Archive for the ‘writing’ Category

LISTEN

Friday, January 1st, 2016

I spent a lot of time playing the ukulele in 2015, including ukulele camp at Fort Worden where one of my teachers was Aaron Keim. Aaron and his wife Nicole form the duo The Quiet American, picking and singing their way through the folk Americana songbook. He’s a gifted teacher, too. While leading us through his transcription of John Fahey’s Sunflower River Blues, he advised: “By the time you start working on a piece, you should listen to it so much that it is already living in you.”

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The duo called The Quiet American: Nicole and Aaron Keim of Hood River, OR

I like that idea: listen until it is living in you. I know how that feels for a song and also for a story. In fact, I think songs and stories dwell in the same heartful place.

It is a mysterious process, bringing a story into the world. You head out with a few phrases, a character maybe, a situation. You tell yourself your story, imagine it into the world scene by scene. Pretty soon, if you listen closely, that story you are making begins to make itself, you meet anew the story that has been living in you.

I know I am not alone in this way of looking at the writing process. Back in the early 2000s when I was teaching at Vermont College of Fine Arts, Katherine Paterson often came by. She told us that after a certain point in drafting a novel, she feels her attention switch from generating characters and plot etc. to listening to the story that is already on the page, and shaping the book as that material dictates.

My sister Kate McGee, who is a pastel painter in Philomath, OR, is collaborating with me on illustrations for LITTLE WOLF’S FIRST HOWLING. I ran this listening idea by her. She said she comes to a point in every painting where, if she pays attention, it starts bossing her around in its effort to become what it is meant to be.

We talked about this while looking at the black and white layer I’d just painted for one of the spreads. We were both listening and paying attention to what the piece still needs. I will make the changes digitally, then email that layer to Kate so she can add the color. We are new to using Photoshop for our artwork and are swimming upstream – but how fun to work together on a project!

And it’s great to have another pair of ears to listen as we find our way through the woods.

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Final spread for Little Wolf’s First Howling, due out from Candlewick Press in 2017.

(to hear The Quiet American play Sunflower River blues on the ukulele click here)

 

 

 

 

 

QUALITY WORDS

Friday, February 20th, 2015

Like Mark Twain, I am a sucker for the right word. Twain’s the one who famously noted the difference between the right word and the almost-right word is akin to the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.

For instance, I was immediately won over by my sister Susan Britton’s novel-in-progress which begins:

Jara, the lightest of sleepers, heard the noise first—the snick of a key in the lock, the creak of the door, the scuff of boots on the concrete floor of the main room below her. No light leaked up the ladder opening into the attic where she lay in bed. The Takers had a rule about no light. Immediately, Jara’s whole self went crazy with fear except for a small important part of her that knew exactly what to do. She had been practicing for this moment since she was twelve years old. Now she was fifteen.

She had me at “snick.”

Our very youngest readers deserve a rich vocabulary in their books even more. They are acquiring language, and the picture book has a big role in introducing a wide vocabulary. It can present ”the right word” in a context that reveals specific, nuanced meaning.

PZonka-Interior-WorkingA spectacular use of “spectacular” in Julie Paschkis’ new book, P. Zonka Lays an Egg, just out from Peachtree. “Spectacular” describes the title chicken’s first creative output.

Last month in the New Yorker, I read about a program in Providence, RI called Providence Talks that encourages low-income parents to talk more frequently with their kids. This effort is based on the word-counting studies done in the 1980s that determined the number of words children hear in their early years correlates with academic success, better health, and higher income later in life. (These studies also inspired Geoffrey Canada’s amazing Harlem Children’s Zone project).

The word-counting scientists found that wealthy parents talked more with their kids. As recounted in The New Yorker, “Among the professional families, the average number of words that children heard in an hour was twenty-one hundred and fifty; among the working-class families, it was twelve hundred and fifty; among the welfare families, it was six hundred and twenty. Over time, these daily differences had major consequences. Researchers concluded that with few exceptions, the more parents talked to their children, the faster the children’s vocabularies were growing and the higher the children’s I.Q. test scores at age 3 and later.”

SWOOPMore perfect words: from Owl Babies by Martin Waddell, illustrated by Patrick Benson (Candlewick). The “swoop” makes me swoon.

The White House took on this issue, too, in a conference last October on “bridging the word gap.” Their conclusion had a different emphasis: “Among 2-year olds from low-income families, quality interactions involving words — the use of shared symbols (“Look, a dog!); rituals (Want a bottle after your bath?”; and conversational fluency (Yes, that is a bus!”) were even a better predictor of language skills at age 3 than any other factor, including the quantity of words a child heard.”

Certainly being read to provides quality interactions involving words, as a letter the New Yorker’s Mail section noted a few weeks after the article about Providence Talks. The letter writer extolled the importance of the quality of words young children hear, and noted researchers at UC Santa Cruz found: “Picture books were three times as likely as child-directed speech to use a word that isn’t among the most common English words; a result found regardless of parents’ social class.”

That’s our job as picture book writers: to serve up quality words that exactly serve the story. The right word in context broadens vocabulary and fits like the snick of a key in a lock.

luluOne last example, from Harry and Lulu by Arthur Yorinks, illustrated by Martin Matje (Hyperion). The text reads:

Harry jumped up on the bed and licked Lulu’s face from top to bottom. Lulu was delirious. Then she remembered.

“Wait a minute,” she said to Harry. “You’re not a dog. You’re just a stupid stuffed animal and maybe I should throw you out the window or kick you down the sewer or something!!” Lulu went to grab him.

Harry thought of yelping for help, but instead he decided to speak English.

“Delirious.” Perfect word.

AUTUMN DUET: 1979 SONORA / 2014 SEATTLE

Saturday, October 4th, 2014
In 1991, the singer Natalie Cole created the album Unforgettable: With Love. You have probably heard of it, since eventually it sold over five million copies. The title track featured her singing a duet via electronic elaboration with her father, Nat King Cole, who died in 1965.

In a similar spirit of collaboration, I wrote today’s blog with my dad, Harvey McGee. It’s based on Dad’s account of autumn in the California foothill town of Sonora, where he was editor and publisher of the Union Democrat from 1959 until his death in 1998. His part appeared October 2, 1979, as his Sierra Lookout column. My part – an account of early autumn 2014 in Seattle – is in italics.

logo guy2.fhTHE SWEET, mossy smell of summer no longer drifts up from the creek in the late afternoon.

Twice now, the ravines have been flooded briefly with the sharp scents turned loose by moisture on brown grass. But it was only light rain, and the fields still crunch underfoot.

We’ll have to wait longer for the deep, heavy aroma that rises when the year’s buildup of twigs, pods, leaves and seeds is brewed by a soaking downpour.

Meanwhile, the light scents will do, especially when mixed with crisp mornings, soft yellow afternoons and blazing sunsets.

foxlogoTHE SWEET, piney smell of sunsoaked Douglas fir no longer flavors my late afternoon walks.

Twice now, rain has pounded our metal roof with downpours worthy of Hawaiian monsoons, releasing the heavy scent that rises when the summer’s buildup of twigs, pods, dry grasses and seeds is brewed by a drenching shower.

 (I love that there’s a word for this aroma: “petrichor,” the scent of rain on dry earth, a word constructed from the Greek, petros, meaning ‘stone,’ and ichor, the fluid that flows in the veins of the gods in Greek mythology. Even in Seattle, a rain elicits this lovely fragrance at summer’s end.)

The sun slants low at the end of day, flooding the garden with golden light.

(I just learned today that the Japanese have a word for sunlight shining through leaves of a tree: komorebi. This time of year the angle of light in the Northwest is prime for komorebi.)

autumn light

logo guy2.fhTHE MOSQUITO that whined in the bedroom all summer as soon as the lights went out has now gone. He’s been replaced by a buzzing, hopping creature that disappears when the lights go on.

And the weekend traffic lined up at the stoplight has changed again. Summer’s stream of family-loaded station wagons has trickled away, and now the lineup is dominated by pickup-campers, their cabs filled mostly with men and rifle racks.

foxlogoTHE DISTANT whine of power washers and weed-whackers yields to the hum of leaf blowers.

Streets fill with yellow school buses again. We hope the traffic snarls caused by summer road repairs will soon be over.

logo guy2.fhTHE SWIMSUITS draped on the back porch railing have been dry for weeks, and I can drop onto the nearby lounge chair without first removing a soggy mound of towels.

The ivy bed is reviving, now that the dog has stopped sleeping away his afternoons there. All that lush poison oak has retreated down its long stems in preparation to burst forth with even greater viciousness next spring.

foxlogoTHE GARDEN has its last hurrah. We harvest beans and tomatoes and plant kale, lettuce, spinach and garlic for winter crops while the dog snoozes under the camellia.

logo guy2.fhTHE GLOW of football field lights floods the early darkness. Listen and you’ll hear that whistles and chanting voices have now joined the background din of barking dogs, spinning tires and straining log trucks.

All that remains of the grandchildren’s vacation visits is an occasional plastic block, left for painful discovery by a barefoot grandparent.

And in the mailbox there’s a Christmas catalog.

It’s autumn.

foxlogoTHE GLOW of football field lights floods the early darkness. Listen and you’ll hear that whistles and chanting voices have now joined the background din of barking dogs, spinning tires and planes flying overhead.

The grandnephews are back in school. All that remains of our Camp Runamok campfire is the charred spot on the driveway gravel.

And in the mailbox there’s a Christmas catalog.

It’s autumn.

 (I think I’ll give Natalie and Nat King Cole the last word: It’s Unforgettable.)

A NEW CHAPTER

Friday, July 25th, 2014

For the past 37 years, my husband John left our house every Monday through Friday and headed south to Boeing for his job in public relations. I worked at home.

It was a good fit for both of us. I like lots of quiet time to write and draw and follow my thoughts. He likes the interaction of communication around issues like airplane production and financing and the intricacies of the Export-Import bank.

But now John has retired. We took a celebratory hiking trip to Lake O’Hara, British Columbia, but beginning today we will both be at home.

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Hiking near Opabin Lake above Lake O’Hara.

Luckily, Julie Larios’ husband Fernando retired a few years ago. He offered John a surefire strategy for sharing space with a wife who gets lost in her creative ether: wear a cowbell. That way, he explained, your creative cohabitant hears you coming and does not jump out of her skin when you clear your throat and she is suddenly aware of your presence.

Perhaps some of my blog readers have more suggestions for John and me as we begin this new chapter? I am all ears.

Maybe that’s the problem. Ironically, as I write this, I am distracted by the radio playing in the kitchen. Argh! To calm down, I remind myself it is John I have to thank for the idea of this blog — and for cleaning up the kitchen…

P.S. If you are in the Seattle area – a wonderful event takes place this Sunday noon to 4 at Dunn Gardens: Mallets in Wonderland, http://dunngardens.org/upcoming-events.  John and I are running the White Rabbit’s Zucchini Racetrack. The gardens are transformed into a magical Alice’s Wonderland with croquet courts, beer & brats lunch, lots of children’s events and sunshine. All for a good cause: the preservation of this historic Olmsted-designed estate.

 

 

 

 

Generosity

Monday, May 19th, 2014

I suppose it is well known that our children’s book community is generous. But last week topped it all.

This story begins April Fool’s Day, 1992, on my first trip to meet the editors in New York. I had an appointment with Lucia Monfried, editor of Dutton Children’s books. She met me at the elevator, holding the dummy I’d mailed to her for What Shall I Dream?

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“We’d love to publish your text,” she said.

A generous offer, for sure, but I’d hoped she’d be interested in my illustrations as well. We walked to her office and she leafed through my portfolio. She stopped at a piece for a board book idea. She liked that, too, and eventually bought two board books and the aforementioned text. What a day.

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But like Julie P. wrote in last week’s BATT post, many hands go into making the cookies. I should back up here to note the generosity that got me to that editor’s desk: primarily the generosity of Keith Baker, Seattle author and illustrator, who taught a most wonderful class in Children’s Book Illustration at the School of Visual Concepts in Seattle. That’s where I learned to make dummy books and put together a portfolio.

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I wouldn’t have been ready for New York without the unending encouragement and discernment of our critique group, as well. I had met Julie Paschkis and Margaret Chodos-Irvine in Keith’s class. In those first years I attended all the SCBWI presentations I could find — and the generosity of the authors and illustrators who offered ideas and shared their skills also played a role.

Editor Monfried selected illustrator Judith Byron Schachner of Swarthmore, PA for What Shall I Dream?  This was before Judy made her big hit with the hilarious Skippy Jon Jones picture book series.

What Shall I Dream? came out in 1996. The illustrations were beautiful and full of humor and wonder.

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Fast forward to present times. Judy Schachner and I are facebook friends. Lately she has been posting images from her many books. One day that included art from What Shall I Dream?  I commented how much I loved it.

This week a fat yellow envelope arrived, full of original art from What Shall I Dream?  Way more than I could have dreamed. How amazing to see in person the heart and thought and skill that went into these vivid watercolors.

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I love the pencil sketch on tissue paper that she sent along, too, of the cover in its planning stages.

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Mostly I am struck by her wonderful generosity. Thank you, Judy. I will treasure this gift.

WRITING RECESS

Friday, April 11th, 2014

Next week I get to start a series of Writing Workshops with a group of fourth graders at Maplewood Elementary in Edmonds. The kids are giving up their lunch recesses to take part. I hope they end up writing like they play out on the playground – with fun and abandon.writex2677

This week, I am gathering ideas for writing games, exercises and prompts. Here are some possibilities:

1. ROUND ROBIN WRITING. This emphasizes the basic form of any story: beginning, middle, end. Using a prompt, (I think I’ll go with “I used to live in a palace…”), kids have six minutes to write a beginning to a story. Then we trade papers and take six more minutes to write middles that fit the beginnings received. Then shift again and on to endings. We finish up by reading our creations, an important part of all writing shenanigans.

2. PICTURE THIS. I have a pile of photos that evoke story. Each kid can choose one as a starting place and see where the story goes.

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3 and 4. COULD WE LIVE HERE? Two sessions. First session, as a group we will create a setting, voting as necessary to narrow things down. Then we’ll brainstorm a list of characters who might live in this place.

In the second session, each kid chooses one of these characters to write into a story in that place.  This is a suggestion from Cassie Cross who teaches at Bellevue College. I wonder if it will work as well with fourth graders as college students?

writex16765. MAPMAKING. Each student maps a place that is special to him or her – neighborhood, house, room, school playground, backyard, grandma’s house – and labels it with stories that happened there, or could happen there.

6. YEAR BY YEAR.  I will ask the kids to think of their childhoods year by year and write a memorable event for each year, noting that memories juicy with emotion hold the most story. Then we’ll choose memories as story jumping-off places. I am curious to see what these ten-year olds remember about their childhoods.

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7. BEGIN WITH MUSIC. Five-minute timed writings to music. For instance, I’ll play a Bach cello concerto for five minutes and the kids can write the story that is suggested. Then I’ll play a penny whistle jig and they’ll start a new story. I remember using this exercise with the wonderful Lillie Rainwater’s fourth/fifth graders at Hawthorne Elementary in Seattle. Ms. Rainwater advised the kids to think of leaping into a story like jumping into double Dutch twirling ropes. Catch the rhythm of the music, she told them, and jump in with words.

That takes us back to the playground. And recess!

Thanks to Paul Borchert, librarian at Maplewood, for helping this Writing Workshop idea come to fruition. And thanks to any of our BATT Blog readers who add to this list of writing prompts, games and exercises in the comments.

Note: photos to illustrate this post are from those I will use for exercise two.

Families that Sing Together Ring Together

Tuesday, January 21st, 2014

On January 14, I contributed this guest blogpost to my friend (and writer) Dia Calhoun’s blog, 7:30 Bells. The intent of Dia’s blog is to capture times of inspiration.


Nothing rings more bells than the collaborative fun of inventive play.As we prepared for a big family holiday dinner, I found a list of clues to Christmas song titles, tucked into a book of carols. I thought the list might be the basis of a game and brought it to the table that night.We divided into three teams. Each team gave itself a name. Then, in turn, they guessed the names of the songs as suggested by the clues. (For example, “Bleached Yule,” is the clue for “White Christmas.”) We decided to allow ten seconds to guess then moved along to next team.Of course my singing family not only named, but started to sing the songs as well. We decided to give extra points for singing. The Reindeer Games team laid in harmonies. More points. The Silver Bells featured a solo. More points. The Unwrappers added choreography. What a show. We had lots of laughs as the competition heated up. We invented how the game worked as we went along.I love my time alone in the flow zone, writing and illustrating. But what an added joy to create and play with my family.

Here’s the list, which I see is available several places on the internet.

Material for your own family’s creative play:
1. Bleached Yule
2. Castaneous-colored Seed Vesicated in a Conflagration
3. Singular Yearning for the Twin Anterior Incisors
4. Righteous Darkness
5. Arrival Time: 2400 hrs – Weather: Cloudless
6. Loyal Followers Advance
7. Far Off in a Feeder
8. Array the Corridor
9. Bantam Male Percussionist
10. Monarchial Triad
11. Nocturnal Noiselessness
12. Jehovah Deactivate Blithe Chevaliers
13. Red Man En Route to Borough
14. Frozen Precipitation Commence
15. Proceed and Enlighten on the Pinnacle
16. The Quadruped with the Vermillion Probiscis
17. Query Regarding Identity of Descendant
18. Delight for this Planet
19. Give Attention to the Melodious Celestial Beings
20. The Dozen Festive 24 Hour Intervals

Thank you, Dia, for the opportunity to add to the tintinnabulation of your 7:30 Bells Blog.

 

Magic Formula: How to Create a Picture Book

Tuesday, January 21st, 2014

(from BooksAroundTheTable, our crit group blog)

This time up, I considered writing an advice column about what to do when you’re waiting for an editor’s response. But then I decided it’s more interesting to look at the work itself: making books. Over my next few blogposts, I plan to lay out a process for creating a picture book, using examples from my published and as-yet unpublished work.

PART ONE: CHARACTER.

Good stories need intriguing characters, characters that sparkle with their very own inward and outward expressions of self: looks, mannerisms, substance, personality quirks and out-of-balanced-ness.

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Rough sketches for Frank of “Frank and Izzy Set Sail,” exploring gesture.

My characters are usually an amalgam of people I know, their traits exaggerated and edited for maximum dramatic impact. I am especially interested in duos, for the interaction and conflict possibilities. Also, I think it’s easier to draw animals than people.

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Thumbnail sketch of Frank and Izzy.

So, Dear Reader, if you want to play along, start by drawing a favorite animal. You can anthropomorphize a little or a lot. Look through family movies and photos for lively gestures and expressions and try to transfer what you see to your animal. Notice how other illustrators do this. (Paul Schmid, Arnold Lobel, James Marshall to name a few.) Hilary Knight’s Eloiseillustrations are great inspiration for childsize action gestures. Another strategy is to google photos of famous duos, (i.e. Lucy and Ethel, George and Gracie Burns, Sonny and Cher…), and try to capture their interaction in your characters.

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Rough sketches for future characters based on Ethel and Lucy.

I like to do these sketches on tracing paper. It’s easy to erase and rework. Once I have several pages, I hang them on the wall to consider. I think about proportions. Heads to bodies to legs and arms. Do this and pretty soon you’ll have a rough, generalized look for your characters.

Z&Iproportion

Rough sketches of Zelda and Ivy, finding proportions.

It’s impossible to draw pages of the same characters without starting to sense story bubbling up. Sometimes these ideas come out of “mistakes” in the drawing. For example, maybe the line you’ve drawn for a smile gives the character a devious look. Go with it. Think about what that character is up to. Your mind will start spinning story.

Meanwhile, life goes on. Pay attention. Note overheard conversations that sound like your characters. Keep track of situations that provoke an emotional response in your own life, the funny, scary, sad, annoying, angering stuff. Write down anything that seems made for these little characters you are brewing.

My next turn to blog here will be Feb. 7. Using these preliminary drawings and notes, we’ll move toward constructing the story.

Begin Again

Tuesday, January 21st, 2014

I am in a stuck place lately. The bottom of the well. Fortunately, there is lots of stuff down here with me. Perhaps I can fashion a rope and pull myself out. How to begin?

Images from the idea file.

 

I sift through clippings saved over the years and feel around for the stories that I saw in them.

I look at the photo of my family that I keep above my computer. Any more stories there?

I think about the letterforms: ABC. The tall strokes, the curves. Letterforms are reason enough to write. Kind of amazing how a whole language emerges from just 26 letters.

I think about words, too. Do any of you make lists of words? Like these reduplicates: Abracadabra, Artsy fartsy, Aye aye, Beep beep, Beriberi, Bingle bangle, Blah blah, Bon bon ,Boo hoo, Bye bye, Can can, Chitchat (chitter-chatter), Chop chop, Clickety clack, Dilly dally, Ding dong, Dum dum, Doo doo, Fiddle faddle , Flim flam, Flip flop, etc. I know they belong in a story. Maybe an ABC book?

Outside, night has come and a storm gathers. The wind whips pine branches against the house. My little dog curls beside me. Stories are stirring. It’s cozy here in the well.

The Inside Story about the Inside Story

Saturday, November 16th, 2013

Early this month, our Seattle-born and bred children’s book salon, The Inside Story, went international. In nine bookstores across the US and Australia, people who love children’s books gathered for their first-ever Inside Story experience, sponsored by the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, aka the SCBWI.

It was a proud moment for George Shannon and me. We invented the Inside Story in 1998. It was a proud moment for our local SCBWI who nurtured it over the years. Here in Seattle we celebrated our 31st Inside Story that evening, hosted by Mockingbird Books.

Our goal when we started the Inside Story was to create a forum where authors and illustrators could celebrate their new titles with local booksellers, librarians, teachers and other friends of children’s books. The idea was that book creators would share “inside” information that booksellers and librarians could use to recommend titles. Along the way, we hoped to build our children’s book community. That’s what’s happened over the past 16 years. Something like 500 books have been presented in these twice-yearly programs at a rotating venue of area independent bookstores.

Each time, authors and illustrators are each given three minutes to tell the stories behind their new books. For instance, at the recent Inside Story at Mockingbird Books, we heard Port Townsend illustrator Richard Jesse Watson talk about his latest picture book, Psalm 23. He began by telling about his atheist childhood and ended with a discussion of how he chose the models for his characters. It was interesting stuff.

The timed three-minute segments are interspersed with The Great Book Give Away, a game in which audience members win copies of the new books by answering children’s book trivia questions. The program is followed by schmoozing and booksigning and a fabulous spread of food and drink supplied by the host bookstore. It adds up to a delightful evening.

After the first couple of years, George and I asked our Seattle chapter of the SCBWI if they’d like to get involved. Kirby Larson signed on for the SCBWI and our little community event grew and prospered. In the ensuing years, Meg Lippert, Jaime Temairik, Martha Brockenbrough and Deb Lund have headed the Inside Story for our Seattle SCBWI, each bringing her inimitable style and humor as the event matured.

It was interesting to note that two local authors who presented at the first Inside Story in 1998 also presented new picture books this month: Brenda Guiberson told the story behind her latest, The Greatest Dinosaur Ever, and Nina Laden showcased Once Upon a Memory.

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Seattle Inside Story, Nov. 2013: Illustrator Dana Sullivan and his new book, Digger and Daisy, and illustrator Jaime Temairik whose new book is How to Negotiate Everything.

When I think back to those first Inside Story events, Ted Rand is always there. He had a new book in every Inside Story salon until his death in 2005. He was the dean of our children’s book scene – and the only person for whom the Inside Story’s three minute presentation limit was ever relaxed.

I also remember an early Inside Story at Chauni Haslet’s All for Kids Books and Music. We wanted to honor George Shannon, so Eastside writer Mary Whittington’s partner Winnie wrote a song we could sing to him. The music and lyrics were distributed and we all sang to the accompaniment of Winnie’s recorder.

The next day George and I got a note from a writer who had just moved to Seattle from New York. She pointed out that the evening felt more like a Girl Scout campfire than a professional gathering. Oh well. Let it be noted that I believe a community bonds when it sings together.

(One of the international Inside Story events this month was at Bank Street Books in New York. I guess they didn’t include a singalong.)

There’s a gang of school librarians who show up for the Seattle area Inside Storys. Chief among them is Lynn Detweiler, who has attended just about every one. She deserves some recognition. Maybe it’s time to write another recorder-accompanied song?

•   •   •   •   •

Lately I am most likely to hear about the publication of new books via a trailer on YouTube that’s friended on Facebook and tweeted on Twitter.  I’m glad that in Seattle we also celebrate these occasions together in person at the Inside Story, as a children’s book community. I love that other cities are going to have this opportunity.

Thanks to everyone who has nurtured the Inside Story along: the SCBWI chairpeople and their committees, the bookstores, the presenters, the audience and the publishers who have sometimes donated champagne (yay, Candlewick). We are all lucky to be part of the Seattle children’s book community.


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