Month: December 2018

Meet Mentor Laura Gehl




We are excited to welcome author Laura Gehl back for her third year as a mentor for Writing with the Stars! Laura is the author of eleven picture books, including the popular PEEP AND EGG series, illustrated by Joyce Wan (Farrar, Straus and Giroux BYR), and most recently, the hilarious DELIVERY BEAR, illustrated by Paco Sordo (Albert Whitman, 2018).

In ONE BIG PAIR OF UNDERWEAR, you have an impeccable rhyme scheme AND the word “underwear” in the first line—two things universally irresistible to kids! Good rhyme is incredibly difficult to master. What advice do you have for writers who would like to attempt rhyme?

The biggest problem I run into when I am writing in rhyme is letting the rhyme lead the story. Like … I have the word ROCK at the end of a line, so then oh-wow-my-characters-suddenly-care-about-the-time-because-I-need-to-get-to-the-word-CLOCK. You need to have a clear idea of what story you want to tell, and make sure you force the rhymes to follow your story (without sounding forced), and not the other way around. This is very hard for me, and I imagine for others as well!

ONE BIG PAIR OF UNDERWEAR has internal rhymes as well as rhymes at the end of sentences, which I think is one reason people enjoy reading it. And I personally love books where the rhyming words are not all one syllable. If I visit a school and ask for a list of words rhyming with “bear,” kids’ suggestions are typically one syllable. But then I show them all the two and three syllable words (like underwear!) they could use as well. Multi-syllable rhyming is beautiful and satisfying when it works. You know who is really REALLY good at it? Lin-Manuel Miranda. So just do what he does. No problem, right?

As a former reading teacher, you’ve likely seen the exact moment a reader makes a connection with a story. How do you create opportunities for your readers to make connections in your books? Is this a conscious effort, or something that develops organically as you write?

I think it is important to hook a kid right away, so I try to make the first line of each book as engaging as possible. Even as an adult reader, I make a decision quickly about whether or not I want to continue reading a book. Many kids are the same way. Whether the first line is funny or mysterious or introduces an intriguing character, it is the most important line of the book (except for the last line). But in the middle of the book, the key connection is made when the reader sees the heart of the story and feels a strong emotion—whether happiness or sadness or relief or satisfaction. I often start my stories with a funny idea, so I have to work hard to put heart into the story as well.

I GOT A CHICKEN FOR MY BIRTHDAY is such a celebration of imagination and humor! How do you tap into this deeply funny and creative vein when brainstorming ideas? What advice would you give to writers who long to “write funny”?

Whenever something strikes me as funny, I write it down immediately. Lots of these are just two-word scribbles on post-it notes, like yodeling pigeon or broccoli beard. Others are silly situations, or funny scraps of conversation, or plays on words. I email myself all of my notes and keep a file of ideas. When I’m ready to start a new project, I scroll through all of those random nuggets and pick one to develop into a story. I GOT A CHICKEN FOR MY BIRTHDAY started with a child finding a chicken in her bathtub (the bathtub got ditched in one of the early drafts) and grew from there. 

I also think reading funny picture books, comics, and novels helps—as well as listening to stand-up comedy, watching funny movies and TV shows, and observing really good improv comedy groups. Of course you aren’t going to steal someone else’s funny idea directly, but getting all that humor percolating in your brain can only be a good thing. (I’m pretty sure this means you can also deduct all those movie tickets from your taxes. Netflix too.)

Tell us about the journey for your latest book, DELIVERY BEAR, and where the idea spark for that one came from.

I had the idea of a cookie delivery service … possibly because my mom once gave me a subscription to the Dessert-of-the-Month club as a gift. I also had the idea of a large, fierce-looking animal applying for a customer service job. Those two ideas ended up complementing each other like raspberry and chocolate (one of my favorite combinations). DELIVERY BEAR is about a large bear named Zogby who wants to work for the Fluffy Tail cookie company, a company run and staffed by adorable little bunnies. The book is packed with both screaming and singing, which makes it lots of fun for story time. 

Purely out of curiosity—with a PhD in neuroscience, you must know all about the benefits of reading aloud to children. What, in your opinion, is the most important benefit, and why should authors and illustrators continue to endeavor to create picture books for our youngest readers?

Ha! I actually know absolutely nothing about the neuroscience behind this. But as a parent, I think the most important benefit of reading aloud is the shared experience. Whether it is a funny picture book, or a sad picture book, or an inspirational picture book, the adult and child share the way the words and pictures make them feel. The shared experience of that book leads to conversation directly after reading, but can also create a shared reference point for future conversations, can spark an inside joke that sticks around into adulthood, and can of course fuel the desire to read MORE BOOKS together. As creators, we are so privileged to have a role in shaping that special time adults and children spend together.

Thank you so much for your time, Laura, and for mentoring a lucky writer again in 2019!  Look for Laura’s next four books this spring: DIBS!, EXCEPT WHEN THEY DON’T, and the first two books in the BABY SCIENTIST series. Applicants, please remember to support these mentor authors. Buy their books, review them online and tell your local librarians how awesome they are. You can find all the mentors and details on how to apply to Writing with the Stars on the WWTS Contest tab.

Meet Mentor Diana Murray

We are happy to welcome Diana Murray to our Writing with the Stars mentor lineup this year! Diana is a children’s poet and the author of nine picture books, with six more coming soon. Her published books include the delightful DORIS THE BOOKASAURUS, illustrated by Yuyi Chen (Imprint, 2017); NED THE KNITTING PIRATE,illustrated by Leslie Lammle (Roaring Brook Press/Macmillan, 2016); and GRIMELDA: THE VERY MESSY WITCH, illustrated by Heather Ross (Katherine Tegen Books/HarperCollins, 2016).

On your website you say that, because of your background in design, you are a more visual writer. Can you explain what you mean by this and how it affects your writing process?

When I write, I visualize what each page will look like. The final images may be quite different (since the illustrator will add his or her own perspective and expertise), but during the process of writing, imagining the illustrations is very helpful to me. I think about having enough variety from page to page and consider bits of humor or surprises that might be added. I consider the climax and try to have text that will lead to an image that pops. Visualizing also helps me leave room for the illustrations and to keep the text tight and not overly descriptive.

Your children’s poetry has appeared in many magazines and anthologies, and has also won several SCBWI Merit Awards and Honors. Why is poetry so appealing to you,and what do you think makes it so kid-friendly? 

I was always really into art and drawing. I remember my kindergarten teacher commenting on it. But it wasn’t until high school that I discovered that words can function as a kind of art, too. That words could paint a picture in a whole new way.That just a few words could leave a reader with a deep sense of emotion or truth. And then, when I had my first child in 2005, I came across children’s poetry, rhyme, and humorous poetry. As someone who is bilingual, I have a special appreciation for words. I delight in their various sounds and nuanced meanings. I feel that poetry plays that up to the maximum—even more than prose. As far as being kid-friendly, metrical poetry has rhythm, much like music. Research shows that music is even more ancient than speech, so I feel like it hits us on a deep, visceral level. Also, the end rhymes set up an expectation that allows children to actively participate by guessing what comes next. And then there’s alliteration, metaphor, and all those other great poetic devices that are so useful for writing and expressing ourselves.

In your books you employ sophisticated rhyme patterns and manage to make this kind of writing look (deceptively) easy. How do you approach a story when writing in rhyme so that the plot, structure, rhyme scheme, etc. all come together into a cohesive unit? What advice do you have for authors who are interested in mastering this writing style?

One of the most common mistakes people make when writing in rhyme is to let the rhyme lead the story. I often did this, too, when I first started writing. It’s fine if the rhymes lead to surprises, but the writer needs to take control of the reins. It’s best to figure out most of the story before getting into the rhyming. I like to type out the page numbers and then write a sentence or two under each spread to explain what should be happening. That also helps with pacing the story arc. Others may have a different approach, but methodical planning is what works for me.

And as far as learning to write in metrical verse, I recommend reading tons of rhyming picture books, poems, and articles/books on craft. Then practice, practice, practice and join a critique group with other rhymers.

And here is a resource for learning how most picture books are paginated: https://taralazar.com/2009/02/22/picture-book-construction-know-your-layout/

Doris in DORIS THE BOOKASAURUS is such a voracious reader! What was the inspiration for this particular book? What inspires YOU to write books that kids will never want to stop reading?

DORIS THE BOOKASAURUS was mostly inspired by my kids. One daughter was always a voracious reader while the other is more reluctant.

In the story, I wanted to show that it’s just a matter of finding the right book. That there’s a book for everyone. Some people might enjoy non-fiction books about world records. Others may prefer fantasy, or joke books, or books on some specific topic. I truly believe that anyone can become an enthusiastic reader if they just find the right book. I also wanted to show that reading and playtime don’t have to be separate things. My kids would often read books and then act out parts of the story with their toys, for example. Books can be active and engaging and can actually enhance playtime.

Finally, I feel that reading together with a child creates such a special bond. It’s like taking a journey together. My kids are older now and I miss those times, but I feel so lucky that I still get to be part of that experience by creating picture books and early readers.

In your bio, you mention that you sometimes hear bagpipes playing while you’re writing on your patio. This sounds very romantic and mysterious–please tell us more! 

One of our neighbors, who is in the volunteer fire department with my husband, was giving bagpipe lessons to a student. They were several blocks away but the sound of bagpipes really carries. The student was very good! I enjoyed imagining I was in the Scottish countryside—a place I’ve always wanted to go. I also found it amusing because when I lived in midtown Manhattan, my next door neighbor was an opera singer and I used to always hear her practicing through the wall. The contrast is funny. If I move again, I wonder what I’ll hear next.

Thank you so much for your time, Diana, and for mentoring a lucky writer in 2019! Diana’s next book is UNICORN DAY, illustrated by Luke Flowers, so look for that in June. Applicants, please remember to support these mentor authors. Buy their books, review them online, and tell your local librarians how awesome they are. Details on how to apply for the Writing with the Stars contest can be found on the WWTS Contest tab.

Meet WWTS Mentor Pam Calvert

Pam Calvert is the author of two character-driven picture books series, Princess Peepers and Briana Bright, Ballerina Knight, as well as the Multiplying Menace math series. And keep reading to find out more about her upcoming book. Pam is back for her third year of mentoring for Writing with the Stars. Both of her previous mentees rave about Pam, and her first signed with an agent and has two books slated for 2021. So Pam is very excited about helping someone else this year!

Both Brianna Bright and Princess Peepers are strong female main characters. Is this something that was a conscious choice when you created them?

I’ve always been a proponent of strong women (since I’m a strong woman myself). And encouraging little girls to believe they can do anything if they believe in themselves is really a huge theme in whatever I write. That said, it’s not the only topic I write about. My math series has a male lead and the theme is the basic good vs. evil. My newest books don’t have girl leads either. In Flash: The Little Fire Engine (Two Lions, November 2019), the theme is that Flash must not give up if he wants to succeed. I want to encourage children, regardless of gender, to never give up and to see that, if they are determined, they can accomplish their dreams.

You’ve stated that perseverance is important for authors. Seven years passed between the publication of Princess Peepers Picks a Pet and Brianna Bright, Ballerina Knight. What were the keys that helped you “stick with it” during that time, even after having initial success?

Well, there was a lot happening in the background over those seven years that you didn’t see. I’d gotten an eyewear option by a company who wanted to produce Princess Peepers eyewear. I also had my first agent, who was sending out one of my novels to publishers. But circumstances happened where our relationship didn’t work out (she was close to retiring) and things fell through with the eyewear option. I still wrote more novels and picture books in the meantime, while I found my second agent. When you find an agent, even if you haven’t sold anything, it still feels like you’re accomplishing something. And they give you hope to not give up.

Fast forward a few more years, and I sold Brianna Bright (I sold this in 2014, so only three years had passed since the publication of my last book). It took FOUR years to publish this book. Yes … you have to persevere even when you’ve sold something! I was redoing a novel during this time, too. I eventually parted ways with my agent and this hit me hard. I almost gave up (even though I had Brianna Bright coming)!

But after I took a break, I came back and sold my next book. I think it’s important to give yourself breaks if you’re feeling down about the creative process. Then you can go back to it when you feel better. The biggest thing, though, is to keep writing, because you never know when that big break will happen. But it won’t if you stop writing.

We often hear that editors are looking for characters that might be engaging enough to turn into a series. You’ve managed to come up with two characters who fit the bill. Did you initially intend to write a series based on either Princess Peepers and/or Brianna Bright? 

I did set out to write a character-driven book for both Peepers and Brianna Bright (and now, my most recent book, Flash: The Little Fire Engine). There are some rules you must follow if you want to have a book that a publisher will want to publish a series around.

1. It must be unique! This is the most important quality of a series character. There were no princesses who ever wore glasses before Princess Peepers. For Brianna Bright, there are NO ballerina princess knights. You can find princess knights and princess ballerinas but NOT the combination. For Flash, there weren’t ANY main characters that are little fire engines (that I know of). You’ll see tons of garbage trucks, backhoes, monster trucks, trains, etc. You need to look at the market to find out what is NOT being published, then you know you have a great idea for a character.

2. The character must be recognizable. A child should be able to dress up for Halloween in your character’s costume and people know who they are. Put on glasses, a princess hat, and a dress and you have Peepers. A sword and a tutu will do for Brianna Bright. For Flash, he might be harder, but it could be done. When you see his cute eyes (cannot WAIT to reveal his character to the world!), you’ll know it’s him.

3. It must have an emotional connection with children—my characters are children! Even Flash, although he’s a fire truck, seems childlike in that the story starts out with him just being “big” enough to go out and help in his first emergency.

There are more qualities for these types of books, but I just hit the highlights here for brevity’s sake. If anyone is interested, I’ve written an article about it on my blog: http://wwwpamcalvert.blogspot.com/2013/07/picture-book-university-character.html

Tell us more about your upcoming book, Flash: The Little Fire Engine.

Since I now have two grandchildren (yes, I’m a young grandma! ;)), babysitting them gives me inspiration. They LOVE any kind of vehicle—dump trucks, monster trucks, backhoes, race cars, etc. When I’m with them, there are zooms, crashes,and alarms going off all the time. I knew I wanted to write something they’d like—about a vehicle! But what?

There’s a glut of dump trucks, monster trucks, etc. in the market. But I noticed there were no firetrucks! And so, the idea for Flash was born. Since I didn’t know much about emergency vehicles, I did some research. And my son-in-law (who is a physical therapist) helped me with some of the ideas for it, too. It was a family endeavor! That book sold shortly after I submitted it—without an agent, I’m proud to say!

You have a critique service. Can you tell us more about that?

Yes! I love to help other people fine-tune their manuscripts, or help them make the jump from mediocre to masterpiece! I’ve had several of my clients go on to sell, and then come back and thank me for my help. I get excited to see others succeed. All they need is a little help and guidance, and I’m glad to assist in that. If anyone would like to use my services, they can go to my blog here: http://wwwpamcalvert.blogspot.com/p/pb-critiques.html.

Thank you, Pam! I can’t wait to read Flash: The Little Fire Engine. Applicants, please remember to support these mentor authors. Buy their books, review them online, and tell your librarians how awesome they are!

You can find all the details on how to apply for a mentorship with Pam and the other author mentors on the WWTS contest tab.