Monday, April 18, 2022

Pacing Problems and Hidden Repetition

It has been a long time since I've written about writing. I've been so busy doing the actual writing, that I haven't thought about much else. This past weekend I've been thinking about Pacing. 

Speed Limit Monitor showing the speed limit as 25 and your speed as 6.
Pacing can be a tricky thing. You think you're moving along at 25 mph, when you're actually only going 6. Usually, you don't even notice until someone points it out with feedback like this:

"Pacing's off." 

"This feels slow."

"This feels rushed."

"Something's off, but I can't pinpoint the problem."

Maybe you haven't gotten such comments, but I sure have. And it can be frustrating feedback because it's not always clear how to fix it. Especially when you feel like you are only giving your readers the information they need.

Recently, I was revising a middle grade book, and one of my big concerns was cutting back the word count. It was long for a middle grade, but it was an intricate, complicated plot, so finding places to cut proved difficult.

Luckily I had the help of some amazing CPs (critique partners) and my agent, but as I worked through their suggestions, I discovered that Hidden Repetition was the the reason behind probably 95% of what I cut. Okay, that number is completely non-scientific, but you get the idea.

So what is Hidden Repetition, you ask? Let me tell you!

Hidden Repetition is when an idea is repeated using different words. 

As humans, we do this all the time. It's so imbedded into the way we think, it's not surprising that it creeps into our writing as well. Think of a few common expressions:

"Safe and sound."

"Plain and simple."

"Slip and slide."

But it's not just about overused synonyms. Hidden Repetition can be found at all levels of writing. At the word level (as shown above), at the phrase level, and at the scene level. 

Paragraph Level

To find Hidden Repetition at this level, you have to take a closer look at your writing to find the problem. For example, here's a paragraph from my own work:

Exactly what you'd expect from the Wintertons. They were rich. They had money to waste on such things.

Looking at actual words, there isn't much repetition. Only the intended emphasis on "They." But those last two sentences express the same idea. So it's better to choose the sentence that says more.

Exactly what you'd expect from the Wintertons. They were rich. They had money to waste on such things.

Yes, there is such as thing as nuance, and truthfully, that double emphasis might be fine . . . but when you compound many such repetitions, it adds up and slows the pace. Here is another example:

The rain roared in my ears, and I shivered. All I wanted was to leave. "Please can we go?"

Again, there is no obvious repetition, but do you see it? Do you know what needs to be cut?

This kind of repetition falls into the "show and tell" category. Yes, I made that up, but it's spot on. As writers, we've all heard the expression, "Show don't tell." That's a whole other topic that I could spend a lot of time on, but you know what I mean. Show what happens to your character instead of telling your readers what happens.*

We know this, so we do the work and show it. But then we worry our reader won't get it. They won't understand that thing that we're trying to convey. So we do both. We show AND tell, which is exactly what I've done above. Here is my edit:

The rain roared in my ears, and I shivered. All I wanted was to leave. "Please can we go?"

The rain and the shivering and the question are enough to inform the reader that she wanted to leave. I didn't need to tell them. And by cutting that repetition, I tighten my story and give it a cleaner and smoother feel.

Scene level

At the scene level, the question we have to ask ourselves is whether or not the scene is giving new and necessary information to our readers. The writing may be good. It may be giving our readers information about our characters, but is it new? And is it necessary? Let me share an example to show you what I mean:

In the school, signs pointed audience members one direction and contestants another. We followed the signs down the trophy hall. The Region Soccer trophy that Gordon had helped win stood front and center with a light shining down on it. Behind it was a picture of the team. The state Mathletes trophy was in the corner behind some smaller trophies. And there was certainly no picture of our team. 

Would we have been front and center if Jennifer hadn’t ditched? I couldn’t imagine the Wintertons accepting anything less. But I was just a lowly scholarship student. And Mathletes wasn’t soccer. 

At the end of a hallway, a sharp-dressed woman about Mom’s age stood behind the check-in table. 

In this scene, I was trying to build the tension between my MC and her brother. I was trying to show how she might be jealous of him and the attention he is getting for doing what she deemed as less. Truthfully, in my humble opinion, it's a good scene. It does exactly what I was aiming for without saying that she was jealous.

BUT, this scene did not pass the test. First, while the information was new, I had already established that there was tension between them. And second, this information was not necessary. Not only had I already established the tension, but the tension I build in this scene is coming from the wrong place. The tension I wanted to build wasn't from jealousy, it was from a difference of opinion about an important issue. 

In short, this scene, though well-written, was not serving my story. It was slowing down the action and distracting my readers from what I was really trying to say. So here is what that scene became:

In the school, signs pointed audience members one direction and contestants another. We followed the signs down to the end of the trophy hall The Region Soccer trophy that Gordon had helped win stood front and center with a light shining down on it. Behind it was a picture of the team. The state Mathletes trophy was in the corner behind some smaller trophies. And there was certainly no picture of our team. 

Would we have been front and center if Jennifer hadn’t ditched? I couldn’t imagine the Wintertons accepting anything less. But I was just a lowly scholarship student. And Mathletes wasn’t soccer. 

At the end of a hallway, where a sharp-dressed woman about Mom’s age stood behind the check-in table. 

I got them where they needed to be without the little side trip. Again, I didn't cut it because it was poorly written, but because it wasn't serving my story. It doesn't matter how well-written a scene may be, if it's not serving the story, it is slowing the pace and preventing your readers from getting the information they need. 

While this example is just a small scene (because it was easier to show you), the same principles apply to longer scenes. Sometimes, you may end up cutting a whole chapter or more. I've done it. And my stories have been the better for it.

Though I don't have time to tell you about all the places and ways Hidden Repetition can sneak into your writing (for example, sometimes a whole character can be hidden repetition!), hopefully this discussion has been helpful! I was honestly surprised to find out just how much there was in my writing. Once it was cleared, the story flowed better and the pacing was no longer an issue. 

Let me know if you have questions, or if there's another topic you'd like me to discuss. 

*I feel compelled to mention that there is a place for telling in your writing. This rule should not be taken as gospel 100% of the time. Perhaps I'll do a post on this in the future.

Monday, April 11, 2022

5 MG Books I Can't Wait to Read

I've been so immersed in picture books the last little bit, that I've neglected talking about MG books. So today I am making up for that. There are so many great books coming out in 2022, and I'm going to share 5 MG Books that I'm excited for! (I'm excited for way more than that, so I may have to do another post like this one. Twist my arm a little!)

First up is EDEN'S EVERDARK by Karen Strong.

I fell in love with Karen's writing in her first book, JUST SOUTH OF HOME, and I cannot wait to read this one. It comes out September 6th, 2022, but I may have had the good fortune of snagging an ARC (advance reader copy), so watch for a review. My 12-yo is also a big Karen Strong fan, so her review may come first. So excited!


Here is the blurb:

Hailed by Newbery winner Kelly Barnhill as “stunning, moving, and marvelously strange,” this tale of a young girl who stumbles into a magical realm ruled by a wicked witch is a haunting and ultimately uplifting middle grade novel about grief, family, and decades-old magic.

Still grieving the loss of her mother, Eden visits Safina Island, her ancestral home, as a healing balm. But when she discovers an old sketchbook that belonged to her mother, she’s haunted by the images she sees drawn there. A creepy mansion covered with roots and leaves. A monstrous dog with dagger-sharp teeth. And a tall woman with wind-blown hair and long, sharp nails who is as beautiful as she is terrifying.

Days later, exploring the island alone, Eden follows a black cat through a rift in the bright day. She stumbles into Everdark, a parallel world where the sun never rises, where spirits linger between death and the afterlife, and where everything from her mother’s drawings is all too real—especially the Witch of Everdark, who wants to make Eden her eternal daughter.

Can Eden find a way to defeat the witch’s magic? Or will she remain trapped in Everdark forever?


Next up is A DUET FOR HOME by Karina Glaser.

You may have heard of Karina's VANDERBEEKER series which is like a warm hug in book form. If you haven't read those, get on that right away! A DUET FOR HOME was supposed to be her second book, so I'm all the more excited to finally get to read this one. It just came out last Tuesday, April 5th, 2022. My copy is on the way to my house from Books of Wonder (a great place to order from!) as I type. And yep, you guessed it, a review will be coming for this one, too.


Here is the blurb:

From the New York Times bestselling creator of the Vanderbeeker series comes a triumphant tale of friendship, healing, and the power of believing in ourselves told from the perspective of biracial sixth-graders June and Tyrell, two children living in a homeless shelter. As their friendship grows over a shared love of classical music, June and Tyrell confront a new housing policy that puts homeless families in danger.

It's June’s first day at Huey House, and as if losing her home weren’t enough, she also can’t bring her cherished viola inside. Before the accident last year, her dad saved tip money for a year to buy her viola, and she’s not about to give it up now. Tyrell has been at Huey House for three years and gives June a glimpse of the good things about living there: friendship, hot meals, and a classical musician next door. Can he and June work together to oppose the government, or will families be forced out of Huey House before they are ready?


A PERFECT MISTAKE by Melanie Conklin has had me excited since I first read the blurb. Mystery? Intrigue? Hidden Secrets? Sign me up! This one comes out on July 12th, 2022, and I canNOT wait!


Here's the blurb:

A moving, voice-driven novel about friendship, responsibility, and fighting against unfair expectations, for fans of Rebecca Stead and Erin Entrada Kelly.

Max wishes he could go back in time to before he was diagnosed with ADHD, before he grew to be the tallest kid in his class, and before he and his best friends went into the woods in the middle of the night. Max doesn’t remember what happened after he left his friends Will and Joey and the older kids who took them there. He’s not sure if he wants to remember. Knowing isn’t going to make Joey talk to him again, or bring Will out of his coma. 

When the local authorities run out of leads, Max realizes that without his help, they may never know what really happened to Will. Charged by the idea that he may be the key to uncovering the truth, Max pairs up with classmate and aspiring journalist Sam to investigate what really happened that night. But not everyone in the community wants that night to be remembered.


THE BUTTON BOX by Bridget Hodder and Fawzia Gilani-Williams is on the very top of my TBR pile (literally. My copy arrived last week!). I love learning about other religions and cultures, and this one has both a Jewish and Muslim main character. A book of inclusion is exactly what the world needs, and what I'm craving, right now! This book just came out on April 1, 2022. 


Here's the blurb:

If a magical button and a mysterious cat could transport you to the past...would you save the future?

After Jewish fifth-grader Ava and her Muslim cousin Nadeem are called hateful names at school, Granny Buena rummages in her closet and pulls out a glittering crystal button box. It's packed with buttons that generations of their Sephardic ancestors have cherished. With the help of Granny's mysterious cat Sheba, Ava and Nadeem discover that a button from the Button Box will whisk them back in time. Suddenly, they find themselves in ancient Morocco, where Nadeem's ancestor, Prince Abdur Rahman, is running for his life. Can Ava and Nadeem help the prince escape to Spain and fulfill his destiny, creating a legendary Golden Age for Muslims, Jews and Christians?


And my final book is WHERE WE USED TO ROAM by Jenn Bishop. Okay, I'm cheating just a bit on this last book, since it actually came out last year. BUT, the paperback just came out on April 5th, 2022, so I'm counting it! This book deals with some pretty heavy issues (sibling drug use), and I love that MG is getting more inclusive to deal with things kids really face. In fact, I could have used this book when I was a kid. So it will have to suffice that adult-me gets to read it.


Here's the blurb:

When Emma starts sixth grade, things finally begin to change. She may still be in the shadow of her older brother, Austin, the popular high school quarterback, but she’s made artsy new friends who get her way more than her bookish best friend, Becca.

But things are changing for Austin, too. After undergoing surgery for a football injury, Austin has become addicted to opioid painkillers. By the end of the school year, everything blows up with Austin—and Becca. When their parents decide to send Austin to rehab and Emma to stay with family friends in Wyoming for the summer, Emma seizes the chance to get away.

Wyoming turns out to be a perfect fresh start, especially after Emma makes friends with Tyler, a kindred spirit who doesn’t judge her—then again, he doesn’t know what she did to Becca. Still, Emma can’t hide forever…or go back to the way things were with Austin or with Becca. But can she find a way to confront the truth and move forward?


What books are you looking forward to reading! Let me know in the comments so I can add to my TBR pile!

Monday, March 28, 2022

A Book Deal and Publishing Secrets

I'm so excited to share that my next picture book, A Bad Case of the Almosts, was finally announced last week! (My third picture book, and my fourth book!!! But who's counting?) 


In case you can't read that, here's what it says:

Christianne Jones at Capstone has acquired world rights to A Bad Case of the Almosts by Janet Sumner Johnson (l.), illustrated by Alexandra Colombo. In this book, Abby conducts an experiment to discover if "almost" can be a good thing. Publication is set for spring 2023; Lauren Galit at LKG Agency represented the author, and Emmajane Turner at the Bright Agency represented the illustrator.

I wrote A BAD CASE OF THE ALMOSTS when I was struggling with them myself. I'd had a few books on submission that *ALMOST* sold, and it felt like "almost" was my destiny. Not quite there. Not quite good enough.

I commiserated with a good friend of mine, and she encouraged me. Told me to keep going and that she thought I was about to break through. That I was *almost* there. She could feel it.

I couldn't, but it made me reassess. What if "Almost" wasn't the stumbling block I thought it was?

I'm just thrilled to share this book with you, and I hope a few of you can relate to how it feels to be so close to something, then not quite make it.

So. You may have noticed that it's slated for a spring 2023 release. That might seem fast for a picture book, but I have a secret to share with you about the publishing industry. I actually signed this picture book contract last June. Yep, 9 (NINE!!!) months ago. 

With picture books, the announcement takes a while because once the author signs the contract, the publisher has to find an illustrator and get them to sign a contract before the book can be announced. And every publisher works slightly differently. Some publishers might jump right on finding an illustrator. Others might wait a bit because they are busy working on other projects. Some contracts are more complicated, so it might take more time to negotiate that contract. And it also depends on when the book is slated to be published.

All of that means nine months of waiting for an announcement is pretty typical when it comes to picture books. I even know some authors who have waited over two years for a book to be announced! And let me tell you, it can be pretty hard to keep a secret for that long. So it's an amazing day when we can finally share about a book that we are so excited for!

And one final note, for those with curious minds: Longer books, the kinds that don't have an illustrator, those announcements can come much faster. Though not always . . . because negotiating a contract can still take time, which means months can pass between when an author first gets an offer and when the contract is finally signed.

Publishing is an industry of secrets and a test of patience. Which is why you will so often hear an author say: "I got great news today!! But I can't talk about it yet." Because like I said, keeping secrets--like a book deal!--is HARD! And when you've got good news, all you want to do is shout about it to the world.

Monday, March 21, 2022

Author Interview: Cindy Williams Schrauben

Good morning! Today I am thrilled to have debut author Cindy Williams Schrauben here on my blog. I was lucky enough to receive an advance copy of her book THIS COULD BE YOU (April 1, Cardinal Rule Press), illustrated by Julia Seal. I loved it so much, I reached out to the publisher to hook us up. 

Cindy graciously agreed to an interview, and here we are! It was such a joy to get to know her better, and I'm excited for all of you to meet her as well. Also, you can read my review HERE. So enough of my jabbering, let's meet Cindy! (As always, I'm in green.)

Hi Cindy, welcome to my blog!

Hi! Thanks so much for having me. I’m thrilled to be here.

Can you tell us a little about yourself and how you came to write children's books?

As a mom, grandmother, and former teacher, books have always played a big part in my life.  My favorite memories involve kids in my lap reading. Though I have always enjoyed writing, and dreamed of writing a picture book, It wasn’t until my daughters moved out that I took it seriously – I knew I needed my own passion. I attended the NYC-SCBWI Conference early on and the energy and kindness of the kidlit community had me hooked right away.

Conferences are the best. The energy is amazing! Please tell us about your upcoming book, THIS COULD BE YOU.

Unlike many of my books, This Could Be You started out with an intentional message and goal – to inspire kids to believe and achieve by empowering them with growth mindset principles. I set out to create a book in which all kids could see themselves persevering. Each spread stars a different group of children living out their dreams – and, sometimes, struggling along the way.  Being able to learn from our failures is a crucial part of a growth mindset.

I completely agree. We all go through failure, but it doesn't define us. Kids need to see that! Your book creates such a hopeful feeling for your readers. What inspired you to write it?

My grandsons and the realization that I didn’t always encourage a growth mindset in my girls when they were young. Well-meaning comments like, “you are so smart” and “math is just easy for you” can have unintentional negative connotations. Instead, statements like, “Wow, you really worked hard for that” help them to realize that it is ok if something is hard because effort will help us get there. Our talents and skills are malleable. I hope that this book, which features extensive backmatter for adults, will help us all use more intentional language with our kids.

Such great advice! I've been working on that as well with my kids. And so much great back matter!

Speaking of work, your rhymes and rhythms are just plain fun to read. Writing in rhyme feels so daunting to me (I clearly need your book to build up my growth mindset!). Your stanzas all sound so perfect, they feel like it must have come out that way, but I'm sure you worked hard at it! Could you share a little bit about your revision process?

Every story in my head comes out in rhyme first – I often realize that rhyme isn’t right for a story, but for this one, I think it works. That isn’t to say that it was perfect (or even good) at the beginning. Rhyming requires a great deal of assessing and maneuvering. I often read out loud while tapping out beats like a conductor (I have to be careful who’s watching my loony antics). That is part of what I love about it, though – it’s like a puzzle.

Love that! I'm sure all us writers look a little loony when in the zone. And so fascinating that you start in rhyme. So, my favorite stanza was, of course, the one about writing. Do you have a favorite stanza? What do you love about it?

Fun fact #1 – the illustrator used a childhood photo of me to draw the young author on that page.

Really??! That is so cool! *runs off to find that page*

Picking my favorite is tough, but I think it is this:

 Who has keen-design flair,

an artist’s time-to-shine flair,

a sketch-and-then-refine flair?

Create. It could be you!

 Why? It shows a character who tries and fails, but doesn’t give up.

The refinement part is key to success. Such a great stanza.

Moving on to the art . . . it's so expressive! Julia Seal, the illustrator, did an amazing job! I love the simplicity of the kids, and how well it captures their emotions. Did you have any input on the art or illustrator? What was your reaction at seeing the art? (so many questions!)

I cried! It’s as if Julia Seal was in my head when she created the illustrations. The diversity, the color, everything. I didn’t have any input into the process at all, which was terrifying, but I couldn’t be more pleased.

It IS a terrifying process, but illustrators can do magic. And seeing your characters brought-to-life is a magical moment.

Fun fact #2 – I LOVE the endpapers. My illustrator deserves all the credit for this – she proposed that we ask children we know (along with some winners of a contest) to draw pictures of their dream jobs. Those Jr. Illustrators include my grandsons, nieces, nephews, etc. They loved being a part of it.

I LOVED the endpapers! Brilliant idea from Julia. And so exciting for those kids!

Can we talk writing for a minute? How many picture books would you say you wrote before finally getting a deal on this one?

Oh boy. I couldn’t even begin to guess how many unfinished stories I have, but as far as completed, ready to submit stories, close to 20.

Wow. But it really shows you are living the message of THIS COULD BE YOU. What helped you the most on the path to publication?

The number one most important part of my journey has been the kidlit community – from critique partners to contest organizers and bloggers. I know for a fact that I wouldn’t have kept going without them.

So much truth. The kidlit community is so uplifting. 💜

Now on to the speed round of favorites!

 Ice cream: Vanilla with lots of chocolate, caramel, and nuts. But, I don’t think there is a flavor I would pass up. Ice cream is my weakness.

Color: Coral

Time of day: Late at night

Sport: Baseball

Musical instrument: Piano

Animal: Dogs

Word: Grow

Picture Book (that you didn’t write): Three Ninja Pigs by Corey Rosen Schwartz and illustrated by Dan Santat

I love how much we can learn from one-word answers. Love it all! (And Three Ninja Pigs is a favorite of mine, too!)

One last question. I have a fascination for personalized license plates. What do you think your characters might choose for their personalized license plate? You have 8 characters. Go!

 YesICan

 So perfect! Thanks so much again!

Thank you! This has been lots of fun.

~~~

Cindy Williams Schrauben lives in Michigan where she writes books for kids that range from the truly serious to the seriously silly. Before embarking on this path, she held positions as a preschool administrator, teacher, and assistant director of a children’s museum -- always striving to empower kids. When not writing or honing her craft, Cindy might be found dissecting her grandsons’ shenanigans for story ideas, reading on the floor in the bookstore, or eating ice cream… ideally all at once.

You can connect with Cindy at her website or her Direct Me page, and she's also on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram

You can purchase THIS COULD BE YOU through Monkey See, Monkey Do books, or wherever books are sold.

Monday, March 7, 2022

Author Interview: Dee Romito

Sometimes, hosting an author interview is a great way to meet some fantastic authors. And sometimes, hosting an author interview is a way to spend time with a great friend! But it is always a way to share some amazing books with you, my readers. Today, I'm super excited to have children's author, Dee Romito, here on my blog! 

We met almost ten years ago through Pitch Madness (which was a contest that allowed you to get your work in front of agents). Since then, we have debuted our middle grade books together, taken picture book classes together, attended writing conferences and book festivals together, chatted for countless hours via text, phone, and zoom, and most recently, I even convinced her to do a Reel on Instagram with me! (Seriously, you should follow that link . . . just not until you've finished reading here. 😁)

From when I first read her work, before either of us were published, I loved it! Dee writes super-relatable, hard-to-put-down, intriguing-plot stories. So it was no surprise when she sold her chapter book series, Fort Builders, Inc. in a 4-book deal! The fourth book just came out, and I'm thrilled to have her here to talk about it. So let's get started! (As always, I'm in green.)

Dee, will you tell us about your new chapter book series, FORT BUILDERS, INC.?

Fort Builders Inc. is about a group of friends who decide to start their own fort building business. They use teamwork, creativity, and their individual skills to navigate each challenge.


I love this premise so much! It's brilliant! What inspired you with idea? Because honestly, what kid hasn't wished they could build forts as a job? 

And kids are so good at it! I was trying to think of an idea for a chapter book series and asked myself, “What do kids like to do these days?” Right in front of me was a box fort my kids had made. I had my answer!

Kids bring so much inspiration to our writing lives. Love it! So I happen to know that you built a fort or two as research for your books. Can you tell us about that? Did you build any specific forts from your books? What was the hardest part?

I did! For the first book, I had to make a drawbridge, and then I had to give my family the instructions I’d written to see if the steps made sense. Watching them helped me fine tune what went in the book.

We also built a pet fort for a litter of kittens we were fostering. The kittens loved it, and they posed for some book promo photos too!



Those kittens are adorable! If you were part of Fort Builder's, Inc., what would your job be in the fort-building team?

I’d probably end up being the organizer like Caleb. I like to figure out what everyone is good at and then delegate tasks. I also like to encourage everyone and be a sounding board if there’s a problem to solve.

Oh yeah. I can totally see that. I think I'd be like Kiara, doing the planning. 😂

Okay, I'd love for our readers to learn more about you, so what is one thing about you that might surprise us? 

I live in Buffalo, NY, which is very close to Niagara Falls and Canada. Around here it’s not a big deal to say you’re going to Canada, but when I talk to kids in other parts of the country and say I can go there for the day, they often look surprised, like I have a secret passage to far away land.

Oh, but you do. Canada is definitely a secret faraway land to those of us not by the border. 

What did you do before you were an author, and why did you decided to become one?

Before I was an author, I was a teacher. And I love that I still get to go into schools and classrooms and talk to students; it’s just in a different role now.

I had always wanted to write a book someday and see it on the shelf at a bookstore with my name on the cover. But it wasn’t until I was home with my kids and my son asked me a question that sparked an idea for a story. From there, I decided to learn how to write a book and get it published. After a lot of hard work, I did get to see my book on the shelf at a bookstore. 😊

Way more than one, now! Because with the release of FORT BUILDERS, INC. you have published in 3 genres: Middle Grade, Picture Books, and Chapter Books. Clearly, you are amazing, as each is so different. 

Did you have to make any adjustments to your writing process while working on FORT BUILDERS, INC.? 

Ha ha. I would first argue that YOU are amazing, but back to the question … Yes, I had to learn a whole new way to write a story. It seems like it would be much easier to write a shorter book, but I had to learn how to fit a story into 4,000 words instead of 40,000! My editor kept telling me to make things happen sooner. You don’t have as much lead in when the story is chapter book length and the plot points are closer together.

Aww, thank you! 😊 But for real. Telling a whole story with chapters in 4000 words??! Seriously impressed over here. Do you have a favorite category to write in?

I really like variety and have a lot of different interests, which is why I write in different categories. Each one is so different, and it’s fun to explore them.

SO different. And being in two categories myself, I have to agree. 

Okay, time to pick up the pace for the speed round!

Favorite candy? Anything chocolate!

Favorite color? Yellow

Cake vs. Cookies? Cookies for sure

Winnie-the-pooh character? Winnie the Pooh

Patriot's game w/front row seats vs. Trip to London? Ha! Easily London. 

Considering I’m a huge Buffalo Bills fan and London in my favorite city in the world, I feel like that last one is a trick question.

Haha! You know me too well. Just curious if I could pull one over on you in the quickness of it all. 😉 How about Buffalo Bills front row seats vs. Trip to London? 

Still London. But you know I love my Bills!!!

Without question! Buffalo Bills, all the way!

Okay, final question. License Plates. I always have to ask. What would the Fort Builders, Inc. crew choose for personalized license plate if they were old enough to drive? You have 8 letters, and GO!

What a great question! I’d have to go with:

FORT BLDR

It's perfect! Love it! Dee, thanks so much for hanging out with us today. So fun!

~~~

Dee Romito is an author of books for young readers and a former elementary school teacher. Her middle grade books include The BFF Bucket ListNo Place Like Home, Postcards from Venice, and co-authored Best.Night.Ever (Aladdin/S&S). Her debut picture book, Pies from Nowhere: How Georgia Gilmore Sustained the Montgomery Bus Boycott (Little Bee Books) received a starred review from Booklist and a Crystal Kite Award. Her latest release is a chapter book series titled Fort Builders, Inc. (Aladdin/S&S). Dee blogs about writing at WriteforApples.com and is Co-Founder of Buffalo-Niagara Children’s Writers and Illustrators. While she does her best to be a grown-up most of the time, giggling with her BFFs is still one of her all-time favorite things. You can visit her website at deeromito.com. 

You can learn more about Dee and her books on her website, and she's also on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Goodreads.

You can order all of Dee's books through Monkey See, Monkey Do Bookshop, and everywhere books are sold!

Tuesday, March 1, 2022

Book News and Bits and Bobs

Hello! Now that it is 2022, I feel like I'm speeding towards the release date of BRAVER THAN BRAVE! There is so much going on.

Next Monday (3/7), I will have the fabulous children's author Dee Romito here on the blog, talking about her chapter book series, FORT BUILDER'S INC. Trust me, you don't want to miss that!

On March 21st, I will have picture book author Cindy Williams Schrauben here to talk about her debut book THIS COULD BE YOU. And no worries, I promise to remind you as it gets closer.

Today, even though I am here telling you about all these fun upcoming posts, I am actually over on the brand new blog of children's author Mary Boone! She has a fun new series called "Six Questions." So you can read all about my writing process, what I was like as a kid, and get some insider information on BRAVER THAN BRAVE which releases on August 1st of this year. I hope you check it out (link is above)!

Finally, in case you missed it and are extra curious about my upcoming book, I was also recently on Tara Lazar's blog Writing for Kids (While Raising Them) for a cover reveal. On that post, I share the genesis for the story idea for BRAVER THAN BRAVE. 

And okay, one last thing. I've discovered a love of making humorous Reels on Instagram about family life and being an author. If you want to see what I'm up to, come find me! I'd love to connect over there. My username is @janetsumnerjohnson. :)

Though I'll definitely be talking about my upcoming book here on my blog over the next several months, I also plan to tell you about other great books releasing into the world, and their amazing authors. Thanks for hanging around, and if there's anything particular you'd love for me to post about, let me know! 

Monday, December 6, 2021

Author Interview: Zeena Pliska

A Latinx woman, Zeena, with black curly hair, and a maroon shirt, smiles at the camera
Today, I'm excited to welcome Author Zeena Pliska to my blog! Her debut, Hello, Little One! (Page Street Kids, 2020), illustrated by Fiona Halliday, came out in 2020. It is beautiful and touching, and if you haven't read it . . . well, then I'm extra excited to introduce you to Zeena and this lovely book. 

I am in green!

Hi Zeena, welcome to my blog!

Thanks so much for having me, Janet. It’s truly an honor!

The honor is all mine. Can you tell us a little about yourself and how you came to write children's books?

 I spend my days immersed in the joy of 5-year-olds. I’m a kindergarten teacher by day and a children’s book author by night in Los Angeles, California. As a progressive public-school educator, I believe that the most important aspect of teaching is listening to children. Often, children’s stories come through me rather than from me. A lifetime storyteller, I have facilitated stories as a theater director, visual artist, photographer and journalist. I think “in stories,” in narratives, and am enchanted by all the stories that surround me.

I wrote my first picture book in 1995 but was too involved in theater directing to really pursue another direction at the time. Years passed. I developed as an exhibiting visual artist and lived with other artists in a loft.  

When I had my daughter, painting and photography were replaced by parenting. It was no longer feasible to create stories in mediums that literally took up space and required a studio/loft. Those delightful and play-filled years of early parenting consumed my time and became my “artistic” pursuit. When my child entered her teenage years, my storytelling reemerged in the form of picture book manuscripts (they didn’t take up physical space and could be stored on a computer.)

I’ve now entered that world as a children’s book author and feel like I’ve found my sweet spot. Although, theater directing, filmmaking, painting, and photographing still call out, seeking my attention…

I love that you've been involved in so many different creative pursuits. And I agree, it can be hard to settle on just one, but I completely agree that writing picture books is a sweet place to be! Can you please tell us about your book?

Book cover with a monarch butterfly talking to a catterpillar and the title Hello, Little One: A Monarch Butterfly Story
Hello, Little One: A Monarch Butterfly Story is a fictional picture book about a young monarch caterpillar who longs for friendship. Having hatched among leaves of a Milkweed plant, it crawls from green leaf to green leaf looking for a friend. And then, it sees Orange, an adult monarch butterfly as it flits, flutters, and flies. When Orange lands on a flower near Little One, the two strike up a friendship. Together they move through the lifecycle as their friendship grows, each sharing their unique point of view with the other.

It’s a story of longing. Youth wanting to catch up with age, and age savoring its memories of youth. The two at different stages of their lives, meeting in that wondrous two-week window when both are able to connect, love, appreciate, and admire each other.


The story came to life in my kindergarten world of youthful energy. Originally titled Orange, it is a story of friendship, love, loss, grief, and renewal. 

So fun to learn it had a different title! And I have to say, your book really tackles all those topics in such a sweet and tender way. What inspired you to write it?

When I close my eyes, I am right back in that moment when the story of Hello, Little One jumped into my heart.

The school where I teach is located in the Mar Vista/Venice Beach area.  We are a waystation for monarchs so it’s not unusual to see these beautiful creatures grace our playground.  In fact, they are our official mascot. They flit, flutter, and swoop as children's laughter and sounds of play can be heard in the background.


One day at recess time, I was walking on my way to the main office. In between the classrooms, a majestic monarch butterfly fluttered about, landing on the flowers in the garden boxes.   I was mesmerized by the moment. I wondered, “What must that  butterfly see and experience?” 

 

As I wondered, I was struck by the sad, bittersweet thought that the life cycle of this monarch was almost done. It had only about two weeks to live. I was struck by both the strength of this creature and the fragility of life. In that moment, the character of Orange was born.


I am a great lover of irony.  The story developed around the  friendship between a young caterpillar at the beginning of its life cycle and an elder butterfly at the end of its life cycle. The story was  anchored in the two points of view from the different stages of the life cycle and the  perspectives each can offer the other.  A caterpillar who sees everything in life for the first time  and can’t wait to grow up and fly with its friend and a butterfly who fondly remembers its youth while sharing the beauty and wonder that comes with experience and age. It was important that the story not just focus on the perspective of the adult,  but  respect the voice of the child, giving equal value to both viewpoints.  


You can definitely feel that as you read. The wonder of Little One, and the wisdom of Orange. But I'm sure that beautiful balance you captured didn't happen without work. Would you mind sharing a little about your revision process?


I wrote the story 7 years prior to its publication.  I have been a teacher in Los Angeles for many years. The scientific principles embedded in the story were already a part of my working knowledge as I have taught them to kindergarteners for a long time. I developed as an educator during the years of whole language, core literature, and thematic teaching when picture books were at the center of learning science and social studies concepts. It was a different time, before scripted curriculum. 


It is still how I teach, using picture books to draw out student inquiry and student-led projects. Teaching informs my writing. The scientific concepts emerged in the story authentically and organically.  While I researched specific facts and details for the back matter, I did not do any research for the initial story. Because the  science concepts were just there, it was the emotional story that really drove my process.


One of the first times I shared my story with a large, public critique group of children’s book writers, I read the manuscript not knowing what to expect. I didn’t understand rhythm, word choice, lyrical language etc. It was both exhilarating and terrifying to reach the end and experience the response. A woman sobbed. She had connected with the grief in the story. It had triggered her own loss and touched her. The room was moved. The story had taken listeners to a place where they had felt big emotions.  I thought I had done my job as a writer. But the manuscript had miles to go and so did I, in my development of craft.


The word count was way too long and suddenly, the manuscript was a play. I was delighted to work with my young students to build the story and present it at a dedication ceremony to unveil a section of our campus, known as The Wildlands. The characters became more fully developed as I co-created with 5-year-olds. The play was performed by students who culminated from our school in 2020, the year the book was released. Bittersweet. I can still hear their youthful and poignant delivery of the lines as they flit, fluttered, and flew around the outdoor native garden. It was a beginning.


My story of a little caterpillar and Orange had come to life but it was still not ready for submission.  The manuscript stretched beyond what was reasonable for a picture book, well over 1200 words! Like many novice picture book writers, I did not yet understand the concept of word count and the process of precise word choice. It went through many revisions. Then, it went through many rejections. Rejections inform revisions. Revisions made me a stronger writer. They helped me develop my craft and the story that it finally became.

Word count and precise word choice can sound so simple, but it is definitely an art! And speaking of art . . . the art is gorgeous! The detail and intricacies are breathtaking. Fiona Halliday really brought everything to life. I’d love to hear about your process with the illustration. Did you get to help in choosing the illustrator? Did you include art notes? And what was your first reaction to seeing these gorgeous illustrations? Do you have a favorite image?

I was very lucky as a debut author. Page Street Kids asked for my input regarding the illustrator.  They sent some suggestions to me. Fiona’s work was stunning and unique. The editor and I were in agreement that Fiona was a great choice. The editor also knew she could depict the emotional connection between the two characters which was an essential piece of the storytelling.

 I had put very few illustration notes because I don’t see stories when I am writing them, I hear them.  This is so strange because I am also a visual artist.  I think I hear them because of the countless picture books I read aloud to my students as a teacher every day.


Fiona Halliday is  a Page Street Kids author/illustrator.  Her picture book,  Numenia and the Hurricane: A True Migration Story came out in January 2020. And, The Legend of the Storm Goose comes out in February of 2022.  Fiona lives in Austria.  We did not meet or communicate directly during the process.  There was a strict firewall for good reason.  We did finally meet 4 months after the release of the book at a virtual event. The event was  hosted by Second Star to the Right Books in Denver, Colorado and designed to reveal our first meeting with each other and to answer questions as the author and illustrator of Hello, Little One


It’s so strange to co-create a story and never meet during the process of creation but I think this is pretty standard in the industry. There were some moments during the process when the sketches looked completely different than the final art. The style and depiction didn’t seem to tell the same story I was trying to tell. I thought they were the direction that the illustrations were going in. It wasn’t until I met Fiona at the virtual event that she communicated her process and I understood that they had been very rough, first sketches when she was exploring the possibilities.


I love promoting this book so much because the illustrations are absolutely stunning. When I saw the illustrations for the first time, I think my heart skipped a beat.  They tell the story in a way that could never have been told with words alone.  That’s the magic of a picture book told through the words of the author and the pictures of the illustrator. My favorite image is the image of the two nestled up against each other as their separation becomes inevitable.


illustration of a monarch caterpillar and a monarch butterfly snuggling with a flowery background

Such a gorgeous image. The illustration process is so fascinating. It really is amazing to watch a story come to life from a second point of view. So now that Hello, Little One is out in the world, what is your favorite part of being an author? And what is next for you?

I am a storyteller by nature, and I believe in the power of story. Irony is also an element that weaves its way through my work. Playfully recognizing irony is very much part of how I experience the world. Although I am never trying to “teach” a lesson in my writing, it is always my hope that my work will create discourse.

 

I have several picture book manuscripts on submission through my agent Abigail Samoun of Red FoxLiterary. Themes that emerge for me presently in my picture books are stories of resistance and resilience. I like to challenge the status quo, giving children the opportunity to rethink possibilities not yet imagined as they navigate their world.


I have just written a graphic novel and am working on a contemporary YA novel. I love to tell stories in different formats. Each story that finds me and demands to be told has its own form that best suits it. So many stories, so little time.


My next picture book, Egyptian Lullaby, published by Roaring Brook Press comes out in 2023.


Congratulations! I can't wait to read it. And I love that you are writing in so many forms. I agree that every story demands its own form, and it can be fun to explore that!


Okay, are you ready? Speed round!

Butterfly vs. Caterpillar? 

Butterfly! I don’t mind crawling along and looking at life in detail through newborn eyes … but oh how I love to fly and see the world in all its vastness!

Ocean vs. Mountains? 

Ocean. I live 7 minutes from the ocean and the final version of Hello, Little One that made it submission-ready was written while looking out at the ocean in Playa Del Rey, CA.

Halloween vs. New Year’s Day? 

Halloween! Who doesn’t love transforming into any character they want for a whole night? The possibilities are endless…

Winnie-the-pooh character? 

Tigger. I love his youthful energy.

Ice cream vs. Cake? 

Ice cream, though it’s hard to imagine eating them separately. I guess that’s the basis for my answer. I can eat ice cream without cake but I can’t eat cake without ice cream.

Love it! So fun to learn more about you.  

Okay, I have one last question. I have a fascination for personalized license plates. Obviously, your characters couldn’t have them, but if we imagine a cute little caterpillar car, what do you think Little One might choose for their personalized license plate? You have 8 characters. Go!

Do You!

Love it! And for those of you who don't get it, you'll have to read the book! 

~~~

Zeena M. Pliska spends her days immersed in the joy of 5-year-olds. She is a kindergarten teacher by day and a children’s book author by night in Los Angeles, California. A progressive public school educator, she believes that the most important aspect of teaching is listening to children. A social justice activist and organizer for over 30 years, she brings race, class, and gender analysis to everything she does. A lifetime storyteller, she has facilitated stories as a theater director, visual artist, photographer and journalist. Her debut picture book, HELLO, LITTLE ONE: A MONARCH BUTTERFLY STORY from Page Street Kids came out May 12, 2020. Her second picture book EGYPTIAN LULLABY from Roaring Brook Press is due out in 2023.

You can learn more about Zeena and her books on her website, and she's also on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.