Yay! It’s time for me to gush about some books and convince you to buy them for every child you know. This has become a yearly tradition for me. (For five years now!)
I admit – I get excited going through my Goodreads list and rediscovering the books I’ve read that year. I get less excited trying to whittle it down to a reasonably sized list to share with you.
Some books have descriptions listed afterward to identify genres and features. For instance, kids love series – if you can get them to fall in love with the first one, they’ll often binge read the entire series.
And if you somehow don’t find a book on this list, check out the extra lists at the bottom of the post.
I’ve been sharing book reviews informally on social media for a while. I noticed that social media review get more reach than do blog posts. Reading will happen no matter where I share, but if I want to reach readers and shine a light on good books, I need to go where the people are.
After a lot of thought (and some handwringing) I have decided to shift to reviewing books on my social media accounts – primarily Instagram. My account is open, so you can view it without creating an Instagram account, though I do reshare to Twitter and Facebook as well.
March is women’s history month, so this month I’m sharing women’s history books that focus on something I love: STEM. Check out these real stories of amazing women all of whom pursued their passions and became experts in science, technology, engineering, or math despite all the odds.
Science: The Girl Who Thought In Pictures: The Story of Dr. Temple Grandin by Julia Finley Mosca and Daniel Rieley
When young Temple was diagnosed with autism, doctors told her mother she would never speak or be able to fit in. They told her to send Temple away. But her mother did not give up. Neither did Temple. As she grew older, Temple found that her visual thinking and attention to detail were strengths. She revolutionized farming and found her voice as a speaker who travels the world.
Math: Counting on Katherine: How Katherine Johnson saved Apollo 13 by Helaine Becker and Tiemdow Phumiruk
Katherine Johnson loved to learn and loved math. But growing up in the segregated South – she had to fight to continue pursuing her passion. Her perseverance not only let her reach her dreams, but also made spaceflight possible.
This is the same Katherine Johnson who was featured in the book-turned-movie Hidden Figures, which I have recommended before. While there is a middle grade edition of Hidden Figures, I was delighted to this important story told in a picture book format for younger kids.
Technology and Engineering: Ada Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine by Laurie Wallmark and April Chu
Long before there were computers, Ada Byron Lovelace had too much imagination and love of learning to listen when people told her a woman could not be a scientist. She meets a man named Babbage with a similarly impossible dream: a thinking machine. But how to give it commands? Ada goes to work developing a code to talk to this mechanical computer. She ends up inventing computer programming before computers even existed.
Science: Joan Proctor Dragon Doctor: The Woman Who Loved Reptiles by Patricia Valdez and Felicita Sala
Joan always loved reptiles – while other girls carried around dolls, she had a pet crocodile. When all the men were called away to war, she got her chance: she got a job working with the reptiles she loved. Eventually, she became a leading expert in reptiles sharing her knowledge so the world would understand just how loveable reptiles could be.
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!
For this month’s Kidlit book roundup, I’m happy to welcome my friend, Deb Aronson. Deb was one of my first writer friends; she welcomed me into our local writer community way back when I was just beginning to learn the ropes. Somehow she stayed my friend despite seeing those early draft. *Shudder*
We’re still friends all these years later and maybe one day I’ll even let her convince me to get on her sailboat. (Maybe…)
Many classic horse stories celebrate the magical connection between humans and horses, of course. Some of my favorites include My Friend Flicka, Misty of Chincoteague, and War Horse. But with racehorse stories, there is an added layer of human and horse joined in an effort to realize their full potential. To me, these stories have a special energy.
Do You Love Sports Stories? Then give these books a try.
Racehorse stories are, at their heart, sports stories. Those that excel are just as Olympian in their achievements as swimmer Michael Phelps or gymnast Simone Biles. There is the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. There is the love and care the horse’s human handlers feel for their special horses. They communicate deeply, even if they do it without words. Granted there are also tragic tales at the racetrack, such as when a horse breaks down from a bad step, or when a jockey falls and is permanently injured. There is risk. But for every story of risk there is also the possibility of redemption.
If you hesitate to read about racehorses because of the stories you hear about them being mistreated, I would say to you that those stories are aberrations. True horsemen and horsewomen do not do that to their charges. They care deeply about their horses, even more deeply in some cases than for their human connections. Not surprisingly, you will not read children’s books about those kinds of people.
The Big Red Horse: The Story of Secretariat and the Loyal Groom Who Loved Him by Lawrence Scanlan
So, let me tell you about some of my favorite racehorse stories. One is The Big Red Horse: The Story of Secretariat and the Loyal Groom Who Loved Him, by Lawrence Scanlan (Harper Collins). Secretariat won the Triple Crown in 1973. He won the last race in the series, the Belmont, by a shattering 31 lengths and his time remains the American record for 1.5 miles on dirt more than four decades later. Scanlan does a great job showing Secretariat’s laid-back personality and his love of racing. It comes as no surprise that any true story about a horse will also tell the story of that horse’s handlers. In Scanlan’s book, we enjoy learning about Secretariat’s devoted groom, Eddie Sweat, and the special bond the two of them had.
Come on Seabiscuit! by Ralph Moody
Another inspiring story is Come on Seabiscuit! by Ralph Moody (University of Nebraska Press). There have been many books written about Seabiscuit, including the highly acclaimed adult book, Seabiscuit: An American Legend, by Laura Hillenbrand, not to mention a movie. Moody’s book is targeted for upper middle grade readers and has several pencil sketches, though no photographs. One reason Seabiscuit’s story is so grand is because it is truly one of redemption. Set in the 1930s, it is a story of how the love, expertise and careful attention of trainer Tom Smith and jockey Red Pollard created a bond so wonderful that Seabiscuit changed from an ornery, nervous, injured and slow racehorse to a gentle, calm, strong champion who beat War Admiral, winner of the Triple Crown and the acknowledged champion horse of the country.
Seabiscuit the Wonder Horse by Meghan McCarthy
Picture Book Nonfiction
Although Come on Seabiscuit is for older readers, a more recent picture book by Meghan McCarthy, Seabiscuit the Wonder Horse (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers) would be a great read-aloud for younger readers. McCarthy’s illustrations are delightful and she does a great job of telling the story of Seabiscuit’s match race with War Admiral.
American Pharoah: Triple Crown Champion by Shelley Fraser Mickle
In American Pharoah: Triple Crown Champion (Aladdin), by Shelley Fraser Mickle, we learn the backstory of the 2015 Triple Crown winner, American Pharoah. Mickle tells American Pharoah’s story in such detail you can imagine being there in the stall with the even-tempered stallion. I also came away from the story with a better understanding of many of the humans connected with American Pharoah, from famous trainer, Bob Baffert, and jockey Victor Espinoza, to owner Ahmed Zayat, who I especially came to appreciate.
Northern Dancer: King of the Racetrack by Gare Joyce
And finally, I recently enjoyed a book about a less well-known racehorse, Northern Dancer. In 1964 he was, as the book says, “the biggest newsmaker in the country’s sporting scene.” Northern Dancer is another story of an unlikely hero. He was not a regal-looking racehorse, but more in the model of Seabiscuit: chunky, short and plain looking. Having been bred in Canada, U.S. racing fans tended to underestimate him. Gare Joyce, the author of Northern Dancer: King of the Racetrack, describes him as “a horse with a competitive spirit and a lot of heart, so he was able to outrun a great number of better bred and more imposing horses.” Who doesn’t love an underdog story?!
Alexandra the Great: The True Story of the Record-Breaking Filly Who Ruled the Racetrack by Deb Aronson
Although all these books are about male horses, I wouldn’t want you to think there are not accomplished fillies in the racing world too. However, the surprising thing is how few children’s books there are about them. One of the few is Alexandra the Great: The True Story of the Record-Breaking Filly Who Ruled the Racetrack (Chicago Review Press), written by yours truly. Because she raced against, and beat, male horses in three major races, hers is truly a girl power story. This book is the only one of those reviewed that has full-color photographs throughout the text.
See Racehorses in action!
If you enjoy these stories I would also recommend you watch some videos of their most famous races; these thoroughbreds are running machines!
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.
This year I’m continuing my monthly kidlit book reviews. Each month I will spread a little love for some lovely books. Usually, they will come out on the first Thursday of the month, but between holiday craziness and being on deadline, I’m already a little behind. Such is the writing life.
It’s sleeting out here on the prairies today. And as much as I want to pout and stomp my feet because I do. not. like. cold, I think I have to admit defeat. So this month for my Kidlit Karma books reviews, I’m sharing winter picture books with STEM content. Because books make everything better.
Science: Over and Under the Snow by Kate Messner and Christopher Silas Neal
I have recommended Over and Under the Snow before, but it’s worth reviewing again. Children love being let in on a secret and here the secret is hiding right under the snow beneath their boots. I love the way this book weaves together a sweet story of a child with STEM facts about animals in winter.
The simple, lyrical text makes this story a good choice for even the youngest preschool scientists, but the beefy backmatter make this a good choice for older child scientists, too. The beautiful photograph illustrations invite reads to observe nature in great detail (without leaving the warmth).
I officially won the 12×12 challenge for the second year running by writing 13 new picture book drafts.
2018 in Reading
I didn’t quite hit my goal to read 500 books again this year, but I’m still really happy with my total. In the past, I hit those high numbers because I read a lot of picture books, but this year I shifted my focus to more middle grade. I hit my goal of reading 75 middle grade or longer works.
My Kidlit Karma project to blog reviews of books each month went really well! I reviewed or hosted reviews nearly every month.
Looking Ahead to 2019
2019 is already starting to fill up! My 2019 is likely to be just as busy as 2018 was. I have two more work for hire picture books to finish by the end of February, I was invited to join a small writers’ group for the first few months, and I’ll be finishing up my novel and begin querying it.
It’s likely to be another roller coaster!
Right now I’m working on setting my goals for 2019. If you’re doing the same, you might want to check out these posts on setting resolutions and goals.
Today is Day 3 when we share our writing successes for the year. All of them. In public. GULP.
Although it makes me feel like a Braggy McBraggypants, I decided to bite the bullet and submit to my blog. Not because I want others to pat me on the back, but because acknowledging my successes is important for me personally.
Writing can be an emotional roller coaster, and most (all?) writers struggle to keep up their confidence and resolve in the face of constant rejection. Having the courage to openly acknowledge our accomplishments helps us see ourselves as successful and capable – things we need to keep going in this pursuit.
A lot of my successes this year happened because I pushed myself outside of my comfort zone. So **deep breath** let’s do it again and list it all out in public. In no particular order:
Blogged consistently! (Big accomplishment for me, lol.)
Had my middle grade novel beta read for the first time and got good feedback. I’m rounding up more Beta readers for after the holidays.
Was invited to be part of a writing coach’s new coaching group for women. She’s been coaching one-on-one for a while but we’re her beta session for doing it as a group, so I get to do it for free. Yay! And she reached out to me because I’m “a committed writer who is actively working on her craft”. Which was a nice compliment. 🙂
Read 275 books this year! Usually, I hit higher numbers (500 in 2017) but after many years of focusing on picture books I made a conscious effort to read more MG this year since I write that as well. I’m currently at 73 books that are MG or longer and around 200 picture books. So the overall number is down, but I’m really happy with it.
I’m wrapping up my third year as a member of the 12×12 picture book writing challenge – the yearly challenge to write 12 picture book manuscripts in a year. 2018 is my second year winning 12×12 (i.e. writing 12 picture book manuscripts in a year).
I gotta say, 12x12ers are some of the best people on the planet. Their support has been invaluable.
So while I’m busy prepping for bullet journal for next year, I thought I’d give a little something back.
Last year I shared this spread from my bullet journal: