Thoughts on Writing Poetry

Gleams When Wet cover

I’m struggling to write a poetic picture book. To fill me with the metaphor, imagery, rhythm and meter that I’m striving for, I’ve been reading other books of poetry. Two interesting things happened during today’s readings…
Gleams When Wet cover
First, I was reading Gleams When Wet by Debra Spencer. I had picked it up at Half Price Books on a whim, since I’m mostly searching for ideas that have to do with water. Interestingly, it’s mostly set in the Monterey/Santa Cruz, California, area, which is where my oldest child is currently studying marine biology, so that was a fun connection. There are some beautiful and intriguing poems in here, as well as insightful commentary on life. It made for quite an enjoyable afternoon. (Yes, sitting and reading poetry all afternoon is sometimes actually my job. How lucky am I!?) What particularly struck me, however, is the inscription from the author (“To XXX, another adventurous father, with love from Debra“) and the handwritten card still tucked inside: “Happy birthday, XXX — I think you’ll enjoy this. Her poems are wonderful! See page 54! I also love Old Sailor’s Manifesto (p. 34) — and many others. Enjoy! Love, Mom” (*Note: Name changed to XXX to protect the innocent. 😉)
When I first read these words, I was instantly saddened. His mom had poured so much love into this thoughtful gift (not to mention it was personalized by the author)! How could he have given it away to end up on the shelf at my local HPB? But then I thought, selfishly, how lucky I was that he did, else I would never have happened upon it in my random HPB treasure hunt! Then I thought, maybe he read them and they just didn’t connect. It’s kind of sad that Mom missed the mark, but hey, it happens. Hopefully, he appreciated the thought, at least. Or maybe he read them and loved them, taking pictures of or typing up his favorites to file them away digitally rather than cluttering up his physical space. In the end, I’ve decided, it doesn’t matter why he didn’t treasure it. The real gift was in the giving. No matter what XXX felt about the gift or his reasons for passing it on, it warms my heart to think that his mom loved him, that she also loved words, and that she wanted to share them with him. As I struggle with my poetry project, I have often thought that perhaps it’s not worth it, perhaps it’s too far outside of my wheelhouse and I should stick to what I’m good at, perhaps no one will ever read or care about my words. Perhaps Debra thought that, too, before Mom came to get Gleams When Wet signed for her son. Perhaps, if I keep struggling, some other Mom will lovingly buy my poetic picture book for her child, and I’ll to get sign it, “To XXX, with love.”
River of Words cover
Another book that struck me was River of Wordsedited by Pamela Michael. It’s a collection of poems written by young people–many as young as 6 or 7–about the natural world. And. it. is. so. good! Not only did it do exactly what I was hoping for–filling my artist’s well with even more water images and metaphors to potentially use in my own project–but it was incredibly inspiring as well. Yes, these young writers are clearly very talented, but they are certainly not professional poets.  Yet, their poems sing with meaning. The depths of what they are able to say with so few words reminds me why I’m trying to complete this project in the first place, to convey something that is deep and meaningful to me to young readers. And the success the poems achieve in conveying each individual author’s essence gives me hope that perhaps my poetry can one day make that kind of connection with readers, too.
So, thank you to the poets out there struggling to make your words and meaning flow. Thank you to publishers who still believe in creating beautiful poetry books for children and adults. And thank you to everyone who buys books to share with those you love. 💛

It's PiBoIdMo time!

November is here, and that means it’s time for Picture Book Idea Month. So far, I’m two for two: woohoo!
PiBoIdMo 2014 banner
Remember the Howdy Doody theme song? Did you ever notice how PiBoIdMo has the same number of syllables as “Howdy Doody?” Now that I’ve noticed, I can’t get it out of my head. So, I thought I’d share my little earworm with you here:

It’s PiBoIdMo time.
It’s PiBoIdMo time.
Tara and her great crew
Wish PiBoIds to you.
Let’s give a rousing cheer,
Cause PiBoIdMo’s here,
It’s time for books to grow,
So here we go!

I love PiBoIdMo. Sometimes it’s a struggle to come up with ideas (okay, most times), other times they seem to flow faster than I can write them down (okay, rarely, but when it does it’s awesome!). Either way, it feels good to have those ideas tucked safely inside my notebook, ready to blossom when given a chance.
And yes, even nonfiction writers (like me!) can participate in PiBoIdMo! Christy Peterson has a great blog post on how to do that. I recommend reading it here (even if you write fiction!). I usually come up with about half nonfiction ideas and half fiction ideas, and I use all of the methods Christy mentions in her post.

sample Fiction Magic card
sample Fiction Magic card

This year I’ll also be using a new tool that just arrived (perfect timing!). My friend Deb Lund is a talented author, teacher, and creativity coach. She’s made a deck of cards, called Fiction Magic, which features prompts to inspire writers as well as a handy guidebook on how to use them. I drew one card today, played around with it for a while, and voila… I had two new ideas! You can get your own set of Fiction Magic cards here.
I probably shouldn’t be doing PiBoIdMo at all this year. I have too many projects calling to me at the moment, and the last thing I need right now is more ideas! But, PiBoIdMo is about so much more than the ideas for me. It’s about creativity, playfulness, freedom, and fun, and every year I end up rediscovering why I decided to write for children in the first place. In those ways, it’s good for my career. PiBoIdMo also reminds me to look at the world through a lens of discovery and curiosity, wonder, gratitude, and empathy. In those ways, it’s good for my soul.
I may not love all of the ideas I come up with during PiBoIdMo, but I love what PiBoIdMo does for me. If you want to write picture books, I hope you’ll give it a try, too! You can register through November 7th at this link.

2012 Cybils Nonfiction Picture Book report #1

Phew! Now that I got my revision done and sent in, I can get back to reading Cybils nominees in the nonfiction picture book category that I am judging. Last year I wrote up longer reviews of only a few of the Cybils nominees. This year I’m going to try to write many more, but shorter, reviews. Rather than offer comprehensive reviews, the goal will be to capture my initial impressions and thoughts. So, here comes the first batch!

BALLOONS OVER BROADWAY by Melissa Sweet (Houghton Mifflin)
This is a wonderful book that should appeal to all kinds of kids, across a wide age range, and with many different interests. The artwork is stunning. The story of Tony Sarg and the beginnings of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade puppets is one that needed to be told, and this book tells it artfully, illustrating the man’s creativity as well as hard work and dedication. Entertaining, inspiring, and educational—all rolled into one beautiful package.

BROTHERS AT BAT by Audrey Vernick (Clarion)
This is the true story of the Acerra family and their 12-member all-brother baseball team. Baseball fans especially will love this heartfelt telling of the family’s travails and triumphs, both on the field and off, but the expertly told family story offers something for everyone. The text and art work together beautifully to bring the historical period to life.

A PLACE FOR BATS by Melissa Stewart (Peachtree)
Okay, I have to admit that I have a bit of a bat phobia. On a rational level, I know they’re helpful and I’m glad they’re out there, but I really don’t like having to think about them. Stewart does an excellent job of raising awareness about the importance of bats as well as offering ways people can help them thrive. The fascinating illustrations are realistic and not “cute-ified,” which did make me squirm a little, but Stewart’s text compensates by creating sympathy for the creatures. Even as an adult reader, I learned a lot about bats. This book would make a good science read-aloud for preschool and early elementary grades. And maybe those kids won’t develop an irrational bat phobia like mine!

ANNIE AND HELEN by Deborah Hopkinson (Schwartz and Wade)
I love Deborah Hopkinson’s work, and the story of Helen Keller and her teacher, Annie Sullivan, has always fascinated me, so I was excited to see this one in the nomination list. It didn’t disappoint. Told sparingly and through primary sources, it focuses on the early relationship between the two women and on Sullivan’s struggles to break through Keller’s barriers. The art adds a beautiful, historical feel to the text, and the book ends on a triumphant note with Keller’s first written letter home.

BON APPETIT! by Jessie Hartland (Schwartz and Wade)
This is a delicious biography of Julia Child! Although a tad overwhelming and busy at first glance, the art and text quickly draw readers in and hook them, and reading it becomes a rewarding adventure. Hartland uses energy, humor, and compassion to follow Child’s life story from childhood on in a style that mimics her personality and how she lived her life. Jam-packed with facts and entertaining details, this longer picture book with fascinate older picture-book readers.

November is PiBoIdMo!

Picture Book Idea Month link

For many writers, November is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), a month-long commitment to creativity wherein writers turn off their inner critics and pound out a complete 50,000-word novel in 30 days. I’ve seen the results, and it’s nothing short of amazing. A self-imposed deadline can be very motivating, especially when shared with others!
Alas, how could picture-book writers join in the fun and enthusiasm? I suppose you could try to hammer out 100 500-word picture books in a month, but writing 100 different stories, even if they’re short, is a very different beast than writing just one long one. It may not take long to write the first draft of a picture book, but it can take a very long time to find one really great picture-book idea (and we won’t even talk about revisions!).
Last February, I participated in a month-long picture-book writing marathon, where we challenged ourselves to write 26 picture books in 28 days, and it was a fantastic experience. In fact, two manuscripts from that experience are very close to being final drafts ready for submission. Of course, that means there were 24 that weren’t so great, ranging from “might be worth working on” to “total stinkers” (lots more in that category, to be sure), but still, I feel it was well worth the time–and a ton of fun!
Perhaps an even better idea, and certainly less intimidating now that I’ve done the picture-book marathon, is Tara Lazar‘s Picture Book Idea Month (PiBoIdMo). Sign up starts today, right here!

Picture Book Idea Month link

If you’ve ever even thought about writing picture books, I urge you to try this challenge! So far, almost 300 people have signed up, so there will be camaraderie. Tara will feature daily inspiration and guest bloggers to help keep us going. And, as if that wasn’t enough, there will be PRIZES: signed books, picture-book manuscript critiques, original art by picture-book illustrators, book jewelry, hand-made journals, vintage children’s books, and feedback from one of three literary agents!
I’ll hope you’ll join me, Tara, and hundreds of other picture books writers for this year’s PiBoIdMo. Please let me know in the comments if you’re participating!