Reining in Picture Book Back Story


May has been a crazy month — so much so that I forgot to link here to a guest-post I did mid-month over at the EPA-SCBWI blog on back story in picture books.

June: please be a little bit calmer!



A Desk Homecoming

I am sitting at my desk today, writing, for the first time in three months. I thought I would be spending the morning at PT but it turns out I read my calendar wrong — which only makes the fact that I am here, with extra work time, that much sweeter.

My desk lives in my office (aka guest room), at the back of the third floor of our corner row house. It shares this top level with my daughters’ bedrooms. The desk is situated partway into the bay that projects off the rear of the room so that when I sit, my back is to the bay’s three windows and I face out into the small room and can see through the door to the space of the rest of the third floor and house.


This morning, sun throws my shadow onto the desk from behind and warms my shoulders, and if I look out the side window I can see the first of the three Okame Cherries that we planted along the side of the house when we moved here 11 years ago and that — despite the indignities perpetrated weekly on their branches by the trash and recycling trucks that wedge their way down our narrow, 19th century side-street — has managed to extend its reach up past the level of the second floor ceiling and into my view. Its deep pink blossoms began to open yesterday, starting at the bottom of the tree and working their way up. Finches and sparrows will soon gather in the glow and pluck the flowers off one by one. I am certain they congregate mainly on this tree because of the feeders that share its pit, but I have never figured out what, if anything, they take from the buds — nectar? droplets of water? On bad days I assume that it is just their way of passing the time and ungraciously thumbing their beaks at me, their feeder. The seed ran out a week ago though, so maybe this year the birds will forget us and let the blooms stay suspended a bit longer before ceding to gravity on their own as they make way for new leaves. Honestly, though, I may just bask in glow of the pink shadow that the plucked blossoms form on the pavement beneath the tree, and laugh.

Since January 6 — D-day for my podiatric post-op nightmare — I have written. Just not here. Life ground almost immediately to a halt when my foot literally exploded, and though I gradually got back to work I wrote first from my lap in bed, later from my lap on the couch and, once calluses developed on the heels of my hands and tendonitis in my right elbow (oh, the palimpsest of indignities), from an adjustable, portable lap desk in the den armchair.


My old friend Liz has just begun penning a poem a day for National Poetry Month, all prompted by things you would find on/in a desk, and she offhandedly asked friends and colleagues to share photos if inspired. My desk, not surprisingly — and like many other lateral surfaces in my house — has achieved peak accumulation during its extended vacation. To wit, here is what greeted me and my laptop from the center of the desk when we arrived this morning (to address the periphery, too, would take all day so I won’t): a mailing announcing that Cricket’s Odyssey and Muse magazines have merged, atop a copy of Ann Lamott’s Bird By Bird, atop a journal, atop an article about South Korea’s haneyeo or “sea women”, atop an SCBWI Bulletin atop, a North Creek Nursery plant catalog; a grey-black, river-washed stone with a stripe of white through its center, aka ‘the ice cream sandwich’; a Cornell Lab of Ornithology flyer on Citizen Science plus two packs of their ‘Celebrate Urban Birds’ Lemon Queen Sunflower Seeds, together bridging the white envelope they came in with a drawing of an un-named animal by a colleague’s 3-year old daughter on a pink sheet of paper beneath, plus a Vaccine Information Statement about HPV that partly covers my daughter’s cartoon of a ladybug who lives in an avocado; a pin cushion; a gravity-driven, perambulating cast-plastic (and hand painted) Moomintroll; a roll of trace on top of two mock-ups of my nine year-old’s whale and dolphin valentine (“Whale you be my valentine?” “Dolphinately!”); a pile of more native plant nursery catalogues, over a small sketch of one of my older daughter’s Schroth Method exercises; a wool, felted bullseye pin-cushion; and a lacquered, Russian, khokhloma cup that is home to all things long and thin (rulers, eraser brush, flags, pens, pencils, scissors).

The clutter would at other times feel oppressive — a reminder of so many things un-done and the persistent and ignored need to purge. But today my desk is better for the whole mess of it. All this flotsam and jetsam — so easily slid to the side — tells me that the current presses on, and I am so thankful to be easing back into it.

Pitch sessions?


As a week of relaxing in central PA with my brother and his family nears its end, a small rumble has begun in my belly. I have to prepare for a “pitch session”. Would that such a thing involved baseballs — or the plastic wiffle balls that have been flying up here this week. But no.

This weekend (June 28-29) I attend the NJ-SCBWI 2014 Conference. At the 2014 SCBWI Winter Conference in New York I met two NJ-SCBWI chapter coordinators — Leeza Hernandez and Karen Romagna — whose infectious good spirits left me with a resolve that, despite having lived in the Garden State for just one single, challenging, post-college year, many years ago, I would find a way to tap into their group’s great resources and energy.

The NJ crew has organized an impressive and packed schedule. As part of it, every attendee is offered a free “pitch session” with an agent or editor who has generously made him/herself available for the weekend. While I so appreciate the opportunity, I also find it a bit unsettling. If there is one thing that I am not, it is a saleswoman — and to the degree that I ever do learn to sell, I anticipate being much more effective in writing than in person.

The pre-conference materials, while otherwise incredibly thorough, don’t seem to offer any tips. Out here in the blogosphere, though, pitch session pointers occur in clusters of seven. Peggy Eddelman offers her septet in Writers’ Digest, and the variously AKAed Jennifer Lawler offers another heptad on her blog. Kerrie Flanagan’s seven show up at And, finally, Sue Fagalde Lick provides a mere four at (but she gets extra credit for the agent interviews she folds in).

When you’re nervous about something, a little hole-poking snark is generally good for easing tension, and my favorite post — for this ignoble reason — was this rant from Literary Agent Janet Reid. (No sevens here.) Reid argues that there are other, better ways for authors and agents to interact at conferences. She writes of vomiting authors and cringing agents, and she calls the sessions ‘the spawn of Satan’.

This being the second writing conference I’ve ever attended, and the first pitch session I’ll try, I can’t really weigh in on the subject. I don’t anticipate vomit, though some cringe wouldn’t totally surprise me.


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.