Author: hmmmmm

I’ve had a lot of different jobs in my life: early childhood teacher, administrative assistant, city employee, green space advocate, community organizer, graphic designer, program coordinator, landscape architect, ESL teacher, professor, play advocate, mother… and now ‘children’s writer’. I started blogging at HMMMMM in 2014 with the two-fold goal of creating a place to think and write about reading and writing for children, and connecting to a digital community of children’s book lovers. Thanks for visiting! In my children’s writing, certain themes emerge again and again: connection and friendship; being a girl; life as an outsider; the power of exploration, play and making; and the magic of the ever-changing natural world. I am a designer and a visual person -- though not an illustrator -- and my picture book texts pay a lot of attention to the potential interplay of graphics and text. Teaching kindergarten and second grade left me with a soft spot for early chapter books, and I write at that level too. My first picture book, BAT COUNT, comes out in Spring 2017 with the educational press, Arbordale. A story about a worried and hopeful big-sister, a shrinking colony of bats, and the strength of family bonds, it introduces elementary-aged children to the empowering practice of Citizen Science.

Bridging the Fiction/Non-fiction Divide

I am negotiating the boundary between fiction and non-fiction (or informational narrative) in many of my projects these days, so Melissa Stewart’s posts about the two — particularly last week’s “Wait that’s not broccoli it’s chocolate!” — resonate.

Melissa makes a case for the place of non-fiction picture books in kids’ lives in the classroom and beyond, highlighting the tension between what kids want and what adult decision-makers tend to give them. She cites some pretty interesting research — check it out.

The discussion reminded me of when I first read Jessica Olien’s THE BLOBFISH BOOK. I’m a big fan of all things meta, and the way Olien’s blobfish hijacks this dry, old-school-looking, cloth-bound tome about the deep sea is hilarious. But I noticed something when I was reading it: part way through, I stopped paying attention to the “real”, informational narration and started to mostly follow the character’s bubble-dialogue interjections. The factual content sort of faded to the background for me.

Granted: I’m just one reader, and I am well beyond the age of the target audience. But reading that book underscored the tension between character-driven, entertaining narratives and informational ones — a tension that we see in individual books more and more frequently in the market today, as books try to more effectively reach both trade and educational audiences.

THE BLOBFISH BOOK felt doubly meta for raising the question ‘is there a point when the character’s story arc and humor overtake the informational value of the book and makes it moot?’ I don’t know the answer to that question – I need to read more of this sort of book with kids — though I’m guessing THE BLOBFISH BOOK, like most books, works for different children in different ways.

We are a consumer- and entertainment-oriented culture. Laughter sells, so the trade market privileges books that make people laugh. (And humor is so important). Likewise, many of us relate to stories through character and human emotion, so the market is heavy with character-driven books too. But does there have to be tension between making kids laugh or capturing their hearts, and engaging kids minds in other ways?

My former-teacher-self says: books that bridge the fiction/non-fiction divide and appeal to kids on many levels can be fantastic introductions to new subjects. Teachers and other caregivers can dig in more with conversation and with other books and activities that go into greater informational depth. It needn’t be an either/or.

Melissa’s reminder not to give short shrift to non-fiction simply because the trade market is experimenting with the fiction/non-fiction boundary is a good one, though, and her deeper message is equally important: keep checking in with and paying attention to the preferences and interests of the kids who are our ultimate audience.

Melissa is continuing the conversation with more posts here (thanks Melissa). In the meantime, keep an eye out for Julie Segal-Walters’ hilarious debut, THIS IS NOT A NORMAL ANIMAL BOOK, illustrated by Brian Biggs and due out with S&S/Paula Wiseman books in October. This meta-picture book tangoes back and forth across the fiction/non-fiction divide!

Windows to the Feline Soul

Because they are nocturnal hunters, cats need to be able to soak up any available bit of light, and so have evolved the ability to open their pupils crazy-wide. Then when the sun is out they go the other way, constricting the openings down to razor-thin slits. The full range conveys mood and attitude very discretely; if you’ve ever had or lived with a feline, you’ve probably become practiced at reading between the lines.

Mike Malbrough’s cat Marigold, in his picture book debut MARIGOLD BAKES A CAKE, is a cat with a lot of big feelings — all of which are telegraphed by his delightful eyes.

To the degree that eyes are the window to the soul, Marigold’s soul hangs out in all its glory — which is a huge part of his charm as he struggles with repeated disruptions to his happy-place activity of baking elaborate cakes.

 

Marigold’s soul is full of passion. But his real world counterparts rarely display the range of emotion that he does: irritation, frustration, joy, panic, delight. He would not be a good poker player.

That Marlbrough has rendered his eyes to look more human than cat-like is a liberty well taken: they and the feelings driving them are totally relatable.

Marigold got me thinking about other great picture book eyes too: I’ve always been in awe of the volumes of unspoken and subconscious goings on in Jon Klassen’s HAT trilogy characters’ understated eyes. If you have a minute, weigh in: what are some of your favorite picture book eyes?

Meanwhile, prepare to meet the fabulous Marigold (and his eyes) in Mike Malbrough‘s MARIGOLD BAKES A CAKE (Philomel) on July 18. (Fans of cats and/or baking can follow Marigold on twitter too @TheRealMarigold.)

GETTING LOST with Peter McCleery’s BOB AND JOSS (& Rebecca Solnit)

 

Fellow 2017 debut picture book author Peter McCleery’s BOB AND JOSS GET LOST (illustrated by Vin Vogel; Harper, 2017) coincidentally slid through my mail slot the same week that I started reading Rebecca Solnit’s A FIELD GUIDE TO GETTING LOST (Penguin, 2005).

Writing about the richness and complexities of getting lost, wandering, and not being in control, Rebecca Solnit bemoans today’s empty, suburban back yards and what they mean for kids:

Children seldom roam, even in the safest places. Because of their parents’ fears of monstrous things that might happen (and do happen, but rarely), the wondrous things that happen as a matter of course are stripped away from them. For me, childhood roaming was what developed self-reliance, a sense of direction and adventure, imagination, a will to explore, to be able to get a little lost and then figure out the way back. I wonder what will come of placing this generation under house arrest.

Bob and Joss — lucky boys — DO get a chance to roam. Their story begins:

Bob was bored.

“I’m bored,” he said. “Let’s do something.”

“Let’s take a boat trip,” said Joss.

“No way,” said Bob.

“Why not?” asked Joss.

“We will get lost,” said Bob.

“We won’t get lost,” said Joss.

(page turn)

They got lost.

So their adventure begins.

Solnit quotes historian Aaron Sachs on the subject of explorers who, he says, ‘”…were always lost, because they’d never been to these places before. They never expected to know exactly where they were… [T]heir most important skill was simply a sense of optimism about surviving and finding their way.”‘ She continues “The question, then, is how to get lost,” because in getting lost “…lies a life of discovery.”

After only a few moments of enjoying their adventure in lost-ness, Bob and Joss have another exchange:

“We are lost!” cried Bob.

“We can’t be lost,” said Joss. “I know where I am.”

“You do?”

“Yes,” said Joss. “I’m here on a boat with you.”

Joss sounds an awful lot like the pioneer Daniel Boone, who Solnit also quotes: ‘”I never was lost in the woods in my whole life, though once I was confused for three days.”‘ Like many kids — and Boone — Joss is a natural explorer. Always chill behind his flop of surfer-dude hair, he maintains his sense of humor and his calm, enjoying the boys’ various encounters (save for one humanizing moment when he gets freaked out by a snail).

Bob: not so much. He wrings his hands and tugs at his hair, his eyes alternately bugging out and growing heavy-lidded with each new encounter. Bob has moments of childlike abandon (he is the one who introduces the excellent word “scuttlebutt” to the nautical part of the boys’ adventure), but he always returns to angst. Near the story’s end he has a small fit:

“I hate this place. There’s nothing here! No television, no video games, no books, no clocks, no toys, no cars, no paper, no pens, no chairs, no radio, no computers, no bikes, no peanut butter, no jelly. NOTHING!”

Kids getting lost can be really traumatic — though maybe moreso for parents than for most children, which stands to reason: the whole world is new and unknown to children. They spend a lot of their time just being where they are rather than knowing where they are, so the sensation is pretty familiar.

But poor Bob has trouble holding on to his inner child. He’s attached to his worldly comforts, and yet at story’s end, when he’s back with them again, he’s no longer lost but is nonetheless right where he began: bored — trapped between finding his comfort zone to be not-that-fun, and being unable to embrace getting out of it.

If Bob is lucky, maybe he’ll get lost a few more times and start to get the hang of it. Say, in a BOB & JOSS II?!

 

Find out more about Peter McCleery here. And for info on other 2017 debut picture book authors, check out Picture The Books.

Happy, Hope-y Book Birthday, BAT COUNT!

bc-cover

BAT COUNT — my debut picture book — is officially out TODAY!

I owe many thanks for help bringing this book into being: to supportive family, friends and colleagues; to the wonderful illustrator Susan Detwiler; and to the great folks at Arbordale Publishing.

I wrote BAT COUNT almost three years ago — before I learned that picture books are ‘supposed’ to be 500 words or less (BAT COUNT has almost 1000 words), and that ‘quiet’ books don’t sell. Happily its publisher, Arbordale, is committed to making books that support math and science education, and happily they are also interested in promoting the practice of citizen science. And so they found a place for BAT COUNT on their list.

Jojo, the story’s narrator, shares my worry about the many bats that are dying from white nose syndrome. Being a kid, though, she does NOT know that bats are just one among many species in rapid decline as human activity propels our planet deep into this new phase of mass extinctions known as “The Sixth Extinction“. I lose sleep over this stuff, and over the fact that the current U.S. administration believes in neither science nor global warming nor the fundamental tenets of Democracy, and so is not likely to work towards remedies.

So I feel a different sense of urgency, today, as BAT COUNT is finally being released: I want the book to introduce kids — and adults — to bats and their struggles, and I want it to encourage them to get involved in citizen science — this amazing combination of science and activism — and to learn more about our natural world, care more about it, and make good choices.

And, I want people to feel hope. Because alongside all my fear, like Jojo, I am hopeful. Hope buoys Jojo as she gets ready to count her bats, and hope is where the book ends.

Writing for kids is, ultimately, a hope-filled endeavor. Kate DiCamillo describes it, aptly, as “a ridiculous, wonderful, powerful thing.” It is the balloon that kidlit writers never let go of.

img_1722

When I need a dose of hope I sometimes retreat to central Pennsylvania with my family; the barn in this photo is where the bats that inspired BAT COUNT live. And I also do thingswrite, read, pen letters, sign petitions, and talk with people who see the world differently.

It is so important to have places — real and fictional, practical and metaphorical — to find and create hope, especially now. So please keep it up, whatever it is that you do!

And, thanks for stopping by.

You can find BAT COUNT on Amazon or order it through your local independent bookstore. In honor of BAT COUNT’s book birthday, I’m raffling off a signed copy — please leave a comment below or subscribe to Hmmmmm to enter!

 

 

PORTALS & PORTKEYS & BUNNY’S BOOK CLUB

Check out these two sentences: “Night after night, he could hardly sleep for wishing” and then “So, with a flashlight in his paws and hope in his heart, Bunny jumped out of bed and tiptoed through the dark.” Those are really nice sentences, right?

61z-ffsvaal-_ac_us200_

They are that much nicer when you know – from the four pages that precede them in Annie Silvestro’s debut picture book, BUNNY’S BOOK CLUB (illustrated by Tatjana Mai-Wyss) – that the thing keeping bunny up is BOOKS. Bunny loves books and wants more. He knows there are many to be had in the library, but is pretty sure animals aren’t allowed there by day, when it’s open. So out he heads for a little night-time reconnaissance.

Bunny tries everything to make his way into the building. To no avail. “Until finally he notice(s)… the book return.”

The book return! What kid doesn’t love a mail slot or, better yet, the book drop at the library? Those openings are magical little portals where you can make things disappear, sending them from one world to another. And the book return turns out to be Bunny’s perfect portal into the library — for himself.

img_6591

Getting into the library is just the beginning though. I won’t say more, other that that library cards figure in too. And if the book return is a portal, then the library card is a portkey – a magical object that transports you not just to the other side of a wall, but to worlds far away in space and time — worlds loaded with drama and intrigue and all manner of new and fascinating stuff.

It’s a big, awesome deal when a kid gets her first library card and can access those book-worlds on her own, and is not something that most little readers take lightly. BUNNY’S BOOK CLUB captures that moment beautifully. It is a book sure to delight bibliophiles of all ages.

as-headshot-v3

Annie Silvelstro’s BUNNY’S BOOK CLUB releases on February 7 with Doubleday Books for Young Readers — preorder it here!

Learn about more 2017  debut picture book authors and their books at Picture The Books.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A PICTURE BOOK DIVERSITY CONUNDRUM

white-people-do-something

Kara Springer’s new piece at Temple University’s Tyler School of Art. (image: http://streetsdept.com)

This morning I read a post over at Writers’ Rumpus focussing on what role non-marginalized writers can and should have in the diverse books movement. I’m a white woman writing picture books, and it is a question that I think about a lot.

My first picture book, BAT COUNT, is due out in spring of 2017, and a funny thing happened on the way to publication…

After the publisher bought it, they sent me an author questionnaire. It included a question asking for ideas about the book’s design. My first thought had to do with space — I really wanted there to be space on the pages: the story involves bats, and is set at dusk, and so space and sky felt important.

My second thought was: is there any reason that the characters have to be white?

Posing that question felt both obvious and a little uncomfortable, but it also felt worth asking. Really: just because I — like the majority of the kid lit world — am white, does that mean the characters have to be too? What I wrote, exactly, was:

Also: it would be interesting if the characters weren’t necessarily white. Environmental science fields are disproportionately populated by Caucasians, and it could be a good thing for kids of color to see kids who look like them getting involved in scientific inquiry.

The book is “ficinformational”: it is a reassuring bedtime story and also introduces kids to bats, White Nose Syndrome, and the practice of citizen science. What I wrote in my notes was what I believed, though looking back at those words now, I’m struck by their hesitation. “Interesting”, “weren’t necessarily” and “could be” – there’s serious discomfort there, right? And “Caucasian”?! How about “white”!

There was some white guilt at play, for sure. And some newbie anxiety: are authors allowed to offer this sort of input? And, too, the uncomfortable business of raising questions about race to publishers who I have never met and ultimately know very little about.

Fast forward to this April: I received the first sketches. When I opened the pdf my stomach did a huge flip-flop – not only from the thrill of seeing the story made visual, or because illustrator Susan Detwiler — also a white woman — had done SUCH beautiful drawings, but also because the publisher and she had run with that cautious suggestion: the book’s characters were black.

I panicked. Then I hit the phones and queried all my friends who think a lot about race and social justice – black, white and other – to share my doubts. Was the suggestion patronizing in the first place? Is it not my place to try to right the ship in this one small way?

Everyone was reassuring — but they all also know me. And they’re my friends.

The book goes to the printer in a month. Questions linger though, and new ones crop up. Does it make it more ok that I’m white since the book doesn’t address race or any culturally specific themes? Or: did I just slot black characters into a white world, in some sort of contorted version of black-face?

BAT COUNT, when it is out, will speak for itself in some measure. By some assessments it will seem like a good thing that the book features black characters. By others, it won’t. And still others won’t give it second thought. When I start spinning again on these issues — like I did this morning after reading that post — I sometimes find myself wishing I was in that latter camp and could feel less angst. But hard as these questions are, they are so important. And it’s great that so many people in the kid lit world are jumping in to embrace them.

#pb10for10 – HEART

pb-10-for-10-015-1-768x403

I just discovered #pb10for10 today, via TwoWritingTeachers. Out here in Central PA, I can’t peruse my own bookshelves for reminders, but I have been close-reading various picture books as a break from working on a middle grade project, so I’m in the groove and will happily jump in with 10 picture books I can’t live without. I’m shooting from the hip for this go-round, and my reasons are all over the place…

  1. PLAY WITH ME, Marie Hall Ets (1955/1976, Picture Puffins). This was my book as a kid. I was the youngest in a big, loud family, and this one never got passed down through the ranks: it was mine and only mine, and in its perfect, quiet way, it totally spoke to me – an introverted kid who loved the outdoors.
  2. CAPS FOR SALE, Esphyr Slobodkina (1940, W.R. Scott). Caps for Sale was the first book that clued me in – as an adult — to the amazing things that could happen between pages and to the magic of the page-turn. And what a page-turn that one, single page turn is!
  3. THIS IS NOT MY HAT, Jan Klassen (2012, Candlewick). LOTS of good page-turns here, and Klassen manages to communicate unimaginable depth with tiny adjustments to his fish’s eyes. Plus, that unreliable, self-rationalizing fish-narrator taps into behavior that’s both kid-like and totally human — and way under-appreciated for its hilarity.
  4. ANDREW HENRY’S MEADOW, Doris Burn (1965, Coward-McCann). An old-school picture book for sure, but I am obsessed with all types of kids’ play – especially what play geeks call ‘constructive play’. I love the world-making that Burn’s kids do in this book, and the dialed-in details of the kids’ obsessive creations. To my eye, Burns’ gorgeous ink work and brilliant use of white space rival Robert McCloskey’s in Blueberries for Sal. (Just ignore the dated gender-roles and stereotypes; it is worth the effort.)
  5. And for what they do with ‘imaginative play’, a couple of more recent favorites: THIS IS SADIE, Sara O’Leary and Julie Morstad (2015, Tundra Books). What a great collaboration — and what a voice. And also Joseph Kuefler’s BEYOND THE POND (2015, Balzer + Bray). Kuefler includes some perfect true-kid details and really fun turns of phrase, along with beautiful illustrations.
  6. CHARLIE PARKER PLAYED BE BOP, Chris Raschka (2004, Orchard – a board book; I think the original came out full-sized in 1997 with Scholastic). I have read the board book version of this book aloud hundreds of times.  The meanings of the words are not the point (though they do matter – hugely); their mouth-feel and rhythm and poetry — and, the way the page turns play in too — make reading this book like singing and listening to and helping make a rocking piece of music all at once. And kids just GET it. Raschka captures the feel of be bop perfectly.
  7. WAITING, Kevin Henkes (2015, Greenwillow). I love the life that Henkes imagines for these toys, and the invisible/implied any-child who is responsible for and loves them. And I love the way that the toys take in the simplest joys of being alive – in much the way their child might. Henkes’ illustrations and layouts are so quiet and so powerful.
  8. ELSIE PIDDOCK SKIPS IN HER SLEEP, Eleanor Farjeon, with illustrations by Charlotte Voake (2000, Candlewick – not sure where/how the text was originally published). This is another old-school, longer-format picture book, and a fantastic read-aloud. Again: incredible rhythm and great, lyrical story — with a sweet little dollop of communitarian politics on top.
  9. OWL MOON, Jane Yolen (1987, Philomel). For its lyrical language, for being about a beautiful quest and elemental relationship, and for capturing so many real emotions in the web of its pages.
  10. GRANDPA GREEN, by Lane Smith (2011, Roaring Brook Press). I lost my dad — an avid gardener — this year, so this one has a particular hold on me right now. It took repeat readings to get a handle on all that Smith has going on in this book as it paints it’s lovely portrait of a particular, imagined life — nearing its end — understood through the eyes and actions of a small child.

All these picture books so clearly GET and are relatable to kids in ways that – for one reason and another – resonate. And they are all loaded with HEART.

HUMOR and HEART were the themes of this summer’s Kidlit Summer School, so maybe this list can also serve as one more big shout out to the kidlit folk who put that great, motivating month together. Thanks Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen, Kami Kinard, Marcie Coleen, Dawn Young, and Leeza Hernandez!

ADVENTURES IN STOCKING A CHILDREN’S LIBRARY DIVERSELY (PART 1)

This winter I helped put together a list of picture books organized around the four seasons. The books will live at an organization I’m involved with, Smith Memorial Playhouse & Playground — one of those quirky, only-in-Philly, historic institutions that Philadelphia boosters love to tout as an example of what makes Philadelphia so great (which it does).

When Smith came into existence in 1899, it was a radical proposition. A mansion-sized playhouse? (16,000 s.f.) Set in a sprawling, wooded, urban park?! With a 6.5 acre playground!?! Open to ALL KIDS !?!? For free!?!?!

SmithFront hopamerica.com

Smith Playhouse (hopamerica.com)

At the turn of the last century, massive urbanization and child labor sparked new ideas about childhood and the importance of play, and the Playground Movement found great supporters in Richard and Sarah Smith, who built the place in memoriam to their late son, Stanfield.

Smith playground www.northstarmuseums.com Smith Slide mapofplay.kaboom.org

Smith remains a radical proposition today. Visitors still play there at no charge, and you find an amazing degree of socio-economic and racial diversity. Like the city’s public library system – which came into being in roughly the same period – Smith persists as a uniquely Democratic and public mixing-ground. The playhouse and playground serve children from every zip code in this city — plus lots of kids from outside Philly too.

SmithLibrary from www.run-hike-play.com

Smith Playhouse Library (photo: www.run-hike-play.com)

Inside the playhouse a small library occupies a sunny, corner room, offering adults and their charges respite from the hubbub and hosting regular story hours. The library has traditionally been stocked with donated, hand-me-down books. Those donated books are full of animals and able bodied, English-speaking white people. Thoughtful and generous though they are, the books don’t reflect the world that we live in, nor the diversity of families Smith serves: Philadelphia’s 1.5 million residents are 43% black, 41% white, 12% latino, and 6% asian; 26% of our population lives below the poverty line (24K/year for a family of 4). When kids play at Smith, they rub elbows with children from all walks.

(For a super-eloquent argument as to why this state of affairs simply isn’t ok, check out the late Walter Dean Myers’ 2014 NY Times Opinion piece.)

***

Smith’s setting in a wooded, urban park has long been part of its draw and, in keeping with the ideas of the Nature Play Movement, Smith has lately been doing great work expanding its offerings of nature based play (see here and here).

Staff decided to begin stocking the library more intentionally in conjunction with these initiatives, focussing, for starters, on the seasons. Purchasing new books also presented the opportunity to diversify the collection, and including more African American authors and characters became a logical, first focus.

Smith New Nature Play Area

Smith’s new Nature Explore nature play area (photo courtesy of Smith/Zoe Hillengas)

But finding a range of books that are seasonal in some way or another, and also feature African American characters, has been an uphill battle. I have found some wonderful titles, but not enough.

For WINTER, Ezra Jack Keats’ iconic Peter loomed large – a historic figure in the diversification of children’s books. But beyond that, I only found a few cold-season titles.

SnowyDayKeats

51m2i3WyFRL._SY462_BO1,204,203,200_ snow-6-cover1-340x350

SUMMER offered the greatest bounty.

ChickenChasinQueenbeachtail ComeOnRain hotdayonabbott Juneteenth for Mazie MyBestFriend OneHotSummerDay Shortcut SummerSunRisin Summertime TarBeach TwentyYawns

For SPRING, a handful of African American book-kids (or African American authors) plant street trees, grow gardens and splash in the rain. But again, not enough.

IfYouPlantASeed RainFeet TheRainStomper

WePlantedATree Eve Bunting Flower Garden

And FALL seemed to be the season where black folks are most scarce (though you’d think more people would be hanging out on stoops and in yards and in parks, enjoying the cool fall air after the brutal heat of the summer that is recounted in so many of the SUMMER books featuring African Americans.). FALL truly, nearly broke me.

51SVW44CMJL._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_A Leaf

Books about the seasons are just one sliver of what’s out there, but seasons are a popular theme in the early childhood world. And in any case, I’m pretty sure that my struggle would repeat with any other thematically organized list as well — unless that list focussed on Africa, discrimination, civil rights, or slavery.

Having so few books to choose from means that a narrow, limited story is being told. During my search, I became hyper-aware of the boundary between books that are culturally sensitive and books that – in the absence of a broader selection of titles and range of stories — reinforce misguided or stereotyped ideas about what it might mean to be African American.

I hope that someone will comment, telling me I’ve missed a huge trove — that I need to know about this or that author or publisher who I’ve completely overlooked. Or, will at least offer up a few more titles. Meanwhile: let’s keep working to write, publish, buy and share with children MORE DIVERSE BOOKS. And, of course, support #weneeddiversebooks.

***

The list is now in the hands of the generous and wonderful Children’s Book World, where books will be sitting at the check-out counter with a sign asking willing patrons to add the purchase price of one or two to their order on Smith’s behalf. If you shop there, please indulge (or call in a purchase!). And if you’re local and you don’t know CBW: check it out. The Philadelphia region is so lucky to have a great indie bookstore devoted specifically to children’s books!

COPYING OTHER PEOPLE’S BOOKS

Sounds like flat-out plagiarism, right? And it would be, if you were trying to pass the words off as your own. But that’s not what I’m talking about.

Somewhere along the journey of thinking and reading and writing about children’s books, I discovered this practice that I find oddly instructive: I copy other people’s books. I don’t do it all the time — it’s an activity I save for picture books that grab me for one reason or another, or that raise some particular question or quandary. But I do do it regularly, and I highly recommend it. (With today’s diminishing word counts in picture books, it’s never a massive undertaking.)

ThisIsSadie waterISwater

... a few of my recent quarries...

(… a few of my recent quarries…)

Once I decide I’m going to copy a book, this is what I do.

First, I get to know the book better: I read it a few more times, a little more slowly and attentively than before. Then, I sit down in front of my computer or my notebook (either is good), go page by page, and re-type or re-write the whole text.

I number the spreads as I go, and break the lines up where the author/illustrator/book-designer breaks them. I use symbols to show where text chunks are separated on the page, and where they are split across the two pages. If the author uses bubble text or plays with the text graphically, I communicate that too. And: I write my own illustration notes.

Pretty simple.

Studying ‘mentor texts’ or ‘precedent books’ or just plain old ‘books you love’ is a great learning tool. Adding in ‘copying’ or ‘rewriting’ can take that pursuit to a whole new level, revealing all sorts of subtleties you otherwise might not see. There’s something about the process of having to write everything down and spell it out for myself that makes me look closer and see more. Sometimes when I’m finished I look back at what I’ve typed up, but often I don’t. Its one of those process things, where just doing it is usually more valuable than the product.

I suppose the next step would be to dummy the books too — although making a dummy of a book that you already have in your hands somehow seems even weirder than rewriting that book. Re-dummying could prove to be just as revealing — or maybe not. It might just make you feel like a human copy-machine, since it doesn’t entail the same kind of dissection.

But still: it might be worth a try.