Thursday, November 20, 2014

Courses for Picture Book Writers

Lately, I've noticed that there are so many courses and resources for children's writers springing up everywhere--especially for picture book writers! Sometimes it's hard to decide which ones to spend your money on, so I thought I'd share a little about what I've found useful. Today, I'm posting about courses on picture book writing.

Courses I've Taken:

Jill Corcoran and Martha Alderson's How To Write and Sell Your Picture Book

Jill Corcoran is a literary agent and Martha Alderson is otherwise known as "The Plot Whisperer". The reasonable price of this course during the summer made it too good to pass up. I'd already purchased and watched their course on novel revision Revise Your Novel In a Month and found it extremely useful. The picture book course provides lots of examples of picture books to read and study to improve your craft, as well as how to study them. I appreciated all the information about concept, since it's such a big part of creating a picture book.

Some of the principles in this course were the same as for the novel revision course, but they gave me a new perspective when applied to picture books. I like the idea of being able to revisit the videos as many times as I want for a year.

Courses I'm Considering:

Jodell Sadler's Pacing Picture Books to WOW!

Jodell Sadler is a literary agent who enjoys working with writers to help them improve their stories. I'm intrigued by this course after following a picture book chat with Jodell on Twitter: Pacing in Picture Books #PBPacing last May.  

Susanna Leonard Hill's Making Picture Book Magic

Susanna Leonard Hill has a huge following on her popular blog, with weekly "Would You Read It?" pitch contests and a list of great picture books from Perfect Picture Book Friday. I've heard her course is excellent -- and reasonably priced -- though I haven't had a chance to take it yet.

Tips and Suggestions: 

Sometimes taking courses takes valuable time away from actually writing (though many courses do help you work through the process of writing a picture book). However, they are enormously motivating and inspiring. Some of the things I ask myself when deciding whether or not to take a course:

1. Will I have time to make the most out of the course? Sometimes I do take courses just to "collect information" but it's better when I have time to actually work through the exercises. Work-at-your-own pace or online courses are easier to fit in, but will I actually do the work without a real deadline?

2. How much does it cost? I appreciate that it's necessary to invest in myself and my writing if I want it to be more than a hobby. But it's important to me that the courses I choose give good value for the money. With writing group organizations to join, conferences, all adds up.

3. What do other people say about it? I like to read reviews about what others have experienced so I know what I'm getting into. It helps me keep my expectations realistic and also to decide whether it might be valuable for me.

Have you taken any useful courses on writing picture books? What would you recommend?

Monday, November 17, 2014

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: The Swift Boys and Me

If you enjoy a book where you get attached to the characters and their problems, then this is a good one for you. It’s all about a family falling apart and how one girl tries to deal with it.

Here’s the Amazon description:

Eleven-year-old Nola Sutton has been best friends and neighbors with the Swift boys for practically her whole life. There's the youngest, Kevin, who never stops talking; the oldest, Brian, who's always kind and calm; and then there's Canaan, the ringleader and Nola's best-best friend. Together, they have a summer of fun adventures planned.

But then everything changes overnight.

When the boys' dad leaves without even saying good-bye, it completely destroys the Swift family, and all Nola can do is watch. She tries to hold on to them, but they are changing. Kevin stops talking, Canaan starts hanging out with mean boys, and Brian is never around. Nola just wants things to go back to the way they were -- the way they've always been.

Is Nola strong enough to save the Swift boys from themselves, or has she lost them forever?

The Swift Boys and Me by Kody Keplinger, Scholastic, 2014

My Take:

I liked the slightly different take on this story about family in this novel. Nola wants to help her best friends (who are boys) but everything is changing for them, and for her. She’s also trying to raise some money for a visit to the circus. I thought the characters were quite realistic – they all had different personalities and no one was perfect. 

I especially liked the subplot of Nola becoming friendlier with her grandmother, even though at the beginning she was using visits to her grandmother as an excuse to do some spying.

Opening Line:

“I never told the boys I saw their daddy leave that night.”


“I imagined tiny little Kevin in the boys’ dark closet, curled up in a ball on the floor. The thought made me want to cry.”

“I woke up to the sound of firecrackers down the street, and for the first time in my life, it didn’t make me smile.”

“Since Felicia was brave enough to be honest with me, I decided to be honest with her, too. I hoped she’d take it okay.”

Other Info:

Kody Keplinger lives in New York City with her German Shepherd. The Swift Boys and Me is her first published middle grade book. 

She’s also written several YA books, including The Duff and Secrets and Lies. She was 17 when she sold her first book, The Duff.

Check out Kody’s vlog about The Swift Boys and Me.

Author Shannon Messenger posts a list of bloggers reviewing middle grade books every Monday. Shannon is the founder of Marvelous Middle Grade Monday and the author of the Keeper of the Lost Cities series.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Learning from Picture Books: One Cool Friend

This book has so many layers! It's fun to think about as a writer, from the perspective of character and plot, but it's also a good one to engage students and provoke discussion.

Here's the summary from in case you haven't read it yet: 

On a spontaneous visit to the aquarium, straight-laced and proper Elliot discovers his dream pet: a penguin. When he asks his father if he may have one (please and thank you), his father says yes. Elliot should have realized that Dad was probably thinking of a toy penguin, not a real one… Clever illustrations and a wild surprise ending make this sly, silly tale a kid-pleaser from start to finish.

One Cool Friend, written by Tony Buzzeo, illustrated by David Small, published by Dial Books for Young Readers, 2012

My Thoughts as a Writer:

Elliot’s quirky personality is clear right from the first page of this book. I love the line where he finds the penguins: “In their black feather tuxedos with their proper posture, they reminded Elliot of himself.”  The plot had surprising twists that kept me reading to find out what would happen next. And I thought Elliot’s relationship with his father was realistic and really helped create another interesting layer for the story. 

This is a good book to study to learn about story layers and plot twists. It’s fun to go back through the story and look at the clues in the illustrations that point towards the ending.

My Thoughts as a Teacher:

My students would enjoy the humor in this story and the idea of ‘fooling Dad’, which of course is proven out differently in the end. This book would be a fun one to read when talking about penguins, aquarium visits or habitats and how to care for a living creature. And it’s a great story to show how the writer and illustrator used their imaginations. 

A good activity for this book would be for students to think of an animal they’d like to take home from the zoo or aquarium and think about how their own environment would have to change to support the animal. Students could also investigate the explorers Magellan and Captain Cook, and look for places mentioned in the story on a map, e.g. Great Barrier Reef, the Galapagos Islands.

If you're looking for more great picture books to read to your class or to investigate as a writer, author Susanna Leonard Hill has a wonderful list of Perfect Picture Books.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: Ice Dogs

I’ve been waiting for my library to get this book for a very long time! It was well worth the wait. I enjoyed this book so much I’ll probably buy a copy for myself.

Here's the description from Amazon:

Victoria Secord, a fourteen-year-old Alaskan dogsled racer, loses her way on a routine outing with her dogs. With food gone and temperatures dropping, her survival and that of her dogs and the mysterious boy she meets in the woods is entirely up to her.

The author Terry Lynn Johnson is a musher herself, and her crackling writing puts readers at the reins as Victoria and Chris experience setbacks, mistakes, and small triumphs in their wilderness adventure.

Ice Dogs by Terry Lynn Johnson, Houghton Mifflin, 2014

My Take:

This book was fast-paced and the action kept me wondering whether Victoria would survive. I also liked the storyline that followed her growing friendship with the “city boy” and how the two of them learned to get along as the story developed. Even though Victoria is 14 and this is listed as YA, I think it’s a good read for older MG students, especially if they are interested in dogs or survival, with a touch of romance.

The author was so successful at bringing the setting to life using details and lovely language! As a writer, I’d read this again to study the language and how every word counts.

Opening Line:

“All eight of my dogs are stretched in front of me in pairs along the gangline.”


“I see the cloudless night sky lighting our campsite with the glow from the stars and half a moon.”

“My legs feel rooted to the trail and for an awful second, all I see is black.”

“The ice around us tinkles and creaks like glass.”

Other Info:

Terry Lynn Johnson lives in Northern Ontario, where she works as a Conservation Officer. Ice Dogs was inspired by a team of crazy huskies she used to have. 

In an interview with Natalie Aguirre at Literary Rambles, Terry says she doesn't like giving writing advice because her process is different every time. But she does give this tip: “…one thing I do each time is try to keep questions in the readers mind. Adding answers slowly throughout the story is one way of rewarding a reader.

Terry Lynn Johnson’s first book, Dogsled Dreams, is about twelve-year old Rebecca and her goal of becoming a famous sled dog racer. I’m looking forward to reading it one day!

For more, visit Terry Lynn Johnson’s website

Looking for more Marvelous Middle Grade Monday books? Author Shannon Messenger posts a weekly list of bloggers reviewing great middle grade books. Shannon is the founder of Marvelous Middle Grade Monday and the author of the Keeper of the Lost Cities series.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Celebrate Picture Books and Inspire Imagination!

November is Picture Book Month, "an international literacy initiative that celebrates the print picture book during the month of November."

Different members of the literary community are posting their thoughts on the importance of picture books on the Picture Book Month blog.

Some examples:

Chris Barton: "...the subject of a picture book can introduce moms, dads, and little ones alike to unfamiliar faces of our fascinating world, which in turn can lead to some pretty marvelous conversations between generations."

Kelly Bingham: "Picture books teach us--young and old alike--lessons about ourselves, our world, our feelings, our realities."

Stefan Jolet: "Picture books unlock children's imaginations and inspire them."

And if you love writing picture books, the way I do, November is doubly exciting because it's also PiBoIdMo, Picture Book Idea Month! Author Tara Lazar created this fun challenge for picture book writers as an alternative to NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month).

Participants try to come up with one idea for a picture book story on every day of the month. This year, I'm keeping track of my ideas on a calendar, and so far, I haven't had any trouble getting at least one idea per day. Some days, I end up with two or three. Too bad I don't have time to create a book for them all!