Archive for the ‘children’s books’ Category

A Tale of Two Foxes

Friday, May 31st, 2013

My fox sisters celebrated a new edition in May and it seems like a good time to tell their story.

The first, eponymous, Zelda and Ivy book was published by Candlewick Press in 1998: three short stories about two fox sisters in one picture book format. Both the text and illustrations seemed to drop into my lap: gifts. But with further thought, I realized this material had been trying to become a book for a long time.

We all experience moments when life is larger than usual, moments full of emotion and humor that we recognize as the stuff of story. I gathered a critical mass of such times from childhood home movies and conversations with my sibs. I wanted to make a picture book that carried our growing-up experience: our neighborhood parades, and fairy dust and, maybe most importantly, our relationships. I am the middle of five children. I know what it is to be a bossy, imaginative big sister and an adoring, gullible little sister. I was pretty sure sibling rivalry could fuel the drama.

I first worked with this material in a project called Summer Shorts. Here’s the dummy.

It included four short stories about a family with five human children. It made the rounds at publishers and was roundly rejected. Years passed while I sold other projects and got started in the picture book world.

Meanwhile, Pierr Morgan, a NW illustrator, showed me this cool medium called gouache resist (directions: http://www.lmkbooks.com/fun/gouache.php). I liked how the reds popped. Why not revisit that sibling rivalry material – only with fox characters? I simplified, reducing the cast to two.

From their debut at critique group, these characters seemed to have the juice. When Zelda and Ivy was published, it received lots of starred reviews and SCBWI’s Golden Kite honors in illustration and text.

I was invited to do a sequel. Then a third.

When the fourth book, Zelda and Ivy The Runaways, came out in 2007, it had a leaner look. Candlewick’s marketing department had advised these stories belong in the early reader canon – thus we downsized to the standard 6 x 9-inch ledger size. That year ALA chose it for the Geisel Award. It was the same year my friend Kirby Larson won the Newbery for Hattie Big Sky. We were both in the ballroom in downtown Seattle when our awards were announced. Pretty exciting.

Two more Zelda and Ivy titles have followed, and the earlier ones were reformatted from picture book to ledger.

By the time I got to the sixth book, I knew Zelda and Ivy’s world as well as my own.

As of May, all six titles are officially part of Candlewick’s Sparks series for early readers; each published as a slim paperback that fits easily into the backpack of a young reader.


The Kindness of Children

Friday, February 8th, 2013

Last week when I visited the fifth grade where I volunteer, the kids were deep into a math/art project. They were each making a mobile that demonstrated something about fractions. It involved tying tiny knots and balancing cards hung from strings along a dowel. Soon it was evident that some kids were better at the knot tying and others at the balancing. Small groups gathered as they helped each other. Along with fractions came this other, more important lesson. A spirit of cooperation prevailed.

It’s just one reason I love hanging out with kids. That kindness thing.

I have benefited greatly from the kindness of children. Like the letter from a second grader who wrote: “Here’s an idea. Zelda and Ivy go to the movies. You take it from there.”

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Perhaps you are flailing around for a character. Here are some extra characters offered to me by a student at Sharpstein Elementary in Walla Walla, which I, in turn, offer to you:

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I have been listening to Martin Seligman’s book on the psychology of happiness, Flourish. One of his ideas for increasing your happiness is to plan and carry out an act of kindness. Research shows that such actions boost your sense of well-being. I think the fifth graders whose nimble fingers tied knots and balanced mobiles experienced that.

I know that children also have a great capacity for cruelty. But today I am thinking about kindness and wondering if you have any thoughts or stories to add to mine.

My Sister’s Novel Ideas

Monday, January 14th, 2013
First posted January 11, 2013 on our critique group blog, BooksAroundTheTable.

When I was growing up, I always looked to my oldest sister, Susan, to see what was ahead. Because she played the guitar, I was sure I would someday. Because she went to Prom in a dress with a boned bodice, I was planning on that, too.

sue dance

I am lucky to have her example in this matter of writing as well.

Years ago when I began drafting my present work-in-progress, she sent me a list of ideas about writing a novel. I read it every so often for its distilled wisdom, and want to share it with you, verbatim:

Dear L –

Here’s what helps me most, spewed out in not any order at all:

1. See the story like a movie in your head. Write down what you see, even in a broken way, fast. (Fix later.)

2. See the story like a movie in your head with the sound turned off. Then where is the story? Edit to make the story powerful even with the sound off. This is a way to heal the talking head syndrome.

3. Think: What can I do to raise the stakes?

4. Not everything a writers’ workshop says about your story is right. After being workshopped, put your story away for a time, maybe a month. Reflect. Only then tackle again.

5. Choose concrete words, words that cause the reader to imagine as exactly as possible what you imagine. Look for words which create accurate images which are value-loaded.

6. Leave out everything the reader already knows.

7. The story is in the telling.

8. Run all details through the backpack test. (The idea is from my wonderful teacher Sands Hall: Remember that when you give a significant-feeling detail, the reader packs it into her memory and carries it through the whole story expecting her labor to pay off at some point. You must make sure there is a pay off.)

9. Staying in the same pov, you can roll the ‘camera’ in and out. It’s easier by far to start far out and roll camera in — at beginning of chapter or scene.

10. The end is in the beginning. The seeds of the conflict in the story must be present in the beginning. The beginning is often the last thing you know. Drop into the beginning advertisements for the future — foreshadowing.

11. Tense spots are a good place to dump in necessary history.

12. Dialog should never be people agreeing with each other. If they agree, use indirect discourse.

13. The tone of the story establishes it, creates expectations in the reader, as much as anything else — plot, genre, etc.

14. Henry James: “We only care about people in proportion to how well we know them.”

15. When a character walks into a place, how they see it establishes their character. They walk in with a bag of metaphor.

16. Beginnings: have to give the look of things early, or the reader fills in, and then is unpleasantly surprised to have to repaint the picture. Have to foreshadow the major plot strands, so reader can sense them unconsciously.

17. The end is often the reverse of the initial situation. The best endings are implicit, not explicit. They force the reader back into the story and themselves, looking for meaning.

18. Madeliene L’Engle in Walking on Water, Reflections on Faith and Art: “All they (children) require is a protagonist with whom they can identify (and they prefer a protagonist to be older than they are), an adventure to make them turn the pages, and the making of a decision on the part of the protagonist. We name ourselves by the choices we make, and we help in our own naming by living through the choices, right or wrong, of the heroes and heroines whose stories we read.”

19. There should be something in the near and in the far distance that the protagonist wants (long and short plot strands).

Do you have a copy of Hans Christian Anderson’s fairytales? There is this wonderful fairytale about storytelling, The Elder Tree Mother. Among much else, the Elder Tree Mother, sitting in her elder tree which grows from a teapot says, “For out of the truth grow the most wonderful stories, just as my beautiful elder bush has sprung out of the teapot.” and later, “The little boy lay on his bed and did not know whether he had been dreaming or listening to a story.”

Love,  Susan

 The Treekeepers by Susan McGee Britton, published by Dutton Children’s Books in 2003, is now available electronically: http://www.amazon.com/The-Treekeepers-ebook/dp/B00ANX0TSW/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1357792592&sr=8-2&keywords=treekeepers  It is a wonderful fantasy novel about a fierce heroine, Bird, whose life-or-death quest sparkles with ingenuity and wit. And I’m not just saying that because the author is my sister.

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Here’s a more recent photo of Susan in her role as Granny Skeeter to Max, Benn and Jake.

This weekend I will be speaking at the Whidbey Island MFA in Writing residency. I plan to share my sister’s wisdom.

Writing the Beach

Thursday, August 9th, 2012

First posted July 26, 2012, on the blog of the faculty of Vermont College’s Writing for Children and Young Adults, WriteatYourOwnRisk on posterous.

Who better than Julie Larios to serve up a writing prompt? I have often admired the wide-reaching content of her poetry and I got a little insight into her process when our northwest contingent of the faculty of VCFA MFA WC-YA gathered in June at Cannon Beach, Oregon.

(L. to r.: Marion Dane Bauer, Margaret Bechard, Jane Kurtz, Tom Birdseye, Julie Larios, Susan Fletcher, Ellen Howard.)

Julie suggested we each come up with ten strange facts, trade our lists, then choose two items to address some way in a poem. This makes sense with what I know about creativity, how the pairing of disparate things can lead to new thinking. As I worked I felt a tiny shift from writing with intention to writing to see what I might discover. An interesting turn.

The list Julie handed me oozed with possibilities:

  • Seahorses swallow their food through their snouts.
  • The eyes of the seahorse move independently (helps them see predators – compensating for slow movement.)
  • Newborn babies take 30-40 breaths per minute. Adults over 18 average 8 – 20 breaths per minute.
  • When flying, the blue-throated hummingbird’s heart rate can reach about 1250 beats/minute. When perching, 500-600 beats per minute. At night, resting, as low as 40 beats per minute.
  • The hummingbird is the only bird that can fly backward.
  • Birds have many bones which are hollow.
  • One sentence in Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables is 823 words long.
  • Stress can cause your hair to “turn white overnight” by causing the darker hair to fall out, (alopecia areata), leaving only naturally de-pigmented (white) hair.

One item seemed to be a found poem:

The home of the Collyer Brothers,

famous Manhattan hoarders, was

emptied of 19 tons of junk after

they died – that was only the first floor.

Eighty-four more tons of rubbish were removed

from the second and third floors during the second

attempt. In total, 130 tons of garbage

were removed. Included:

1. bowling balls, 2. three dressmaking models,

3. 25,000 books, 4. kerosene stove, 5. top of

a horse-drawn carriage, 6. 14 pianos,

7. two organs, 8. eight live cats, 9. rusted bicycles,

10. hundreds of yards of silk and fabric, 11. bugles,

banjos, violins, accordions, 12. decades of

newspapers.

The younger brother saved decades of

newspapers because he thought his brother

might like to “catch up on the news” if his vision

ever improved.

 

I ended up going with only one fact:

  • “four-eyed” fish (anableps) actually have two eyes, the half above water sees one world, the divided half below water level sees the underwater world. Vision is simultaneous.

It was a lovely retreat. I learned that gathering quirky facts can inspire and buoy my writing. I reveled in early morning, mist-shrouded walks down the beach almost as much as my dog, Izzi. And I loved being with my wonderful colleagues.

Perhaps you, too, might be inspired by Julie’s list. See where your wandering takes you.

 

 

 

Pay Attention, Report Back

Thursday, August 9th, 2012

Originally appeared July 20, 2012 on our critique group blog, BooksAroundtheTable on WordPress.com.

It seems my monthly turn at this blog comes around too quickly. Then I think of my Dad. For 25 years, he wrote a three-times-a-week column that ran on the front page of his newspaper, the Sonora Union Democrat. Three times a week.

A precursor to blogging, Dad’s Sierra Lookout column was a forum for his take on the life and times of his beloved “poison-oakers” in California’s Mother Lode. Dad wrote about his childhood, family, local issues, world news, and rural life, all from the perspective of a self-described “country editor.”

Harvey McGee, 1990

The following column seemed to raise its hand to be included on our Books Around the Table blog because it was written on July 19, 1977. That’s 35 years ago, almost to the day. I think of it as an ode to the Sierra.

WHEN THE insides of your knees are chafed all the way up to the end of your spine.
When anything you sit in seems to lurch and shake.
When the backs of your hands and ears are chapped and sunburned.

WHEN YOU can’t get the smell of fish out from under your fingernails and the smell of smoke out of your clothes.
When the porch railing is draped with an open sleeping bag.
When the air mattress that stayed puffed up only long enough to lure you onto it is on the way to the dump.

WHEN YOU’VE said thanks to Mr. Cutter and his magic mosquito repellant and drained the pollywogs from a glass of Tang for the last time.
When you can smile again without your lips cracking.
When old “Mac” is again munching hay in Willy Ritts’ Kennedy Meadows corral.

WHEN ALL these things are done you lie on that bed that never deflates and remember –
The gentle plunk of the lure on the long cast.
The dart of a shadow from a deep pool, the splash and flash of silver – then nothing.
Or maybe a solid tug – too soft for a snag, too firm for anything but a lunker.

OR VAST ranges of granite pocked by blue jewels with revered names – Black Bear, Bigelow, Emigrant, Dorothy, Maxwell.
And in the folds of rock: lush meadows, green groves, clear streams. Far beyond and below, the grey-brown air trapped in the simmering valley.

SOON forgotten are the lurching chafing and burning of the sometimes rider. Even the memory of Pear Ripple, wet clothes and gin rummy defeats begins to fade.
What remains as clear as the night sky over Bigelow Peak are the steaks, shishkebob and basted eggs by an expert volunteer cook, the sweet meat of camp-smoked trout and the fellowship of others who share an unspoken appreciation of the remote magnificence.

VISITORS to the wilderness are apt to feel some guilt about the privilege, but that’s the paradox of the place. If it were easily available to more, it would soon be enjoyed by none.         –Harvey C. McGee

Emigrant Basin. Photo courtesy of Susan McGee Britton.

As writers and artists it’s our calling to pay attention and report back. No one sees the world quite the same way. I’m lucky to have my Dad’s columns – his keen observations and amused take on the human condition, his personal stories and opinions – to guide me. Not to mention the gold mine of over 2,500 columns that will come in handy when I’m looking down the trail for a blogpost idea.

Riding into the high country, 1968. L to r: Marny Gorgas, Kate McGee, Laura McGee.

The Private Lives of Books

Thursday, August 9th, 2012

Originally posted June 22, 2012, on our critique group blog, BooksAroundtheTable, at WordPress.com.

You rarely know what becomes of your book once it goes to live on other people’s shelves. Sure, you hope it is treasured, read and re-read. But mostly books don’t write home after they leave.

Luckily, every now and then I hear about one of my books’ lives out there in the world. Like this story.

A young mother who has three kids under the age of 7 told me how they played Zelda and Ivy and the Boy Next Door. I assumed the oldest, Betsy, would have played the bossy older sister Zelda. But Betsy was magnanimous and let her younger brother, David, 5, play Zelda. She assigned the youngest, Gus, 3, the role of the owl who is featured only in illustrations (see above).

The kids set up their sleeping bags and acted out the third chapter, “Camping Out,” in which Zelda sings Ivy to sleep while watching for shooting stars. Their mother fed them the lines, which they repeated, adding actions. David belted out The Ants Go Marching One by One and Take Me Out to the Ballgame, but was less sure of The Star Spangled Banner.

I like to imagine them in their living room: David/Zelda and Betsy/Ivy tucked in their sleeping bags, Gus the owl perched on the top of the sofa; kids and mom engaged. My book having a great life.

Doozying Up Vocabulary

Thursday, August 9th, 2012

Originally posted May 25, 2012, on our critique group blog, BooksAroundtheTable, at WordPress.com.

I expect that every tribe over the years develops a few useful words or phrases that make up its unique lexicon. Here are a few from my tribe that you, too, may find useful.

GMAZEL – an extra stop or errand. This recalls our friend LeRoy Gmazel and the winter day he drove us to the ski slopes. On the way, he made not one, not two, but three side trips: picking up skis, dropping off a bag of potatoes, returning a friend’s chainsaw. Thus in our family when you ask for an extra stop along the way, you request a gmazel.

WOLVERINE! – the opposite of crying wolf. Wolverines are serious, fierce animals. When you call “wolverine,” you really mean it. A family member will rush to your aid. Especially useful if the tp has run out.

MIMI HAIR – hair that sticks up in every direction. My friend Emilee Birrell’s childhood doll Mimi had the most unmanageable of unmanageable hair. Emilee’s mom bought Mimi a new wig– and still the wild hair persists. (Thanks for the photo, Em.)

“IS THERE A DAY YOU DON’T DISAPPOINT ME?” – a smart alec phrase used to get family members moving. We encountered this one on the Greek island of Kea. The innkeeper came by early one morning with maps and advice and helped us plan out the day’s hike. Two hours later, we were still sitting on the porch when he strolled by again. He called to us, “Is there a day you don’t disappoint me?”

Eventually we hiked to the ancient city of Karthaia and the ruins of a 6th century BC temple to Athena above this beach. Beautiful.
Zelda doozied up Ivy’s tail.

When you are creating the world of a story, you may find that words and phrases particular to that world begin to emerge. In my own Zelda and Ivy stories, the sisters  “punch paws” in solidarity, “woozy-weasel promise” to seal a deal, and “doozy up their tails.” These turns of phrase are part of their fox-tribal lexicon.

Now it’s your turn. What words and phrases are unique to your tribe?

The 1,000 Beginnings Project

Thursday, April 5th, 2012
(Originally posted on the faculty blog, Vermont College of Fine Arts, MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults,
 http://writeatyourownrisk.posterous.com/)

 

I spent four days in Mount Vernon, WA, last week, speaking to students at a Young Authors Conference; three talks a day, a hundred second- through sixth-graders plus their adult group leaders per talk. This allowed me to gather almost one thousand tiny writing samples, one thousand opening sentences of personal narratives.

I was curious to discover what this collection of stickyback strips might say about these writers and their lives. After much shuffling, the majority seemed to fall into the following groups: family stories, 133, (includes moving, 14, and new siblings, 15); pet stories, 97; weather, 89; vacation stories, 76, (15 mention Disneyland and four begin, “Are we there yet?”); sports stories, 65, (includes 11 about swimming); friends stories, 64, (18 about new friends); injury stories, 55; action/adventure/scary stories, 53; stories seemingly related to stories I told in my presentation, 33, (yes, I love how sticky stories are); country life stories, (hiking, fishing, riding horses and three-wheeled vehicles), 16; Young Authors event stories, 11; birthdays, 4.

Before we brainstormed, I talked about how we connect to our readers through the emotion of a story. I encouraged kids to write about a memory that held strong emotion and they responded with an emotional rainbow: sad stories about lost or dying pets, or, saddest of all, a dad in jail; the thrill of a trip to Disneyland, making a new friend, getting a new sibling, sailing down a ski slope.

There were openers that tugged at my heart, like: “One summer day, my dad left for Afghanistan because he was in the Navy.” Or, in a very cramped printing, “The path I’ve gone through is unbearable. But the path only makes me stronger.” I always admire a writer who can put his truth on the page, but I hate that kids have such hard stuff to deal with.

On a lighter note, despite drizzling rain all week, more than 15 percent of these Northwest kids included the sun or a warm day in their opening sentence.

Here are some of my favorites, with attribution when available.

  • It all started with the Batman pajamas.
  • Having bloody noses is not the best way to spend a whole summer.
  • There was a time, there was a time where everything was perfect in my life.
  • “You get the shovel, I have the rake,” said Chuck. “We will meet in the woods.” – Ethan
  • “Molly! Look!” I whipped my head around and saw five dorsal fins poking out of the water.
  • Chris liked birds. He liked robins, ducks, swans and bluejays.
  • It was cold but I still took hold of the K.G.M.I. banner for St. Paddy’s Day. – Maddie
  • Over the gleaming river, it seemed that nothing would ever happen that could be bad.
  • Me and Grandma was sitting still in a boat fishing. – Tessa
  • Rose was lying on the trampoline staring at the blue sky when she heard some giggles. – Lilly
  • The rain pounded down on the backs of the weary travelers.
  • My name is Larry and I am a tornado watcher. – Keaton
  • The happiest day of my life was when I knew about dinosaurs. The first dino I knew about was triceratops.
  • My dad drove up to a house and two people walked out wearing Groucho Marx glasses. I didn’t know they would become my two favorite relatives.
  • “No! I don’t want to take a bath,” I yelled.
  • “What was the last thing you said to Grandma?” asked Mom.
  • “Dad, Dad. No not that. I told you to play a music video, not home videos. You are the most embarrassing dad in the history of embarrassing dads.” – Carsin
  • The bell sounded. Everyone ran. I lined up. I saw the smoke flying off the top of the school.
  • I looked about the room. I hadn’t seen so many boxes since Christmas.
  • “You are going to have a brother,” Da said. “But I want a kitten,” Kyra cried.
  • I cannot believe my hamster teddy – a grey dwarf hamster with a white stripe down his back – died.
  • How can I get out of this cage thought Chewy?
  • I was looking at the thousands of sad-seeming cats at the shelter, when I saw an almost familiar looking, smokey-grey cat. – Gilly
  • Really, only Alexa was going through the Young Authors conference since Juliya had been snoring most of the time. – Alexa

I want to end this post with a shout out to Marie Weltz who has worked on this conference for each of its 20 years. She celebrated her 80th birthday Thursday. Think of all the young writers who have been inspired by her efforts. The conference is sponsored by the NW Educational Service District and Skagit Valley College. The kids come from 40 elementary schools, including public and parochial, private and home schools. Each attended a workshop with an author and a workshop with an illustrator and my presentation. They also had an hour where they met with students from other schools and shared the manuscripts they’d brought along. Though Marie is stepping down this year as head, her legacy will live on.

Meanwhile, when I need an idea for a new beginning, I know where to look.

Student Newsletters Then and Now

Tuesday, April 3rd, 2012

Originally posted at:

http://booksaroundthetable.wordpress.com/2012/03/30/student-newsletters-then-and-now/

I love when life, like a good story, circles back on itself – as it did last week when I visited Highland Terrace Elementary in Shoreline. In addition to presenting slide shows and workshops, I was interviewed by two delightful fourth graders who are reporters on a brand new, on-line student newsletter.

Reporters Molly and Caroline with me and a painting from my presentation.

I know something about creating a student newspaper. When I was in fifth grade, I wrote, edited and distributed my own class newspaper.  It was a time-intensive undertaking without computers and Xerox machines. I handwrote a copy for each row in my class each week, using my best cursive.

I was interested to see how teamwork and technology would impact a student newsletter created fifty years after mine.  Most of the stories in my Fifth Grade News were about me, my friends and family. The first issue of the Highland Terrace Orcas student newsletter has a broader reach. It includes interviews, a feature on the school salmon project, photos, and a comic, and reflects the efforts of many students and parent Laura Auerbach. It is posted on line.

During our interview, Molly and Caroline pitched me questions that their classmates helped generate. Here are some of my favorites, good points of departure for our ongoing conversation at Books Around The Table.

  • Who helps you write your books?  – Caroline
  • What did you do before you started writing? – Zainab
  • How do you make up simple problems in your stories? – Perrin
  • What would your ideal career be if you couldn’t be an author?
  • If you get writer’s block, what do you do? – Alex

Check out the first edition of the Highland Terrace Orcas student newsletter: Student Newsletter March 2012

P.S. I thoroughly enjoyed my visit to Highland Terrace Elementary. Thanks to all who made it so fun. As you can see from this video assembled by librarian Frank Kleyn, it’s a place where students and teachers and parents are all about the serious joy of learning.


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