Rosemary Wells’ Wisdom for Writers

Rosemary_and_RuthIt was on a very Good Friday, just a couple days before Easter, when I attended a Master Class taught by children’s book creator, Rosemary Wells and sponsored by our local Tokyo SCBWI chapter. The evening was well worth the trip downtown riding sardine-packed trains on a raw April evening.

From our opening introductions to the final story of the evening, Rosemary Wells gave the Tokyo SCBWI participants practical and pithy advice. Although I will not be able to distill the evening into three sentences (as we were required to do in our self-introductions), I will do my best to “omit needless words.” (Strunk and White) Rosemary’s advice was to be “preçis” or precise, because “no one wants to slog through endless wittering in a children’s book.”

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Cut your picture book text down to four sentences per page at most. Leave some story exposition to the illustrator. Write what you know and find out what you don’t. “The art of writing for children is like being a contra-alto,” said Rosemary. “It requires unique talents.” We listened carefully, as this “off the cuff” talk struck a chord in all of us and should help us perfect our pitch in story creation.

“My stories are non-fiction,” began the author who creates beloved stories with bunnies and kittens as the protagonists. “They are based on life experiences.” As a writer, one has to have a sieve in the brain to collect memories and feelings. Max and Ruby are characters drawn from her own children. She described hearing her older child, the “Ruby” of the pair, attempting to instruct her younger nine-month old sibling, upon whom “Max” is modeled. “Table… T-A-B-L-E… TABLE. Say it!” To which the nine-month old would respond, “Bang.” Max’s dragon shirt and general countenance was drawn from a toddler with a withering glare wearing a shirt that glared as well, sitting in the heaping shopping basket ahead of her while she waited and waited one chilly raw night to bring one carton of milk home. The character, Yoko, began with a group of three girls from Osaka who attended Rosemary’s daughter’s school. They were teased about the sushi and seaweed in their traditional Japanese lunches which her daughter thought was totally unfair. Family memories and personal memories are the story starters for the author’s books. “Go back to your childhood,” advised Rosemary, “and remember.” Max and teenager2

“The art of illustration is a challenge,” explained Wells. “Try not to repeat in pictures what the text says.” The artist should look for elements that the text does not overtly mention. Find humor in the text. Marry the text without being the same as the text. Rosemary prefers the word “illumination” to the the word “illustration” harking back to the time of the beautifully, gold-leaf enhanced drawings with which scribes would enhance the scriptures. The pictures should make the story glow with deeper meaning and draw the reader further into the story’s embrace.

Rosemary Wells has been in the business since she was twenty. Now, at age seventy, she has seen publishing rise and fall. Publishing is “in the trenches now,” she explained. “Publishers grab for too much and authors cannot make a living. Publishers have wrecked things a bit,” she said. Rosemary has seen her own royalty percentages cut in half over the years. It is especially difficult for new authors. Still, she gave us hope by encouraging us to write what is true and deep. “Present it simply,” she advised, “with no affectation.” “Write for yourself,” she said, despite our protestations that editors ask writers to categorize themselves. On the other hand, she said, “You may not argue with your editor. Work without ego; listen to your editor and do it better. Only after you have produced 10 starred review books can you go at it with the editor.”

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And while a trained and experienced editor will have valid criticism, Wells did warn against listening to all the advice that one might hear in a writer’s group. “Advice given from a reader’s perspective is valid,” she admitted, “but amateurs may not know what they are talking about when giving publishing advice.” This is not to say that Wells does not encounter any friction with her own editors. She sometimes disagrees with their choices, but they are the ones paying to have the book printed, after all. She sent around a recently published book along with its original “dummy” so that we could note the changes that were made. She also mentioned that she does not illustrate for other authors as she will inevitably end up changing the original text and make changes all the way up until the deadline, and sometimes, even afterwards. The advantage of being both author and illustrator is that the two always agree on the finished product.

max could not relax

The importance of authenticity in writing for children was emphasized again and again. Children are dealing with life issues and they know they have to handle it on their own. “School is like a big bus. You get on with a bunch of people you don’t know and then they lock the doors of the bus and you can’t escape. You are stuck with these people for years.” Parents and teachers do what they can to help, of course, but Rosemary explained that it is as if they are on the outside of a thick Lucite bubble. They can see the struggles the child is going through, but in the end, the child must find his or her own solution. It is an author’s job to write about the person and the true emotions. The story should be about an individual, not about a problem or a conflict; “the person, not the peanut allergy.” Adult agendas have no place in children’s books. Children love stories that show characters overcoming obstacles with humor and grit. Be authentic and write simply. Young readers will love you for it.

Thank you, Rosemary, for sharing yourself with us.

– Ruth Gilmore Ingulsrud

belovedofbeasts.com

Princess Ramona, Beloved of Beasts

Princess Ramona, Beloved of Beasts; by Ruth Gilmore Ingulsrud, illustrated by Therese Larsson

 

 

 

 

The Kites of Hamamatsu

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A happy cacophony of bugles and drums greeted us as we approached the walking trail to Nakatajima Dunes where the annual Hamamatsu Kite Festival is held. Continue reading

Pocket Poems

April is Poetry Month! Ironically enough, it is also Mathematics Awareness month and while I gravitate towards poetry I flee from mathematics. If I landed in Norton Juster’s “The Phantom Tollbooth,” I would undoubtedly side with the denizens of Dictionopolis and not the inhabitants of Digitopolis. I am probably not being fair, since poetry celebrates math in its rhythm and meter, but for me, anyways, April is Poetry Month.

Like many libraries around the world, we are using a “Poem in Your Pocket” theme to generate interest for poetry of all types. In the junior library, the bulletin board posts a challenge to young readers… read the “Pocket Poem” and find the book that contains the poem and indicate the page number. All entries will be put into a drawing at the end of the month for a prizes. (I usually give away books.)

The beautiful pockets were made by our head librarian who is an accomplished seamstress. We selected some of the poems to match the material pattern of the pockets. The pattern that included buses and crossroads and maps ended up holding Robert Frost’s “Road Less Traveled” in the junior library and “Travel” by Edna St. Vincent Millay in the high school library. A pocket whose patterns is populated with owls holds “The Owl and the Pussycat” and Joyce Sidman’s “Dark Emperor.”

We have collected poem suggestions and even original poems from school staff members. All library patrons are encouraged to “pick a pocket” and take one of the many poems home with them.

As patrons pocket our poems, we will add new ones. Here in Tokyo, as the sakura petals pile in drifts on the ground, it does seem very appropriate for April to be Poetry Month.

It’s hard not to stop and stare at the spectacle of falling pink snow. Perhaps that is why April is also officially “Distracted Driving Awareness Month.”

Making the Second Grade Buzz

Credit: leemt2 (FlickR Creative Commons)

Self-published authors of children’s books tend to agonize over how to create a buzz around their work.

M. Knoop; Natl. Trust for Scotland

We try everything: Facebook, email, blogs, discussion boards, reader and writer organizations, library lists, book reviewers… all in the efforts to get some grown-ups to notice our books, buy our books and give our creation some validity in the mature world of children’s publishing.

Well, I may not even be a blip on the radar of the publishing world yet, but by golly I sure made a bunch of our second graders buzz. Here is a link to a class blog that our second grade teacher kindly posted: Making It Educational; Princess Ramona.

The student reactions posted in the classroom blog are priceless:

YeJin – I liked when after Princess Ramona said, “You hurt my friend’s owie,” because it was funny. The dragon was crying like a 4 year old.

Nykolas – I liked the part when the knight came through the forest and the animals were ready to attack him. I liked the part when the king was in his seat and the animals were next to him and the dragon behind him and he didn’t know it. It is about helping each other.

Devika – I liked the part when Ramona set free the animals from the cage. It reminded me of Noah’s ark. It is a good book because it has funny and interesting things in it.

Reading directly to the students and seeing their reactions and hearing what they are noticing and learning from the story make all of those hours of writing and rewriting and polishing and programming completely worth it.

When all is said and done, a writer of literature is not producing for the reviewers or publishers, we are producing our craft for the children. A buzz from the tiniest of bees is always sweeter than the sweetest honey to the soul.

Ripples in the Blogosphere… or Self-Publishing Promotion

Imagine that you are lying in sunlit pool of still water, and you are dreaming. Your dreams are vivid, colorful and profound; but you are the sole spectator and the sole participant. The pool remains still without a single ripple until you sit up and start to share your dream.

An author may write a masterpiece or at least a lovely poem of book that would be a delight to the eyes of many, but if no one knows of the creation, no one but the creator can enjoy it. So here is the frustration of many an independent author who has chosen the path of self-publishing.

 

The first step is, of course, to make sure that the dream in your soul is written and illustrated in the best and most excellent fashion. Too many self-published books are in dire need of editor and professional artist to rescue them from oblivion. In some cases, there is no earthly help for them and they should become the compost for stronger creations to follow.

If you do have a polished and carefully crafted piece of true literature, then your journey has only begun. The dream is over. It’s time to wake up and make some ripples in the blogosphere. Here are a few places to start:

1. Create a Webpage

  • This website may be dedicated to you as an author or an illustrator, or it may be created for one single literary endeavor; a book or a series of books, etc.
  • Your webpage should be simple, straightforward and well-designed. Keep in mind what it is you want the page to do… promote the book, author or series? become a gathering place for other creators? support educators with lesson plans relating to your book?
  • Update your webpage frequently to keep the content and interest fresh.

2. Create other promotional avenues

  • Consider creating a Facebook page or a Twitter account for the book. (twitter hashtags listed below)
  • Post jacket cover photos on the internet by way of TinyPics. (http://tinypic.com/index.php)
  • Become an active poster and sharer on Pinterest, LinkedIn, GoodReads or other social networking sites.

3. Get the word out!

  • Find relevant bloggers that may agree to review your book or mention it in a post. (Possible iBook kid lit reviewers listed below.)
  • Find legitimate book reviewers specific to your genre and intended audience. (These are few and far between for electronic illustrated children’s books.)
  • Try to get some airtime on GoodReads (but if you’re new, your title may not even show up in the search box)
  • Create your own blog posts and review site. (Yes, that’s what I’m doing now)
Keep splashing. Your first attempts to create waves may fall flat. Established publishers do not necessarily want you to succeed. You will have to be persistent and patient. Remember, ripples and waves create more ripples and waves. You never know how far your message will travel. I was recently surprised to find that folks from India, Iran, Indonesia and Italy were clicking on links to my book… and yes, there were some other countries that didn’t start with the letter “I” in there as well.
Good luck to all of you independent, aspiring authors and may all of your ripples be productive.
Lists:
Relevant Twitter Hashtags for Children’s Literature:

#ebooks, #ibooks, #kidlit (children’s literature), #tlchat (teacher-librarians)

#bookapps (book-like apps for iPad, Android, etc.), #childrensbooks, #dads, #moms

#ece (early childhood education), #edapp (educational app), #ePrdctn (electronic production or book designers)

#kidlitchat, #kidlitPRchat (marketing children’s books), #kids, #kidsbooks

#library, #librarians, #litchat, #literacy

#pblit (picture book literature), #pblitchat (picture book literature chat), #picturebooks

#publishing, #SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators)

#selfpublishing

Sampling of Kid Lit Reviewers or Bloggers Who May Accept eBooks:

A Monster Calls; Book Review

A Monster CallsA Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book will rend your heart and then heal it.

If you have ever had to watch helplessly as someone you love is slowly taken away from you by a long-term sickness or health issue, then this book will resonate deeply with you. It is not a difficult read and can be finished in a day or two, but the message is deep. How do you forgive yourself when you simply want to let go… when you have hung onto the hope of recovery for so long that it has exhausted the last morsel of strength from your soul and you have to admit that you are ready to move on to the last chapter.

This book speaks to the exhaustion of caregivers, their resilience and pain, and the stages of grief that they begin to endure even before the one that they love has passed away.

Note: The illustrated version is excellent with evocative, expressive drawings throughout.

View all my reviews