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How To Form An Online Critique Group

I believe that a great critique group is the sum of all its parts. It’s the level of dedication that’s given to the group, by the group as a whole. I don’t mean that each person in the group must constantly be posting new manuscripts and critiques (although that would be nice). Dedication means that each member supports the others in every way possible, like providing the group with important information, passing along helpful URL addresses, or alerting the group to a publisher submission deadline, etc. It means understanding when a group member needs time off for personal or business reasons. It means celebrating together when one member achieves the success that we are all seeking.

                      nLISA J. MICHAELS, writing in the SCBWI Bulletin, March/April 2011
In the next few days, I'll be launching my September Picture Book Critique Group Matchmaking Extravaganza. In preparation, I thought I'd post a few words of wisdom about how to form an onine critique group. Originally written for my picture book writing students, these are a few simple guidelines to get you started. if you have other suggestions, please post them in the comments section.
1. Get everyone’s email addresses and form an email list. If you have more than four or five people, I recommend using Google groups, which also allows you to set up a web page and a calendar. You can also use Yahoo groups. Or create a circle through Google+, which allows you to schedule video meetings through Google Hangouts.

2. Decide what the ground rules are. How many manuscripts or drafts of a manuscript can one person submit per month? How many must they submit? Will you have a schedule for submitting, or just allow people to circulate manuscripts as they finish them?

Rachel Rodriguez, author of two wonderful picture book biographies, says that when she was in an online critique group it was structured like this: “Anyone could send a picture book manuscript or perhaps a chapter from a longer work around the start of the month. Then people had the month to respond. If someone had an additional piece they wanted seen, they could send it out with the caveat that others might not have time to respond.”

Whatever method you choose, I suggest setting up some kind of schedule or routine rather than having people just circulate manuscripts “as needed.” Too many submissions can be overwhelming, but too few often means that the group fades away. Also, deadlines help – if you know it’s your turn to give the group something to read and critique on May 1, you might actually finish that draft! You can use the Google Calendar function to set up regular deadlines with email reminders.

3. Decide how long people have to respond to new manuscripts and what the format will be for discussion. It’s nice to see what other people are saying so you can chime in – agree, disagree, take the thought a step further. If you want that to happen, you need to make sure people reply to the whole list, rather than just to the individual.

One writer, Beth Hull, told me her online critique group had its members upload their submissions to Google Drive, so that members could type notes directly on the manuscript and respond to other peoples' comments all on one document. “When we wrote on the google docs, we each adopted a specific color,” she explained. “I was blue, someone else used purple text, green, etc. That way you don't have to sign every comment you make, and it's easier for people to scroll through and find comments.”

4. Get in the habit of sending out news, thoughts, queries, and other chatter in addition to manuscripts. It’s fun to stay in touch and it keeps the online community alive. A critique group needs nurturing, but if you nurture it, it will most certainly nurture you.

The Many Paths to Publication Part 4: An Interview with Marsha Diane Arnold

Like many in the picture book world, I’ve been watching the children’s book app market with a mixture of curiosity and trepidation. I’m a book person at heart – I love the smell and feel of paper and the sensation of curling up with a book in my hands and a kid on my lap. When people talk about apps supplanting traditional books, I can feel my Luddite dander rising. Yet I can also see the creative possibilities embodied in this interactive medium. I’m thus delighted to have had a chance to discuss app publishing with my friend and critique partner Marsha Diane Arnold, who has just published her first one, Prancing Dancing Lily with a publisher called FatRedCouch.

Marsha published her first picture book, Heart of a Tiger, in 1995; it was a Junior Library Guild Selection and an IRA Distinguished Book. Her books have been racking up awards ever since, including a Smithsonian Notable Book for The Pumpkin Runner and a Family Choice Award for Hugs on the Wind. Her picture book Roar of a Snore has been selected for Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library three times and her early reader Quick, Quack, Quick has sold over half a million copies. 

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Dashka: Lots of children's book writers have expressed interest in doing apps, but you're one of the first I know who has actually done it. Tell me about how that came about.

Marsha: I was lucky. Nicole Lundeen, the CEO of FatRedCouch lives in the neighboring county. She happens to get all car-related issues handled at my husband’s Firestone store; my husband often displays my books there. Nicole saw them, read them, and fell in love with them. When Prancing Dancing Lily went out-of-print, the time was right to let Lily dance into the digital world.

Dashka: Tell me about Prancing Dancing Lily the book and Prancing Dancing Lily the App.

MarshaPrancing Dancing Lily was originally published as a picture book by Dial Books for Young Readers and illustrated by the brilliant John Manders. The text and illustrations are the same for picture book and storybook app, but the interactivity, voices, and sounds make digital Lily “ a whole new story.”

Prancing Dancing Lily tells the tale of a cow who doesn’t fit in with the herd. Lily would rather kick up her heels than walk sedately from pasture to barn.  So she travels the world in search of her perfect dance.  It’s a dancing adventure where readers can learn some geography, make new friends, and do the conga at the end. 

What made the picture book perfect for a digital app were all the possibilities for movement, dancing, and music. What’s different in the app are fun sound and movement surprises, the read to me option, four puzzles, and lots more. When readers touch the screen, they watch Lily twirl, whirl, slurp her drink, and beat the conga drum. They hear her moo and tap her hooves. It’s been fun to see Lily come to life this way. You can get a preview here.

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Dashka: How did you learn about the app world? I know you're as much an old-school book person as I am -- was it a steep learning curve? Did you have to play with a lot of children's book apps to get the feel of it?

Marsha: I try to keep up with changes in the publishing world, so even though I didn’t know a lot about apps or how to make one, I was aware of them and I felt they were becoming an important element in publishing. Many people are exploring apps as a different art form and discovering the different ways to use them to tell stories and allow children to interact more with story characters. I wanted to be part of that exploration.

It’s not a steep learning curve to understand a kids’ app. I downloaded some and watched and played. 

Dashka: What did you discover about the differences between a book and an app?

Marsha: A picture book can take 2 to 3 years or more from manuscript purchase to book publication. A digital app takes much less time, but it still took longer than I thought it would.

FatRedCouch is the expert when it comes to knowing how to make a book or app interactive. I am not a tech wizard. I did enjoy going into the FatRedCouch offices and working with the team, giving input as to what I’d like to see as an interaction. There’s so much you can do with touch screens. Discovering all the surprises that a touch of the finger can bring is not only fun, it helps children learn and to look for the details.

Dashka: How do you feel about apps now that you've made one? Do you want to do another?

Marsha: I absolutely want to create another digital app. I have a number of manuscripts that haven’t been picked up by a traditional publisher, but I can see they would work very well as a digital app. And yes, also, to writing new material for an app. There are a few ideas swirling in my head right now.

Dashka: Once your app is out on the market, how do you get it noticed among all the apps that are out there for children?

Marsha: That's the question to beat all questions, Dashka. Everyone in the app business, the publishing business and really, any business, is struggling with discoverability. How do we get readers’ attention when there are thousands of apps to choose from?

First, I think it’s good to have a team.  FatRedCouch is doing a lot of promoting. Frank Colin does the marketing and so much more. He has “held my hand” as I learned Mailchimp to send out my first newsletter, taped interviews for me, and introduced me to dairy farmers across the nation. He’s helped Lily get wonderful reviews from diverse groups: dairy farmers, moms who love apps, educators. Right now we’re celebrating that Prancing Dancing Lily was named CoronaLabs March app of the month.

Personally, I’ve blogged about Lily, tweeted about her, shared about her on Facebook, posted pictures related to her on Pinterest, and told all my friends and family. It’s easy to do because when you meet Lily, you can’t help but fall in love with her. Some of the best help spreading the word has come from educators. Tina Riley at Walton Elementary/Middle School arranged for the viewing of Lily’s app with fourth graders, then guided small groups to present their ideas. They wrote a short review, a long review, and learned a lot along the way. They gave Lily five stars, of course.

RCS-Elem-School-March-2013-Newsletter-2

Dashka: What was the process of getting the rights to be able to do this?

Marsha: I always ask for rights to be reverted when one of my books goes out of print.

Dashka: Is this the future of children's publishing? Do we all need to learn how to write apps?

Marsha: Storybook apps and games are a big part of the future of children’s publishing. Apps allow kids to interact directly with the characters in a story and can engage the imagination, in a slightly different way than a traditional book does.

Some have suggested that it’s helpful for anyone in business to have an app. I think that’s true because it shows you’re open to new ideas and new technologies.  However, there are far too few kids’ apps that are well-crafted and have an engaging story and wonderful artwork. So if you want to write an app, make it a good one, and find a publisher like FatRedCouch to bring your characters to “life.”

Screen shot 2013-01-28 at 1.38.38 PM

Dashka: What words of advice would you give somebody interested in following a similar path?

Marsha: As with all creative endeavors you must do your homework and work at your craft and art. But there’s lots of help out there for you. Last October FatRedCouch hosted a workshop in San Francisco, “How to Create and Market a Children’s Book App,” presented by Karen Robertson. Watch for opportunities like this in your area. Karen has several eBooks on writing apps and finding the right developer on her site.

Remember to check out some apps as you think about this path. There are lots of sites with suggestions. Two to try are here and here. Prancing Dancing Lily is a great app to start with. All links to download Lily are here.

And if you’re writing a story, know that kids’ favorites are character-driven. Prancing Dancing Lily definitely fits in this category. If you’re interested in learning more, please check out my e-course, Writing Wonderful Character-Driven Picture Books, which works for digital apps as well as picture books.

Don’t be afraid to dance into the digital realm, right alongside Lily. Have fun!

Dashka: Great advice, and I know your e-course has lots more wisdom to offer. Thanks so much for stopping by!

 

The Many Paths to Publication Part 3: An Interview With Rebecca Dudley

You might not have heard of Rebecca Dudley yet, but I’m guessing you will. Her wordless picture book Hank Finds An Egg comes out next month and it’s already gotten plenty of attention, including two starred reviews and a great write-up by Elizabeth Bird of Fuse 8. Published by Peter Pauper Press, a venerable gift book and stationery company that had never before done a children’s book, Hank Finds An Egg is told entirely through a series of luminous photographs of Rebecca’s meticulously constructed dioramas. Her path to publication is an unusual one -- she started by posting the diorama stories on her blog, then self-published two of them as a way of demonstrating to risk-averse publishers that the stories would work as books.  I asked her to stop by the blog to talk about her journey.

 

 

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Dashka: When did you start making these incredible dioramas? How did you start?

Rebecca: I have been an architect for 18 years. I have always loved making models. In 2003 and 2004 I started building and photographing dioramas to make calendars for my friends and family. I kept a sketchbook of ideas and in the fall I took two weeks to shoot all 12 months. 

Dashka: How did you go from calendars to making a book?

cover 0041 SMALL

Rebecca: By 2007 I had a story. I made a mock up of a book and I had a great meeting with an editor at a big publishing house. For about three years I tried to edit the story to please that publisher but we didn't seem to have the same vision for my work. After those three years I had so much pent up energy for making new stories I felt like I was going to burst. I bought my first digital SLR and signed up for a digital photography class with Rachel Herman. I took hundreds of pictures a week, sometimes hundreds in a day.  I would come to class with tons of pictures and after about four months of this Rachel said "STOP IT! There's a story here. Next week come in with the story. No new pictures. Just EDIT." And she was right. So I did that for the next few weeks and realized I really liked working that way: taking a bunch of pictures, loosely organized around an idea and worrying about the "story" later.

Dashka: When did you start your Storywoods blog? Were you thinking about building a platform and an audience when you started or did you just want people to see what you'd done?

Rebecca: I thought I would build a readership and then some publisher would find me and my huge audience irresistible and offer me a book deal. It didn't quite happen that way, but the blog was really important to getting the book deal. An art director at Peter Pauper showed it to a senior editor and they loved it. It would not have happened without the blog.

Dashka: Was your blog readership a selling point, do you think?

Rebecca: The blog is not very popular.  But it is popular enough to do three things: 1. get some much-needed feedback, 2. find a great agent, 3. find a great publisher. Some days my visitors are in the single digits. I had a big spike in traffic when the Renegade Craft Fair wrote about it in 2010, and another when Maria Popova tweeted about it last year. Some very nice Canadian librarians love it.  I don't watch my traffic carefully, but once in a while I'll look at the places where my readers are and it is so exciting: Ukraine, Korea, Japan, Germany, Russia, Belgium, England, Italy, South Africa, Brazil, London, Paris.  It is motivating, thinking of this disparate group of people brought together by a little group of photographs.

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Dashka: There are lots of short stories on the blog. Why did you choose this particular one to be a book?

Rebecca: A lot of the stories on the blog feel slightly unfinished because they are part of one long meandering story.  The story on the blog has been developing for three years now and there are still so many story lines I have started that I want to cultivate.  But I chose the story of Hank finding an egg for the first book because it has a nice story arc. It is already an unconventional way to make a book, with these elaborate photographs and no words, so I wanted the story to be really clear, to unfold and resolve in an unambiguous and satisfying way.

Dashka: Once you began working on the book, did you discuss adding words or did you and your publisher agree from the beginning that it would be a wordless book?

Rebecca: Hank Finds an Egg had words when I first wrote it, four years ago, but after working on the idea for a few weeks I realized the words didn't add much.  I have always wanted to make a wordless book and my editor at Peter Pauper was excited to do a wordless book too.   

Dashka:  Are there differences between making a blog and a book?

Rebecca: The big difference between the two is that the blog is just a stream of images and the book is made up of paired images, punctuated by several triptychs. The triptychs really help show how alive Hank is.  You get to see how he makes things and how he moves.  The other big difference is the amount of time I took to shoot the book.  All my blog posts were conceived, built, shot, edited and posted within a month. The book took about six months to shoot, and the publisher was responding to images along the way asking for more of this and less of that…mostly MORE of this!  Ha!  Which turned out to be a good thing. (Spoiler alert!)  They wanted to see the baby birds emerging from their eggs in several steps.  It was so much work, but people really like that series of images. 

Dashka: What did the publisher want less of?

Rebecca: In the blog post Hank offers his prized pine cone to the momma-bird in lieu of the egg, because he's grown attached to the egg and he has two pine cones and only one egg.  I liked this storyline because it shows how much he wants to care for that egg, but nobody understood it.  So I was OK letting it go.  If you go to the blog you'll see it there and wonder what he's doing with that pine cone.

K4A_pinecone

Dashka: Tell me a little bit about how you make those beautiful photographs. Do you make everything in them?

Rebecca: Every blog post takes a couple weeks to build, leaving me a couple weeks to shoot and edit. I make everything in them but this sounds a little more impressive than it is because one of the many fun things about working this way is that I can reuse set pieces.  If you look at the trees carefully you will start to notice a tree from one scene is used from a different angle in another scene. The underbrush gets reused, everything gets reused. I make all the "critters," Hank, Li'l Smokey, the mites, Skipper, the birds, everybody. After I shoot the story I take the set apart so there's really no going back if I want to add a photo after I have disassembled the set. 

Dashka:  Is your whole house filled with tiny magical things? Or do you have a studio where it's all contained?

Rebecca: I have a studio and it is packed.  I try to keep all my work in there for the sake of my long-suffering husband but it has a way of leaking out onto the dining room table.  About an hour before he comes home there's a flurry of tidying up.

Dashka: How do you plan to promote the book? 

Rebecca: Peter Pauper hired a publicist to help promote the book. I am really grateful. I do not have an instinct for promotion. At all. Since the book is wordless I will be doing "craft events" instead of readings.  It's going to be a bit messy and noisy and fun:  Everyone will make a diorama! 

Dashka: Ooh, I want to come! Will the books mainly be sold through the publisher's stationery and gift book network or will it also be in bookstores?

Rebecca: It will be distributed to bookstores and it will be in the Children's section, not the gift section. Peter Pauper did a great job with this.  It is a first for them, but they are really smart and enthusiastic and doing everything right.  

Dashka: What words of advice would you give somebody interested in following a similar path?

Rebecca: Short term: get some feedback and make friends with people who love your work.  That might mean taking a class or approaching people whose work you love, or starting a blog.  As personal as your work may be, you need to be a little social. Long term: I remember waiting for my first teacher evaluations from students. A very experienced professor emeritus put his arm around me and said "whatever they say, just remember, you will never reach everyone".  It's so true. Not everyone will love what you do but don't let that stop you from doing your great work. Oh and this is really important, also from my experience as a teacher:  I think a lot of people feel, probably unconsciously, like this is not the right time to do their best work, they hold back because it might not be convenient to do their best work right now, or it might not seem like the moment they had imagined for when they would be doing their best work, or, and this is the most common scenario, they are afraid they won't have anything left after doing that great thing they are "saving" for the right moment.  Let go of any preconception about what that moment looks like and do your great work now. Do not wait.

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Dashka: Oh, that’s wonderful advice! Thanks so much for sharing your story!

The Many Paths to Publication Part 2: An Interview With Heather Woodard

Last week, I interviewed former student Nicole Lataif about her experience publishing with Pauline, a Catholic press. This week, I’m highlighting a pair of former students, Heather Woodard and Pam Wampol, who took my class to work on their Christmas story. Their self-published book was released in time for last Christmas but the full marketing push won’t begin until later this year. I caught up with Heather this week to see how it’s been going.

pam and heather

[Robert Sutton | The Tuscaloosa News]

Dashka: I watched this book go through quite a few drafts before it reached its current state. Tell us a little bit about it.

Heather: The title of our book is Oscar’s Dreamzz: The Story of Santa’s First Elf. It is the story of how Santa came to need elves, how he met and recruited his first elf, and what happened when the elf came back to the North Pole with Santa. There is also a plush toy and an ornament- both of which are created in Oscar’s image.

Dashka: How did you two decide to work together on this project?

Heather: We met in late 2006, when Pam’s middle daughter, Sarah, was one of my English students.  Right away, we clicked, and Pam and I began talking about writing a book back in early 2007.  We kicked around a number of ideas, and then Pam came up with the idea about writing the story about the history of the elves.  The more we researched the idea, the more we were confident that there was nothing in the market that resembled our story.  We developed the story, wrote it in prose, and converted it to rhyme because we wanted to provide maximum appeal to the youngest audiences (primarily children from 2-6), and their parents, grandparents, siblings and teachers.  We want people to use this story to encourage young children to love reading as much as we do. You can read more about Pam and Heather here.

Dashka: You decided to self-publish. Why?

Heather: Pam and I decided to go this route because we wanted to ensure that this book would be published according to our particular specifications.  As well, we had tried for close to two years to persuade traditional publishers to consider our work, but we were told repeatedly either that the economy was too rough right now to take a risk on a concept such as ours, or that a holiday-themed book would be too difficult to sell consistently.

Dashka: Once you decided to self-publish, how did you select a company?

Heather: Our publisher is Friesen Press, out of British Columbia, Canada. Pam took the lead in choosing them. She researched the company online, read testimonials, and confirmed the exemplary reputation of this company through checking the Better Business Bureau.  Once we talked to people who worked there, we both knew that this was the company that we wanted to use.  The representatives are supportive and encouraging without being pushy.

oscar dreamzz book

Dashka: Friesen introduced you to your illustrator, Denis Proulx, who specializes in this kind of project. Did you discover other advantages to self-publishing?

Heather: Pam and I feel like we have more control over the quality of the finished product because we are involved closely in just about every step of this process.  Secondly, we are learning more about the publishing process as a whole because we are doing more ourselves.  We make decisions about any and every aspect of this process as it relates to the publication and production of our book.

Dashka: Are there disadvantages?

Heather: Pam and I are still learning as we go, but right now, the only major disadvantage that we see is that there are certain venues (major retailers and/or review sources) whose members will not consider selling or reviewing our book because it is self-published.

Dashka: That makes it hard to get the word out. So what are you doing to promote the book?

Heather: Pam and I are largely marketing by word-of-mouth.  Our publisher does provide limited help with marketing, and we are also in the midst of building a website that will be connected to various social media pages. Oscar’s Dreamzz: The Story of Santa’s First Elf has a Facebook page, a Pinterest board, and a Twitter account. At this time, people can place orders for the book through links on Friesen Press, Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble, and Books A Million.

Dashka: Are there things you’ve learned along the way that you wish you knew at the outset?

Heather: We have learned that publishing can be an involved, complicated process.  We wish that we had known a bit more about the time that it takes to get a book the way that we want it to be presented to our readers.  Everything takes time, and if you want your book to look—and be-- its best, patience is definitely the key.

Dashka: Do you think you'll self publish your next book?

Heather: At this point, based on initial feedback that we have received from telling others about the book (retailers, bookstore personnel, and others who are interested in our concept), we are keeping our fingers crossed that we will not have to go the self-publishing route for our next book because we are praying that we will have traditional publishers who will be interested in claiming rights to any sequel(s) that may come out. 

Dashka: When that happens, you'll have to come back to the blog to talk about your experience with traditional publishing! Thanks so much for visiting my blog!

The Many Paths to Publication Part 1: An Interview With Writer Nicole Lataif

I’ve been teaching an online Children’s Picture Book Writing class through media bistro for six years years and recently launched an advanced class for graduates of the introductory class (I call the two classes PB1 and PB2). In the course of teaching these classes I’ve had a chance to work with hundreds of aspiring picture book writers and help their first books transform from a vague idea to a fully-realized manuscript. 

Late last year, when I began developing my advanced picture book class, it occurred to me that my students might want to know more about the many paths to publication that beginning writers have taken. All my students start in the same place – with the desire to write for children but not much of a road map. But after their six weeks with me, they have gone in many different directions. Some have found agents. Some have submitted to editors directly. Some have worked with large mainstream publishers. Some have worked with smaller or niche houses. Some have self-published.

Curious to know what paths people have taken, I've begun tracking down former students to hear their stories. Below is the first in what I hope will be a regular series of interviews with writers who have found different ways to get their work into the world in this very competitive publishing sector. I chose Nicole Lataif as my first interview because she took a path I knew almost nothing about. Her first book, Forever You, was published through a Catholic publishing house called Pauline. I think her story will be instructive not only for people writing for any kind of religious readership, but for anyone who is writing for a particular niche or a specialized audience.

 

Dashka: Thanks for stopping in at Start At The Beginning. Tell us about Forever You.

Nicole: At the most basic level, this resource for Christian faith formation introduces children ages 4-8 to what being human is all about. Whether you are a parent, grandparent, or catechist, you will find this resource to be helpful in explaining the concept of a "soul" to your children.

Forever You

Dashka: Who is publishing it?

Nicole: Pauline Books and Media a Christian, traditional publishing house of the Daughters of Saint Paul, an international congregation of women religious dedicated to serving the Church through the media of social communication. They have 13 stores around the US and in English speaking Canada. 

Dashka: Why did you decide to go this route? Did you consider a mainstream publisher?

Nicole: My route to publication was unique. I was given an opportunity to have lunch with my [now] editor, after an introduction from a friend brought us together. At that luncheon, I explicitly asked what she was looking to publish. It just so happened that I had extensive experience in the subject matter for which she needed a writer. I had also wanted to write about this topic for a while. So, it was a perfect match. I encourage anyone who is able to meet with an editor to be sure to have questions ready and know what you can and cannot do. Originally, I submitted a proposal for 3 books (A PB, a novel and a chapter book!). That was crazy on my part. I retracted the novel and chapter book ideas and worked exclusively on the PB, which is what eventually got published. Thank God for my editor was patient! In sum, ask direct questions and don’t bite off more than you can chew!  

Dashka:What are the advantages of publishing with a Christian or any kind of niche press?

Nicole: The advantages of publishing with a Christian house are (1) to work with a niche market and (2) identify with my audience to create a more effective product. Firstly, by choosing a niche market, I am able to stay focused on what one group of people wants/needs, instead of trying to be everything to everyone. I am able to become an “expert” on one group of buyers. Secondly, I am living the lifestyle of my audience. I AM my market. The people who buy my book are just like me in their interests and passions. The topics I cover in my book are messages that I know are needed from experience. Write what you know.

Dashka: Are there disadvantages?

Nicole: The disadvantage is that I do not have a large marketing budget from my publisher. I do have a wonderful publicist provided by Pauline Books and Media, but her time is limited. Should you sign with a smaller house, and now sometimes even if you sign with a larger house, be prepared to market your book heavily.

Dashka: In my experience, that's true even when you do work with large mainstream publishers! Writers have to learn how to promote, whether they want to or not. So how are you marketing and promoting your book?

Nicole: My marketing plan is extensive! I have a few years of professional experience in marketing, which helps a lot, so I developed a 3-year plan. I also hired a book-marketing professional for a few hours to fill me in on what I didn’t already know. In the first month, I sold 46% of what the publisher hoped I’d sell in the first year. To reach this, I did heavy social media promotion, blog interviews, cross-promotion with other websites, and asked my friends and family to help spread the word. Those numbers don’t mean much--the true test will be: where am I in a year?! Two years? Etc? My publisher does help me in many ways, especially with brainstorming, making contacts and advising me when I have questions. However, they have limited resources.

Dashka: What have you learned about the publishing process that you wish you knew at the beginning?

Nicole: I knew this at the beginning, but I think it is important to mention: no matter what your marketing background, no matter how much support you have at home, no matter what, what, what—you probably won’t make enough money to survive exclusively as a writer. You need to be fully prepared for that reality. I also wish I knew how much marketing would be involved in the process. People think getting published is “making it,” but it’s just the beginning. Set aside time each week to promote your book. Lastly, come up with a website to build a relationship with your customers. It could be a blog, an interactive site, anything, but you need something. I did this here: www.kidsfaithgarden.com.

Dashka: Your website offers tons of resources to keep readers coming back to your site -- it's a great model for writers of all kinds! Do you think you'll use the same publishing path for your next book?

Nicole: It all depends. If this year renders positive results, I will absolutely consider it! As a support system, my publisher goes above and beyond to support me. If we work together again, I would be so pleased.

Dashka: Tell me about the process of finding an illustrator. Did Pauline involve you at all in the process?

Nicole: I have never met or spoken to my illustrator. I submitted my manuscript and saw the final product a year later. The publishing house had complete control over the illustrations and the illustrator is totally uninvolved in the marketing of the book. 

Dashka: Do you have any final words of advice for people interested in following a similar path to publication?

Nicole: Check your motives. If you are writing to be famous, you won’t be. If you are writing to be rich, you won’t be. If you are writing to get out a message that you feel is important, go for it! Also, plan for the process to take years (and I’m talking double-digits). Writing is arduous and long, so be sure to enjoy the journey! Write to simply enjoy the process, not to reach some kind of destination of publication (because, most people don’t get published).

Dashka: Excellent advice, Nicole. Creating good work has to be its own reward, because the monetary rewards can be elusive. Thanks so much for agreeing to be interviewed for the blog!

My blog posts, not to mention my Tweets and Facebook posts, have been a cavalcade of self-promotion these days. Not that I'm apologizing for it -- that's just how it is when you have a new book out. But last week, just as I was getting ready to let everyone know that I was being interviewed on the wonderful kidlit podcast Brain Burps About Books, Something Really Bad happened at an elementary school in Connecticut. Just like that,the latest news about my book seemed monumentally beside the point. 

Because I'm married to a teacher, and because I spend a lot of time in schools, what I kept coming back to was the image of the school psychologist and the principal who heard gunfire and ran towards it, putting the lives of the kids ahead of their own and losing theirs in the process. The teachers who led the children into hiding and comforted them, and helped them live. The teacher who held the door and kept the gunman out. The teacher who shielded the children with her body and was found slumped over them. The teacher who read to them as they hid and the one who told them it would be okay, because she wanted that to be the last thing they heard, if there was going to be a last thing. All of these teachers were simply doing the more extreme and visible version of what they did in small ways every day. Teachers save lives, even when there isn't a crazed gunman in the school. They save lives just by reading to children, just by telling them it will be okay, just by listening to them, just by talking with them, just by helping them figure out who they are and how to learn. They do it every day.

Every time I visit a school to do a presentation I feel amazed and thrilled to be part of that process. For one day I get to be part of the children's lives, get to hear what they have to say, to tell them a little of what I know and see the wonderful things that are happening in schools. I'm exhausted at the end of a full day of presentations and exhilarated too. Then I come back and rave about it to my husband and at some point I realize that my Big Day was his Every Day. 

One of the things I was excited to blog about last week, before the tragedy, was about the brilliance of children -- the absolute fabulousness of their minds and their responses to books. Two things had happened to make me think about that. One was that I was interviewed for the Speak Well, Read Well blog by speech pathologist Jeanette Stickel and some of her students, most of them the same age as the children who were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary. I love the questions Stickel's students asked, and the things they had to tell me, and even though I've never met her, I love Jeanette Stickel for her evident enjoyment of the children. I always tell debut authors that if you want to be successful doing school visits, you should go into every interaction with children expecting to get more out of the experience than they do. If you are delighted by them, they will return the favor. And her blog post makes it perfectly clear that Ms. Stickel is the kind of teacher who is delighted by her students. Here's a sample of her reporting on her student's questions:

Skylar wanted me to tell you, she planted roses in the grass and they are orange and puffy and they smell nice and she has nose flowers too. She also wanted you to know she made up a story about spinach. First she made Mr. Spinach with Play-dough and put spikey spikes on him like in your story. I told Skylar I like to write stories too and she suggested I get a can of Play-dough. I think I’ll try that! She’d probably love to hear about your writing rituals.

You can read more of what the kids had to say -- and how I answered Skylar's question -- here.

The other thing that made me want to blog about the brilliance of children was a packet I got from The Young School, where I had just done a presentation. I always give schools an evaluation form to fill out at the end so that I can learn how to improve my talks. The Young School handed out the evaluation form to the kids and had them fill it out too, and they sent the responses to me. I loved them, and not just because they were so enthusiastic about my visit. Here are some samples from their responses. 

I asked, "Overall how did you think the presentation went?"

One student wrote, "The presentation was great, it had a lot of humor so you kept all the kids laughing that's what I like. I don't really like people when their speeches are boring."

I asked, "What could be improved?"

One student said: "There is room for improvement in everything. Our teachers sometimes say nothing is perfect. I think it would be nice if you read some of the book at the end."

I asked, "How was the experience from the point of view of teachers and other school professionals? Did you feel that it was useful for the students?"

One student answered, "Our teachers were flabergasted and full of exitement. their point of view was "Shhh! i want to hear this."

Well, I was flabbergasted and full of excitement when I got the evaluations. My favorite thing was that almost all of the students said something like this:

"When it was done, a lot of children wanted to write a book."

So now let us sing the praises of all the good things that happen in schools, where kids like these will be writing books of their own, books with marvelous pictures and wonderful surprises and words like flabbergasted in them. After a horrifying couple of days, that's the part I want to dwell on.

And if you want a free download of Katie Davis's Brain Burps About Books podcast featuring me and Jim Averbeck, click here.

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Sometimes people ask me if Princess Amanita was inspired by anyone in real life. The answer is complicated -- she's a mixture of several little girls I've known, with a generous helping of pure imagination. But the more time I spend with my imaginary dangerous princess, the more I notice all the real life dangerous princesses. I'm talking about women and girls who take risks and take charge, who go out and make something happen for themselves or for the world. I've got a little list of them that I keep adding to as I run across them and I thought maybe it would be good to share them. So here's one -- Sarah Kavanaugh.

 

Sarah Kavanagh

 

Kavanaugh's 15. She lives in Mississippi, and she's kind of ticked off that there are bromines in her Gatorade. You might remember bromine as an ingredient in brominated flame retardants, which I wrote about for the New York Times Magazine over the summer. It's pretty nasty stuff. What's it doing in Gatorade? An ingredient called Brominated Vegetable Oil is used to keep the flavors from separating. As The New York Times reports,

While most people have limited exposure to brominated vegetable oil, an extensive article about it by Environmental Health News that ran in Scientific American last year found that video gamers and others who binge on sodas and other drinks containing the ingredient experience skin lesions, nerve disorders and memory loss.

Kavanaugh finds that kind of gross, and so she started a petition on Change.org. 

 

“It’s empowering to know that I could start something that could change the chemical makeup of this beverage,” she told the Clarion Ledger.

So far, her petition has gathered more than 193,000 signatures.

Keep your eye on Sarah Kavanaugh. I think she's dangerous and I mean that in the best possible way.

 

 

Cross posted from the Authors for Earth Day blog:

Because I’m an environmental journalist as well as the author of four books for children, people often ask me if I write “environmentalist” children’s books. I find it tough to answer.  What makes a book “environmentalist?”  Must an environmentalist book speak overtly about the dangers of global warming and toxic chemicals?

I’ve never written a book about pollution or deforestation or a planet in peril, and I tend to shy away from books with an overt message. At the same time, my books are infused with my personal values, which are, among other things, environmentalist.  The plot of my book The Sea Serpent and Me hinges on the need to return a rapidly-growing sea serpent to his native habitat—the sea. My book Baby Shoes features a mother and child taking a walk through their neighborhood, and was inspired in part by my belief that children flourish when they’re outside getting dirty.

Amanita in her garden in Dangerously Ever After

My newest book, Dangerously Ever After, takes place almost entirely in a garden filled with thorny, stinky and poisonous plants. Will it lure children into the garden to grow unusual plants of their own? I hope it will at least make them curious about the bizarre and dangerous flora of the real world and the fun that can be had with dirt, shovel, and a few seeds.

Certainly that makes my books part of a dwindling category. A recent study of Caldecott-winning picture books from 1938 to 2008 found a sharp decline in the depiction of natural environments since the 1960s. “I am concerned that this lack of contact may result in caring less about the natural world,” the study’s lead author said. 

I agree. While I think The Lorax by Dr. Seuss is a masterpiece, I worry about defining nature primarily as a place grown-ups have ruined rather than as a source of adventure and delight. Love is a better motivator than fear and I think we will create better environmental citizens by letting our own love of the natural world infuse the stories we tell. To me, the best environmentalist books for kids are ones that cultivate a curiosity about the natural world—and the courage to explore it.

Of course we must be candid with children about our own great failures as stewards of the planet. But let’s also invite them outside, to take walks and get dirty, to swim in the sea and run on the sand, to dig in the soil and explore the darkness of forests and the fragrance of flowers. In a world where terms like “nature deficit disorder” have become commonplace, our very first step as environmentalists and as authors must be to cultivate a love for the outdoors. 

A while back, my pal Jim Averbeck and I got this idea to promote our books together. Book promotion is a lonely thing, and I was looking for company. It gets boring talking about your own book all the time, especially when you're not sure if anyone's listening. I figured, if Jim and I promoted our books together, I could talk about his  book some of the time, and when I talked about my own book, I'd know at least he was listening. 

It's turned out to be a pretty wonderful thing. For one thing, we've both probably done a lot more promotion than we would have otherwise, since we each didn't want to let the other one down. Generally, I'd rather write new books than call or email around trying to get people interested in one I've already written. But I'd promised Jim I'd contact those 20 people, just like he'd promised me he'd contact the other 20. So, I called and emailed, and did all the mortifying stuff you have to do when you're promoting a book And the result is, we've gotten quite a bit of attention for our books as well as for the nifty bookplate promotion we're doing with three other marvelous authors. Plus, we've had some really interesting conversations about this whole business of writing books for children. The conversations have been part of our Dragon and Dangerous Princess Blog Tour. and I have collected all the blog tour stops here in one place, so you can listen in, or join in via the Comments section below.

Monkey Poop

Read, Write, Repeat

The Well Read Child

Lori Calabrese

Charlotte's Library

Design of the Picture Book

There's more to come, too, so stay tuned!

 

 

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The only gift better than a book is an autographed book, and the only gift better than an autographed book is an autographed book with a personal inscription from the author. But children's book authors can be reclusive and hard to locate, particularly during the holiday season. Luckily for you, we tend to hang around in clumps, usually somewhere near the egg nog. This weekend, I tracked down four fabulous picture book author/illustrators and together the five of us have come up with an easy way for you to get personally inscribed and autographed copies of our latest books.

 

Step 1: Purchase any of these five books from the bookstore of your choice (we recommend patronizing your local independent bookstore or buying online from indiebound.com.)

 

Step 2: Fill out this online form to request your personalized sticky-backed bookplate. It'll come by mail, no charge.

 

Step 3: Place the bookplate in the book and place the book under the tree (or next to the menorah).

 

Step 4: Pour yourself a glass of your favorite beverage. Shopping's done!

 

Who are the authors? Jim AverbeckGianna MarinoMaria van LieshoutMelissa GuionDashka Slater (that's me). Not only supremely talented, but with beautiful signatures, too.

 

 

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One of the most exciting things about having a new book is being able to develop new assemblies and writing workshops to go with it. The past couple of weeks has been a whirlwind of different kinds of Dangerously Ever After themed events, in bookstores, libraries, faires, festivals, and schools, and I've loved doing all of them, whether it's assemblies, readings, signings, crafts or a combination. But the thing I love most of all is doing writing workshops. After I've spent an hour writing with kids I feel like I've just swallowed a six pack of batteries, but without the indigestion. I'm usually jumping up and down, grabbing people by the elbows and imploring them to just LISTEN for one moment to the pure unadulterated genius of children's imaginations. If you could bottle the stuff, there would never be a dull moment anywhere. My job, as a writing teacher, is usually just to unstopper the bottle. Those weird thoughts you usually have to push aside so you can concentrate on school -- for the next 45 minutes, they get to be front and center.

The beginning of a writing workshop usually involves giving permission. "Can we write in pencil?" Yes. "Can we write in pen?" Yes. "Can we do a rough draft?" Yes. "Can we draw pictures?" Yes. "Can I make stuff up?" Yes. "Can it be funny?" Most emphatically, yes. There are a lot of rules in school, many of them sensible, but I have the privilege of suspending most of them for the time we're together. 

One of the rules I like to suspend is the one about who's "good" at writing, and who isn't. This is an unwritten rule, but most of the kids know it. The kids who are "good" at writing are usually the ones who find the pen-to-paper mechanics easy, the good spellers, the ones with neat handwriting, the ones who feel confident about their opinions. But in a writing workshop, those rules don't apply. Kids with lousy handwriting and absurd spelling can be great writers and so can shy kids and silly kids and kids who have trouble knowing what to say. The rule-breakers usually do just as well -- sometimes better -- than the rule followers, because, as I always tell them, "I like to be surprised."

Last week, a little boy named Jaspre's hand shot up in the air when I asked who in the class hates writing. But by the end of the workshop, he'd written a fabulous story about planting a piece of wood and having it grow into a play structure. Yesterday I got a letter from him. "Dear Ms. Dashka," he wrote. "Thank you for teaching us about making good stories." 

 

 

Because Dangerously Ever After revolves around a mix up between rose seeds and nose seeds, I've been having kids write seed stories and poems. We always begin by writing one as a group. Here's one written by a group of second graders at Francis Scott Key Elementary School in San Francisco last week:

We have a black seed.

It’s round like a circle.

It’s pointy like a porcupine.

It’s the size of an ant.

It wants to be planted in the playground

because

it will grow into a porcupine!

 

And here's one written by a group of fourth graders at Bridgeway Island Elementary School in West Sacramento, California:

 

We have some seeds.

They’re red.

They have little spikes.

They look like mutant pigs with wings.

They can fly.

They have afros.

They’re enormous and skinny.

They smell like week-old hamburger and old-lady perfume.

They smell like skunk spray.

They look like robots.

 

We plant them in the bottom of the swamp.

We plant them in the bottom of people’s throats.

We plant them in the dump.

We plant them on people’s heads.

We plant them on my brother’s back.

Instead of water they need ogre saliva.

 

When they sprout they look like

the globe with a stick figure body and gorilla feet.

They look like little mutant pigs with wings.

They look like sweat with eyeballs.

When they eat paper they double in size.

 

They’re useful for cooking.

They’re useful as abstract pieces of art.

They’re useful for eating.

They’re un-useful because they enslave humanity.

They’re called the Big Bang and they can do anything.

They’re used to burn things down.

They’re used as an antidote to heal spider bites.

They’re used to do your homework and your chores.

They can clone themselves.

They cost $750.000 each.

 

Pure genius, right? 

 

 

 

Jim Averbeck and I are both picture book writers. He's an illustrator too.

 

We both really like to make things. So we decided that we'd celebrate our new books, Dangerously Ever After and Oh No, Little Dragon!, by being Makers at the East Bay Mini Maker Faire on October 14, 2012 at Park Day School in Oakland, California. 

 

Once we decided to be Makers, our next decision was....what to make? We went to our books for inspiration.

 

 

For my book, Dangerously Ever After, I knew I wanted to make some kind of dangerous plant, since the main character, Princess Amanita, has the world's most dangerous garden. But what kind? Well, why not Amanita mushrooms?

 

These guys are made out of crepe paper dipped in wax -- perfect for the Maker Faire. Yesterday, Jim and I spent some time playing with different ways to make them and I think we've hit upon the coolest method. You can make any kind of mushroom you want - - here are a few I made in Jim's living room.

 

 

Meanwhile, Jim's been working on a dragon noisemaker made out of a toilet paper tube and blue crepe paper. It blows crepe paper fire! 

Jim with dragon

 

Every hour, we'll be reading our books aloud on the rug for those who want a little break from the bustle of making things. And of course we'll be selling signed copies of both our new books and many of our old ones.

 

I've got some other crafts I might do as well -- paper roses and noses like these ones:

 

 

We can't wait! You can check out the full list of Makers at www.ebmakerfaire.com. To get 15% off advance ticket prices, use the code PRINCESS.

 

 

 

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I was interviewed on the Galley Cat podcast today about my new book Dangerously Ever After and about the craft of writing picture books. 

 

My two pieces of advice for writers: learn the form and don't be a blowhard. 

 

My advice for parents: keep reading aloud to your kids, long after they can read on their own.

 

You can listen to the complete interview here.

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I'm developing a variety of crafts related to Dangerously Ever After. Some are just for fun and some are ones I'm doing at book store events and other appearances. I'm still trying to figure out which one to do at the East Bay Mini Maker Faire on October 14 -- I'll be posting some different options and if you have an opinion, please weigh in.

If you're not nervous about a big vat of hot wax, these Amanita muscaria are easy to make, with just white crepe paper twisted into the mushroom shape and then dipped in wax. Afterwards I painted them with alcohol based ink. They have a nice botanical look to them and they reminded me of this poem by Emily Dickinson:

The Mushroom is the Elf of Plants —

At Evening, it is not —
At Morning, in a Truffled Hut
It stop upon a Spot

As if it tarried always
And yet its whole Career
Is shorter than a Snake’s Delay
And fleeter than a Tare —

‘Tis Vegetation’s Juggler —
The Germ of Alibi —
Doth like a Bubble antedate
And like a Bubble, hie —

I feel as if the Grass was pleased
To have it intermit —
This surreptitious scion
Of Summer’s circumspect.

Had Nature any supple Face
Or could she one contemn —
Had Nature an Apostate —
That Mushroom — it is Him!

 

 

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My article on Arlene Blum's fight against the use of flame retardants in furniture continues to get lots of attention -- and to raise lots of questions. The first batch of queries was all about couches and whether it's possible to find one that is free of chemical flame retardants. I have some answers for people here.

The next batch of questions was about mattresses -- and most particularly about memory foam. My mother emailed me after the piece came out to tell me that she was sending her memory foam mattress to the dump. I quickly assured her -- as I will assure you -- that she can sleep peacefully. The federal mattress standard requires that mattresses meet a different open flame ignition and combustion test from the one used for furniture in California. Contrary to what you may read elsewhere on the Internet, manufacturers typically meet this very demanding standard using barrier materials -- either fiber batting that is inherently combustion-resistant or cotton fiber that has been treated with boric acid (a low-toxicity mineral.) Using flame retardants to meet the standard would not only be expensive, it would also make the foam very stiff and uncomfortable. So while you may have other reasons for wanting an "organic" or chemical-free mattress, you don't need to worry about flame retardants.

 

 

 

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One of my favorite parts of being a children's book writer is going into schools to talk about what I do. Not only is it an opportunity for me to get to get away from the computer and hang out with real people, it's also a chance to unleash my Inner Hambone. My school presentations are usually exceedingly silly, with costumes and props and puppets and goofy jokes and group poetry-writing and as much audience participation as I can muster without causing a stampede. But they also include wonderful conversations with kids about books and writing -- conversations that invariably send me home in a giddy, delighted mood because I'm reminded how much children love books, and what fine, perceptive, and enthusiastic readers they are and how privileged I am to have them as my intended audience. 

Sadly, in these lean times, schools have less and less money to bring in authors and illustrators to do school-wide assemblies or classroom workshops. That's too bad for everyone. But I recently started working with a booking agent who specializes in setting up Virtual Visits, which are online conversations between authors or illustrators and school classrooms. Virtual Visits are a low-cost way for teachers to introduce children to the people who create books, and while they don't get me away from my computer, or allow me to make full use of my Inner Hambone, they do allow me to do the most important thing of all -- talk with kids and answer their questions about writing. I still do in-person visits through my regular booking agent, Susan Katz, but I'm pretty excited but these Virtual Visits too, which is why I made a little video spot, explaining what they are. I learned a lot while I was making it -- both about where I need to put the microphone and the importance of looking at the webcam rather than the computer screen, but also that doing anything with cats requires endless amounts of patience. Still, the creature was in my lap -- how could I not include him?

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The other night a friend invited me to a dance performance at ODC in San Francisco – a competition in which audience members decide which choreographers will receive a $10,000 grant to develop new work. I went in knowing nothing about the choreographers or the pieces and left feeling electric with inspiration -- nothing feeds the artistic impulse more than art itself. (“Her response to any performance, any work of art, was the desire to make another, to make her own,” A.S. Byatt says in The Children's Book, describing the “relentlessly busy inventiveness” of Olive, a writer of children’s books. That’s it, exactly.)

What struck me at this particular performance was that choreographers and writers share a certain way of thinking about the creative process. We both make art that unfolds sequentially, over time, and we both use a vocabulary of words or movements that we manipulate in similar ways – repeating and reversing them, placing them in conversations (duets) or interior monologues (solos), seeking to build tension and then resolve it. In a discussion with the audience after the performance two of the four choreographers whose works were performed said that their pieces were inspired by poetry – albeit in very different ways. Liss Fain (“Speak of Familiar Things”) was inspired by a poem by Wallace Stevens called Debris of Life and Mind” from which the title of her piece was taken. Choreographer Katie Faulkner, whose piece “Until We Know For Sure” was both the evening’s winner and my personal favorite, came to poetry from a different angle. She was aiming, she said, for a “poetic economy.” 

As a poet and picture book writer I knew just what she meant – both forms are like a tincture of narrative, requiring the writer to distill paragraphs into a single potent line. It was this distillation that Faulkner was aiming for. “I kept throwing stuff out because I wanted to stay interested,” she said, adding that she had been feeling bored by her own “movement palette” – her artistic habits of mind.

All of us, when we’re cutting things out, worry that we’re cutting out the good stuf. But Faulkner’s piece felt neither minimalist nor abstract. In fact, it was the warmest, funniest, and most human of the four we saw that night. An exploration of a relationship between a man and a woman, it left me feeling as if I had just read an entire novel about the two people and their time together. By cutting out everything extraneous, she had allowed what remained to breathe, blossom, and expand, to achieve its full power. 

I scribbled down Faulkner’s comments about throwing stuff out because I’m in the midst of a series of picture book revisions right now and so I’ve been contemplating the alchemy of addition by subtraction. Creativity, for me, begins in a rush of generation – words, ideas, plots, jokes, descriptions, images, phrases – that “busy inventiveness” Byatt describes. To try to constrain or direct the flow would stanch it completely – I have to let it all spill on the page. But then, the process of subtraction begins. At first, I don’t want to cut. Sure a few things can go, but so much of it feels essential. But as I begin to subtract, I find that something happens to the words I’ve left behind. The pure lines of the story emerge from the unwieldy blob of words. The unencumbered sentences seem truer, more potent.

It’s hard to do – heartbreaking sometimes. All the same, scissors can be the most useful implement in the writer’s toolbox.

I just finished recording a new video spot, promoting my school visits. Recording the spot reminded me how much I love doing school visits, and how hard it is for schools to pay for them these days. So I’m offering some amazing discounts to schools and libraries that book events for the 2010-2011 school year:

  • Book two or more same-day assemblies and I’ll throw in A FREE WRITING WORKSHOP for up to 35 students -- a $350 value!
  • Book at least two same-day assemblies or workshops and I’ll send you25 FREE AUTOGRAPHED COPIES of my picture book Firefighters in the Dark to distribute to students or sell as a fund-raiser – a $400 value!
  • Book a one-hour Virtual Visit or a single Assembly and I’ll DISCOUNT THE PRICE BY $50 and send you AUTOGRAPHED COPIES of both Firefighters in the Dark and The Sea Serpent and Me for your school library -- an $88 value!

You can learn more about my school visits here. Or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. for more information: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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I was looking forward to the Independent’s round-up of bloodiest children’s bedtime stories but it turned out to be a disappointment. Nine of the ten are fairytales, but really, the observation that fairytales are bloody is hardly newsworthy. Kind of like noticing that football players get injured a lot.

The article made me thirst for something more startling -- a list of beloved children’s books that turn out to be downright creepy when you read them as an adult. (While I didn’t find one, I did find this wonderful list of odd contemporary picture books.) I’m not talking about books like The Hunger Games, which is in many ways less creepy than one might expect, but the old chestnuts you settle down to read with your small ones and then discover, with increasing discomfort, are unexpectedly sadistic or disturbing or just plain weird. Here are four that come to mind.

1. The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein 

Sometimes called “the co-dependent’s handbook,” this is a story about a loving, mother-like tree who gets hacked to pieces by the boy she loves. In the end, the boy – now an old man – rests on her lifeless stump. Kind of like Boxing Helena for preschoolers.

2. Thomas the Tank Engine by the Reverend W. Awdry

Maybe you’ve read the modern version, which had some of its more disturbing parts removed by marketing genius Britt Allcroft. But if you read the original you’ll discover that the Island of Sodor, where Thomas and the other train engines live, is a brutal and hierarchical place reminiscent of a turn-of-the-century English boarding school. The engines taunt and play tricks on one another and suck up to the Fat Controller (called Sir Topham Hatt in later versions) by roughing up the lowest members of the pecking order, the ill-natured freight cars. In a typical story, Henry, Gordon and James, the three top-tier engines, refuse to fetch their coaches which they say is “beneath them.” The Fat Controller responds by locking them in the engine shed, where they remain for the duration of the story.

"Henry, Gordon and James stayed shut in the Shed, and were cold, lonely and miserable," the story concludes. "They wished now they hadn't been so silly."

Goodnight children, pleasant dreams! 

3. Bedtime for Frances by Russell Hoban

I love the Frances books with their wonderful Lillian Hoban illustrations and their homey, childlike mood, but this is one of those books that feels pretty weird to a modern reader. Frances keeps getting out of bed because she’s creeped out by nighttime noises like the wind blowing the curtains. Finally, her irritated father tells her to stick a sock in it or she’ll get a spanking.

Father said, “I have not finished. If the wind does not blow the curtains, he will be out of a job. If I do not go to the office, I will be out of a job. And if you do not go to sleep now, do you know what will happen to you?” 

“I will be out of a job?” said Frances. 

“No,” said Father. 

“I will get a spanking?” said Frances. 

“Right!” said Father.

Once Father’s gone back to bed, Frances hears a moth knocking against the window.

 

His wings smacked the glass.

Whack and smack!

Whack and smack made Frances think of a spanking.

And all of a sudden she was tired.

Nothing like fear of a beating to put your worries about moths in perspective, I guess. 

4. Sylvester and the Magic Pebble by William Steig

Here’s the plot. Sylvester finds a magic rock that grants wishes. One day he gets menaced by a lion and wishes he was a rock. Poof, he’s a rock, and the magic pebble is now on the ground beside him. He can’t reach it because he’s a rock. He can’t call for help, because he’s a rock. His parents conclude he’s dead. "They were miserable. Life had no meaning for them any more.” 
Years go by. Eventually Sylvester’s mother and father picnic right by the rock that was Sylvester and talk about how much they miss him. 

How he wanted to shout, ‘Mother! Father! It’s me, Sylvester, I’m right here!’ But he couldn’t talk. He had no voice.

The fact that all ends happily does little to blunt the extreme creepiness of this scenario, which is the stuff childhood nightmares are made of. 

What are your nominations for surprisingly creepy kids books?

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Phillip Nel of Kansas State University tells us that "people who don't know any better call it post-modern" and after you watch this fun little video you'll never be one of those people again. What's nice about this piece is that it ties together a lot of seemingly disparate strands in children's literature and makes you see how so much of what seems contemporary in literature -- and therefore either refreshing or frightening -- is as old as the urge to tell stories. It also illuminates how playful metafiction is -- and thus, how much it belongs in children's literature. Kids love to explore the boundaries of things, test what makes it what it is and how it is you make one yourself. Metafiction says that stories are something you make.

Nel leaves out my favorite metafictioneer in kidlit, Emily Gravett, whose books Wolves amd Little Mouse's Big Book of Fears are both classics of the genre. But he includes pop-up books in the metafiction category, which I'd never have thought of on my own. There's been some recent discussion about pop-up books being less educational than their conventional cousins, which is the kind of thing that book purists like myself tend to crow about. But in this case the crowing -- and I saw plenty of it among bibliophiles -- seems misguided at best.

The discussion was triggered by a pair of studies led by University of Virginia psychologist Medha Tare and published in the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology found that children who were given the same information in books with conventional and pop-up illustrations learned more from the two-dimensional illustrations than the three dimensional ones. To quote from the Miller McCune article on the experiments:

A second experiment featured 48 children ages 27 to 32 months. Like their younger counterparts, they looked through one of the three books. As they did so, the experimenter pointed out certain facts, such as “chicks like to eat worms” and “monkeys like to eat bananas.” They were later asked to recall this information, answering such questions as “Which one likes to eat worms?”

The results mirrored those of the first experiment. The kids who looked at the photo-illustration book did the best, while those exposed to the pop-up book did the worst.

I tend not to be impressed by the reader comments on news stories, but in this case readers spotted the flaws with the studies immediately – faster, apparently, than the editors of the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology. First off, two year olds aren’t really the target audience for pop-up books – they’re too young to be able to manipulate the paper constructions without breaking them. But more importantly, what’s your definition of “learning?” As one savvy commenter observed:

“I love the obtuseness of the researchers. OK, so the child didn't pick up the specific information he's to spit out like a machine in order to become a good corporate drone someday. Instead, he entered a three-dimensional world, played with spatial relations, and probably had some fascinating discoveries and thoughts going on in that little brain of his.”

By including pop-ups in his definition of metafiction, Nel allows us to see pop-ups for what they are – a way of inviting children to play with the bookness of a book, to break the two-dimensional barrier and shorten the literal distance between reader and reading material. While I’d agree that pop-ups don’t bring you into the story in the way that a conventional picture book does, it doesn’t need to. It’s doing something else. 

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