AUDIENCE RESEARCH by Wise Owl

September 7th, 2014

 

When it comes to knowing your audience, nothing beats spending some time with kids.

Recently I had just such a chance. Our triplet grandnephews came over for a night at “Camp Runamok.” They enter fifth grade this week. That’s the age of the protagonist in my middle grade novel-in-progress, so I have more than a great aunt’s interest in kids of their age. My writer self was not disappointed. They are fascinating: their expressions, their songs, games, ideas, interactions. But what hit me most of all is their relationship to story.

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We made up camp names, had a treasure hunt, got started building rockets, set up a four-man tent on our scrap of lawn, ate pizza, played “Peter, Peter Pumpkin Eater” many times on the piano, watched the movie Frozen, lit a campfire on the gravel driveway, sang, ate s’mores. I noted that ten-year old boys laugh a lot about bodily functions — as expected — but are also quite entertained by word play. These three are sportsy guys, so between planned activities there was lots of broom ball and jump rope and general messing around. We considered looking up how to throw a lasso on You Tube. We discussed the possibilities of the Mariners getting a Wild Card berth.

But what struck me most was how important stories are to them. They had seen Frozen once before, but wanted us to see it, so that’s the vid they chose. They knew it in detail, even down to reciting some of the lines. We sang along wholeheartedly, “Do you want to build a snowman?” and “Let it go, let it go.” They seemed quite satisfied with the conclusion, with how true love changes the world.

Bedding down in the tent – three boys, one dog and me – we got out the iPad to listen to their favorite scary story. This, too, they knew in detail from one previous hearing. The Axe Murderer. They loved being scared by it. They talked about some of their favorite books: Avi’s The Orphan City, Gary Paulson’s Harris and Me, James Patterson’s The Treasure Hunters, Cal Ripkin Junior’s series.

The boys’ deep response to stories points to a big responsibility. When we write for children, we hope to create stories that matter to them, that become part of how they see the world, that connect.

As the boys slept soundly, I savored the peace that was in our tent. And I wondered how to reckon such sweetness with news of beheadings, ebola virus, police violence, Russian invasions, sea star wasting syndrome, etc. etc.

I didn’t have an answer. But I do know stories can be a refuge. So I started telling myself a story about three boys and a dog camping in a tent under Seattle skies…

A NEW CHAPTER

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.

 

 

 

 

Maplewood Elementary Fourth Grade Writing Club

June 20th, 2014

In April, I wrote here about my plans to lead a writing club for fourth graders at Maplewood Elementary in Edmonds. For a month, 16 or so kids gave up their Monday and Tuesday lunch recesses to participate.

The results were impressive. I was astounded at what these kids could create in a half hour session. I loved their open willingness to dive in and write.

One of the exercises we tried was sent by Terry Pierce, UCLA-ext. writing teacher: author Jill Corcoran’s Art-Music-Poetry Jam Workshop. We turned it into a three-parter. I will use the work of Maplewood student Damaris I. — with her permission and her parents’ permission — to illustrate our experience.

We began by painting to music. My friend, pianist Julan Chu, suggested Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. Perfect! Mussorgsky wrote this composition after viewing the retrospective art show of a deceased friend, so it offers yet another layer of cross-arts jam.

We set up all my paint palettes and laid out brushes on the library tables. The kids listened carefully to the music and responded with paintings.

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Damaris’ painting, created to Mussorgsky’s music.

At our next meeting, we spread out the paintings and the kids walked around the tables, post-its in hand. They gave each other words suggested by the paintings.

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Damaris was given these words: splatter (to which she rhymed matter), colorful, explosion, mixed, whispy, wocky, very green, grassy, wonderland, big and new, magic, magic spell, wet, mystical, mystery, misty, green mist

The third part was to turn those words into a poem or prose piece of writing.

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Damaris wrote: “A green mist rose from a magic spell. The land would be mixed the forest could tell. Then a explosion arose, and everything was misty. The sky turned gray, and the trees became whispy. Everything was a mystery, with tons of spatter, and nothing knew what could be the matter. When the mist cleared, the woods were wet. Everything changed, a whole new set. The forest was grassy, mystical too, a great wonderland, big and new.

The writing was amazing, as you can see: pieces of writing that began as a painting exhibition that inspired Mussorgsky’s music that inspired our student paintings that inspired words, then poems. Round and round the arts we go.

Next time I feel like there is not enough time to sit down and dig into writing, I will think back to those lunch recess meetings of the Maplewood Fourth Grade Writing club and get started.

I want to add a shout out to Mr. B., aka librarian Paul Borchert, who also gave up his lunch recesses and helped in every way to make our writing club so wonderful. More thanks to Terry and Jill and Julan and Damaris — and to Betsy Britton and Grabrielle Catton who carried on for Paul and me the day we were both unable to teach.

Here’s a link to Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DXy50exHjes&feature=kp

And here are the writing exercise instructions:

Jill Corcoran’s Art-Music-Poetry-Jam Workshop:
Suggested grades: 2 – 5
Time required: 1 hour
Supplies needed: Boom box with selected music, 11” x 17” white paper, crayons, pencils, Post-it notes, scotch tape
1. Briefly discuss the power of art, music and poetry to evoke emotion.
2. Pass out 11” x 17” piece of white paper and crayons to each student.
3. Have students listen to music for several minutes and then draw whatever the music makes them feel. (I play about 4-5 minutes of music)
4. Pass out a pad of Post-it notes and a pencil to each student and have them form a line to walk around the room and look at each picture.
5. At each picture, the students write the first word that comes to their minds on the sticky paper. They leave that word with the picture. Instruct the students not to write words like “cool” or “fun,” but to write nouns, verbs or strong adjectives.
6. The students then return to their pictures to find 20+ words written by their fellow students.
7. With their words and pictures in front of them, and the music playing once again, students create a poem from the words they have been given. (Once their poems are finished, have each student tape their Post-it-notes poem to the back of their picture. Otherwise the notes tend fall off.)
8. Ask the students to read their poems aloud. At the end of the hour, each student has created a poem that reflects the music they encountered, the art this music evoked from them and the words their art evoked in others.

Generosity

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

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

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

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.

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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

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.

Singing Christmas

December 13th, 2013

CHRISTMAS means music. Last night our ukulele band performed as part of Volunteer Park’s magical holiday celebration. The Seattle drizzle may have had its way with the thousands of luminaria that lined the park’s paths, but it did little to dampen our spirits and songs.

Here we are setting up at the entrance of the Seattle Art Museum.

Here we are setting up at the entrance of the Seattle Art Museum.

IN SONORA, California, where I grew up, the yearly tradition is a Christmas Sing in the Courthouse Square. My dad’s newspaper, The Union Democrat, started this event 34 years ago, so I got to design some of the early posters.

*SING!*

ALL my favorite Christmas memories are tied to music:

Like the Christmas we youngest three sibs donned our parents’ bathrobes and paraded into the livingroom singing We Three Kings of Orient Are. (My brother’s rework of the lyrics: “King forever, sneezing never, over us all to reign.”)

And the Christmas when I was a young mother and five families gathered at our house, including Julie and Fernando Larios and their three kids. We staged a Christmas pageant, complete with almost-baby Michael Larios in the laundry basket creche, his little brown boots hanging out over edge.

And the Northwest Girlchoir concert where the choristers processed through the aisles of Meany Hall, singing Dona, Nobis, Pacem all around us.

And the Christmas when my husband and I gave each other ukuleles, unbeknownst to each other and much to our kids’ entertainment. A sort of Gift of the Magi without the irony, Julie Paschkis said. Also without the loss of hair.

IN SEATTLE we’re down to about eight hours of light per day now. As we eagerly await the turn of the solstice, music and Christmas memories fill the darkness.

EACH Christmas, I like to re-read Dad’s Sierra Lookout column about Christmas, first published in 1966. He writes from the perspective of his own foothill town of Sonora. Here’s how it ends:

IT IS NO wonder, then, that in small communities like ours there burns brightly the single hope for all men, brotherhood.

And as we look with agony and dismay upon the storms that may swirl around us, we need not despair.

For along the ravines are heard again the words that say all that can or need be said of Christmas. They are the words of the Christmas angel:

“Glory to God in the highest, and on Earth, peace, good will toward men.”

 If I could, I’d sing that with you.

Giving Thanks for Vera Williams’ Books

December 2nd, 2013

Can you point to the book that made you want to be a children’s writer?

For me it is Vera B. Williams’ Three Days on a River in a Red Canoe.

My kids and I checked it out of the library shortly after it was published in 1981. Night after night we revisited the story of the narrator, her brother Sam, Aunt Rosie and Mom as they bought a red canoe at a yard sale and took their first overnight trip down a river. Highlights included portage over a waterfall, wildlife, fishing, changeable weather, lots of paddling and the return home to Sixtoes, their cat.

The book is set up as the narrator’s journal, a first-person account illustrated in colored pencil. It has heart and quiet humor and a recipe for fruit stew. The voice is pitch perfect.

Three Days on a River in a Red Canoe was my gateway to Vera B. Williams’ work, including A Chair for My Mother; Amber was Strong, Essie was Brave, and the Caldecott-award winning More, More, More Said the Baby. All brilliant.

I waited until my kids grew up to start making my own books. But I returned to those Vera Williams books as models of what a picture book can be. When my first book was published, I sent it to Ms. Williams, thanking her for her wonderful work and inspiration. I received a nice note in return.

So it goes, the circle of creation and inspiration.

For which I am so thankful on this foggy Seattle Thanksgiving morning.

And I wonder: what book made you want to be a children’s writer?

 


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