Monthly Archives: September 2012


That title up there? Typed by my cat, Habibi. It’s almost his dinner time and he was trying to help me here, so I could get onto the far more important business of popping his can of Friskies. I’ll try to be quick here, Habs.

A few years back, someone wrote an article  suggesting that the picture book was on its last legs.  Kids are growing up so fast, the pressure is on to read earlier and earlier, static visuals can’t compete with pixels, etc.  I can only guess that the poor soul has regretted his article as much as the writer who recently said YA was getting too dark and writers ought to clean and brighten up their act.  People–readers, writers and of course librarians–went berserko. 

The picture book is more sacred than apple pie. Everyone remembers at least one favorite  from childhood, I guarantee. Ask anyone–even those you consider the least likely suspect–to name a book they loved as a kid.  Watch them get that look on their faces.  At the library, finding a book that a patron once loved and now wanted to share with a child–“It had a red cover, it was about cats who didn’t want to go to bed, my mother used to make all the voices”–is one of my purest pleasures.

What with this being the 75th anniversary of the Caldecott Medal, and what with my beloved publisher Candlewick having declared this the Year of the Picture Book, it’s a kick to be presenting a workshop tomorrow at the Lakeland Writers Conference. If you can’t be there, here’s a tiny peek at some of what I’ll be saying.

There’s an awful lot to keep in mind when attempting to tell an action-packed, emotionally resonant story in  600 succinct and perfect words. Make sure your theme is child centered and your main character is the agent of change. Keep the focus sharp and tight (sorry, no sub-plots here, unless they’re visual–see below).  Be sure you’ve got that good old beginning, middle and end. You’re not making a point–you’re telling a story. Don’t preach. Children loved to be challenged, but they love, just as much, to be amused.

I always read my work aloud as I write–one reason I tend to work at home, rather than public places. But with a picture book, this is essential. Those few hundred words need to have rhythm (I didn’t say rhyme!) They need to sing. Compare, “Oh how Willie wished he could whistle!” with “Once there was a boy named Willie who wished he knew how to whistle.”

Think in pictures–literal pictures.  Your text must lend itself to illustration, so the more concrete and compelling, the more action and momentum, the better. Even the most genius illustrator will have trouble making a long, talking heads conversation look interesting. Change the settings. Think about that page turn.  I still hold my breath when I get to the part in “Owl Babies” where those little guys “closed their owl eyes and wished their  Owl Mother would come.”  Page turn. “AND SHE CAME.” Goosebumps, every single time!

It’s a commonplace to say that writing a picture book is as close as you come to being a poet. But I also think it’s as close as I’ll ever get to being a film maker. My words are not just complemented by the art–they’re expanded and enhanced.  When I was writing “Phoebe and Digger”, I intentionally left details out, so the illustrator would fill them in. I also wrote scenes where  the pictures would directly contradict the words, giving kids the chance to get the joke on their own. What I said before about no place for subplots? Check out that little mouse  in the sweet classic “Good Night, Gorilla” .  He all but steals the show.

Habibi is gnawing my ankle…

The Island

This is where I’m headed!

Every fall some of my writer friends and I go on an informal writing retreat here, an island just far enough out in Lake Erie to make us feel we’ve left the real world behind. We stay in a big, slightly moldy house with a great round kitchen table, a dining room that could double as a funeral parlor, and a deck that–fingers crossed–we’ll be sitting on a lot.

Here is where I’ll be  daydreaming, brooding and poking my lower lip as I think about my work:

This year a new writer is joining us. We’ll also, sadly, hold a memorial reading for Mary Louise Robison, a gifted, witty, generous writer and friend whose stories about growing up in Alabama tickled us all.  Mary always cooked for us at KI. She’d putter around the kitchen all afternoon. Tomato and peach soup–none of us will ever forget the year she made that.

Here are the famous in the neighborhood Glacial Grooves. They’re actually even more magnificent and imposing than this photo conveys. Geological heaven.

Kelley’s is the island my new middle grade novel is very loosely based on. My island is farther out in the lake, and what happens there is entirely fiction. But it’s going to be interesting to be there now, when I’ve just finished the new draft of the book. I’m looking forward to picking up a few more islandly smells and sounds, not to mention putting my toes in the water.

8 X 8 X 8


Last Saturday night, the 8th,  my writing group, all 8 of us, gave its first (but I hope not last) group reading at a wonderful local indie bookstore, Macs Backs. We read in the basement, where it was, against all basement logic, about 100 degrees, and you could hear the creak of footsteps overhead.

We each read for 8 minutes–pretty clever, right? And variety abounded. I sometimes think of myself as the most schizoid member of the group, since I write for “all ages”, but most of us shimmy the genres. One poet also writes journalism, one novelist also writes poems, and our sci-fi guy writes creative non-fiction, though he insists on calling it a novel (can you tell we have debated this?)

I’ve never been in another writing group, but I hear they can be brutal. Ours, I’ve been informed, is supportive, kindly and egalitarian by comparison. Whew. Not sure I could survive any other sort. While we can certainly mete out the suggestions, and a polite silence has been known to reign ominously long, no one ever brings a sledgehammer to the table.  I always come looking for criticism, but I also, truth to tell, dearly need the support. This is a lonesome occupation. When the work is zombie-eating my brain, I crave talking to someone else who knows what that’s like. Who tells me it’s worth it. Who reminds me why.

We sounded really good in that basement. Even better than we do at each other’s kitchen tables. It’s funny how a podium and an audience sitting upright in folding chairs gives the work a new validity.  I read an essay about the time Paul left a kitchen cupboard door open and I hit my head on it, coming close to a do-it-yourself lobotomy. It was really about forgiveness in marriage, and afterwards a woman came up and asked me where she could get a copy for a couple she knows getting married soon. That was nice (it appeared last April in Cleveland Magazine.)  One of us has a series of poems about a character named Wesley. I’ve come to think of him as ours–but there he was, out in public, strutting his stuff. I was so proud of him!


My mother was a writer, too. In high school she was editor of the newspaper, a role that in those days, in Queens, the way my mom told it, put you a step above prom queen. Undeniably a beauty, she had glossy dark hair, full lips, and terrific cheekbones—in photos she’s got the sultry pout of an Ava Gardner but the gimlet eye of Katherine Hepburn. Though as young women we looked nothing alike, now when I look in the mirror, I see her. That startled and depressed me at first, but not any more.

She wrote in college, which she had to leave before finishing. When I was still small, she enrolled in an adult education class at the high school. The one night a week she attended “Creative Writing”, dinner was a hurry up job. I remember her, dressed in her good, rose-colored cable-stitch cardigan, slinging food onto the table. Back then, I knew I was a reader, but I wasn’t at all sure what a writer was. Books were organic things that sprang up of their own accord, like wild-covered mushrooms on the front lawn after a night of rain. The impulse to write still lay curled up and waiting inside me.

After I left home, my mother got her college degree. She took night classes locally, and one summer she went away to Brown University for an intensive writing course. I recently found the letters she wrote to my father while there. It was the first time they’d ever been apart, other than her being hospitalized for her five—you read that right—Caesarean sections. Two or three of my siblings still lived at home, and my mother’s glee at being away from the domestic front brings tears to my eyes. She wrote him long descriptions of her classes, her profs, her fellow students and the intense conversations they had, all in her slashing script that dented the paper so that if you turned the sheet over you could read it backwards, with your fingertips. God knows what my father made of those letters. (Of course they didn’t phone—it was long distance.) I imagine he was glad for her—he never could figure out how to make her happy. Yet he must have been anxious, too.

What made me write this post was coming across, in that same stash of her papers, a copy of The Writer magazine, dated June 1977. My mother had a subscription, to my surprise. That issue features as its special market “Women’s Magazines and Home and Garden Publications”. It’s astonishing how many there were back then, not to mention how well they paid.  My mother circled likely markets—Modern Maturity, Redbook, Viva, Playgirl. Playgirl!? I imagine she was taken with the note that they were looking for humor and satire, genres she favored. On June 7, she noted, she had sent her “bowling stry” to Talk, formerly GirlTalk.   

In those same papers, I found a photo-copied article from the February 1981 issue of The Writer. She must no longer have had a subscription—the cover notes that it is the property of South Huntington Public Library. It also notes that one of the articles is “Point of View in the Short Story”, by Tricia Springstubb. By then I’d published in some of those very magazines she’d marked—not Playgirl, unfortunately, but Redbook, McCalls, Good Housekeeping. My little blurb notes that my first YA novel, “Give and Take” is about to come out that spring.

In the  article, I write how every writer suffers from claustrophobia, “the my-skin-fits-so-tight-I-long-to burst-its-seams kind. As they grow older, most people become undercover dreamers ( i.e. readers), but writers go on shamelessly imagining what it would be like to live inside another skin.” Now, when I talk about why I write, I usually say it’s because I’m so greedy, one life isn’t enough. It’s nice to discover that I was saying something similar so long ago—sort of like seeing my mother’s bones emerge in my own face.

She and I never talked about writing, except for my telling her when I’d had something accepted or rejected.  I didn’t even know she’d submitted to national magazines. What I knew was how essential for her was the process of writing, putting external form to feeling and thought, trying on other ways of viewing the world and always, always, trying to tuck in a laugh—and how, slowly, the same became true for me. She was, I now know, the first writer I ever met.

Wish you could read this, Mom!