The old blog has been a bit quieter than usual. That’s because I was gone almost the whole month of September on a road trip.
With a dog, two kids, two adults, and one not-so-large camper.
We passed through numerous national parks, stopped in mega metroplises to visit friends and eat pastries, and even made it all the way out to the Northwest most point of the continental US. (From central Illinois. It was a HAUL.)
Since I mostly talk about my writing here, let me tell you about the writing I did on this trip.
Zero. Zilch. Nada. Not one word.
But it ended up being wonderful for my writing.
Before the trip, I had been revising several picture books as part of my mentorship. I was also working on a new middle grade novel. And I felt stuck on all of them.
When I say “stuck,” I don’t mean that I was waiting for the light of inspiration to fall on me complete with celestial choir. Because that doesn’t exist.
Instead, I take the approach that Maya Angelou does:
“When I’m writing, I write. Then it’s as if the muse is convinced that I’m serious and say ‘Okay. Okay. I’ll come.'” – Maya Angelou
Doing the work of writing brings inspiration, not the other way around. And nearly always, the answer to my writing problem is to sit down and do the work.
Occasionally there are other factors at play, too.
ME: Let’s write!
ME: How about coffee?
BRAIN: Took you long enough. #amwriting#maybe#coffee
But sometimes even when I do the work, even when I’m appropriately caffeinated, things just don’t… work. Bad writing days are par for the course, but when I’m doing my best to emulate Maya Angelou and all I can muster up is Charles Darwin on a bad day? That’s not good.
“I am very poorly today and very stupid and hate everybody and everything. One lives only to make blunders. ” – Charles Darwin on a very bad, no good, horrible day
And this is where I was before our road trip. I was doing the work but not getting much of anywhere.
Ironically, this happened partly because I have been growing a lot as a writer. My own efforts and the mentorship I’ve been working on this summer have meant growing and stretching. I’m more aware than ever of the flaws in my writing, but I haven’t quite improved my skills enough to fix those problems.
I feel like this is may be a universal truth: the better you get at writing, the harder it is. Or maybe it’s just me.
So I found myself with a pile of manuscripts that were both some of the best things I had ever written and also with the realization that they were not quite good enough. But I didn’t know how to fix them. Which had me feeling very poorly and stupid indeed.
And then I took a break. A looooooong break.
I intended to write along the way. I love writing and usually can’t stay away for long, even on vacation. But it was a very packed trip (see previous regarding 6000k miles in under a month with CHILDREN). And also, my writing self was still feeling poorly and stupid. So instead I giggled like a maniac at my landlocked children experiencing the Pacific Ocean for the first time.
(In the interest of fairness, they had been dodging the surf for a few minutes before this much large wave rolled in.
When I got back, I was nervous. A month is a long time away and things hadn’t exactly been going great. But I channeled Maya Angelou and sat down to work.
And… it worked!
I unblocked a picture book revision, added a few thousand words to my middle grade work in progress, and finished a blog post that has been on my list for awhile.
A month of relaxing, putting it out of my head, listening to good books and podcasts, seeing and doing enough things to make my introverted self tired for the next year – it helped. A lot.
I routinely do walk away from manuscripts to get some distance. A little distance often helps you find solutions. And I had tried that. But I don’t usually stop writing – I just switch to a different writing project. That works well when ONE manuscript is misbehaving, but not for ALL of them. For that I needed a total break.
Which brings me to a second possible universal truth about writing: Sometimes you have to step away from the page and live for a while before you are ready to write. Hopefully, it doesn’t always involve as much driving.
I’ve been wanting to write this blog post for a long time to share how I use bullet journaling to help me write my middle grade novels. I’m in the middle of writing a new novel right now, so it’s the perfect time for me share.
It’s also nearly NaNoWriMo time! If you’re not familiar with National Novel Writing month, you should go check it out. People all over the globe are busily preparing to write a novel in the month of November.
This post is for anyone who is writing a novel. Whether you are:
doing NaNoWriMo and writing a novel in a month
taking your time the rest of the year (or years)
plotting it all out beforehand
or pantsing your way through to THE END,
every novelist will benefit from having a bullet journal.
A novel bullet journal is different from a regular bullet journal
Everything I shared before was from my planning bullet journal. My 2019 planning bujo is a silver Rhodia goalbook. I use it for bringing together all the aspects of my writing career: planning for multiple manuscripts, critique groups, blogging, marketing, lists of books to read and review, etc.
I’ve found that I drop fewer balls when all the planning information is in one place, so all the planning and prioritizing go into my regular bullet journal.
A novel Bullet journal has a different purpose: to hold all the details about your novel. It has an index and a lot of collections. It doesn’t have any planning (so no logs). It’s focused so that you can focus on your novel. The bujo for my current work in progress is a teal Scribbles That Matter notebook.
Yes, I use a separate notebook.
Ok, yes, it is possible to put all the novel information into your regular bullet journal in between your ideas for blog posts and daily planning. But that can make it hard to find information – especially when it spills over into a new notebook.
I start a new planning bullet journal every year. If I put my novel information into my regular journal, all that information would be spread across two or three (or more) years of bullet journals.
Instead, for each novel, I buy a separate journal. All the information for that novel goes into that journal. If I want to look up a fact from my first novel, it will definitely be in the sky-blue notebook. If I need to check a detail for the current novel, it’s in the grape purple notebook.
So for me, I keep a planning bullet journal each year plus a separate bullet journal for each novel.
If I haven’t convinced you yet, consider this: we writers love to buy notebooks and I just gave you an excuse!
Hopefully, I have now sold you on having a bullet journal to help you write a novel. So let’s take a look at some of the things that can go into your novel bullet journal
Collections for inspiration and planning
A new novel usually starts here: with inspiration and early planning.
Inspiration or mood board
A lot of writers find it helpful to create a mood board or inspiration board for their writing. If you put those things in your bullet journal, you have a mood board that can travel to the coffee shop with you.
pictures that inspire you
Protip: adding large things in your journal is easy with a piece of washi tape. Plus, now you have a reason to buy pretty washi tape. The video below shows how I added some pictures and diagrams to my bullet journal for easy reference.
Brainstorming is a great way to get the creative juices rolling. I end up doing quick brainstorms throughout my writing process. I usually set aside a collection just for brainstorming. Whenever I need to think up, say, a funny name for a character’s pet chicken, I’ll flip to the brainstorming collection and make a list. When the pages fill up with these lists, I start another.
clues (for mysteries)
magical items (for fantasy)
literally whatever you need
Another form of brainstorming – One exercise I did with my current novel was to create a mindmap. I wrote out all the character names and settings in circles, then drew lines to show the relationships between them. It was really helpful so I could see which characters and subplots clustered together neatly and which… did not. That made it easy to target subplots to cut from an already over-stuffed plot.
This is where you get to the core of your novel: character, plot, setting, etc. If you’re a plotter, you’ll probably be developing all of this before your first draft. For us pantsers, you’ll be tracking this information as you write or after the first draft.
There are a million names for this idea – character sheet, character bible, character interview, … Whatever you call it, it’s a place to write down all the pertinent information about your character. Creating your character sheet is a great way to get to know your character.
Appearance (keep it brief: are they an elephant or a child or a pterodactyl with eczema?)
Internal problem/arc* (what is driving them?)
External problem/arc* (what is the outwardly visible problem in their lives?)
Sometimes these details change and I always learn a lot about my characters while writing. So I end up rewriting my character sheets with the new information:
Speech or body language tics
Likes and dislikes
People in their lives – friends, family, pets, …
All the idiosyncratic details that help them feel real.
*If you’re not sure what I mean by internal and external problems and arcs, I recommend reading a book on story structure like Wired for Story by Lisa Cron. You can get a taste from her TedTalk here.
Diagram of 3-act structure in a bullet journal from Page Flutter. I lean toward the pantsing side of the plotter-pantser spectrum. So I often go into a novel with just a rough overview of the plot. When I’m first thinking about the plot of a novel, I will usually freewrite long-hand to work out my ideas.
At some point in revision, I will use diagrams and charts full of plot points and all the things that plotters love.
I like to do my plotting on a whiteboard with sticky notes so I can move plot points around until I’m satisfied with them – or identify holes that need to be filled…
But when I’m done, I copy it down in my bullet journal for easy reference while writing. (Also: I have too many cats and kids for sticky notes to last through the entire drafting or revision process.)
Family tree/character mindmap
If you’ve got a big cast of characters, it can be helpful to have a visual to see how they all connect. A family tree is helpful for big families.
A mindmap that shows characters and how they’re related can also help you keep track of tangled social webs. For instance, look at the web I made for just a few of the Harry Potter characters.
This is a place to park all the information about a setting in your novel. You can snag photos from the internet. I often draw diagrams (they don’t have to be museum-worthy – just so I keep my layout of buildings and towns consistent) or I look up building diagrams online and tape in printouts. Maps may also be helpful – either hand-drawn or printed off of google maps
If your story starts in spring but 5 months go by before the end, you can’t have them picking daffodils in a spring shower in the last scene. (Unless you are on an alternate planet or reality where time and natural cycles work differently. You can make a collection for that, too.)
A timeline helps you to track the progression of time both so it’s believable and so you can nail those details that bring a novel to life: are the characters meeting while shivering under cover of night or sweating in the blazing sun of mid-afternoon summer? You can write it out by hand, but I like to type it into a spreadsheet which I print out and tape it into my bullet journal for reference.
Fantasy – world building details like cultures, languages, governance structures.
Sci-fi – technological details and world building
Mystery or thriller – Clues, villains, and red herrings.
Magical realism/fantasy – how does the magic “work”
Historical – all that research about your time/setting/characters
Humor – list of running jokes/callbacks
Tools to help you write
“Tracker” is the shorthand in the bullet journaling community for any type of collection that lets you track information over time. Consider:
word count (as you write)
chapters revised (as you revise)
number of chocolate bars eaten trying to sort out a plot hole (I don’t judge)
I like to use a simple word count tracker. Filling a page up with sparkly stickers is very satisfying.
If you’re trying to write a novel for NaNoWriMo, it can be helpful to track daily word count. Here is the official NaNoWriMo wordcount tracker for 2019.
Lists and Notes:
Simple but necessary. There’s a lot to keep track of so make a collection and give it a place to live where it can be easily found later (unlike that used napkin…)
Some collections I have used to hold notes and lists:
list of changes to make in the next draft (“Side character names are all boring – fix this.”)
questions that need answering (“Why does my character hate the villain so much? Need to work out backstory.”)
ideas for revision (“If I change the location of the earlier scene, readers will already know the location before getting to the pivotal scene later.”)
people to thank in acknowledgment – I keep this running list. It gets long very quickly.
References and writing helpers
If you find yourself looking up, say, an emotional thesaurus frequently, print it out and taping it in your bullet journal. That way it’s always handy – even when the internet goes down. (The horror…)
3 act structure diagram
hero’s journey diagram
list of words to cut from your writing
anything you find useful
Literally anything else that will fit in a notebook
A few days ago, my daughter leaned over my shoulder and asked what I was reading on my phone. It was a blog post about writing villains, so I told her it was about how to write a better story. Which led her to say:
“But you already know how to write.”
Yes and no. Yes, I already do know a lot about writing and have even gotten a few publications. No, I don’t know everything there is to know – not by a long shot. I can still learn to be a better writer.
No matter where you are on your journey, you can learn and improve. My favorite way to learn is by reading.
It’d been a couple of years since I last wrote a roundup of writing craft books – time for an update!
I’ve broken the list down into sections:
inspiration for all writers
books for fiction writers
books for nonfiction writers
books for children’s book writers
books on the business of being an author
A challenge: we learn a lot by studying our own genre – but I’ve also gained a lot by reading about writing in other genre’s. So consider branching out and reading a book that you normally wouldn’t.
Inspiration for all Writers
Big Magic: Creative Writing Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert is my top picks for all writers. Writing is hard – not just because producing good work requires substantial labor, but because our own mind often works against us in the form of internal critics, writers’ block, and lack of motivation. Her perspective will have you re-think your writing in ways that bring more joy and less fear.
Save the Cat Writes a Novel: The Last Book On Novel Writing You Will Ever Need by Jessica Brody – The original Save the Cat book was written to help screenwriters, but many novelists found that, with a little adaptation, the method also applied very well to writing books. Now Jessica Brody has written a book just for us novelist – with examples and additional information just for novelists. (Though I think a lot can be applied to shorter forms – like picture books.) The method is heavy on plot development – even if you don’t pre-plot your books, it can be helpful for analyzing a rough draft and making changes to improve pacing and story arc. (I used it this way in revising my first novel.)
How to Write a Book Proposal by Michael Larson – When writing nonfiction you often send publishers a proposal rather than a completed manuscript. That can be daunting if you’ve never written a proposal before. This book has everything you need to know to write a proposal. If you have no idea what I’m even talking about, this would be a good place to start. It’s thorough but written to be an easy read and includes lots of helpful samples from real proposals.
The Weekend Book Proposal: How to Write a Winning Proposal in 48 hours and Sell Your Book by Ryan G. Van Cleave – If you want a lighter version to get you started on your book proposal, this might be the book for you. The title is misleading, though. That means 48 working hours. Maybe some people work around the clock on the weekend but I, for one, like sleep and food. Misleading title aside, it’s a helpful book and would be a good choice for someone just starting out with writing proposals.
Books for Children’s Book Writers:
Most writing craft books assume you are writing for adults. Principles of good characters, pacing, and plot hold for all books, no matter the age of your audience. But there are also differences between the kids and adult book markets and the needs of these audiences. So if you’re writing for kids, check out these books, too, in addition to the ones above.
Writing Picture Books: A Hands-on Guide from Story Creation to Publication by Ann Whitford Paul – If you write picture books, you need this book. I read the original edition a couple of years ago and learned so much from it. This past year a revised edition came out with updated examples and new information about the market. A friend invited me to an online book study group to go through the new edition. Even though I had read the previous edition, I still learned a ton. It really is that good.
Anatomy of Nonfiction: Writing True Stories for Children by Margery Facklam and Peggy Thomas – This primer covers everything you need to know to get started writing nonfiction for kids. It was a great book for me when I was getting started and it’s still a great book now that I have a few manuscripts under my belt. Note: this book goes in and out of print which means the price can fluctuate a lot. I recommend keeping an eye out for used copies.
Books about the Business of Being an Author
The Business of Being a Writer by Jane Friedman – This is the only book I’m including on the list that I have not, personally, read from cover to cover. (I’m working on it!) I’m including it based on what I have read so far, the numerous recommendations I’ve been given, and my experience of getting so much valuable information off of her blog over the years. There are lots of books that cover one aspect of the writing business (I list some below), but this is the only one I’ve seen that is comprehensive. If you want to have a career in writing – this book will tell you everything you need to know.
The Writers Digest Guide to Query Letters by Wendy Burt-Thomas – After you’ve finished your manuscript masterpiece, you’ll have to write a query letter so you can begin to query agents and editors (i.e. try to convince them to take on your book). This one-page document is somehow even harder than writing the manuscript itself. This is an entire book that will help you learn how to craft a one-page document.
Children’s Writers and Illustrator’s Market or, if you’re writing for adults: Writers Market – Once you’ve gotten your manuscript or proposal squeaky clean and ready to send out, you’ll need to figure out how to get it into the hands of the agent or editor of your dreams. These books are designed exactly for that. They’re updated every year to keep up with changes in the market.
In my last post, I explained how the editor at the publishing company works as a matchmaker to pair the right illustrator with each manuscript. Lynne picks up there to explain what the process looks like from her side of the bookmaking process.
An editor will contact an illustrator to see if they want to work on the project. If the illustrator agrees, they’ll start making the art.
Often the illustrator will discuss the artwork ahead of time with the editor or art director. Together they will develop an overall vision or discussing what to put on each page. Sometimes not.
Often the illustrators will spend time developing character sketches before making the rest of the artwork. They may make thumbnails or other rough sketches of their work. Sometimes not.
But once the illustrator develops the line art, they will usually send it off to the editor to get their feedback.
Illustrators don’t finalize the artwork (adding color etc.) until after everyone at the publishing house is satisfied with the line drawings.
Each artist has their own process. The way I create my manuscripts is not the same as another writer, though some parts of the process are similar: we all revise. (And revise. And revise. And…)
The same is true for illustrators.
While Lynne drew her illustrators by hand with physical materials (paper, pencils, paint), in this video Will is using computer software that allows him to draw on a tablet with a stylus.
Isn’t this video soothing?
Notice that although the medium is different (paper vs. computer), both Lynne and Will go through a similar process: they create a rough sketch, refine it until they’re satisfied with the line art, then begin to color it in. Whatever you call it, revision really is universal.
(I have asked people weirder questions while writing.)
In this video, she shares how she created one of her cartoon images. Like Will, Debbie is creating this piece using computer software. And you can see how she refines her initial idea – trying variations, tinkering, and making adjustments until she lands on a final version she is happy with.
But we can also revisit one of our illustrators to see what she has to say.
Here Lynne Chapman shares her story of how she became a children’s book illustrator:
These days, illustrators typically send portfolios to art directors, art agents, or show them at conferences like those hosted by the SCBWI. If you entice them with the quality of your work, they will contact you to discuss illustrating a book.
However you get your big break, the starting point is the same: work really hard by practicing your art, perfecting your craft, and learning about the business. Joining the SCBWI is a great first step as it gives you a wealth of resources.
If you missed my first post in the series, check it out below. Next time, I’ll discuss the different paths authors can take to publication in more detail. Stay tuned!
The illustrator decides what art to put on the page – along with the editor and art director.
Note that the author is not in that list of people.
Authors can give general guidelines. For instance, when I sent my editor the query for I Pray Today, I told her that the manuscript
“follows a child through his day, from waking with a “Good morning, God,” to getting tucked in at bedtime – always with a prayer on his lips:
Good morning, God. The day is new. I say my first small prayer to You.
The last part is the opening of the manuscript. I never told them what to put on the page with it, yet it turned out perfectly.
Author’s can (very very occasionally) include an art note to explain what illustration needs to go with a piece of text. This is reserved for cases where the text doesn’t make sense without the art. Giving a note helps the editor to understand the text in the same way that a reader would – with both text and art together.
For example, one part of I Pray Today includes the text:
Dad says dinner’s piping hot. I stuff in food, but – oops, forgot.
Why does she say “oops?”
What did she forget?
Once you see the artwork, it makes perfect sense:
She forgot to pray first! In my manuscript, I included an art note to explain this: [ART: Kid starts eating before prayer.]
That’s the only art note in the whole manuscript because that’s the only one that was needed. Even then, I kept it to just what was needed to understand the text. I still left most of the decisions up to the illustrator: Who is at dinner? Are they at home, a restaurant, somewhere else? How will you show that she forgot to pray?
This came up recently. An adult reader contacted me on behalf of his child wanting to know: what are they eating?
Good question! I really had no idea, since I hadn’t made that decision. So I sent it off an email to my editor who said:
Good question! And she emailed the illustrator to find out.
I had fun polling my friends on social media while I waited for the answer. Most people guessed chicken nuggets with either fries or green beans.
Well, we were a little bit right:
All in all, it was a lot of fun finding out the answer. (Also, I really want to try those pommes noisettes.)
What If the Illustrations Are Wrong?
This is the whispered question that everyone is dying to know but nervous to ask.
Aspiring authors especially seem to struggle with this. It’s scary to give up control of something you have worked so hard on.
Ready for another shocker?
It’s not just your book. It certainly feels that way – as an author, you come up with a concept, agonize over every word, and revise until your fingers fall off. But with a picture book or board book, text and illustration work together. They’re a package deal.
And also: It almost always works out wonderfully. I have worked with three different illustrators over seven books and, each time, I was blown away by their work. Every. single. time.
This spread from Goodnight Jesus is a great example. I gave the editor general guidelines for the form of this book, just like I did for I Pray Today. I told them it was a bedtime story focused on giving kisses – a child works their way toward bedtime but giving, and eventually receiving, kisses. But I didn’t specify how that should be shown. In my head, I imagined the child in their family icon corner kissing icons then moving toward bed giving out kisses as they go.
Instead, the illustrator put the child into the icons. I had imagined a static version, but he made it interactive. That makes for a more engaging illustration and book. Plus you can see both the love the child is giving AND the love the child is receiving. That’s a deep theological statement – but boiled down to a child’s level.
The two images together in ways I didn’t consider. Notice how the position of the two babies are mirror images of one another. Even Jesus’ body language mirrors Mary’s – each is cuddling a baby they love. That makes the images work together both on an aesthetic level,and a theological level.
The illustrator didn’t just show my story, he added to it in ways that deepened it. He brought a fresh perspective that allowed him to expand the story in meaningful ways. Which bring us to our next question:
Why Does it Work This Way?
Separating the text decisions from the illustration decisions isn’t a cruel thing done by evil editors. They are giving both artists – author and illustrator – the freedom to do their best work. I am not a visual artist. I don’t have the training or experience to make decisions about artwork.
No, the child in your book probably won’t look exactly like your granddaughter. The illustrations may not match what you envisioned. That doesn’t make it wrong.
If you can go in with an open mind, you’ll be able to appreciate the exceptional artwork that has been carefully crafted to enhance your story.
Secretly, I think that the editor’s and illustrator’s jobs are to make the author look good. The editor wants this book to succeed. The illustrator wants to produce excellent illustrations. All of which makes my book stronger and better than I could make it on my own.
So, no, authors don’t have illustration decisions about their books. But that’s just fine.
Next time I’ll share what the illustration process looks like for illustrators. We’ll pick up after the editor has paired them with a book text and see what it’s like from that side of the equation.
There are a lot of reasons to go to writers conferences. The obvious one is that you learn a ton and it always reinvigorates me. After the day is over I’m itching to get back to writing.
As someone who struggles with building out character motivations, I loved this “Dungeons and Dragons” themed talk on character building from @WeslieTurner. Excellent talk, excellent advice. “Keep asking What If questions. That’s how you create great characters.”#PWID2018@scbwipic.twitter.com/GdaQSttHqK
It’s also great for networking. When I went to my first Society of Childrens Book Writers and Illustrator’s (SCBWI) conference in 2015, I knew almost no one. This year, it felt like I couldn’t go anywhere without running into someone I have a connection with: people from my local SCBWI region, new friends I’ve made at other conferences, writers I know from online forums, and fellow volunteers for KidlitNation.
And this brings me to another major benefit. Yes, it’s useful to know people in the industry. These are people who can help spread word of mouth about my books or help connect me with work contacts. But even more importantly, these are my friends and community.
Writing can seem like a really lonely endeavor – sitting alone at a computer typing away. That’s definitely some of it, but in the digital age, we also connect over the internet. We find support, camaraderie, and friendships with like-minded writers around the country and around the world. I’m so thankful that the internet is able to bring us together, but there’s an extra joy in getting to see people face to face.
This introverts cup was full to overflowing this weekend. Now I’m ready to hide back in my office and get some writing done.
Earlier this month, I Pray Today, my second book for babies and toddler was published. Today is the last day of the blog tour to celebrate.
I’ve been working on book reviews all year, though. Each month I gather up a few books I love and share them with my readers. I call it Kidlit Karma. This month I’m sharing some of my favorite books for babies and toddlers. I’m also going to dive into child development to explain why these books work.
Babies can’t see that well. Newborns’ vision is hazy – they like high contrast because it’s easy to see. You’ll often find the youngest babies staring at, say, a black object against a white background. Or a dark ceiling fan moving against a white ceiling.
By a few months old, babies vision has improved a lot but they often have a hard time understanding 2-D representations of objects.
So, books for babies and toddler often have high-contrast, easy-to-interpret pictures. For the youngest, single images on white backgrounds can be a good choice.
Babies love “baby talk” and it’s good for them. Forget what Great Aunt Bertha told you about only talking to your baby like a grown-up. Baby talk exaggerates the sounds of speech which makes it easier for babies to figure out the sounds they’re hearing and put those together into words. So go ahead and talk to babies in whatever way feels natural to you.
The sing-songy cadence of many rhyming books, help capitalize on this tendency. (Writers: be aware that babies are not less discerning than adults. If you write in rhyme, it needs to have PERFECT rhyme and meter.)
Babies love repetition. They drop the same toy over and over to see if dad will still pick it up, they never tire of peekaboo, and they will gladly have you read the same book over and over and over. While at times it’s infuriating (like the 5th time the bowl of oatmeal gets dropped to the floor), it has an important purpose: babies and toddlers learn best through repetition. Like little scientists, they’re testing if the oatmeal really drops every time. They’re also learning social information: “Will dad pick it up every time?” “Why is his mood changing as I keep dropping this?”
So many books use some kind of repetition: like the repeated phrase “Ciao!”
Speaking of actions, getting a toddler to sit still is a lost cause. They’re busy little beings. It’s easy to read with an immobile baby – harder to keep a toddler still and focused. So many books for toddlers include some kind invitation to action to help keep them engaged with the book.
That could be an action built right into the page, such as lifting a flap or holes designed for little fingers to poke into.
Babies and toddlers are also still working on fine motor skills – such as the ability to grasp and flip a book page without tearing. They need to explore the world and practice these fine motor skills – but it can be murder on a book.
So most baby and toddler books are board books – those chunky cardboard-style book pages that can withstand chewing, banging, other forms of baby love. They even have rounded corners to prevent an eye or mouth from being poked.
Adults Have to Like Them Too
Since your baby will be asking to reread the same book 10,000 times (and they will), books also have to please the adult doing the reading. A newer trend is to write book series’ that focus on topics of interest to a parent (like science, great literature, etc.), but at a level simplistic enough for a baby. No, your toddler won’t be doing astrophysics calculations in their crib. They’re in it for the baby faces and birdies, but the parent can appreciate the science.
At the end of 2017, I made a pledge. I challenged myself to review good books every month in 2018, particularly books that haven’t gotten as much love as I feel they deserve. I call it Kidlit Karma because I’m aiming to spread the love for books that I love.
This summer I’ve welcomed several writing friends to share books that they love. Today I’m happy to welcome Charlotte Riggle, my friend and fellow children’s book writer. Charlotte and I have never met in person, but we’ve traveled in the same small online writing circles for many years.
Charlotte is a voice for disability representation in children’s books. Both her most recent picture book, THE SAINT NICHOLAS DAY SNOW, and her the previous book, CATHERINE’S PASCHA, feature the main character’s disabled best friend. Neither story is about disability, they’re about children being children. They just happen to be different.
Take it away Charlotte!
Books are magical. When you read a book, you can travel into the future or into the past. You can visit cities and worlds you’ve never been to. You can see animals that you never knew existed. And you can meet people that aren’t like the people in your neighborhood.
And all of this magic has a wonderful influence on the minds and hearts of children. Children who meet all sorts of people – different ages, different races, different abilities – are less likely to accept stereotypes. They are more likely to respond with empathy to all sorts of people. And, wonderfully, magically, meeting those people in books does the same thing.
So it’s important that our children read books about all sorts of people. Including people with disabilities. But there are genuinely not many children’s books with disabled characters. So here are three to get you started: a picture book and two middle grade novels.
Picture Book: A SPLASH OF RED: THE LIFE AND ART OF HORACE PIPPIN by Jen Bryant and Melissa Sweet
If you’re not a student of American art, you probably haven’t heard of Horace Pippin. I hadn’t until I discovered this wonderful book. Pippin is considered a folk artist, or an American primitive artist, like Grandma Moses.
A Splash of Red is a richly detailed biography of Pippin. He was born in 1888 and had what might be considered a privileged life for the grandson of slaves. He attended school through eighth grade. He loved art and drew and painted with whatever materials he could find.
When World War I started, he volunteered to serve. He was injured in combat – his right shoulder was badly damaged. He couldn’t draw anymore. He couldn’t paint. And he couldn’t find anyone willing to hire him.
He married. He helped his wife with her business. And he longed to draw and paint.
Eventually, that passion drove him to do what everyone thought was impossible. He supported his injured right arm with his left hand, and with time and determination, he began painting again.
A Splash of Red is gorgeous, as any book about an artist should be. There’s a wealth of detailed information in the back of the book. The book isn’t intended for very young children. But a child interested in history or art will read this one over and over again.
Middle Grade: INSIGNIFICANT EVENTS IN THE LIFE OF A CACTUS by Dusti Bowling
Aven, the main character of Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus, was born without arms. But she hasn’t let that stop her. She has learned to do almost anything any other kid can do, using what she does have: her mouth, her feet, and her wit. Her friends at school have known her since forever, and they’re used to the way she does things. It’s just not a big deal.
But then her dad gets a job running an run-down theme park in Arizona. The family moves across the country. And at age 13, Aven finds herself in a new school, with kids who don’t know her, and who think she’s a bit of a freak.
Aven doesn’t like being stared at. She doesn’t like being treated as if she can’t do things for herself. She just wants to go home to Kansas. But that’s not an option. So she finds a mystery that needs to be solved. Disappearing tarantulas. Missing photographs. A locked room and a locked desk.
Somehow, the mystery seems to have something to do with her.
Along the way, she makes friends with a couple of boys who are also outsiders: Zion, who is seriously overweight, and Connor, who has Tourette’s. Together, they could do what none of them could do alone.
Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactusis notable for its realistic and unsentimental portrayal of uncommon disabilities. The characters aren’t written as collections of stereotypes. They are well rounded, interesting, utterly charming human beings. And while they grow and develop through their experiences, they do not encounter miraculous cures.
The book is a delight on every level. The publisher recommends it for kids in grades 3 to 7. But if you have an older child who has a significant disability, or who knows someone with a disability, I’m sure this book will resonate with them.
To learn how Dusti Bowling made sure the characters were realistic, read the interview on the Nerdy Book Club.
Middle Grade: HANDBOOK FOR DRAGON SLAYERS by Merrie Haskell
Tilda is the Princess of Alder Brook. But she isn’t particularly interested in being a princess. She would much rather be a nun, working alone in a scriptorium, copying books – or, even better, writing her own books.
Of course, she’s got a lot of reasons for preferring books to the life of a princess. For one thing, her principality is in dire financial straits. For another, many of her subjects think she’s cursed. She’s got a club foot, after all.
The club foot affects who Tilda is and what she does. It’s not just the people who think she’s cursed. Her own mother won’t let her ride horses or do anything else where she might get hurt.
And there’s the pain. Her foot hurts. A lot. Her maidservant, Judith, knows how to help. But the pain and disability make it hard for her to do some things that are easy for others.
There are days that running away from her life at Alder Brook seems like a good idea.
And when her cousin Ivo kidnaps her mother, and then Tilda, to take Alder Brook away from them, she has to run away to survive. Judith and a would-be squire named Parzifal join her. They decide that, while avoiding Ivo, they should go on a quest to kill dragons.
Because it gives them something to do. And dragons are evil, right?
Well, that’s what Tilda and her companions think at the beginning of their quest. But through their encounters with the Wild Hunt, the Horses of Elysium, an evil magician, and (of course) a dragon, they learn a great deal about dragons – and about themselves.
I don’t just read YA – I read middle grade novels and picture books, too. And Handbook for Dragon Slayers is perhaps my favorite middle grade novel of all time. Tilda’s encounters with the dragon are especially wonderful.