Category Archives: A Writer’s Work

Mystery: It Does a Brain Good

We all need a little R & R—that is Reading & Relaxation—from time to time.  But I’ve found that my reading choices lately are starting to lose variety.  With busy schedules, I imagine I’m not alone in turning to books for entertainment…that time when I can curl up all cozy, turn off my brain, and escape into a good story.

But I remember a time when reading was where I learned about the world.  It was how I encountered words I didn’t know, and then added them to my own vocabulary.

I went through an especially long MYSTERY phase as a child.

Me and my granny

Me and my Granny

VALUABLE SKILLS
Looking back, I believe this helped me analyze and think about what I was reading.  As a detective, I had to look for clues and pay attention to sequencing.  It was necessary to read between the lines.  If I wanted any chance of solving the mystery, I had to think about characters’ motives, make inferences from what they said and did, notice discrepancies or gaps, and crunch the clues to draw conclusions.  That’s A LOT of critical thinking skills.  But as a kid, I thought I was just reading a great book!

MY OWN WRITING
I’ve been working on my own version of a detective story.  It’s a picture book involving Sarge, a German Shepherd, who feels a strong responsibility to watch out for his neighbors.  When suspicious dog behavior is reported, he launches an investigation to get to the bottom of things.  Quite surprised by what he finds, he learns you CAN teach an old dog new tricks.

To improve my story, I’m doing more “research,” which in this case means read and read and read mysteries for all ages.   So I thought I’d pass along the treasures I’m finding.

READING LIST

Hank the Cowdog

Hank the Cowdog Written by former cowboy, John R. Erickson
Interest Level: Grades 2-5, chapter book series
Plot Summary: Solving mysteries on a ranch
With almost 60 books, you’ve hit the jackpot if your 2nd-5th grader likes the first book: The Original Adventures of Hank the Cowdog.  This slightly-paranoid dog takes his self-appointed role as Head of Ranch Security very seriously.  But somehow, he always ends up on the wrong side of things and his owners, Loper and Sally Mae, just don’t understand all his hard work to serve and protect.  But Hank doesn’t let that get to him: “Every dog in this world isn’t cut out for security work.  It requires a keen mind, a thick skin, and a peculiar devotion to duty.  I mean, you put in sixteen-eighteen hours a day.  You’re on call day and night.  Your life is on the line every time you go out on patrol…The very people you’re protecting won’t understand.  They’ll blame you when things go wrong.  But that’s the price of greatness, isn’t it?”

Ace Lacewing Bug Detective

AceLacewing Written by David Biedrzycki
Interest Level: Grades 2-3, picture book
Plot Summary: Ace and his gal Xerces solve mysteries. 
“Bad Bugs Are My Business” reads the sign over Ace’s office. With this Dick Tracy-style character, kids will unravel a mystery in under 2,000 words, while learning a lot about insects in the process.

Detective Little Boy Blue

DetectiveBlue Written by Steve Metzger
Interest Level: Grades K-3
Plot Summary: Detective Blue solves nursery rhyme mysteries.
Boys and girls alike will enjoy spotting all the nursery rhyme characters in this detective story illustrated by Ted Arnold in comic book fashion.  And the ending will come as quite a surprise.  You only thought you knew those well-loved characters…

What REALLY Happened to Humpty?

Humpty Written by Joe Dumpty as told to Jeanie Franz Ransom
Interest Level: Grades K-3
Plot Summary: Humpty’s brother, Joe, is sure that Humpty was pushed.  And he’s on a mission to find out the truth.
This hard-boiled detective story weaves numerous nursery rhyme characters together in a mystery where everyone is a suspect.  Find out the truth behind the cover-up rhyme we’ve all been told.

Piggins

Piggins Written by Jane Yolen
Interest Level: Grades K-3
Plot Summary: Piggins, the butler, is quite handy at more than just serving dinner.  He saves the day many a time with his attention to detail and observation skills.
This English hero resembles Agatha Christie’s detectives more than the trench coat and fedora-wearing inspectors of the 1940s.  All the detective work happens over a 2-3 page spread, so kids will really be challenged as they try to beat Piggins to the solution.

ONE GENRE, MANY STLYES
This was the extent of my library research this last weekend before the holidays.  I’ll leave you with another link that explores mystery books for preschool through ninth grade.  It supplies a wide variety of styles and interests within the genre.  http://www.carolhurst.com/subjects/mysteries.html

That’s the beauty of mysteries.  Every child can find their interest, whether it’s sports, horror, humor, horses, monsters, fantasy, science, cars, etc…

So encourage your child to try a mystery, and pick up one for yourself, too.

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Barney Saltzberg = Biggest Surprise

As I wrap up my last post about the Texas Book Festival, it’s important to note that today’s author, while last, is definitely not least.  As a matter of fact, he was the biggest surprise to me.  Since I’m currently working on 2 manuscripts for children’s picture books (ages 4-8), I was “bouncing-in-my-seat happy” to hear from Rob Scotton, Tad Hills, and Philip Yates.

When I read Mr. Saltzberg’s biography, his appearance on the panel didn’t excite me.  I saw he’d written many board books for preschoolers, but had just published his first picture book, Andrew Drew and Drew.  http://youtu.be/m5jeZJ8Renw

 

What I thought I really needed was to hear from the other authors who had done what I hope to do.  Surely this guy had nothing to offer me.

But I soon discovered how wrong I was.

Right off the bat, I related to the inspiration for his latest board book, Arlo Needs Glasseshttp://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lEpNPMCWltc

He shared about his 75 pound golden doodle and the dog’s poor catching skills.  Look at Arlo with a bandana…so cute!  My two silly dogs have also inspired the seeds of ideas for my manuscripts.

Then, near the end of the session, each author/illustrator was encouraged to stand by an easel pad and show their method of illustrating.  When it was Barney’s turn, he removed the marker cap and began talking.  And like me, he spoke while gesturing with his hands.  All of a sudden, OOPS, he’d made a stray mark on the paper behind him that he was supposed to use.

Oops!

This “mistake” was the springboard for him to share his vision for art and his work.

Let me give you some context.  If you’ve ever seen a child with a blank piece of paper, you know what happens when he or she makes a mistake, tears it on accident, or erases too hard and rips the paper.   “I messed up.  I need a new piece.”  And if you don’t immediately comply, the child will either get mad or end up close to tears.  It seems this “broken” piece of paper just will not do.

Barney Saltzberg sees this as a problem and he has helped become part of the solution.

Voila! Rhino-hippo

In Beautiful Oops, his interactive multi-texture and sensory board book, he shows kids the beauty found in the unexpected.

Did you tear your page by mistake?  It’s now the alligator’s mouth.

Did you accidentally spill a paint glob on your page?  Look at that glob for a moment.  What do you see?  Perhaps a puppy or bird shape?

Did you bend your paper?  No problem.  Turn it into the penguin’s face.

The story ends with a lasting message: “When you think you have made a mistake…OOPS…Think of it as an opportunity to make something beautiful.”

This might not sound like a big deal to you, but for me (a struggling perfectionist) it was an attractive reminder.  And as a former elementary teacher, I know many children that also struggle with performance anxiety. Open your mind, relax, and let art happen!

If you’re more of a “I’ll believe it when I see it” kind of person, please enjoy one of these classroom visit videos and watch the kids’ reactions to this adult’s behavior.  Kids LOVE him and you will too!
10-minute version http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B0A3QhGVyDs
2-minute version here: http://youtu.be/gC6fF5IJjjU

Barney further explores this idea in his next project called 2 + 2 = Banana.  There are no right answers, no ONE and ONLY way to do things when it comes to creative expression.

So at the end of the day, I actually spent more money on Barney Saltzberg’s books—yes, preschool board books—than the other authors.  And yes I did have fun pulling and lifting all the flaps.  It was especially fun to try the variety of glasses on Arlo to help him find the perfect pair.

This author/illustrator is also a musician, frequently creating silly songs on the fly when he’s visiting classrooms.  Listening to him, I was inspired by his open mind and passionate creativity.  He is full of energy, ideas, and (most appealing to me) a freedom to make mistakes and explore those mistakes for potential beauty.

Little kids aren’t the only ones who need to hear that.

Author Links:

http://www.barneysaltzberg.com
http://barneysaltzberg.blogspot.com

Interview about his Dual-Book Tour with 2 different publishers
http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/childrens/childrens-industry-news/article/54316-workman-and-abrams-team-up-for-barney-saltzberg-tour.html

Crazy Hair Day
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RcshjFgOYE4

Rob Scotton Explains His Inspiration for Splat the Cat Stories

What a pleasure it was for me to meet Rob Scotton at the Texas Book Festival last weekend.  This author from Rutland, England, loves to talk.  But I can assure you that each of us in the audience loved to listen–to his ideas and accent!  His picture books about Splat the Cat are very popular, causing a long book signing line at the festival.

Meet Splat the Cat

Inspiration #1

Listening to Rob speak, I especially found the “insider information” about his inspiration intriguing.  As a fellow writer working on 2 manuscripts of my own, I love hearing how the seeds of ideas get started.  I’ve found that my ideas come from everyday things that happen in life.  Anything can inspire.  Rob’s story is further proof of this.

Rob was running his lawnmower in his backyard one summer day when his eyes spotted this ugly beast on top of his fence. It had bald patches and a clipped ear.  It was his neighbor’s cat.  This particular cat had a habit of attacking Rob when he least expected it.  He kept his eye on the cat as he went back and forth with the lawnmower.  Suddenly, a gust of wind came and the cat teetered precariously.  It then hung in the air briefly before falling from the fence.  Rob thought to himself, “Surely this agile creature will land safely on his feet, as all cats do.”  But when the cat landed not so gracefully on its bum, he heard the word “SPLAT” in his head.  He immediately ran inside, lawn duties forgotten for the moment, and played with the idea of a character, Splat the Cat.

Rob Scotton, author of Splat the Cat picture books

A key element for this artist was finding the look of Splat right from the start.  He needed a cat he could enjoy spending time writing stories.  Rob wanted to keep Splat simple.  As a child, Rob had practiced drawing characters like Donald Duck, Mickey Mouse, and Pluto.  These shapes were simple and easy to practice with.  So he designed Splat’s rectangular body with his young audience in mind.

Splat’s rectangular body

And what could be funnier on a chunky body than long skinny “arms” and legs coming off it?

Splat’s skinny “arms” and legs

Next Rob played with various ideas for the eyes, and finally settled on the “wide-eyed” look of the circles close together. This style is similar to Russell the Sheep, a beloved character from his previous picture books.  He also had fun with Splat’s tail, which expresses the character’s mood.

Possible eyes for Splat–rejected

Put it all together, adding belly and tail.

Rob Scotton’s illustrations are created using Painter and Photoshop.  He even has a pressure-sensitive stylus and pad that allows him to create the brushstrokes for Splat’s amazing fur!

I encourage you to meet Splat now at your local library or bookstore.  Then this summer, as “back to school” rolls back around, revisit this story and the Back to School activities below with your child or students.

http://www.harpercollinschildrens.com/harperchildrensimages/printable/splat_activity%5B2%5D.pdf

Inspiration #2

Rob Scotton’s latest book is just in time for Thanksgiving, Splat Says Thank You.  This idea has a totally different origin than the original Splat.

Rob was at a book signing and a little boy stood off to the side.  In between signings, this 6 year old kept asking him questions about his books.  It went something like this:

Boy: You wrote a Halloween Splat book, didn’t you?

Rob: Yes, I did.  Did you like it?

Boy: Yes, I did.

[long pause as Rob signs someone’s book]

Boy: You wrote a Christmas Splat book, didn’t you?

Rob: Yes, I did.  Did you like it?

Boy: Yes, I did.

[another long pause as Rob signs someone’s book]

Boy: You wrote a Valentine Splat book, didn’t you?

Rob: Yes, I did.  Did you like it?

Boy: Not really.

[another long pause as Rob signs someone’s book]

Boy: Are you going to write a Thanksgiving Splat book?  You should.

And this got Rob thinking later.  How would Splat and Thanksgiving relate or link together at all?  Being from England, he tried to focus on the main theme of thankfulness.  What things are we all universally thankful for?  And that led him to thinking of friendship.  A light bulb went off as he realized he could write a Thanksgiving Splat book where Splat was thankful for his best friend, Seymour.  This would also be a great time to write the two friends’ backstory of how they met and why they’re such good friends.

Parents and Teachers

This writer’s inspiration is a great example for your own young authors.  Sharing the “behind the scenes” of how published authors get their ideas can encourage your child to look around with “author eyes.”  Settings like the lunchroom, playground, and their own backyard can spark an idea for a character, setting, or plot.

Leave a comment if you decide to check Splat out for yourself. 🙂

Rob Scotton’s Website: 

http://www.robscotton.com/www.robscotton.com/RobScotton.com.html

Pirate Obsession, Perhaps?

I don’t know about your kids, but my best friend’s little ones are obsessed with pirates.  And have been for the last 2 years.  That’s saying a lot since the twins are 4 1/2 and their younger brother is 2 1/2 years old.  “Doubloons” and “Arrrggh” might even have been his first words!  Just to prove it, here are 2 adorable pictures taken on this very Halloween night of 2012.

It’s not just kids…my sister-in-law has been obsessed with pirates ever since Pirates of the Caribbean came out.  Wait, hers is actually a Johnny Depp obsession.  Never mind.

But really, I have to agree with Philip Yates, a local Austin author, who explains his own fascination with pirates and his inspiration for his two picture books, A Pirate’s Night Before Christmas and A Pirate’s Twelve Days of Christmas.

“Who didn’t dream of being a pirate when they were a kid? It’s a dream-come-true for a child. No parents hanging around, stay up as long as you wanted to, dig for buried treasure on the weekends, don’t worry about brushing your teeth, capture and burn ships, kidnap men and women and make them walk the plank. Look at Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn and their overwhelming desire to be pirates. It’s the ultimate kid fantasy.”  [full interview found at http://cynthialeitichsmith.blogspot.com/2008/11/author-interview-philip-yates-on.html]

Philip Yates at the Texas Book Festival
in Austin on Oct. 27, 2012.

By asking himself questions, Philip Yates created a new take on two well-loved Christmas poems.

“What would a pirate ask for at Christmas? Well, a plank, of course. How would pirates celebrate Christmas? Surely they would not be visited by St. Nicholas, no, not these robbers and murderers, unless he left coal in their stockings. The idea continued to haunt me until I came up with the solution that if pirates were to celebrate their own Christmas, they had to have their very own pirate Santa Claus and that’s when Sir Peggedy was born.”

This buccaneer spent the majority of his time researching pirate history, the parts of the ship, and more. “I also wanted the language to be authentic in every way, so that when you read it out loud, you would sound like a pirate.”

And every parent knows how important that is, especially on September 19th each year.  http://www.talklikeapirate.com/piratehome.html.

If pirates don’t float your boat, Philip’s humor will.  It’s no surprise that he actually got his start writing joke books.  After co-writing nearly 10 joke books in 8 years, he then wrote his debut picture book called 10 Little Mummies. This counting book is jam-packed with silly explorations inspired by his mummy riddles:

“What do you do when a mummy rolls his eyes at you? You roll them right back.”
“What kind of underwear do mummies wear? Fruit of the Tomb.”
[full interview at http://cynthialeitichsmith.blogspot.com/2005/10/author-interview-philip-yates-on-ten.html]

Always on the lookout for ideas around him, Philip tells of the inspiration for his next picture book.  It’s based on a seemingly irreverent statement he overhead at an Austin public library.

“A little girl came into the library once and told her mom, ‘I love you so much I want to throw up.’ I thought this was hilarious and touching because a moment later the girl hugged her mom and added, ‘Throw up my arms and hug you and kiss you.’ This later became a picture book about how much a child can love a parent or guardian.”

You know the drill.  Halloween’s over now, so Christmas will soon be upon us (if not already in a store near you). So get out there and purchase two special pirate poem Christmas books for your own buccaneers.  I already got my autographed copy for my best friend’s 3 pirates.

Author Interview Links:

http://cynthialeitichsmith.blogspot.com/2008/11/author-interview-philip-yates-on.html

http://cynthialeitichsmith.blogspot.com/2005/10/author-interview-philip-yates-on-ten.html

http://www.austinscbwi.com/mt/members/archives/2005/04/post_1.html

UN-Happy Halloween for Author stuck in Austin

It was such a pleasure to meet and listen to Tad Hills this weekend at the Texas Book Festival. I was sad to see on his Facebook page after the festival:“Stuck in Austin TX for I don’t know how long. My only other option at this point is to fly to Chattanooga then train to Richmond and sail up the coast to Brooklyn.”

He lives in Brooklyn, NY, but Hurricane Sandy has stranded him here in Austin. This is especially sad since he might miss Halloween, his favorite holiday, with his kids. Each year he designs elaborate costumes for them. Visit his website to view masterpieces ranging from buildings (Leaning Tower of Pisa, Eiffel Tower) to a furry monster that has iPhones playing a moving and blinking eyeballs video loop!  http://tadhills.com/about/costumes#4

UPDATE: On 10/30 at 10:45 a.m. Eastern, Tad Hills posted: “They [My wife and kids] are fine. We are very lucky. They are safe and the house is dry.  But surrounded by so much damage.” 

From costumes to acting, sculpting, or writing and illustrating, this man is an all-around artist who views each of these expressions similarly. He feels you create each in a similar way, adding and cutting to shape the end product.  This author/illustrator began writing touch and feel board books, but is best known for his Duck and Goose picture books, as well as his latest two stories about a dog named Rocket who learns to read and write.

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Tad Hills shows how to draw Duck at the Texas Book Festival.
I was in the front row and he was 3 feet from me!

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Tad Hills at the Texas Book Festival introducing his latest Rocket story, Rocket Writes a Story.

In Rocket Writes a Story, I was immediately delighted with the authenticity of the writing process Rocket goes through.  For parents, this book provides ideas of your role in helping your child love writing: encourage him; give her time and space for inspiration; listen as he reads aloud his progress; ask her questions. I would add to this list–ask her tell you stories verbally. “Storytelling” is a great pre-writing activity because kids love to talk. Revising as you go is simple when no paper or pencil is involved.  As a former teacher, I would have loved to share this story as a model for how authors really write. Writing a story is not a canned task where you:

1) sit down with paper and pencil,

2) write a good story, and

3) get up and say VOILA!

It is a process that is exciting and frustrating, fast and slow all at different stages. You need time, space, inspiration, and support from others. My favorite lines in the book are:

“He wrote words down and crossed words out.  When things were going well, he wagged his tail.  When he didn’t know what to write, he growled.”

And writing impacts those around us. Rocket experiences each of these elements on his writing journey.

Writing Mini-lesson using Children’s Literature:

In the classroom, have students brainstorm the things they do and need in order to write a story. List these ideas on chart paper. Make sure they don’t leave anything out. Then read Rocket Writes a Story. Have students list the things Rocket used and did in his writing process. Compare the two lists. “Can you add any of his tools to your process?” This should facilitate an encouraging discussion about ideas and their development. Then, as a fun treat, show them the picture of the real Rocket that inspired Tad Hills (http://tadhills.com/rocket/meet-the-real-rocket).

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Personally, this story strikes a chord because it’s been about a year now of me nursing 2 manuscripts of my own. My two ideas (a fairy tale and a dog detective story) look radically different than when I began.  I, too, have needed breaks, inspiration, peers, encouragement and feedback, time and space.  And of course, my great dogs also originally inspired me.

I hope you’ll take time to introduce Rocket to your children or students. He’s a model reader and writer!

Author Interview Links:

http://tadhills.com/is/news-and-events

http://www.schoollibraryjournal.com/slj/home/895084-312/tad_hills_talks_about_rocket.html.csp

Back with a Bang

I’ve just returned from the Texas Book Festival and I am pumped up!  This free event is located on and around the capitol building in downtown Austin.  While there, I got to meet some very cool children’s book authors.  I was even able to ask them, one-on-one, a few questions I have as a new writer with my own manuscript in the works.  So, for the last few hours I have been singing the refrain “Now I’ve had the time of my life.”  And that’s when I thought of you.  I’d love to share some insights these authors revealed about their characters and inspiration.  As an avid reader, those details further endear to me a story or character I already love.

The next four posts for this week (and I promise to do my best to get them out this week while it’s fresh on my mind) are: DRUMROLL, please…………….

Tad Hills, author of Rocket the Dog stories

Philip Yates, author of 2 pirate Christmas-themed books

Barney Saltzberg, author of books for pre-school children

Rob Scotton, author of Splat the Cat books

Left to right: Moderator, Suzanne Wofford; Author, Tad Hills; Author, Philip Yates; Author, Barney Saltzberg; Author, Rob Scotton

More photos and stories to come–hope you’ll join me.

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First “Ruff” Draft Read Aloud

This gallery contains 5 photos.

On March 21, 2012, my friends let me borrow their kiddos for my first focus group.  Many thanks to them.  It was a blast and very helpful.  The first story is entitled Not Your Ordinary Pet Detective (NYoPD): The Case … Continue reading