees, and the promise of present-filled stockings hung by Farmer O’Neill’s chimney. She especially loved stories of Santa and his reindeer.

“Mama, can I can pull Santa’s sleigh next year?” Hester asked.

“Flying reindeer pull Santa’s sleigh, Hester. And everyone knows Highland Cows can’t fly.”

But I can dream, thought Hester. And practice.

She hopped over heather and thistles.

“Ouch!”

She jumped across rocky streams…almost.

            SPLASH!

She trotted uphill, leapt, and…

tumbled down a steep slope.

            Moooo…

Hester kept trying…

and trying…

and trying…

but not quite succeeding.

As Christmas drew near, Hester turned her nose from pine trees and looked away from the chimney. She hung her shaggy head. Large tears fell, freezing like a glistening beard.

“A blizzard,” sighed Farmer O’Neill on Christmas Eve.  “No presents tomorrow. Santa’s reindeer can’t fly through this mess. Into the barn, girls.”

All but one shuffled into the warm barn.

Hester trudged through deep snowdrifts. She shivered in the blustery wind and slipped on icy paths until…

She heard a faint jingle-jingle. She scrambled and spied…

Santa in his sleigh with eight grounded reindeer stuck in a snow pile.

Hester pulled, tugged and led the reindeer, sleigh and Santa along the snowy trail.

The next morning, presents filled stockings.  Laughter rang like jingling bells across the farm.

“Merry Christmas, Hester,” Farmer O’Neill said.  “Wake up! Somehow Santa came!”

Hester yawned and wondered,

Can a cow hide Easter eggs?

 

 

Perfect Pairing – Travels Wordlessly through the World

As the biggest holiday in the United States looms and as many of you dear readers may be jostling through airports, cramming into trains or sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic, take a deep breath and imagine journeys that are much more pleasant, like the ones paired today. Happy Thanksgiving! 

Chalk Eagle

Author & Illustrator: Nazli Tahvili

Publisher/Date: Tiny Owl Publishing/2018

Ages: 4-8

Themes: imagination; flight; adventure; wordless

Short Synopsis (from Goodreads):

A young boy living in the heart of a busy city spots an eagle swooping overhead. He dreams of what it would be like to fly away from the noise and soar over mountains and rivers. Climbing onto the roof, he uses chalk to draw his own eagle – and then himself – into existence. The two fly away together and embark on a wonderful adventure of the boy’s imagination.

Read my review.

 

Door

Author & Illustrator: JiHyeon Lee

Publisher/Date: Chronicle Books/2018 (originally published in South Korea, Iyagikot Publishing Co/2017)

Ages: 3-5

Themes: imagination; friendship; adventure; wordless

Short Synopsis (from Goodreads):

What’s on the other side of the door? There’s only one way to find out: You’ll have to go through it.

JiHyeon Lee’s debut book, Pool, was lauded as a wordless masterpiece. Here she takes readers on another journey into an unexpected world. Delicate drawings transform from grays to vivid color as a curious child goes through a mysterious door and discovers that open-mindedness is the key to adventure and friendship.

Read a review at Brainpickings.

I paired these books because they are wordless picture books involving imaginative journeys. In Chalk Eagle, a young boy views an eagle and draws an eagle and himself with chalk to experience the joys of flying over serene, forested mountains. With a palate of blues and greens, Tahvili evokes vast mountains and sky, leaving many details to the readers’ imaginations. In Door, a young boy finds a key to a locked garden, enters, and discovers a colorful, exuberant world filled with welcoming creatures on the other side. Leaving the black and white reality of frowning adults, the boy enters the colorful, detail-filled garden to frolic with a cast of merry characters. While both main characters undertake imaginative journeys, the look and feel of these journeys differ, perhaps because Tahvili and Lee hail from different parts of the world: Iran and South Korea.

Looking for similar reads?

See Circle, Jeannie Baker (2016) or the Journey series by Aaron Becker.

Perfect Pairing is Sharing Memories

I love how small treasures are often at the heart of family get-togethers. Whether it’s a tattered photo, a battered object, or a collection of keepsakes, the item often sparks a story and memories pass from generation to generation.

Nanna’s Button Tin

Author: Dianne Wolfer

Illustrator: Heather Potter

Publisher/Date: Candlewick Press/2018 (originally published in Australia, Walker Books/2017)

Ages: 4-6

Themes: intergenerational; family history

Short Synopsis (from Goodreads):

I love nanna’s button tin. It is full of stories.
Nanna’s button tin is very special. It has buttons of all shapes and sizes and they all have a different story to tell. But today, one button in particular is needed. A button for teddy. A beautiful story about memories and the stories that shape a family.

Read a review at Reading Time.

 

The Matchbook Diary

Author: Paul Fleischman

Illustrator: Bagram Ibatoulline

Publisher/Date: Candlewick Press/2013

Ages: 6-9

Themes: Intergenerational; family history; diary

Short Synopsis (from Goodreads):

Newbery Medalist Paul Fleischman and Bagram Ibatoulline tell a breathtaking immigration tale with appeal across generations.
“Pick whatever you like most. Then I’ll tell you its story.” 
When a little girl visits her great-grandfather at his curio-filled home, she chooses an unusual object to learn about: an old cigar box. What she finds inside surprises her: a collection of matchboxes making up her great-grandfather’s diary, harboring objects she can hold in her hand, each one evoking a memory. Together they tell of his journey from Italy to a new country, before he could read and write — the olive pit his mother gave him to suck on when there wasn’t enough food; a bottle cap he saw on his way to the boat; a ticket still retaining the thrill of his first baseball game. With a narrative entirely in dialogue, Paul Fleischman makes immediate the two characters’ foray into the past. With warmth and an uncanny eye for detail, Bagram Ibatoulline gives expressive life to their journey through time — and toward each other.

Read my review.

I paired these books because they are intergenerational and feature the sharing of family history. In Nanna’s Button Tin, the unnamed narrator and her Nanna search through the button tin for a “perfect brown button for a perfect brown bear”, but also remember family stories about other buttons they find. In The Matchbook Diary, the great-grandfather purposely used matchboxes as a diary, and the focus of the conversation is his life and journey to America. In both, small “treasures” are the lens for sharing family history – what might you see and share when you visit a grandparent or great-grandparent?

Looking for similar reads? See The Remember Balloons (Jessie Oliverios, 2018) and Grandad’s Island (Benji Davies, 2016).

 

 

PPBF – Marwan’s Journey

With the scent of holidays in the air, November always reminds me of journeys – those taken, to visit family and friends, and those yet to come. But as I reflect on these generally happy journeys in my own life, I can’t help but think of those people undertaking difficult journeys for other reasons, whether fleeing from violence or poverty or seeking a better life in some new location. Today’s Perfect Picture Book recounts the journey of one such child.mne_DE_Marwan's Journey_Cov_z_Layout 1

Title: Marwan’s Journey

Written By: Patricia de Arias

Illustrated By: Laura Borràs

Publisher/Date: minedition (Michael Neugebauer Publishing, Ltd)/2018 (first published in Spanish as El Camino de Marwan, Amanuta, Chile/2016)

Suitable for Ages: 5-7 (or older)

Themes/Topics: refugees; war; courage; hope

Opening:

I take giant steps even though I am small. One, two, three…crossing the desert.

Brief Synopsis: When the cold darkness of war arrives at Marwan’s house, he flees on foot, joining a caravan of refugees, but always remembering happy times with his family and dreaming of a peaceful future, of returning to his homeland.

Links to Resources:

  • Learn more about the refugee experience with materials from Amnesty International;
  • If you were going on a journey, what would you bring? Choose three favorite toys or books that you’d bring along;
  • Marwan travels mainly on foot. Think of other ways that people travel, and draw a picture of your favorite way to travel.

Why I Like this Book:

With its young, named main character traveling by foot to escape war, Marwan’s Journey is a haunting window into the refugee experience. Although the setting is not named, the reader learns that Marwan crosses a desert and reaches a border with the sea. And although he seemingly travels without parents or other relatives, it’s clear that Marwan is one of many undertaking this journey.

Told in sparse, lyrical prose, Marwan’s Journey enables the reader to walk along with Marwan, as he places one foot in front of the other, “one, two, three,” a “line of humans like ants crossing the desert”. He doesn’t look back, but he knows that, without hesitation, one day, he will return to “plant a garden with my hands, full of flowers and hope.”

With its glimpses of happy memories, its focus on the act of traveling, and its promise of a hopeful future, I think de Arias presents a believable portrait of a child refugee while not focusing too much on issues that would be difficult for children.

Borràs’ ink and color-washed illustrations have a child-like quality, at times seeming even surrealistic. Utilizing primarily sepia tones as Marwan crosses the desert, she adds pops of color as he remembers life before the war and as he looks forward to a life back in his homeland and prays “that the night never, never, never goes so dark again.”

A Note about Craft:

Like most of the refugee picture books, de Arias utilizes first-person point-of-view which renders the narrator’s experience more immediate. Unlike refugee stories such as Francesca Sanna’s The Journey or Nicola Davies’ The Day War Came, de Arias names the narrator, choosing a male name of Arabic origin that means “flint stone,” a stone used to start fires.

Interestingly, de Arias includes a flashback to life before the conflict which, while providing relief from the tedium of the long march, may be difficult for younger children to follow and is not a technique usually found in picture books.

Per the jacket cover, de Arias is a Spaniard currently residing in Brazil, where she has published a number of children’s books.

Borràs is an “internationally acclaimed illustrator who has published numerous books in many countries”.

minedition publishes picture books of the highest quality that “open the door to the world” for children….After 10 years with the Swiss Nord Sud Publishing, minedition – michael neugebauer edition – was founded 2004, first as an imprint with Penguin and now independent and distributed in North America by IPG.”

Marwan’s Journey received a Special Mention at the Bologna Ragazzi Awards in 2017 and a starred review in Kirkus.

This Perfect Picture Book entry is being added to Susanna Hill’s Perfect Picture Books list. Check out the other great picture books featured there!