Month: February 2014

The Bad Beginning: a round-up of posts on first sentences


Lemony Snicket’s The Bad Beginning (A Series of Unfortunate Events, Book #1) begins, famously, “If you are interested in happy endings, you would be better off reading some other book.”

Yesterday I was trying to fix one of my own really bad beginnings — which, needless to say, was nothing like Snicket’s. What I had was terrible and I didn’t know what to do with it. Because I have been working at home all week, in the comfort of an armchair (think: nasty post-SCBWI head cold), I took the path of least resistance and began an on-line quest for thoughts, prompts, strategies — anything to jog me out of my rut.

I used search terms like “picture book first line”, “picture book first sentence” and “children’s book opening line.” Thankfully, the blogosphere provided. A round-up of links that I found helpful follows.

A good starting place is this really nice conversation with editors and writers on the subject of opening lines in picture books and beyond: check out Susan Taylor Brown’s piece, “First Lines In Fiction“, originally published in Children’s Writer but also up on her blog.

Several posts categorize different types of opening lines and talk about goals for openers: “6 Ways to Hook Your Readers from the Very First Line” on writesideways, “3 Ways to Hook Your Reader with your Very First Line” on writersrumpus, and “Great Beginnings” at robsanderswrites. “Great Beginnings” offers a matrix of types of first line to try, and the ideas in the other two posts can easily be applied to the same sort of exercise.

Another big bunch of posts compile first lines, in case readers have exhausted the books on their own shelves. Not all of the openers provided are great ones — judge for yourself — but sometimes we learn as much from bad examples as we do from good ones anyway. And in any case it is nice to have a batch gathered in one place for easy comparison and study:

“100 Best Opening Lines from Children’s Books” (from

“16 of the Best Opening Lines from Children’s Books” (from someone at HarperCollins, via buzzfeed)

“Great Opening Lines to Hook Young Readers” (from Nancy Pearl, on NPR)

“First Lines – Picture Books” (from author Quinn Cole’s picbooksrock, on Pinterest)

“You Had Me At Hello: Children’s Books with Fabulous Opening Lines” (from librarian Mary Evelyn’s blog, whatdoyoudodear)

Lastly, I came across notes from some SCBWI sessions with the inimitable Richard Peck: a description by Susan Berger on thepenandinkblog and a post on SCBWI’s Summer 2013 conference blog. Peck apparently calls himself “a collector of opening lines”, and some of his favorites are included in each post.

I’ll resist the urge to digress and babble feverishly about Peck and his A Year Down Yonder. Suffice it to say that the book features one of the saltiest, greatest grandmothers ever — Grandma Dowdel — a woman who’s acquaintance it is worth making.

As for A Year Down Yonder‘s first line: the prologue’s isn’t particularly noteworthy, but the first chapter begins: “Oh, didn’t I feel sorry for myself when the Wabash Railroad’s Blue Bird train steamed into Grandma’s town.” — which is a perfect teaser for what (and who’s) to come.

SCBWI Winter Conference, 2014: A First-Timer’s Appreciation


My 8 year-old daughter is ocean-obsessed, and we have recently been reading Holling Clancy Holling’s hermit crab book, Pagoo (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1957). Pagoo, in his little tide pool world, forever moves from one shell to another, these moves necessitated by the slow and constant growth that comes with repeated molting. Finding a new, better-fitting shell requires creeping out from the safety of the old one – becoming, for a stretch, completely crab-naked and vulnerable.

I thought about Pagoo during Kate Messner’s keynote yesterday, “The Spectacular Power of Failure”, at the annual SCBWI Winter Conference in New York City. Each time Pagoo outgrows a shell he catapults into another of what Messner, in talking about fear and failure, calls an “opportunity to be brave”. And he is brave in the face of a whole buffet of threats: the sculpin, the octopus, gulls, starfish.

It would be much easier if Pagoo’s tide pool was populated with only hermit crabs, wouldn’t it? All on this same journey of transformation together? The crabs could revel in their collective transitioning. They could compare notes. They could critique one another’s choice of shell.

In truth, though, hermit crabs aren’t so congenial: they spar and scuffle and pinch each other as they battle over choice shells. They possess a wicked ability to sense the soft-skinned vulnerability of a recent molt, knowing just when and how to attack. And worse, they are not above cannibalism.

A pre-conference FAQ email talked – in a section very kindly addressed to the many of us who struggle with “networking” – about the warmth and collegiality of the event. I did not actually believe the words though: it was, frankly, unimaginable. (Fear is a great vision-clouder.)

When SCBWI’s Executive Director and co-founder Lin Oliver took the podium Saturday morning, though, I began to understand. She was genuinely wecloming, smart and funny, and not the least bit perfunctory. She is clearly so committed both to the field and to supporting those who share her love of creating children’s books, whoever they are and whatever their experience level. Throughout the event, Lyn’s warmth, intelligence and honesty were mirrored in the words and sensibilities of many of the other presenters, and the same openness was evident in exchanges with conference participants too. As the email had suggested: no sniping or backstabbing, no jockeying for position (except at morning break times in the rush to the bathroom queues).

And definitely no crab-filled tide pool, this conference. SCBWI accomplishes something pretty extraordinary: they fill a space with hundreds and hundreds of vulnerable people who are stretching and reaching in an effort to develop and grow – as writers, illustrators, etc. – and they manage to create a supportive and smart environment that draws out attendees’ own best selves. Many thanks to Lin, for setting the tone, and to Sara Rutenberg and the rest of the SCBWI team for pulling the conference together. It was a great event – a beautifully conceived and well run “opportunity to be brave.”

Rashin Kheiriyeh


I went to my first ever SCBWI conference this weekend. More to follow on that, but I first wanted to give a big digital nod to one of the illustrators who had her portfolio on display at the Art Browse Saturday afternoon, where illustrators displayed so much wonderful work.

Rashin Kheiriyeh’s illustrations bounced around in my head all the way back to Philly, and were still making a racket when I woke up this morning (from a much needed 10 hour, post-conference sleep). Rashin — a student at SVA — has mostly published abroad in Iran and elsewhere. Her work has incredible energy, with great, playful use of form and color. The imagery jumps and swings, and is wildly engaging.

I am a huge fan of playful typography, and looking at her work I so wished that I could read Persian —  to understand what she was doing with the letters. It looked as if whole sub-stories wove through her hand-written print.

In any case, I am sure we will be seeing more of her work on these shores soon — but in the meantime, check out her website.



A foot or two of snow has accumulated on the ground over the last four days and with the snow, as always, have come the dots and dashes of tracks. We are in central Pennsylvania for the long weekend, so the ones we’re attuned to right now are largely of the animal variety.

Yesterday, in the woods, I came across a long dent in the snow – roughly 4 inches wide – that began a foot from a tree base and extended across the trail for about 8 feet before stopping abruptly. My first thought: a dead branch had fallen and sunk into the snow. But there was no branch, and the edges of the mark were crisp, indicating that it was pretty new.

In the past we had made many great finds in that particular section of the woods: a perfect little vireo nest hanging from a witch hazel branch – spider silks improbably cupping the swirled layers of grass and tiny bark strips; a porcupine skeleton with its tell-tale yellow teeth and quills; and always new selections of deer bones, often with gnaw-marks around the edges, where some small mammal has sought its calcium fix or sharpened its teeth. I sank down into the snow to see what a little pause and silence would bring.

With my shift in position, I could suddenly see where the mark became a well-formed tunnel at the non-tree end, diving down through the 18 or so inches of snow and straight into the ground. It was the extension of some small mammalian den: the creature had tunneled up through the snow, bellied across at the surface, then leapt to the trunk of the tree – or maybe the reverse since its hard to imagine the snow supporting the pressure of leaping feet. There were no obvious footprints, but chances are it was a chipmunk.

In recent years here, we have learned more and more about tracks: we follow the fishing-wanderings of long-fingered raccoons, creekside. We read the deer’s wariness of cars in the way the gaps between their hoof prints lengthen as they near the road. After witnessing a prolonged skirmish between a red squirrel and a pair of grey squirrels a few weeks ago – the differences in their gaits and trajectories, their distinct ways of moving to the trees – we learned to see who had jumped and dashed and dug where. A few weeks ago we caught sight of a muskrat – normally nocturnal but, in this long cold-stretch, driven to the one unfrozen edge of the pond during daytime in search of food. From the spot where it dove into the water and swam back under the ice, we followed its tracks backwards – slim-fingered paws, segments of dragging tail, double-backs, and occasional nose-pokes in the snow – as it meandered along the edge of the pond in and out of the frozen cat tails on its quest.

When my kids were little we came into an old copy of Millicent Selsam’s How To Be a Nature Detective (Scholastic, 1963, ill. Ezra Jack Keats — more on Millicent Selsam and her oeuvre another day); the book sensitized us to the ways stories and vignettes materialize in tracks. Selsam and Keats do a masterful job of clueing kids in to simple ways of reading footprints and the landscape for animal stories that may be embedded there. Tracks really do tell stories: some stories worth following through to their ends, some raising more questions than answers, some too predictable to warrant much attention. But the stories stick, and they give a collective identity to a place.

A few weeks ago we saw a mysterious and complicated set of tracks in a thin layer of snow that coated the pond ice. As a family we pieced it together: “See, a blue heron landed there and it skidded – that’s why there are all those long lines — then it kept sliding a little after that when it walked –- see how the middle toe is long and straight but the others puff out? — then it walked this way and stopped to poop — and then it took off again!” Whether or not we were right, the story seemed perfectly plausible based on everything we could see. And chances are that that pooping, sliding blue heron will now inhabit our memory of this place — right alongside another blue heron who, back in the summer, regurgitated a few pellets full of grasshopper legs on the nearby dock and left them for us to discover.

Leaving Ourselves Clues


Last winter I went to hear Kimberly McCreight read from her debut novel, Reconstructing Amelia. During the talk part of the reading, McCreight mentioned an aspect of her writing process that made me smile one of those “right on! so true! thank you for giving that thing a name!” smiles-of-familiarity. While I can’t remember her precise words, the gist was this: sometimes when you are writing, you get stuck in these spots where you’ve got loose ends dangling, and things aren’t making sense or moving in a direction that resonates. And sometimes, when you’re in one of these spots, trying to power through and solve this problem you’ve identified, your best bet is to go back and look at what is right in front of you because, so often, “we leave ourselves clues” (this one phrase may be a direct quote).

The nature and quality of clues may differ when you are writing full-length novels like McCreight’s, but I can attest to the fact that they lurk even within shorter format, 1000-ish word picture book texts. The reading came on the tail of a struggle I had been having with the ending of a story, and McCreight’s description rang true in my solution. The clue that I had left myself was a pair of twins. There was no reason that my narrator had to have twins for brothers, but that was what I had given her. And those two little boys ended up being the seeds to my problem’s solution.

I had stumbled on a similar bit of ‘truth’ years before in a landscape drawing course. Our professor pushed us to let what we saw in space – lights, darks, lines, textures, etc. – flow in through our eyes and straight out our hands. No stopping. No mediating. No editing.

I loved letting go and drawing this way. But I soon learned that, as important as it was to enter into drawing by drawing, it was equally important to pause, to detach and to back away. Then, you come back to your work and have what I came to call a “My God What Have I Done?” moment (from David Byrne’s song, “Once In A Lifetime”), where you look at your work with fresh eyes. Because in drawing, like writing (and probably most things in life) half the time we don’t really know what we’ve done, or are doing.

I mention the leaving of clues – and the importance of the David Byrne moment —  because this week I hit one of those road blocks. I read and re-read a story I was writing, trying to figure out how two strands could come together, and then suddenly a tuna sandwich jumped out at me. Why was there a tuna sandwich in the story in the first place? Maybe because it’s what an incidental old man, sitting on a park bench, might have for lunch. Or maybe because I found tuna sandwiches distasteful as a kid. In any case, it was there and it was my clue. The tuna sandwich, like the twins, was the beginning of the end of that moment’s conundrum.

Before they became clues, the twins and the tuna sandwich were just there, unconnected and not particularly significant. I hadn’t over-thought either of them or imbued either with any clear value or meaning. In retrospect, their effectiveness as ‘clues’ seems somehow connected to the availability that comes with landing in the text agenda-less. In any case, both were good reminders of how  ‘in-the-eye-and-out-the-hand’ can work, inadvertently, like a Hansel-and-Gretel-esque crumb drop.



Last weekend I checked out The Philadelphia African-American Children’s Book Fair. I was blown away by how many displayed titles were new to me: books about African history and African-American history, biographies, genre books featuring black protagonists where black protagonists have never before appeared, and even pulpy series like so many other pulpy series, all with African-American characters and subjects.

I suppose it should not have surprised me that I hadn’t seen many of these books before at bookstores or even my local library. Things never change that fast.

Pamela Tuck’s As Fast As Words Could Fly (ill. Eric Velasquez) grabbed me, first, with Velasquez’s lovely, oil-painted cover: a pair of hands on an old, Royal typewriter. The manual typewriter has been a strong presence in our home this snow-day heavy winter. We unearthed ours from the basement in a fit of cabin fever, and my kids responded immediately to the noisy, mechanical, tactile experience of typing letters onto a page; their first day with it they typed up a six page newspaper for our block – “The 23rd Street News”.

Tuck’s story is based on her father’s experience growing up in North Carolina in the mid 1960’s, at the moment of school desegregation. Despite discriminatory treatment at every turn in his formerly-all-white, now-desegregated high school, Mason Steele earns the honor of representing the school at a county-wide typing competition.

Steele chooses to type not on an electric typewriter, like his competition, but on a manual typewriter. He explains this choice, saying “Cause it reminds me of where I come from.”

When he wins the competition, breaking records, his victory is both a personal triumph and a triumph over an oppressive system. It feels righteous. Describing the moment after his victory is announced, Tuck continues, “No one cheered… Not a single person in the audience applauded. Mason received nothing.”

It is so painful that this child’s moment of victory is tainted by racism’s ugly persistence. But I appreciate the story’s historic and human honesty; we don’t often encounter picture books in which happy endings are seasoned with such a heavy dose of reality. Many, many Civil Rights victories share the sort of complexity that Tuck captures, I’m sure — which stands to reason: they are victories in a battle that no-one wants to have to fight in the first place. Such clear-eyed treatment honors Mason’s achievement moreso by not white-washing the realities of his world.

Lee & Low Books  – publisher of As Fast as Words Could Fly – was new to me too. Kudos to them for running with this true and complex ending. It stands to reason  that a publishing house with a strong commitment to multi-cultural books would appreciate such a thoughtful treatment.

Hello Blogosphere


A  year or so ago, when I first listened to Susan Cain’s Ted Talk, The Power of Introverts, I felt a rush of recognition. I have long known that in the lexicon of Myers-Briggs, I test as an INFP/INTP (the I stands for “Introverted”). My mother, an avid personality-analyzer, gave me Myers-Briggs tests repeatedly throughout my teens and twenties – often long distance, over the phone.

I humored her and never gave much thought to her assessments.

Cain gave me pause, though: I identified with so much of what she described. And her commentary about the “self negating behaviors” of introverts in a world that privileges extroversion hit a nerve. When it comes to being purely social I dwell, way too often, in the land of “shoulds”. I go to parties and big social events because it’s what’s expected. Never mind if I would rather be home reading, or hanging out with my kids, or going to some more content-oriented gathering like a lecture or show. I am a good self-negating introvert.

Susan Cain also offered a new and compelling take on internet community and the blogosphere. In my mind, blogging had always been about self-promoting and self-presenting and self-describing. But as Cain frames it, blogging can be a way of voicing and sharing ideas with more controlled interaction — connection with more limited contact. The internet and the blogosphere can be an introvert’s dream space.

I liked this thinking. A file on my laptop began filling with ideas for blog posts. I didn’t set up a blog right away though: blogging would be a distraction at a moment when I needed focus. I needed to write children’s books, not write about writing or write about books.

With more work under my belt, and a little more confidence, I’ve felt a shift recently. There are so many great blogs  and helpful websites out there in the kidlit world. I’m eager to chime in — to connect with other writers and other lovers of children’s books, and to find and create some on-line community.