A blog for parents, teachers, writers and illustrators.

January 20, 2015

How I Became the Lunch Lady for a Day

Bottom row, second from right holding "The Hero in You"

Happy New Year everyone! This past weekend I attended the SCBWI Florida conference in Miami - my 12th one! I was on the first books panel talking about how my two books published this year came to be. It was great to be on the panel with such amazingly, talented writers. What an exciting time.

Me dressed as the Lunch Lady, a character from Jarrett Krosoczka's graphic novels

On Saturday, we had our masquerade ball with the theme being "Heroes vs. Villains." Being a big fan of Jarrett Krosoczka, I chose to dress up as the crime-fighting Lunch Lady from his graphic novels. I even had fish stick nunchucks, chicken nugget bombs to throw, a bananarang, and a spatu-copter. I was one of 5 finalists in the costume party but didn't win any prize. Someone needs to have a chicken nugget bomb thrown in their face for that! Just kidding.

Jarrett Krosoczka
Speaking of Jarrett, I have many favorite illustrators, but to me he incorporates everything you'd want in an author and illustrator for kids - simple yet colorful illustrations, funny dialogue, kid-friendly concepts, and most of all humor.

 Whether he's writing about a boy who wears a bag on his head, a slug that becomes your friend, a crime fighting lunch lady, or a punk band of farm animals, Jarrett knows the formula to entertain kids.

Jarrett has written and illustrated all kinds of books - picture books, graphic novels, chapter books, and short stories. I recently read, "Must. Push. Buttons" his newest illustrated book written by Jason Good. It's told from a toddler's point of view as he blurts out all the things that are running through his head while trying to find anything that has buttons he can push. The words and pictures work perfectly together but the expressions on the toddler's face are priceless.

On my last trip to the library, I picked up a copy of Jarrett's "Lunch Lady" graphic novel, book 1. It's about a lunch lady who fights crime at her school using typical cafeteria superhero weapons, such as a Spatula-copter, chicken nugget bombs, fish stick nunchucks, and a bananarang, a banana that works like a boomerang. The book is illustrated in black and white with just highlights of yellow throughout which contrasts Jarrett's normal use of bright saturated colors in his picture books. But it works. The way Jarrett has broken down each page into frames using different perspectives and angles, speech bubbles and sound bursts, and humorous characters is ingenious.

But Jarrett isn't just a fabulous author/illustrator. He is an amazing public speaker. I truly enjoyed hearing about his path to success during his TED-x talk. He even talks about how real lunch ladies are truly heroes for all they do for kids and has sparked a national Lunch Hero Day coming up on May 1st. He's also conducted some great interviews himself with other authors, such as Bob Shea, on "The Book Report." His blog is a great one to follow, too. He's super funny and a great read.

So if you or your child or students are looking for a good laugh with some super cute and funny illustrations, I highly recommend getting hooked on Jarrett Krosoczka's books. And maybe someday you'll have a chance to dress up as the lunch lady - or another one of Jarrett's awesome characters - like me.

January 19, 2015

Remembering the Dream

Today is the celebration of the life and work of a great man, Martin Luther King, Jr. And there are plenty of books out there recognizing his, and others', accomplishments, as well as ones about civil rights. Here are just a few:

Dr. King's dream dealt with eradicating racism and segregation at the time, but we still need to remember his dream today, including in publishing. He dreamed of children of all races and colors being able to go to school and play and eat together. On a related level, we can apply this dream to publishing as well - wouldn't it be nice to see more children of all different colors and races represented in books more often? Yes, there has been an increase and improvement in this area, but the presence of children of color is still not as strong as it should be in children's books that are non-cultural or non-historical in nature. Publishers need to publish books with characters of color in every day situations, not just ones about their cultural history or practices.

For the books that I illustrated last year, both publishers told me they chose me because of the diverse characters that I draw in my illustrations. Many publishers say they're looking for more books with diverse characters, but the number of those books actually published is still not high enough. There is a need and a want out there - so it's also up to us writers and illustrators to start producing good, high quality work with characters of color so we can help make diversity a norm in children's books.

One organization trying to change that is We Need Diverse Books. They are working very hard to bring this topic to the forefront of the conversation in the publishing world as well as in movies and other forms of media.

So the next time you have an idea for writing or illustrating a story, ask yourself if you are making your characters too stereotypical or not diverse enough. After all, we live in a diverse world. Shouldn't our stories finally start to reflect that?

December 24, 2014

The Ghosts of Christmas

Around this time of year, I always love to watch (and re-watch) holiday movies, and of course read (and re-read) holiday books. Even though there are new releases both in print and film each year, my heart is always drawn to the classics, like "Rudolph" and "The Year Without a Santa Clause" (Heat Miser and Snow Miser rule!). And who can pass up watching "A Christmas Story" and "It's a Wonderful Life" - I cry every time!

But surely no holiday season would be complete without reading the classic Charles Dickens tale "A Christmas Carol." In my opinion, this book has one of the best opening lines and paragraphs ever written:

Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it. And Scrooge's name was good upon 'Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail. 

More on first lines/pages and hooks in a future post...

While thinking about "A Christmas Carol" and how three ghosts visited old Ebenezer Scrooge, I started thinking of my Christmas past, present and future.

Christmas Past:

At this time last year, I was busy working on the final art for "The Hero in You" written by Ellis Paul and "My Body Belongs to Me" by Jill Starishevsky - my first two published books as an illustrator. As busy as I was, I did take Christmas off to enjoy it with my family, but the next day I was right back to the illustrations.

Two book deals in one year? Not too shabby.

Christmas Present:
This December, I was working on the final illustration for the SCBWI Tomie dePaola Award. In August, I found out that of about 200 entries, I was chosen as a semi-finalist! In September we received the prompt for the final round. I'm not sure I can publicly post the prompt before the winner is chosen, so there will be updates on my illustration and the contest results in a later post.

Riding on cloud 9 at this point!

Christmas Yet to Come:
Hopefully December 2015 will not be as bleak and scary for me as Scrooge's vision of his future Christmas was.

I wonder... by this time next year will I be illustrating another book? Or will a book that I've written be under contract? Will I have another agent who will be helping me improve my skills and be aggressively submitting my work?

Or will the Grim Reaper be pointing me down a dark, lonely path leading to the death of my career?

Only time will tell. 

One thing we can learn from Dickens, and Scrooge, though, is that it's never too late to make a change. You can proactively do things now to ensure your future is bright - write and draw every day, study published books, regularly participate in critique groups, build your portfolio, send out promotional postcards, submit your stories. The contracts and work won't come to you - you have to work hard to earn them.

So here's to a happy holiday season and a productive year for all of us who aspire to be published in the future - whether for the first time or the next time! 

December 15, 2014

Add a Little Texture with Denise Fleming

Boy, time has flown. I can't believe Christmas is ten days away and Hanukkah starts tomorrow! But more than that I can't believe it's been a month since my last post - between work, a few illustration contests, and getting some manuscripts ready for critiques at an upcoming SCBWI conference, life has been a bit nuts. But now it's time to get back on track.

This month I'm going to talk about textures in illustrations which I love to do with my own drawings. Adding texture helps to avoid illustrations looking too flat. Now, some illustrators like Bob Shea and Mo Willems create illustrations that are flat in color with no shading or highlights, such as the Pigeon or Dinosaur books. But those flat illustrations work because of the type of characters they've created for simple texts for younger readers.

For me, I like to get a sense that I can touch or feel an illustration. Maybe it's because I'm drawn to pastel and charcoal drawings, or perhaps it's my love for collage and using fabrics to sew and create art that I like things with patterns, brush strokes, or rougher edges. Again, all art is subjective, right?

One illustrator that embodies the idea of textures is Denise Fleming. If you're not familiar with her work, you need to be. She writes a lot of concept books as well as books with short, simple texts for young readers.

She uses an amazing technique for illustrating books - she actually makes her illustrations out of paper pulp! First she comes up with rough sketches. Then she creates her own stencils out of Styrofoam trays and pushes paper pulp through a screen. She then has to remove the moisture from the paper by using a machine that sucks the water out of it.

I can't do the explanation justice, so here is a video on YouTube of her talking about her process. It's incredible how many steps are involved and just how beautiful her pieces come out. And it's amazing to me how she manages to have effective compositions and perspectives while using this very complicated but magical illustrating technique. There's no one else in children's books who does illustrations like Denise and I hope she continues making wonderful books for many more years to come.

Here are some more examples of her amazing work. The next time you're looking to read a book with your children or students, consider choosing one of Denise Fleming's books. Study her layouts, her perspectives, her color choices, and her texture. I think you'll find yourself choosing more than one of her books to read and study!


November 11, 2014

Funny, Loveable, Memorable Characters

The children's book world is full of characters - LOTS of different kinds. From funny to sweet to mischievous to loveable, there's a character you can fall in love with no matter how old you are.

With Halloween just passing, I saw this site about memorable children's book characters that were born to be made into costumes. None of them, however, beat my son's Halloween Storybook Parade costume this year - Elephant Gerald from the Mo Willems series.

My son Alonzo as Gerald. "Hey Gerald. There is a bird on your head!"

Why in the world would my son want to dress as an elephant with a bird's nest on his head? Because Gerald is hilarious, and my son is a ham! (Sorry for the pun, Piggy.) Kids LOVE Gerald and Piggy because of their antics, their expressions, and their kid-like personalities. Willems knows just how to infuse humor into simply drawn characters that appeal to kids.

But what makes a great children's book character? Here is an article from Writer's Digest that gives five tips for creative great characters for kids. And here is some information about characters that I've gotten from many sources and conference notes:

1) Great characters are memorable - Children will walk away from the book and continue thinking about the character. They'll want to read more about the character and his/her/its adventures.

2) Great characters are attractive - Children will fall in love with a great character, almost thinking like the character is a friend or family member. Whether this is because of the way the character looks or acts, or something specific the character does all the time that the readers like, there's something about the character that is appealing to the readers - and they'll crave for more exposure to the character.

3) Great characters hit at the emotions or experiences of the readers - Children who relate to a particular character will feel like the story and character are talking directly to them.

4) Great characters are eye-catching - The illustrations are done in such a way that the children will want to look at the characters over and over - maybe even try to draw them or get a doll or stuffed animal of that character... OR dress like them!

5) Great characters keep coming back - Two words: SEQUELS and SERIES! Great characters can carry story lines into additional books and maintain their personalities throughout each new plot. These are the types of characters that are made into plush toys, lunch boxes, backpacks, pencil cases, T-shirts, and Halloween costumes :)

And now to decide which children's book character tops the list of greatest character of all time. WAY too hard to choose - everyone's list would be different because it all depends what you're looking for in a character and how YOU relate to that one. While many people would probably pick amazing characters like Olivia, Amber Brown, Junie B. Jones, Madeline, and Eloise, I can honestly say I never related to any of them. Maybe because I'm more of a tomboy who tends to read books with  animal or boy characters.

So here are the ones that would be on my list. The list includes those characters who have broad appeal to readers AND who have two or more books created in a series:

1) The Pigeon (Mo Willems) - What more can I say about a pigeon who wants to drive a bus and would like a walrus for a pet? The pigeon is so kid-like and fun to look at and draw that he has to be a contender for the top place on my list.

2) Corduroy (Don Freeman) - I so badly wanted to be Lisa and have Corduroy as my doll. I felt so bad for him when he was left behind at the laundromat. This was my ultimate favorite childhood character and will always have a special place in my heart.

3) Peter (Ezra Jack Keats) -I just love all the different books portraying Peter as a gentle, obedient, innocent soul. His interaction with his family and friends - and dog Willie - make for some real memorable stories. And kudos to Ezra Jack Keats for portraying a child of color as the main character in his books in the 1960s!

4) The Cat in the Hat (Dr. Seuss) - a mischievous, clever cat in a tall striped hat is surely a formula for success. And now cartoons on PBS featuring Martin Short as the voice of the cat give this character a new generation of fans.

5) Dinosaur (Bob Shea) - This little red dinosaur's roar is big and loud as he fights against everything he's supposed to do, just like a young child would. Bob Shea really captured the personality in this little red character who in reality is just a loveable little monster.  

6) Biscuit (Alyssa Satin Capucilli) - Even if you're not a dog person, it's hard not to fall in love with this cute pup. Not only do you want to hug Biscuit but you just want to jump in the book, play with him, and follow him on his cute, innocent adventures.

7) Willy Wonka (Roald Dahl) - "Come with me, and you'll be, in a world of pure imagination..." Enough said.

8) Ferdinand the Bull (Munro Leaf) - We should all take a page from this book and find time to sit under a cork tree and smell the flowers with this bull. I KNOW! This breaks the sequel/series rule but I can't have a list of characters without my Ferdinand.

9) Harold and the Purple Crayon (Crocket Johnson) - To think that one crayon could take you on so many adventures was amazing when I was a child. He's truly one of the best characters ever.

10) Peter Rabbit (Beatrix Potter) - I think every child after reading this book as a kid thought twice about disobeying their parents again.

There are several others that I would break the rules for and include in a top ten list, even though they may not be as well-known or have a sequel or series out, such as:

- the conceited Cheetah in Bob Shea's "Cheetah Can't Lose" (this guy is so hilarious)

- the biracial/bicultural cutie pie Marisol McDonald by Monica Brown (and illustrated by my friend Sara Palacios)

Pete the Cat by James Dean - I'm not a fan of the illustration style at all but I can see why kids love this groovy, hipster cat.

The mischievous, tricky, hat-wearing, spaghetti eating dragon in "The Best Pet of All" by David LaRochelle.

You're probably saying what about Curious George, Clifford, Skippity Jones, Bad Kitty, Fancy Nancy, Pattington Bear, Winnie the Pooh, ... the list of great characters is endless!

I could go on and on and on, but I think you get the idea. For writers and illustrators, developing characters that kids will love (and ones that will sell in the publishing world) is not easy to do, but if you can do it right you may just one day have a TV show, or a doll made, or even a Halloween costume made of your character. And as a writer and illustrator, it really doesn't get much better than that.

November 4, 2014

Elect Your Favorite Doreen Cronin Book

Today is Election Day! And since I still want to address humor in children's books, I thought... why not elect my favorite Doreen Cronin book?

This is not an easy choice to make, however. Cronin has written a LOT of very funny children's books.

How shall I make such an important decision? First, let's do some research of the candidates.

I could choose an Election Day themed story, like "Duck for President" illustrated by Betsy Lewin. Duck's comical, in-charge, tough-minded personality in all the books is priceless, but in this one I found it hilarious that he gets tired of doing his chores so he holds an election to replace Farmer Brown. But when running the farm is too much work for him, he decides to run for governor. Then he eventually winds up running the country as president! In the end, though, Duck gives up his job to the Vice President and goes back to the farm to type his autobiography. Lewin's loose, colorful ink and watercolor illustrations add to the humor and always provide a second story line to accompany the text.

                                          This is definitely a contender.

Again, Cronin and Lewin team up for one of the funniest farm stories around. The cows are cold at night in the barn and refuse to give milk until they get some electric blankets from Farmer Brown. The hens even agree to stop laying eggs until the demands are met. Duck becomes the negotiator and eventually helps to broker a deal in which the cows get the blankets and Farmer Brown gets his milk, so long as the cows give up their typewriter. Oh, and Duck demands a diving board or the pond. How much more clever can you be with farm animals?

This book is an instant classic and one of my all-time favorites. 

This time, Henry Bliss is the illustrator, as well as other "Diary" books written by Cronin, and did a fabulous job with the images. This book is very unique in that it tells the story in a diary format in the words of a strange choice for a character - an earthworm! Worm is portrayed very much like any child but one that can eat his homework and never has to take a bath. It's extremely clever and humorous and a must read for kids ages 4-8.

Boy, picking my favorite Doreen Cronin book is getting tough!

Here Cronin has moved her humor onto chapter books, with four fuzzy little, trouble-seeking chickens who are being watched by J.J. Tully, a retired search-and-rescue dog, who is responsible for getting the chicks out of trouble. Although the book has more words that her picture books, the humor and cleverness is still there. The illustrations by Kevin Cornell really add a lot to the story, especially the different perspectives and angles at which he draws the images. Kids ages 7-10 will truly enjoy reading this book, as well as other books in the series.

Then there are these books by Doreen Cronin as well. 

Okay, okay. No more books on the ballot, please!

I've made my decision: I vote for...


(If only voting for the governor of Florida were this much fun)

Feel free to cast your ballot for the best Doreen Cronin book, and tune in next time when we talk about another farm book - a PUNK farm book!