May 12, 2015

Magic Tree House Books - Truly Magical!

As a kid, I didn't have a tree house but I always thought it would be cool to play in one. There's even a show out now called "Tree House Masters" on Animal Planet  - what a way to make a living!

But imagine one day walking through the woods and discovering a tree house high up in a tree. You climb up the rope ladder to find the tree house filled with books of all kinds. When you point to a picture and wish to go there, the wind starts to blow...
The tree house stars to spin.
It spins faster and faster.
Then everything is still.
Absolutely still.
And you are transported to another time and place.

Well thanks to  Mary Pope Osborne, you can journey in that magical tree house, too.

I've always enjoyed reading "Magic Tree House" books with my students and stepsons over the years. I introduced the books to my son Alonzo last year when he was in Kindergarten and we read up through book 19 (and have since skipped around to other books in the series). I'm starting to reread many of the MTH books now to get inspired as I write my own chapter book series - no details to share yet.

The MTH series began in 1992 and is still going strong. There are currently 51 "Magic Tree House" books in the series. In addition, there are 28 Fact Trackers which are nonfiction companions to the fiction titles. You can read "Magic Tree House" books in print form, as ebooks, and as audio books narrated by Mary Pope Osborne herself.  There are also the "Merlin Missions", which is a series of MTH books with longer text and higher reading level geared toward older readers.

 "Magic Tree House" is THE number one chapter book series out there, in my opinion, 
for many reasons:

First, the characters - Jack and Annie - are very age appropriate for the target readers. The series is perfect for children who are on the tail end of reading picture books but not quite ready for middle grade novels. My son was six years old when he started. Although Amazon has them listed for ages 8-12 (grades 3-7) I feel kids as young as 6 or 7 could start reading these books, if not alone then with an adult.

Second, the sentence structure is simple yet complex enough to be challenging. The text and dialogue flow from page to page and make each book an engaging fast read. Most of the books in the series have 10-12 short chapters and are around 100 pages. And each chapter ends with some type of cliff hanger or interesting sentence to make you want to turn the page.

Also, while every book tells its own story,  each book connects to the others in some way. For example, every 3-4 books will connect to a larger story, such as Jack and Annie having to find multiple items or clues to break a spell. There are prologues in each book explaining what happened in previous books to remind the readers where they left off. And Jack and Annie will often reference previous stories to further remind readers about their adventures and how the current story relates or connects. (i.e. They're riding on a helicopter over an earthquake stricken town in China and say "Remember when we rode on the helicopter to Antarctica?"). This is so important when writing a series.

Third, the illustrations are placed throughout the books to help readers visualize the text. They also help to break up the text to ease that transition from picture books to novels.

And last but not least, each book deals with some type of historical event or topic that takes readers to another time and place. It's done in such a creative way to not only delight readers but teach them something about history, culture, and geography, among other topics.

Oh, and did I mention there is a magic librarian named Morgan le Fey who asks Jack and Annie to help her break magic spells, solve mysteries and riddles, and save ancient stories from being lost forever?

How cool is that??

I'm glad that my son is only seven years old now and still has plenty of Magic Tree House books left to read with me - and to me. Then again, I'm 43 and am still reading the books. I don't think Magic Tree House books will ever get old - or will ever lose their magic!

April 28, 2015

How Do Dinosaurs Say We Love Jane Yolen?

Zo's official logo
My seven-year-old son Alonzo is so into dinosaurs. He started getting the dino itch about a year ago and hasn't stopped loving them since! He even has his own website called where he shows off his 112 dino drawings and gives some facts for people to learn about the different prehistoric species.

When I was a kid, I was into dinosaurs, too. But I remember learning about only 5-6 species of dinos. Today there are over 500 different named dinosaurs - and my son probably knows most of them!

So for this blog post, in honor of National Poetry month AND my junior paleontologist son Alonzo, I'm going to focus on Jane Yolen and her dinosaur picture books.

Ah! A T-Rex!
When Alonzo discovered Jane Yolen's dinosaur picture books, he was immediately hooked. And so was I. What's fabulous about Jane Yolen's books is that they are simple, eye-catching, and involve topics that are relevant to children. Not to mention she has a fabulous illustrator in Mark Teague who's been able to teach children about different dinosaurs while showing what dinosaurs would be like if they acted like children. And if you're an illustrator, you'll want to study Mark Teague's illustrations - he is one of THE best children's book illustrators out there. You can learn so much about composition, movement, expression, color, etc. from his work.

Each of the books begins with a question in the title and the first few spreads also ask the reader questions - what would a dinosaur do in a given situation? Would they spit out half-chewed broccoli when they ate their food? Would they stick beans up their nose? Would they be a playground bully if they went to school? Would they stomp and throw a tantrum to hear one more book before bedtime? Then about 2/3 of the way in, Yolen flips the script, and says no, dinosaurs are good, just like you little readers. She then, in her simple rhyming format, tells the readers what good dinosaurs would do in those situations - eat all their food, kiss their mom and dad goodnight, treat others nicely at school.
Here are some of the great titles in the dinosaur book series:

So for all your little dinosaur lovers out there, like my son Alonzo, I highly recommend you introduce them to Jane Yolen's books. They'll not only read some wonderful books in verse, but they can learn to act like good little dinosaurs do.

April 19, 2015

Celebrating Poetry Month with Shel Silverstein

The Academy of American Poets started National Poetry Month in 1996. It's held every April and is celebrated with schools, publishers, libraries, booksellers, and poets all over the world. I was not an avid reader as a child, but one thing I did love to read and write was poetry. And still do to this day.

One of my favorite children's book writers of poetry is Shel Silverstein. I remember reading so many of his books when I was a kid. Probably my favorite collection of his work is "Where the Sidewalk Ends", published in 1974. It opens with this great poem:
If you are a dreamer, come in,
If you are a dreamer, a wisher, a liar,
A hope-er, a pray-er, a magic bean buyer . . .
If you’re a pretender, come sit by my fire
For we have some flax-golden tales to spin.
Come in!
Come in!
For someone who didn't really like to read as a child, Silverstein's words felt welcoming, comforting as if he was saying, "It's okay. You can trust me. You'll like my poems. You'll want to read more. I won't let you down."

Who can forget these incredible works of word and art, too.

In every book, I really felt like Silverstein was inviting me into his world of imagination. I felt like every time I opened one of his books I would find something new to read or see. His poems were every kind  - silly, fun, weird, strange, touching and most of all inspiring. His illustrations were so simple and funny. They added a great deal to each poem. I'm usually drawn to colors in paintings, books, and just about everything. But there's something about Silverstein's books being in just black and white that are eye-catching, special and unique. 
Out of all Silverstein's books, though, by far the one that caught my heart the most is "The Giving Tree." I tear up each time I read it. It's a masterpiece that you need to pick up every so often to be reminded how important it is to give to others and to evaluate your capacity to love.

So this April, I encourage you to take a look at Shel Silverstein's work. Browse his website where there are lots of resources for teachers and parents to share his poetry, specifically for National Poetry month and beyond. As for me, I'll be going to the library and checking out all of Silverstein's books, starting with a special edition of "Falling Up" that has a few never before released poems - like this one called "The Poet Tree"

Underneath the poet tree
Come and rest awhile with me
And watch the way the word web weaves
Between the shady story leaves.

The branches of the poet tree
Reach from the mountains to the sea.
So come and sit...and dream...and climb--
Just don't get hit by falling rhymes.

Thanks for the invite, Shel. I plan on reading your books with my son, hoping that he'll grow up to love you as much as I do.

March 31, 2015

Shhh! Don't Say a Word

Last time, I wrote a post about picture books with very low word counts. I mean, really low.

But how low is low?

How about ZERO!

That's right, the infamous wordless book.

There are some author/illustrators who are fantastic at making beautiful picture books with no words, or barely any words. They let their images do the talking. They put clues in the images to help tell the story and allow readers to interpret the images, and thus the story, in their own way.

Do you have to be an illustrator to write a wordless book? Of course it helps, but no. It's not a requirement. But you do have to think of what story the images can tell without using text and convey that idea in clear but concise illustration notes. 

My favorite illustrator to write wordless books has to be David Weisner.

Probably Weisner's most famous books is "Tuesday." It's a Caldecott Medal book about strange events that happen on a Tuesday. It all begins when frogs flying on lily pads invade a small town. They soar through a woman’s living room, encounter a dog playing in the yard, and grab the attention of a man in his bathrobe enjoying a midnight snack. The attention to detail, the perspectives, the progression of images in panels on some of the spreads, and the color to give that sense of nighttime is just ingenious.

Another one of Weisner's masterpieces is "Floatsam", again a Caldecott book. In this story, a boy who loves science goes to the beach to collect and examine flotsam (which is anything floating that has been washed ashore). He finds various objects, like bottles and lost toys. But when he finds a barnacle-encrusted underwater camera, we see him discover something more - a story in the pictures from the camera. The book goes full circle at the end when the boy throws the camera back into the ocean, and Weisner draws another child reaching for it as it washes up on shore.

Here are some more fabulous books by the great David Weisner:

There are many other wordless / near wordless books, both past and present, on the market including these gems:

And here's a list of more wordless/low count books at Goodreads.

Have you noticed how many of these books have won awards? Now that's saying something!

March 16, 2015

How Low Can You Go?

I’m sure everyone at some point in their life has participated in a limbo contest, to see how low you can contort your body below a pole until you fall on the floor. (I could never win those contests - I always had to duck under.)

When it comes to children’s books, we writers and illustrators have to play a game of "word count limbo" all the time. "How low can you make your word count go?" Many children’s books today have much lower word counts than books written during my childhood. Many publishers are now looking for books written in 500 words or less, and lately more are asking for 300 or less.

How in the world do you tell a story with only 300 words?

The trick is to figure out the “bones” of your story. What words do you REALLY need to get your story across?

Take the book “Gravity” by Jason Chin, for example. (No, it’s not a retelling of the Sandra Bullock movie.) It’s a picture book with only 7 sentences made up of 62 words.

How is that possible??

Well, the illustrations “do the rest of the talking.” The images are magnificently drawn, showing a book that falls to Earth and lands in front of a boy playing at the beach with his toys. Suddenly, as the text starts to explain that gravity is the force that holds things down on Earth, the boy’s toys and snacks float into the air and out into space. The book is filled with beautiful pleasing-to-the-eye illustrations with incredible perspectives. The size and placement of the text also changes to help emphasize the concept of gravity, with letters getting smaller or larger or floating away like the objects in the pictures. And in the back of the book, there is a reference spread of facts and additional illustrations to further explain the force of gravity. The book is a perfect example of creative non-fiction that explains scientific facts while applying those concepts to images of events children could understand while using the least amount of text possible.

On the fictional side, Jeff Mack is a genius when it comes to writing a book with very few words and cute, funny illustrations that also help to tell the story. His books like “Ah Ha!” and “Good News Bad News” are wonderful examples of how you can use barely any words while allowing readers to interpret more of the underlying story or concept through the illustrations.

In one of my previous posts, I highlighted Raul Colón's wordless picture book "DRAW!" At a conference workshop, he showed us his original book dummy that included text along with his incredible illustrations. In the end, the editors thought the pictures told the entire story so well the text wasn't even needed. Zero words - can't get any lower than that!

So if you’re a picture book writer, the next time you sit down to write a story think about this: What words do you really need to tell this story? Could a sentence or paragraph (or entire text) be shown in the illustrations instead?

If you're an illustrator, what can you show in the illustrations that can take the place of some of the text and help move the story along?

And if you’re a parent, librarian, or teacher, try to find books to read to and with children that allow them to uncover “the second story” in the illustrations. It will not only add more to the reading experience, it will teach readers to pay attention, listen, and interpret information themselves.

I may never win the limbo contest at the next wedding I attend, but for me the only limbo pole I’m concerned with today is the low word count one – and I'm ready to get down!

March 4, 2015

Happy Seuss-Day!

March 2nd is Dr. Seuss's birthday, and each year classrooms and libraries celebrate with reading festivals and activities. We brought our son to the annual "Seussfest" at our local library - he had a blast petting animals, making crafts, dancing, and of course reading.

Everybody knows that Dr. Seuss (aka Theodore Geisel) was a genius when it came to rhyming. He had his own unique structure that no one has been able to replicate. He could write an entire book using less than 100 words in different combinations while still maintaining humor and a strong plot. But more importantly, he was able to infuse sight words and phonics in a creative way to help kids learn how to read and learn to LOVE to read.

So for me, as a writer and illustrator of children's books as well as a teacher and a parent, Dr. Seuss will forever be one of my biggest inspirations.

I will forever love his quirky characters - the Lorax, the Grinch, Thing 1 & Thing 2, Horton, Sam I Am, and of course The Cat in the Hat, to name a few.

I will forever admire his unique illustration style and continue to aspire to find my own easily recognized style.

I will forever love to say the crazy names and words he came up with - zizzer-zazzer-zuzz, fiffer-feffer-feff, thingamajigger, sneetch, yertle, thidwick, among others.

I will wait with anticipation to read the newest Dr. Seuss book, "What Pet Should I Get?" - due out in July!

And I will forever be inspired by some of his most memorable quotes:

Which Dr. Seuss book is your favorite? Leave a comment below!

February 6, 2015

A Conference to Remember

Every person dreams about meeting someone famous. Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think I would meet one of my favorite illustrators, the incredibly talented Raul Colón. But just three weeks ago, my dream came true !

I remember when our SCBWI Florida regional advisor posted on facebook that Raul Colón was going to be at our conference this past January. I wanted to make sure it was the real Raul Colón and not some author or editor or agent with the same name that I didn't know about. So I asked "Do you mean the famous illustrator Raul Colón?" And she said, "Of course! The one and only." I go to the winter conferences in Miami every year, but this year I knew it was going to be special. And what a conference it was!

First, I had the pleasure of picking up  Raul Colón and his lovely wife Edie from the airport to drive them to the conference hotel. We got to chat a lot about his career and his books, as well as his wife's career as an ESL teacher (which we have in common) and her book "Goodbye, Havana. Hola, New York!" that Raul illustrated.

My son Alonzo also came along for the ride - this photo is one I will make sure he hangs on his wall.
Raul and Alonzo

The first children's book Raul illustrated.
Why do I love Raul so much? Not just because he's a nice person but he produces some of the most beautiful illustrations you'll ever see. About 5 years ago, I came across a book called "Always My Dad" - it immediately caught my attention, not just because of the title and theme of the book but the illustrations were striking. I knew right then and there I would be a fan of Raul.

I learned that Raul mainly uses Prismacolor colored pencils over watercolor washes and then adds some line and shadow with a wax pencil, or China marker. He'll also use an etching tool to make scratches on the paper or in the colored pencils to produced a beautiful and unique texture in his drawings.

(However, for his newest book "Draw!" he used colored pencil directly on colored paper. 
Look how vibrant the colors are.)

His illustrations are easily recognizable because of his original, signature style. And they are truly works of art. 

So if meeting Raul wasn't awesome enough, I also got to pick up Laurent Linn, the Art Director for Simon and Schuster, from the airport (of course while wearing my Wonder Woman shirt to give me the power to do all I had to get done hours before the conference.) All I can say is that everything that you hear about Laurent is true - he's handsome, he's funny, he's sweet, and when it comes to designing and creating books he knows his stuff!

Laurent and me!
On the first day of the conference, I attended an illustrator intensive with Laurent and Raul where we got mini critiques on our strongest and weakest illustrations in our portfolios. Then we learned about their collaboration on Raul's wordless book "Draw!" I shouldn't even call this book a book - it's really a masterpiece. Just look at some of these illustrations.

Raul explained how as a child he had chronic asthma and had to stay indoors and home from school quite often. So he got to draw a lot, which is how he got the inspiration for the character in the book. It starts off with a boy in bed drawing African animals who then starts imagining he's actually in Africa. He makes friends with an elephant and travels around Africa drawing and interacting with all kinds of animals.

 It will definitely inspire your creative side - maybe when you're still wearing your pajamas!

Alonzo gets inspired to "Draw!"
Then on Sunday, I took both Raul's and Laurent's workshops. I learned so much about the illustration process, materials and methods, and developing an illustration style. Laurent showed some great examples of how you can have different styles depending on the markets - educational, mass market, or trade. It was helpful to know that the publishing industry has room for all kinds of styles.

Raul and me!
Meeting Raul and Laurent was truly one of the highlights of my illustration career, and one that I will always treasure and remember!