Monday, January 30, 2012

Meet Kate Coombs - Folk Tale and Children's Author

If you haven't discovered my love for folk tales and their many adaptations've not been following my blog long enough!  After today's post, though, you'll not only discover some amazing folk'll meet a 'folksy' author and probably become a folk tale fan yourself!  

Then...who knows?  Maybe you'll enter my Mix-it-Up contest (reminder: entries due by Wednesday!)

And without further ado, I introduce today's amazing guest:  

Children's Author Kate Coombs!

Kate Coombs went to school and became an editor, then a teacher, but along the way she always knew she would be a children's book author. For example, while she was in college, she used to study in the children's section of the campus library. That way she could take breaks from her homework to read children's books. Kate spent most of her life in Southern California—until last summer, when she moved to Utah. After teaching school for nearly 15 years, she is now working at a small publisher writing teachers' guides for state history books. (She says this is far more entertaining than it sounds!) Kate has a green thumb, so when she's not reading or writing, she's probably planting something. Kate grew up as one of seven adopted children from various ethnic backgrounds. She writes picture books, poetry, and middle grade fantasy. Hans My Hedgehog is her fourth book. Her fifth book, Water Sings Blue, is a collection of ocean poems due out in March. Whenever she gets a minute, Kate blogs about children's books at Book Aunt.

Miranda: Hi Kate!  Let's begin at the beginning -  on your website, you've got the photo of you as a kid and a lot about you as a child.  What was your childhood "world" like?

Kate:  Although I was born in Washington state, from first grade to high school graduation I lived in Camarillo, a town about an hour's drive north of Los Angeles. When I was small, Camarillo still had patches of orange orchards, but they were replaced by houses over the years. My sister and I rode our bikes to the library every Saturday and checked out as many books as we could—the limit was ten each. We read them voraciously for three or four days and then waited for the next Saturday to come around. I wrote a lot of poems, plays, and stories as a child. I was the proverbial bookworm, much more interested in books than things like handball, which was the big sport at my grade school. I collected seashells and trinkets and read a lot of fantasy, though I was very big on Harriet the Spy and the Nancy Drew books, too.
Miranda: Great favorites!  But what about folk tales? Which were your favorites as a child?

Kate:  At night, when we were supposed to be asleep in our bunk beds, my sister would ask me to tell her stories, and I would recount the fairy tales I had been reading. It used to bother me when she fell asleep in the middle! The stories I most remember telling her were from a book of tales from the Arabian Nights that my grandma gave me. At the time, my favorite was "The Three Sisters," in which cucumbers stuffed with pearls finally convince a sultan that he has terribly misjudged his wife. The story also boasts a wise talking bird, brothers who get turned into rocks, and a heroic young girl. "Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves" was another favorite. I still have the book, a 1921 edition that boasts "four illustrations in color."

Today, I'd have to say my favorite fairy tales are probably the Norwegian "Beauty and the Beast" variation, "East of the Sun, West of the Moon," and a Russian story retold by Marianna Mayer, "Baba Yaga and Vasilisa the Brave." I especially like the character of Baba Yaga, a terrifying cannibal witch with iron teeth who flies around in a mortar, steering with her pestle.

Miranda: Let's stay on the topic of today.   Since you've "grown up," you've every single grade, right?  What's your take on the age-old "moral at the end of the story" adage?"  Should stories have lessons?  Are they teaching tools?

Kate: I am largely averse to children's books that set out to teach a lesson. Didactic picture books, unless they are tongue in cheek, bore me. What about plot? What about whimsy? The ironic secret, of course, is that almost all stories teach lessons, but they teach lessons because of who the authors are and how the characters interact. There are lessons in Where the Wild Things Are, Millions of Cats, and Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, to name just a few marvelous classics, but these lessons emerge naturally from the stories being told, and therefore they do not overpower plot. There's something terribly condescending about an author who sets out to teach a lesson rather than to tell a story. That's lecturing, like an elderly college professor who has used the same notes for years to speechify in stultifying tones. For those writers really determined to preach in a children's book, I would say, 1) good luck selling it and 2) the kid who needs your message won't recognize it. (In fact, if someone points it out, he will probably roll his eyes and walk away.)

As a teacher, when I wanted to impart some kind of moral lesson I used roll-playing, usually after lunch recess, which was when most of the social conflicts took place. It was very effective because the kids were enchanted by the idea of acting things out. We'd do the "plays" twice, once for what happened and again for how the situation should have been handled. Slow-motion punches were a favorite, of course.

Miranda:  Well said! Now, tell us more about your new books!

Kate: Hans My Hedgehog is one of the Brothers Grimm's less well-known stories, and there's a reason for that. When illustrator John Nickle said he wanted to retell the tale, the editor took a look at the original and shuddered. After some discussion with other editors, she found out I had a nice folktale voice (thanks to my first picture book, The Secret-Keeper). Susan contacted me, explaining that the Hans story was "violent and meandering." Would I please retell it?

Hans My Hedgehog is about a boy who is born human from the waist down and hedgehog from the waist up. Naturally, he hangs out with his herd of pigs, riding around on a rather large rooster. He also plays the fiddle. In the Grimms' story Hans played the bagpipes, but the illustrator wanted to use a fiddle, and it turned out really well, especially in the climactic scene. I love that John made the fiddle red!

I had a very good time giving this story a makeover while (I hope) retaining the strength of the original plot. I think the best thing I did was to use Hans's pigs as a humorous plot device. I basically saved them from being slaughtered, which was what happened in the original. Instead I made the pigs into Hans's loyal followers, as well as the instrument of his revenge against a promise-breaking king. Thanks to the illustrator, the pigs even dance at Hans's wedding!


My other new book, which is coming out in mid March, is a collection of ocean poems (mostly about ocean animals). The illustrations are just as beautiful as the Hans artwork, though in quite a different way. Meilo So used watercolor, fittingly enough, whereas John Nickle worked in acrylic. I'll share the title poem with you to give you a salt-air taste:

Song of the Boat

Push away from the stillness of the nut-brown land,
from the road that leads to the shore.

Push away from the town with its tight tree roots,
from its closed brown shutters and doors.

Push away—heave-ho—from the heavy brown pier,
from its pilings huddled and dull.

For the water sings blue and the sky does, too,
and the sea lets you fly like a gull.

Miranda:  Lovely selection!  So where does all this writing take place? Tell us more about your office/desk...I'm sure readers are interested in seeing the "writing world" of Kate Coombs!

Kate:  My home is on a hillside in Utah, and my desk faces a set of doors with inset glass panes and a large window flanking a corner. So I look out over a small canyon (or a large ravine). Right now it's snowing, which makes the view of the pines and other trees very picturesque. I like the way colored glass looks in sunlight, so the windowsill to my right is lined with different colored glass bottles and small vases—aqua, pale green, strong turquoise, pink, deep blue, and touches of yellow. I have wind chimes at the top of the door in front of me that are made of an arching school of silver fish with lengths of colored glass and bells underneath like colored rain dropping down from a cloud.

The desk was my great-grandfather's and is made of leather, though my grandmother painted it a sort of mustard color at some point, which is odd. There are two plants on my desk, along with some seashells, including about a dozen small shells lined up in a small Chinese lacquer tray together with polished rocks, a marble, and an acorn. I also have a paper mache hedgehog and a rather pensive-looking frog sitting beside my computer, not to mention a bronze Chinese dragon, a miniature pirate ship, a dragon's eye whose pupil is an old watch, and a green ceramic Inca guy who is my pencil holder. Needless to say, the rest of my office consists primarily of bookshelves—nine of them. There are five more in my sunroom. (Even after I got rid of a lot of books moving here from California!) As you might imagine, I have nearly two bookcases full of folk and fairy tale collections and picture book retellings.

Miranda: And my husband thinks I have too many books!  (We only have five bookshelves in our house...).  So I don't think that's too strange.  But I have to ask something strange, so....

On your website, you've got six fun facts.  I won't reveal them - my readers will have to go over to your site.  But, can you tell us some other fun facts about Kate Coombs?

  • Most people wouldn't guess by looking at me that I'm fluent in Spanish. I lived in Argentina for eighteen months when I was in my early twenties.
  • I taught a writing class at a women's shelter for a time, a very rich and poignant experience. Everyone was worried about their spelling, but I assured them I just wanted to hear what they had to say.
  • When I was five and my brother and his friend were seven, they took me to explore a haunted house. They were too scared to go in, so they sent me in as the unwitting advance scout.
  • For several years, I drove around Los Angeles teaching sick kids for the school district. (Three of my students died of cancer.)
  • There are a lot of deer hanging out in my yard, which makes it difficult to plant the flowers I like. The deer eat them!
  • I fell off the top bunk when I was young, managing to bloody my nose and my big toe (the nail came off). My family has some interesting ideas about the dive I must have taken.
  • I can cut out a really great snowflake. When I moved to Utah, I was surprised to see how small the actual flakes are!
  • I came in second place in our school-wide spelling bee in sixth grade. The word I missed was "kernel."
  • I originally studied to be an illustrator, but I kept coming back to my love of words. Some of my paintings are on my website. Now I use my visual imagination to write stories.

Miranda: Thanks for stopping by, Kate!  You're such an amazing person with a real gift for storytelling.  I want to make sure my readers can find your website, etc. and links to where they can buy your books!  Can you share your info?

Twitter:    @katecoombs13

Friday, January 27, 2012

Focus Friday: Diction (and Perfect Picture Books)


First, business.  
Then pleasure.  

Oh wait...I'm a writer.  

Same thing.

#1 - The deadline is approaching for my writing contest.  Remember to post your entry to be considered for the great prizes!

#2 - Be sure to stop back on Monday, Jan. 30th for a very special interview with folk tales author Kate Coombs!  Kate's new book, Hans My Hedgehog, was just released this week by Antheneum Books for Young Readers.  You won't want to miss it!

Now, to the "focus" - and today's Perfect Picture Book.

I chose to write today's focus post about diction.  Last week, we had a flood of submissions at Rate Your Story.  There were more great stories (rated with a 1, 2, and 3) than any other week since the free critique site began in October.  Now, I don't always read every submission, but with 20 coming in in the space of 5 days, I did my fair share.  What impressed me about several manuscripts was how many authors paid attention to word choice:

Removing unnecessary dialogue tags
I think diction can also apply to words you don't say.

Using "skinny words," not "fat words"
These phrases are straight from seven-time PB author Nancy Sweetland, who explains:  dog is a fat word.  Scottish Terrier is skinnier.  "Went" is a fat word.  "Ran" is skinnier, but still a little chunky.  Raced is a skinny word.  Or darted.  Or dashed.  Get the point?
Words sound great when read aloud together
Last week, I posted about rhyme and the importance of reading it aloud.  But prose writers have to consider the same thing!  If something is a tongue-twister, is it supposed to be?  Is that a funny scene?  Is it OK if the reader pauses and re-reads?

Words are fresh, sparse, and not redundant
Once you've written a draft, print it out and circle the verbs.  Can you freshen them?  Then, be sparse to help avoid redundancy–"Then he lay down in bed and closed his eyes and went to sleep" could easily be "He lay in bed...Goodnight!" Lastly, do a find/replace to see if you've got repeated words!

The word choice matches the tone of the scene
This week, I got a critique back from my wonderful SCBWI mentor Lisa Moser, and in it she pointed out a word/phrase that didn't quite fit in a lovely scene I'd written between a boy and his Grandpa .  It was too contemporary, too casual, and didn't have enough depth.  Now, it's perfect.

Do you have diction tips?  Be sure to share!

Now, on to this week's PERFECT PICTURE BOOK.  It's one've guessed it...has perfect diction.  The author is actually a former critique buddy of mine, and I saw it go through several overhauls as she very diligently made sure every word was the right word.

And I'm proud to's perfect!

Title:  Hedgehog Goes to Kindergarten
Author:  Lynne Marie
Illustrator:  Anne Kennedy
Publisher:  Scholastic, May 2011
Age: 4-6
Category: Kindergarten/First Day of School, Making Friends, Self-Esteem and Confidence

First Line:  "Spike stared out the window toward the bus stop and quivered." (LOVE the pun!)

Why I Like This Book: Well, first of all it's a great story for kids about being yourself, making friends, and finding confidence.  Sentences like "Spike spiked," and the repetition of the bus going "Clink, Clank, Clunk! Bing, Bang, THUMP!" keep kids actively listening.

But this book is more than a great story.  Hedgehog Goes to Kindergarten is a SHINING MODEL for all pre-pubbed picture book writers who want to break into the market.  Study it - every word is perfect.  The pacing is perfect.  The dialogue is good, and there aren't unnecessary tags. 

Furthermore, it's a breakout PB for Lynne Marie.  Hedgehog Goes to Kindergarten is a great example where aspiring writers can see what kind of discipline it takes for a new writer to land a contract - and have hope that it's not impossible!  Lynne Marie wasn't relying on celeb. status, a portfolio of credits, or a serious "in" to get this considered and eventually published.  Her fantastic, disciplined writing and REVISING SKILLS did that...and she worked very hard for years to get the manuscript right!

Additional Resources:  Lynne Marie has a Facebook page dedicated to this book!  Check it out here.

Did you love this book? Want to read it now?  Got ideas for making every word count?  Comments are open below.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Worldly Wednesday: Witness Poetry

I'm a little late in posting today's Worldly Wednesday article.  We had a milestone in our house last night (I will post more on Friday), and I've been called in as a substitute teacher at my FAVORITE high school all week :)  

Oh - and I landed a new freelance contract today, which will keep me very busy writing new stories for little ones both before and after my trip to Gambia.  Yipeeee!!

So, apologies and let's hope I make up for my tardiness with solid content.

Last Wednesday, I announced my first ever writing contest - Miranda's Mix-It-Up Contest.  But I didn't provide a sample, as the kind and thoughtful Susanna Leonard Hill does when she hosts a writing contest on her blog.

So, that in mind, here's mine.  Since the contest was to mix styles and genres, I've mixed poetry with reporting, and crafted nonfiction and memoir into a short, literary snapshot.  (I have an actual picture of the place somewhere...but didn't get to scan it in for today's post).

    Soufriere, May 14, 2002

If only I’d paid attention
to the directions I’d been given.

A thief on his knees, handcuffed, pleading.
A cop, broomstick raised, grip tightened.
Me, only looking for the station’s bathroom.

The image will not melt.

It is frozen,
Just before the stick breaks over the man’s back,
Silent as the moment after,
When no one said anything.

By Miranda Paul

What did you think?  Now, I can't tell you that writing poetry will or won't improve your chances with my contest.  My example is just that - an example.  The possibilities with my contest of mixed genres and styles allows so much room for creativity that I can't say with any certainty that anything is better than another.  But make it have a beginning, middle, and end.  And unlike this one, you'll get a bonus as I judge if it seems appropriate or engaging for kids (we're mostly kidlit writers, after all, right?)

Now, I hope you all consider entering the Mix-it-Up Contest.  Feel free to comment below or visit the original post page to begin reading entries as they are posted.  Voting is only a week away!

Monday, January 23, 2012

Happy New Year! (Again)

Over the weekend, this Mommy had a lot of fun celebrating Chinese New Year!  Our host son / exchange student (from China) led the festivities to reign in the Year of the Dragon.  What a blast!
Our host son is cooking his special Chinese Pork

"Happy Spring Festival" - the technical translation

No one went home hungry

We played about eight rounds of Mah Jong - but not for money!!

Paper Lanterns, of course (and everyone wore red to match)

Nothing better than a snowy firework show

It was surely a great time...but now it's going to be all work this week!  And, as I get writing (with plenty to write about) - so should you!  Need an idea?  Don't forget that I'm hosting a writing contest with real prizes!  Check out the original post to the contest details here.

Happy New Year! Again!

Friday, January 20, 2012

Focus Friday: RHYME (and perfect picture books)

It scares some writers.  
Others can't write without it.  
If it's good, it's brilliant.  
Anything less than perfect, the whole story's shot.
What is it?


I edit and critique a lot of rhyming stories and picture books as a freelancer and a judge at Rate Your Story (which aren't always the greatest). a mom and rhyme-lover I read a lot of excellent rhyming books, too.  

I've worked on the craft of rhyming for years, and thus wanted to share with you a Perfect Picture Book written in rhyme and some of the most common weaknesses I see when freelance editing rhyme.

1) The rhyming words are too simple and/or uncreative, or too predictable.
Stop rhyming me and bee.  Rhyme trout and stout, or pickle and fickle.  

2) The second line (or fourth line) of a stanza is just a means to get a rhyme and doesn't add to the story.
Stop forcing your rhyme. If you can't find a good rhyme, "kill your darling" and write a new first line that ends with a different word.  Put the tough-to-rhyme words in the middle if you have to.

3) The syntax is inverted to force a rhyme.
See above.  What writers could publish 50 years ago probably won't land you a contract today.   Which brings me to number #4.

4) The author doesn't read many recently-published rhyming picture books.
Pick up a book by Karma Wilson, Jill Esbaum, Marsha Wilson Chall, Lisa Wheeler, Lori Degman, or ask your librarian to recommend some great books in rhyme published in the last 5-10 years.

5) The author doesn't know how to scan their own poetry.
Do you know what meter is? A foot?  An iamb? (I could go on).  A stanza where the first line is 21 syllables and the second is 8, the third is 17 and the last is 11 won't work (this is an actual example of something I once edited).

6) In their head, the rhythm is perfect.  But no one else has read it ALOUD.
Have others read it aloud to you.  Don't interrupt.  Don't read it to them first.  Don't let them read it on paper before the read-aloud.  Repeat process many times with many readers.

7) The author doesn't listen to the reason of their critique group/editor/etc. regarding rhyme.
Critique group members may seem too nit-picky sometimes.  So can editors (trust me, I'm my own pickiest editor).  But remember - they're all trying to help you!  They're on your side.  Whether free or hired, they're trying to hold you back from submitting or self-publishing rhymes that are not brilliant.  You want brilliant.

More tips here and here and here.

Now, on to Perfect Picture Book Friday.

You've guessed it...a rhyming picture book!

Title:  Animal Strike at the Zoo (It's True!)
Author:  Karma Wilson
Publisher: HarperCollins, 2006
Illustrator:  Margaret Spengler
Genre: Fiction, Rhyme
Ages: 2-8
Themes: Labor, Strike, Animals, Humor, Zoo, Duty

First Page (though every page gets better): There’s an animal strike at the zoo, it’s true!  / The headlines are telling it all.  / The animals quit, “That’s it! We’re through.” / Say all critters from biggest to small.

Why I chose it:  The rhyme is perfect, the story is funny and thoughtful and it actually introduces a topic that a teacher or mother can use as a segue to nonfiction (labor strikes have been a big issue in my home state of Wisconsin for the past year).

What is Perfect Picture Book Friday?  Read more at Susanna Hill's Blog.

 Comments Welcome: Are you a rhyme-writer?  A rhyme-reader?  Did you love this book? Got rhyming tips to share?  Comments are open below.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Worldly Wednesday: Miranda's Mix-it-Up Writing Contest

Worldly Wednesday is here!  And that means no more waiting for my secret writing contest!

Here's my inspiration:

In our family's household, we're a mixed bunch.  Between my husband and I we represent at least 9 ethnicities on four continents (from what we know).  Add in our exchange student and there's at least 10.

Therefore, we celebrate a lot of holidays 'round these parts. Now, sometimes that causes us to stir up our "melting pot" giggles or bark out a "mutt" joke.  But sometimes, like in February, we look down from the branches of our sturdy family tree and take pride in the powerful roots our ancestors secured for us–a beautiful view.

So as we're geared to celebrate Chinese New Year -- and Black History month -- and Leap Day -- and Saint Lucia's Independence Day -- and President's Day (to name a few upcoming February holidays)...

I got to thinking...

...about mixing-it-up... writing.

What would an Epic Limerick sound like?
Have you ever tried to write an Acrostic Sonnet?
How about a story in prose...with characters who speak only in haiku?
A Textspeak Tale?
A Picture Book Play?
A News Article Fable?

The Mix-it-Up possibilities are endless.  

And that, my friends, is your impetus.

Here are the rules to enter Miranda's Mix-it-Up Writing Contest:

1) You must be a follower of my blog to enter the writing contest.  You can subscribe via email or click follow on the sidebar where you see everyone's teeny faces.

2) Your entry must be 500 words or less.  Not counting the title.

3) You must write an original story, poem, article...whatever...that mixes up at least two genres of storywriting, types of poetry, styles of writing, etc..  Please label which genres/styles/etc. you've "mixed" within your introduction or above your entry.

4) You must post your entry on your blog page or website with a link back to this original contest page by Midnight on FEB 6 **EXTENDED**.

5) Enter the link to your contest entry using the form below (scroll to end).

6) You may not enter more than three different storypoembookhybridwhatevers.

Those are the rules.  Now on to the judging and prizes.

1.  I will choose and announce finalists at my blog on tuesday, Feb. 7th.  The number of finalists will be decided based upon the number of total entries (i.e. 10 entries, about 2 finalists...100 entries, about 20 finalists).

2.  Voting will then take place online (here on my blog) for the finalist entries.  You'll have until Friday morning (Feb. 10) to vote.  I will announce the winner later on Friday, Feb. 10th.

First prize = $20 in Barnes and Noble Gift Cards + a hardcover copy of Tales From China: World Favorite Fables + Bragging Rights

Second Prize = A hardcover copy of Tales From China: World Favorite Fables + Bragging Rights

How will I choose finalists?  Hard to say!  But... 
Follow the rules.
Tell a story with a beginning middle and end, or wow us with your poetry.
Be original.
Bonus points if your contest entry seems appealing to kids or is "friendly" for all ages.
Negative points for explicit language.  I reserve the right to remove a link if I feel it's not in good taste or is offensive.
I love humor and heart - make me laugh or make me cry.  Or both, if you can.

Now, write, write, write and post your link below in the form!  Comments are also open, so contact me if you have questions.  GOOD LUCK!!!

Monday, January 16, 2012

Mommy Monday: Bringing Dr. King's Words Home

Last Thursday when I picked up my five-year-old from school, she had a lot on her mind.  

"Did you know that one time people who had skin like daddy's couldn't drink from the bubbler?  But people with skin like yours could?"

I considered asking her which group she might have been placed into -  but decided to leave that question for the future.  Thus, I let her continue.

"Well, a man named Doctor Martin Luther King Junior told everybody that wasn't fair.  And somebody shot him, Mom! With a gun!"

She continued telling me what she had learned in school until we got home.  I wanted to teach her more – and while her interest was piqued.  Especially since the topic of race has come up several times since our last family visit abroad when my daughter experienced being the only mixed child in an entire school.

Our daughter already knows that treating every single person with respect and honor is right.  But she's just beginning to learn that the outside world hasn't always (and still doesn't) worked the way things do in our household.  Scary territory for a mother...
Luckily, I've always got books on hand and a steadfast desire to shape my children into beautiful and strong human beings.  So I pulled out Kadir Nelson's books We are the Ship and Heart And Soul.  I also took out Our Children Can Soar - figuring that now, these and other books would have more meaning to my daughter since she had a context to fit them into. 

Today, my daughter is off celebrating Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday at school.  While I know she'll have many more questions to ask for years to come, it is days like these – and books like these – which allow the most important lessons to be learned:  love, peace, justice, freedom and humanity.  

And those lessons are always welcome in my household.

Happy Birthday, Dr. King!

Friday, January 13, 2012

Focus Friday: Endings and Perfect Picture Book Fridays

This morning I got an email from myself.  

It was "Sent from my iPad" with a time stamp of 1:02 a.m., and contained much-needed notes on how to fix an ending to a picture book manuscript I've been working on.  And after I opened the email (from myself to myself), I fixed my manuscript. 

Thank you, me.  
(Now think up a better ending for that other story and get back to me soon.)

Endings have been on my mind since some local writers and I came together for critiquing earlier this week.  We had a good discussion about how the reader's expectations, and every wonderful part of a story can be completely lost if the ending doesn't satisfy all of the loose threads.  That doesn't mean that everything has to be happy and everyone gets what they wanted.

Like...Perfect Soup by Lisa Moser, a picture book with a perfect ending.  It's not the most expected ending, but it is the best one.  Everything in the story is resolved–even though the original conflict isn't "solved" in the way the main character hopes. The ending of Perfect Soup satisfies kids and adults, and teaches a lesson without "teaching."

Which brings me to an announcement:


If you haven't already guessed, my first perfect picture book review is Lisa Moser's Perfect Soup!

Miranda Paul's first "Perfect Picture Book Friday" recommendation is Perfect Soup.

Title:  Perfect Soup
Author: Lisa Moser (who happens to be my fantastic SCBWI Mentor)
Illustrator: Ben Mantle
Publisher: Random House, 2010
Themes/Topics: Friendship, Patience, Generosity, Winter, Animals

Opening Page:  Murray shined the teapot.  "Perfect."  Murray set the table.  "Perfect."  Murray looked out the window.  "Soup is perfect on a snowy day."

Synopsis:  Murray likes things perfect.  But he hasn't got a carrot for perfect soup!  With no time to chat (Murray is in a hurry), he races past Snowman and through the town doing favors in the hopes of earning a carrot.  But when all seems for naught, can a friend show him there's more than one recipe for perfect soup?

Ben Mantle's Website (illustrator)
Goldfish Soup Recipe (doesn't need a carrot!)

Make a snowman!
Shovel the driveway!
Learn to knit!
Have a winter picnic with a friend!
Make hot cocoa  - and don't forget to put (clean) snow in it!

Now, I've got to end this post in a BIG way (and reward those of you who actually read the entire thing):

I'M HOSTING MY FIRST-EVER WRITING CONTEST AND GIVEAWAY!  The contest and giveaway prizes and rules will be announced on WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 18th.  So be sure to follow my blog to get the scoop on Wednesday.  

To be continued...
(how's that for an ending?)

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Worldly Wednesday: ONE HUNDRED AND ONE NIGHTS by Benjamin Buchholz

Last year, I read more than 100 books and plan to read as many again this year (yes, reading is a writing goal - see this post).

While the majority of books I read are clearly for children and teens - PBs, MG, and YA novels - I occasionally take time out to be an adult and read books targeted for a different age group.  The one I'm reading now has me entirely captivated, and though I'm not finished, wanted to share.

The book is called One Hundred and One Nights by Benjamin Buchholz.  I actually won the book via a Twitter Giveaway, but it feels as though I was meant to receive this book.  (Follow the author @Mialaylawalayla).
Publisher:  Back Bay Books
Click the cover to read a sample!

The basic premise (summarizing from back-of-book copy) is that Abu Saheeh has returned to Iraq after spending more than a decade in America.  Shortly after his return he meets Layla, a whimsical fourteen-year-old girl with something to say - or sing - or ask - about everything.  As he fights to rebuild a life in his home country, he endures the awakening of painful memories and the struggles associated with searching for salvation - proving Layla's unlikely companionship may not be enough to pull him through.

In my own words:  It's the only book I've ever read that mentions Umm Kulthum and Britney Spears within a page of each other, and Aliens and falafel in the same chapter.  How fun and culturally significant (my kind of book).

Some of my favorite quotes from the book so far:

"Despite several glances I cast at the in-facing courtyard windows, I still do not see their mother.  This is traditional society now.  This is her role–cloistered, separated.  She won't break the pattern...even for the sake of an old friend like me."

"I cross the road and walk to my house...and I think about how tribes have been split as men draw lines across the desert."

"But with too much safety comes ignorance."

Anyway, I'm recommending it.  Thumbs up.  A thought-provoking read thus far and a trip into another culture and place.  I'm also tickled to learn that Buchholz has lived in Wisconsin!

If you're interested in buying a copy on Amazon, click below.  One Hundred and One Nights is also available on the publisher's website and don't forget to check out your local indie bookstore, too!

Monday, January 9, 2012

Mommy Monday: Lessons on Writing (from my kids)

Yes, it's nearly midnight as I write this post.  It would be so easy to give up, and skip my self-imposed deadline or just blog tomorrow.

"No," said my two-year-old when I told him I didn't do my "Mommy Work" today.  "Go now," he said, and pushed me off the bed.

He's right.  I've got work to do.

And for the past week, I've realized that kids are right a lot of the time.  At least my kids, anyway.

Let me explain.

Lesson 1:  Routine
For Christmas, my daughter got a "Responsibility Chart."  If I miss a day of positive rewards (at least now, while it's new) I'm more likely to miss two.  She goes beserk when I'm inconsistent.  She's taught me the importance of routine.  Get in the habit of writing every day, just like she's in the habit of being rewarded.  Make a chart if you have to.  And reward yourself if you have to, too.

Lesson 2:  It's all about KIDS
For Christmas, my son got many picture books.  One of them (which I will not name for fear the author will see) I read to him on Christmas morning.  And hated it.   But my reluctant reader sat through the entire thing...and then asked to read it again.  And again.  About two weeks and thirty reads later, I still hate the text of the story.  But my son loves it...and I've come to respect the fact that this author blew off what parents were going to say and grabbed my two-year-old's attention.  My boy loves reading (and sits through more than one book now)!  And he's taught me that writing for children is about children.  It's not about us.  We must consider our manuscripts from the viewpoint of our audience.

Lesson 3:  Whining gets you nowhere
In some circles, the "squeaky wheel gets the grease."  But not in my household.  My kids have learned to learned to "turn it off like a faucet." And if you're a writer, you should, too.  After reading a lot of blogs over the past week (I'm doing the Comment Challenge) - the ones that are the best are the ones without whining.  In the writing industry, the squeaky wheels aren't getting published.  It's the ones who can self-oil, and keep on trucking through hard times.  Complain to your husband or your local writer's group when you're away at the cabin.  As for your blog, bashing "them" or "the industry" just sounds like whining.  And if I think that, what's an editor  going to think?

Lesson 4: Patience
We, as parents, are quick to judge children as impatient.  But is this really the case?  We're often the ones rushing them out the door, or to pick something at the market, or to hurry here or there.  The other night, I was having a "heart to heart" with my five-year-old about a rejection letter I got recently.  "Don't worry, Mom," she said.  "Just send it to somebody else.  And if no one likes your stories, just wait until I grow up and then I'll turn them into books for you."  She's willing to wait twenty plus years, no big deal.  It's simple.  Just send it to somebody else.  Or wait.  And that's exactly what I intend to do.

What lessons on writing have you learned from your kids?
Other people's kids?
I'm curious to know.
Comments are open!

Friday, January 6, 2012

Focus Friday: 5 Steps to a Killer Query

Unlike many of you, submitting work (unsolicited) is relatively new to me.  I've spent the last few years mostly reading, writing and revising, and taking on freelance / work-for-hire assignments.  But now with an arsenal of great, polished manuscripts, I step into the brave new world of queries and slush:

2012 is the Year of the Submission for me.

Yes, I made my own badge.

That said, I started the year on a great note: I wrote a smashing cover letter / agent query.  I'm not just saying so myself - I had another published writer let me know it was "on the money" and one even say "I'm going to have you write mine for me."

Anyway, I was poised to send it, only to re-review the agent's submission policies and discover (drum roll, please)


After several "doinks" on the head, I realized that my letter-writing exercise was not in vain. I've got a smashing query letter that describes one of my best manuscripts, showcases my impressive credentials, and is laced with personality and style.  Though the opening was very personalized (this was an agent I've met), parts of the rest I can, and will, use again.

So, I thought I'd share with you 5 things that render a query letter "killer." Hopefully, you'll find a nugget of advice that helps you in your own query writing.

1) Make sure the agent/editor/publisher wants a query letter in the first place. 

If they do, read what they want in it (and what they don't).  Do everything exactly as they ask.  I've actually bid on freelance jobs where the client said "In your cover letter, type the word CHILDREN at the bottom...just to make sure you actually read all of the assignment requirements."  And I've landed jobs where they told me half of the other editors who bid didn't follow directions and weren't even considered.  So read everything they write.  And read it again - submission guidelines change often!  You'd hate to write a smashing cover letter and then never be able to send it. :)

2) Choose your absolute best/favorite/most polished manuscript, not just the one you presume is the "right fit" for editors or agents you "think" you know.

Now by this I don't mean sending a children's agent your saucy romance novel is OK.

To clarify, perusing their published titles and choosing something with similar elements isn't a bad approach, but if you've picked which manuscript to send mostly based on what you "perceive" they "might like" based on some five-page website or a twitter post about ice cream - you're dumb like me.  Let me explain.

A few weeks back, I sent a good-but-not-my-absolute-favorite manuscript to an agent (my first agent query ever).  When it came back a rejection, I "doinked" myself (again).  Why didn't I just send the manuscript I love the most? That I know is the best? I ASSUMED they'd like a whimsical and quirky one better than an emotional one with a deep story - based on other titles they'd sold and their 3-sentence bio on the website.  Stupid.

You know what came back in the rejection letter? "It didn't have enough of a storyline to keep us glued to the page."  I knew I should have sent the other one.

And I'm extremely lucky they threw me a bone - by some stroke of extreme fortune the rejection also invited me to send more work (in fact "we'd be happy to see more of your work").  And that brings me to my next query tip.

3) Don't query unless you've got more work to show - and mention in your cover letter that you do.

Especially if you're querying an agent, there's a significant chance that they're going to ask to see "something else."  I'm quite new to submitting unsolicited work, and this has happened THREE TIMES already to me.

These frequent requests are probably because the last line of my cover letter is usually an indicaton that I've got more manuscripts ready if requested (and I DO).  Can you imagine how good it feels to get a request for more work and actually have plenty of things ready and polished to send off?

Don't set yourself up for failure like a woman I met last year who lost her chance with a big publisher because she had nothing else (good) to send when it was requested.  Write first, revise first, query last.  And let them know you did it in that order!

4) Yes, do your homework.  No, don't be boring.

Be professional, yes.  Be polite, yes.  Brief, yes.  But show some personality and make each letter personal to the recipient.

I can't imagine what it's like to have to sift through 6,000 queries a year like some agents.  And I've done a lot of research reading query letters that landed contracts (like this one and this one).  In every instance, the writer showed STYLE and personality.  But cut yourself off when you get a little Urkel-esque or risk straddling the line between touting your book/self and coming off as a complete narcissist.

Every good query letter I've ever read also mentions other titles - not in the way that says "My book is the next Harry Potter" but in a way that demonstrates how your character or plot overlap in some areas and showing you're well read in the genre you're submitting and that you understand what the publisher publishes.  You can't do this if you don't read.  So read.  Do your homework first.  Then have fun!

5) Don't go it alone.

Never let your eyes be the only ones to see a query letter before you hit the send button or seal the envelope.  Let a critique buddy take a peek.  If you don't have a critique group, join one (Critique Cafe or join your local SCBWI to get hooked up with other writers or a mentor).  Or ask your local librarian to proof it.  Or hire a freelancer like me if you have to.  Better yet, do all of the above.

The "no" response is pretty permanent these days.  Don't be that guy on Millionaire who flunks out without even using his lifelines.  Phone a friend.  Please.

Read more tips for writing a killer query letter online at:

Margot Finke's Guide to Query Letters for Children's Books

Query Shark

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Worldly Wednesday: World Read Aloud Day is March 7

So I just learned that LitWorld's World Read Aloud Day happens to be March 7, 2012.  The SAME day I'll be on a plane from Casablanca, Morrocco back to JFK in New York.  Since I land at 3:45 p.m., I'm not sure if there are options for me to participate.  Or even that I qualify (they're not just letting any author participate).

For those of you who know me, I'll still try despite my travels and the fact that my books have mostly been published by small presses and digital, educational app markets.  But how about you - will you consider participating?

Visit Kate Messner's blog for more information on how to participate and what World Read Aloud Day entails (i.e. you have to have Skype).  Or, learn about it at LitWorld's site here.  Fun!

Monday, January 2, 2012

Mommy Monday: Year in Review

Instead of telling, I'm showing.  This AuthorMom had a great year!

We climbed high...
...and conquered jungles.

...the urban jungle.

We read stories...

...and acted them out...
...and wrote our own!
Grandma welcomed us in...
...and we welcomed in other friends...
Like this one...

...and this one...
And especially this one!
We roasted and enjoyed foods from all over the world... domodaa (peanut butter stew)...

...and tiyo kere churro (peanut porridge)...

...and also ate things that were All-American!

We let Amani's hair grow...

...and grow...
...and grow!

We studied animals...

...from behind fences...

...and inside fences.
We fell in love with animals on the plains... our own yard...

...and inside our own home!

(but we had to let some of them go!)

We planted seeds...
...watched them grow...

...and ripen...
...and picked them when they were ready!
(Whatever we couldn't grow we bought at the market.)

We played some sports for the first time...

...and did other activities for the zillionth time!

We read more stories...

Which led to more wishes...
And dreams (like another Packers win!)...

And crazy ideas - LIKE CUTTING OUR HAIR OFF!

We took a few last-minute trips...
before Kindergarten began...

And the Packers started another season...

...and we got back to dreaming (like sending a million books to Gambia)...
And ended the year thinking crazy growing our hair back!

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