Dinner! Train!

Judi Abbot, picture book genius, creates the toddler treat for 2014 in her exceptional book entitled TRAIN! Published by Tiger Tales, originally published by Little Tiger Press in Great Britain, this story features an adorable blue elephant who has a singular focus, and vocabulary, until meeting up with toddlers who have their own preferences 'chugs' his world. Perfectly set up with delightfully limited text this book is full of wisdom. Doting parents keen to trust Little Elephant's interest in trains take him for a ride on the real thing. More than a book about learning to share, this book uses a ride through a tunnel to accomplish its magic. What's important to Elephant changes to what's really important in life. The last image and it's message makes this book belong on a shelf within every toddler's reach. Universal heart in well-written, beautifully illustrated children's books captures all that is right in the world. I thrust the book into colleagues hands at work. I watched fellow early intervention service providers oo and ah then nod their heads at the ending. "We should order one for the classroom!" "This is one I have to buy for my home visit bag." "You could act this out with props!" Everyone was very excited to read TRAINS! Who wouldn't be?

It reminds me of my SCBWI critique group at the local library too. We bring our own versions of Little Elephant's train for feedback! Oh no! The Trustee's Room where we meet twice a month serves as our tunnel as we enter with our manuscript copies clutched to our chests. We sit around the table reading our works in progress aloud. All those big ears listening to our most favorite words to offer encouragement and then...the suggestions for revision. It doesn't always go well. There's a Little Elephant in the room. We won't give up our 'trains'. We get defensive. But we come back again. We try something different. Even when we don't want to. We look around the room at the other writers who get it. Every time they get it. Because writing for children means being willing to go through tunnels, long dark tunnels, and come out the other end with lots of new words and some true blue friends. It's not about who sold a book to a publisher, though we all desperately want that for one another, it's about the ride. It's about being on board. Thank you Judi Abbot, for your wisdom and your talent. And for your hard work. We all need mentors like you.

Gaston Oh Gaston

It's a perfect day to walk the dog. So jingle the leash, hook it onto your pooch's collar and take a walk to your nearest indie bookstore. Have I got a picture book for you. Fetch a copy of the best of the best in a recently released book entitled, Gaston, written by Kelly DiPucchio and illustrated by Christian Robinson. This picture book is the perfect pairing of art and words. The cover image of the resilient and trusting Gaston in an upholstered flowery chair with his paw on a book is arresting. Who could resist opening Gaston? While the art is delightful and the text is perfection it is the powerful message that makes it exceptional. We know from the start that Gaston is different from his litter mates. Their names, Fi-Fi, Foo-Foo, and Ooh-la-la tell you their breed. Gaston may be French but he is no poodle. He is an adorable white puppy though and as his features, size, and abilities grow the reader notices just how different he becomes. When a trip to the park brings his poodle family and a French bulldog family together it's obvious. He looks as if he belongs with them. But how does he feel? We meet Gastons everyday, children who look different from their families. You don't have to look like the members of your family to belong. DiPucchio and Robinson have done a masterful job of telling a puppy dog's story in sumptuous color and pattern with magical read aloud text. I simply love this book! A book with this message has a place in every educator's classroom. I consult in mainstream classrooms with children who look different because they wear hearing aids or cochlear implants to listen. Picture books like Gaston that embrace diversity offer reassurance that the family you are in, the classroom you are in, the community you are in, is where you belong even if it's obvious you are different. And what better reminder to always trust what feels right? Gaston, oh Gaston!

More Hi Pizza Mans Please

Ponder This. In 1995 Orchard Books published a powerful book about greeting, about eating, about take out, about fake out and about waiting for the pizza man too. Hi Pizza Man deserves a come back. We simply need more Pizza Mans by the talented kid-knowledgeable Virginia Walter and talented Ponder Goembel on the shelves again. I would stand in line at the local indie store for this one. The cover is sheer delight. How can you not want to own this book with a pizza box being held by a dinosaur's foot, a snake's tail, a cat's paw…you get the picture. And they are outside a conventional door about to deliver dinner! Love this! Vivian is playing with trains when she calls, "Mama!" (page turn, of course!) "I'm hungry!" Walter has every reader/listener's attention from the start. Truly special are the fun and fanciful illustrations in this exceptional book. The snake dons a derby hat and three bow ties. The duck wears a turban and gold jewelry including an ankle bracelet. The pizza woman is in a baseball cap but she wears a fur stole and pearls. The children that I work with are always enchanted by the dog balancing the pizza box on his nose in a vest with embroidered trim, paws on his hips with attitude. "WOOF WOOF, PIZZA DOG!" Vivian is entertained by the cast of imaginary characters coming to her door through a word game with her mother. "What if it's a pizza dinosaur? Then what will you say?" "ROAR, PIZZA DINOSAUR!" Years ago when saying goodbye to a family I had worked with a gift came out of mom's bag for me. The shape was a dead giveaway. Books are such a part of every session that this could have been any recently published picture book. It wasn't just any book though and it was no longer being published. OMG. It's Hi Pizza Man. Where did you find this? Mom had spent time tracking it down for me on eBay. She sat needlessly apologizing for its condition. I hope I told her it was just perfect because it was and it still is. It is stamped Ames Public Library, Ames, Iowa. I treasure this out of print prize.

Recent research in the area of speech and language development focusses on the importance of pragmatics. Language use or social language matters. We need to be able to help early communicators direct what they say to the people in their lives. For very young children this has to do with fundamentals like making eye contact, using language to request, to inform, and to greet one another. Hi Pizza Man has it all. Vivian and her mother are fully engaged in a make-believe game that provides pragmatic practice in a safe, loving, comfortable environment, stomach grumblings aside. It's magic on the page. It leads by example. It's refreshing to share with families even if it is an 'old' picture book. It's timeless and it's cutting edge at the same time.

So please, publishers, find a way to reprint more Hi Pizza Mans. Until then comb yard sales and used book sales. Then order a pizza and sit down with a child or two for a great read.

Sorry, too much...

Sorry, too much "Go!" Sorry, too much "Stop!"

When Charise Mericle Harper's diggers talk little people listen. And big people too. I have witnessed the delight of several children this week under the age of three who, like me, have fallen in love with Little Green and Little Red. Once again the personification genius of author illustrator Harper makes us all pay attention. GO! GO! GO! STOP! is a book that brings calamity up a notch with the sincerity of a couple of well meaning traffic lights that roll into town with just one word to say. And say, and say, and say. The toddlers I spend time with get it. They chime in with Go! Stop! STOP! GO! It's pure magic on the page. Not to be missed. GO buy it. 

My favorite lines are the apologetic ones. Boy am I ever guilty of too much 'Go', not enough 'Go', too much 'Stop'. In my ongoing quest to become a published children's book author and illustrator I need these words for all of the editors who have helped me when I have fallen short. I'm embarrassed to admit that I have overstepped in my communication with an editor more than once. Belief in my own project at the time made me lose all sensibility. I was over solicitous. I once emailed an editor to ask about a rejected manuscript that I had revised with her over the phone. I was pretty much incredulous that it would come that close and not be acquired. Once an editor goes through the anguish of letting go of a manuscript they believe in how helpful is it to hear from the author again? I couldn't take no for an answer. Way too much 'Go!' I've also done my share of leaving an editor dead in the water with no follow up in their interest in my work. Sure, I can make excuses, but it really doesn't matter what came up. I was guilty of too much 'Stop!' Other author illustrators came along for them but still I didn't honor their invitation to send more of my work. I dropped the ball. I'm sure some of my manuscripts would give me a piece of their mind if they could talk. Perhaps they would say, "Out! Out! Out!" and others who know they need more work would shout 'IN!' I've held on to work that is ready to circulate and sent mediocre packages out. I've come across rejections with my submission still attached and been shocked. Oh no. This can't be what I sent. What crap. No wonder it was rejected. Then I finally take the time to really look at it. I reread the comments. See generosity not animosity. Then I discover that I have enough 'Go!' again. I can't stop myself! I start rebuilding.

Maybe we are all building bridges, looking to the traffic lights, committing to others who are our 'exact opposites' because it comes with the territory of being human. We are all scooping below the surface, dumping our stuff on other people's heads, and sometimes even completing projects with fanfare...and fans. Whoo-hoo! I've never much been into diggers. I don't have the same obsession of the two-year-old who jumps up from what we are doing together because he hears a truck backing up outside his window. I've smartened up a bit though. I go with him. It is truly amazing what these earth movers do. Mericle-ous, really. It isn't just another sewer pipe for a two-year-old. When did I stop noticing? It's a good thing, this world of picture books. When reading aloud to a child (A thousand thank yous, Mem Fox, for Reading Magic) it is never just a book. 

SPOILER ALERT! STOP READING HERE IF YOU HAVE NOT YET READ GO! GO! GO! STOP! by Charise Mericle Harper. So let's talk about the ending. The power of yellow. Thankfully he slides into town and his timing is perfect. We all know what it is we need to do. That daunting project called Self Care. Listen to Little Yellow's wisdom and "SLOW DOWN!" "They were the perfect words for a busy bridge." 

Missing Mrs. de Regniers

On March 1, 2000 the world lost Beatrice Schenk de Regniers,  an American author who wrote picture book classics for children. She was raised in Crawfordsville, Indiana where a child could  "gather violets, live in a tree, walk in the woods -- be."  

Poetry month invokes in me a desire to remember those masters that came before such amazing contemporary poets as Douglas Florian, J. Patrick Lewis, and Joyce Sidman. Going For A Walk (1982), a small format book by Beatrice Schenk de Regniers,  includes her lovely torn and cut paper collages of a small girl going for a walk and greeting animals along the way.  It was first published as The Little Book (1961). Perhaps my favorite poem of all time is her lovely Keep A Poem In Your Pocket. It promises that a memorized poem is your antidote to loneliness. What Can You Do With A Shoe? (1997) with art by Maurice Sendak begs to be sung to a made up tune of your very own. What can you do/What can you do/What can you do with a broom? she asks the reader. May I Bring A Friend, illustrated by Beni Montresor, won the Caldecott Award in 1965.  I run across first editions of her lovely books from time to time at antique booksellers. I presume that they are rare finds because they seldom get weeded from personal book collections. Some still live on local library shelves in their children's rooms. They sure do take my breath away. I miss you, Mrs de Regniers.

Keep A Poem In Your Pocket

 

Keep a poem in your pocket

And a picture in your head

And you'll never feel lonely

At night when you're in bed.

 

The little poem will sing to you

The little picture bring to you

A dozen dreams to dance to you

At night when you're in bed.

 

So--

Keep a picture in your pocket

And a poem in your head

And you'll never feel lonely

At night when you're in bed. 

 

A Few Of My Favorite Things

Girls in white dresses with blue satin sashes? Not so much. I had a cowgirl outfit when I was six. I can conjure the feel of my mom's tug when she put my hair in braids. They stuck out from underneath my cowgirl hat. My little girl braids were always skinny looking things, not the fat blonde braids that I knew to be more legitimate, somehow, and Scandinavian. Mine were Irish, from my mother, and French Canadian from my balding father. But I still do count braids as one of my favorite things. Snowflakes that stay on your nose and eyelashes, definitely. After this past winter you'd think I'd be done like everyone else with any mention of snow. I am drawn to white space in the illustrations in children's books. Snow falling makes a sweet quiet show outside. You can stand in it. You are in the art.

Little Owl Lost by Chris Haughton took  my breath away when I first saw it. He makes such amazing use of white space in this perfectly plotted book. He uses olive green as 'white' space in some spreads and then stark white in others. It's the kind of effective use of white space that makes me want to cry it's so good. The title text is a magnificent use of dead white shapes making the little owl on the cover look extremely lost. You can't not open the book to see the reuniting that Haughton promises the young reader. But to open the book and see what he's done on every page is a sumptuous banquet for anyone striving to understand that picture book pairing of art, story, and design that is perfection. The squirrel, so well meaning, talks like a squirrel. "Yes! Yes! I know! I know! Follow me..." Surely this is Ulysses before he met Flora. Little owl surrounded in white space with his silhouette explaining to Squirrel what his mother looks like is immediately accessible to children. The invitation works every time, making a child put arms out to show mommy is very big, holding index fingers on the sides of the head for pointy ears, and cupped hands up goggle-like to tell of Mommy owl's big eyes. But each time in stark white space we see that Ulysses has it wrong again. Bear is big but not his mommy. Rabbit has pointy ears but rabbit is not Mommy Owl. It's page after page of design, color, and white space that is very effective. Thanks for the crash course, Chris Haugton. Your books are a few of my favorite things. 

Birds and words were two of my mother's favorite things. She knew a thing or two about passing down her favorites by example. We had a wall phone in the kitchen over the bureau that housed all of our sledding socks and mittens. My mother spent little time talking on the phone. She did talk to the bird lady though. When mom was standing at the bureau looking at her pad of pencil marks  and reading off the bird count we were all uncharacteristically quiet. Birds were important to mom. Knowing how many of each kind was a science you didn't get in the way of. So birds. The look of them, the sound of them, especially that 'teakettle-teakettle' song of a Carolina Wren, their antics on wires, branches, and feeders all make for constant encounters with favorites every single day. Tiny moving museums of color, or not, just there for the asking. Quite remarkable, if you ask me. 

Words were puzzles to mom. You had to use the dictionary to look up their meaning or you might die of not knowing. You had to use correct grammar or say it again. When mom was passionate about something she let the town know through a letter to the editor. Words could make you fearless. Mom was a word wonder to behold for all eighteen years we lived under the same roof. I learned that working at words brought me great pleasure. I became a teacher of the deaf so I could teach word-ness. I want to earn a place on the bookshelf. I write and rewrite words. It is enormously fun. They seem to be on endless racks just waiting. Every size, style, fabric imaginable. A super store open 24 hours. Shopping is one of my least favorite things unless I get to go shopping for the right words. Words are a few of my favorite things. No wonder.

Marker Park

Lately I've had a gush of new ideas for children's books. Twice a week I serve snack to two year olds. This past week one of the parents brought in halved green grapes. Laying cut side down on tiny paper plates these grapes look exactly like turtles. Once I started referring to them as turtles it wasn't long before there were requests for 'more turtles please'. Ever since we took a trip about a year ago to a local farm we have been calling chunks of watermelon 'barns'. Every once in a while we will run across a piece of watermelon that is taller and looks more like a silo. Today I began to think about what my sons called waffles whenever my husband traveled. He would explain to his sons that he would not be sleeping at home because he would need to sleep in a hotel. When 'what's a hotel' was asked a description followed that included words like 'a tall building' and 'lots of windows'. When I made some waffles for dinner my son called them hotels. When cut into strips waffles really do resemble city hotels. The book idea that came to me today was a Recipes For Fun poetry collection that would have these kind of kid-friendly foods with simple recipes written in rhyme. At times like this I reach for my Marker Park. Until today I hadn't seen a Junk King truck before. Sometimes ideas come barreling at you on wheels. I write my ideas into a blank sketch book that I call Marker Park. I use a new package of bold markers to doodle in it. There isn't a dried up marker in the bunch. I take it with me wherever I go. When I'm at home it sits patiently on the coffee table, waiting, for more ideas. What's great about my Marker Park is that I get to 'run around' and just play with ideas. It's a mess. Arrows and asterisks all over the page. I switch colors randomly, underline words, and number stuff.

What came to me first when I saw the Junk King truck this morning was a picture book title. 'Poetry for Royalty' This book of poems would have all kinds of kings and queens in it. Definitely one of the titles would have to be 'the junk king'. Then I thought a child whose dad was the junk king would be proud of it. A stanza popped into my head that goes like this - Go ahead and say it/I'm the junk prince/It's never ever ever/Gonna make me wince. Then the idea of a Queen of Socks came to me along with this rhyme - She's Queen/Of socks/We love every pair/When she shows up/We all just stare. Where'd you get those?/Oh, my mom knits/We're so jealous/We're out of our wits. These stanzas will likely end up on the cutting room floor one day but anything I think of gets into the park. A King Kong belongs in this book. So maybe one of these days when I am ready to begin something new I will start the Poetry for Royalty project. For now I am going to keep running to and through Marker Park.

LET 'ER RIP!

This is embarassing. It happened years ago. I signed up for an illustrators academy at the SCBWI Spring conference. I was in way over my head. Matt Phelan was there. He's a super nice guy if you are in way over your head by the way. He showed us slides of his process in creating The Storm In The Barn. Okay that's how long ago it was. I could have gone through a box of kleenex looking at that art. It was so daring, so lovely, so loose. Puddles of watercolor spreading in the frames. It was atmosphere on steroids. I love loose. I don't do loose. I basically am so stuck in coloring book mode with my collage work. After lunch we had portfolio reviews. Time to sweat. Big time. Such kindness in those workshop leaders. Kindness and wisdom. What stands out still is Matt Phelan's question to me. "So do you draw first or tear first?" Dry mouth, can't talk, manage to utter, "I draw first." Of course he could tell that is what I do. Did. Still do. Fear. Today I vow to get out of my own way and just rip stuff up. See what happens. It's so hard to do something else. Anything else. So here's to standing down fear even if just for a day. Pencils out the window. Collage sketchbook open. Go. Thank you Matt, SCBWI, and Yes! paste. Let 'er rip!

Show Your Work

Still bubbling over after last night at an indescribably delicious indie bookseller event at the Brookline Booksmith. Great book signing and talk with Austin Kleon from Austin, Texas. Quick lesson in when to use Hi Ya'll & Hi All Y'all for east coasters. Packed with people, cookies, and laugh out loud humor. Great Q & A afterwards. Take aways from last night include: Don't hoard. Share instead. Teach to learn and learn and learn. Teaching does not result in competition it results in fans. Learn to tell a story that your work alone cannot tell because of the importance of connection and the human element of creating. Austin led by example last night. He drew/illustrated along as he spoke (ipad app Paper and stylus Pencil) which he repeatedly wondered about saying, 'This might be bad idea.' It ended up being a very good idea. He plugged other creatives' works. He held up and talked up Daily Rituals by Mason Currey (Which is not as bossy as his book, suggests Austin), And The Pursuit of Happiness by Maira Kalman, My Ideal Bookshelves Jane Mount's art and Thessaly La Force editor, Lunch Poems by Frank O'Hara (Because all of us should be reading poetry, reminds Austin) The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt (Because we all must learn how to tell great stories and this is a great read), and The Essential Scratch and Sniff Wine Guide by MacNaughton and Sacca. Every artist, under or over 60, should own a copy of his book. It's bright yellow cover and hand written title is one to face out on your ideal bookshelf. If you can't afford it tell someone in your 'scenius' and you can all share a copy of Show Your Work by Austin Kleon. If he's in your area, make the time to stop by his book signing. It will be worth it.

Welcome to Studio 60

Today I turn sixty. I can say for certain that I have sung sixty songs, taught at least sixty preschoolers, kneaded more than sixty loaves of bread, and spent about sixty dollars in the last sixty days on children's books. At sixty I am still a teacher. I still love to write rhyming picture books and to create collages. I still love my donuts with peanutbutter, my grapefruit pink (with honey), and my eggs with fresh parsley. Better yet plop those eggs into a piping hot popover. Some things never change. But at sixty I have never blogged. It's time to start something new. Welcome to Studio 60.