“Welcome” News

Jeff Miracola Morning Blend     There’s quite a bit of news to report about Welcome to Monster Isle, the picture book illustrated by Jeff Miracola, my hubby.

     The book’s been distributed and is now available on bookstore shelves! In the Milwaukee area, you can find copies at independent bookstores such as Harry W. Schwartz. You can also find a list of convenient retailers at monsterisle.net, where you’ll also discover extras such as coloring pages.

Morning Blend Pumpkin     More news: Today Jeff was a guest on WTMJ’s local TV talk show The Morning Blend. Hosts Alison de Castro and Molly Fay talked with Jeff about the book, his previous works, and what’s next (Click here to see the interview.). I hung in the wings, took pictures, and generally took up space. 🙂 Well, I also chatted with former colleague and TMB Executive Producer Kim Buchanan, whose boys are diggin’ the art.

     And speaking of which, thanks so much to everyone who’s contacted us to say how much their children are enjoying the book. It’s so nice to hear and makes Jeff so happy.

Ages & Illos

Julie Bowe     I’ve been posting for several days now on the speakers at SCBWI-WI’s fall retreat. The two I’ll highlight today were informative and funny, and their ideas were excellent.

     Author Julie Bowe started her session with prompts to get us thinking back to our childhood selves. We’re talking thoughts such as, “It makes me so mad when … ” or “I love it when … ,” and we were to complete the sentence as if we were our 3rd-to-5th grade selves. That was a fun little mental vacation back to my elementary-school playground (I can still remember the concrete tubes we climbed on.). The idea was to mentally return to the age of your protagonist, an absolute necessity if your writing is to resonate with that group of readers. Julie took us through fantastic research highlighting the physical, intellectual, emotional, and social development of older elementary-school kids. Armed with this knowlegdge, authors can have their protagonists meet and resolve their own problems within their ability and intellectual capability.

Henry Cole     Illustrator Henry Cole took us from rough sketches to final art on several of his books. His overhead projections showed how illustrations progress, how much they can change, and how very much emotion they evoke. We remember the art of our favorite picture books, and great art stays with us forever.

     Well, great books in their totality stay with us forever, and no doubt kids who’ve enjoyed Julie’s and Henry’s works would count their books among them.

Economy of Language

Stacy Cantor    The “economy of language” is how one guest at the retreat summed up children’s picture books. Associate Editor Stacy Cantor of Walker Books for Young Readers, shown right, made us all think about just how tightly we must write for this kind of book. She suggests 300 – 1,000 words. She cited Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are at 338 words.

     As someone who’s used to writing news, I’m familiar with the techniques of slashing and burning copy. Stacy’s suggestions fit with news as much as picture books, but let’s focus on the latter here.

     She suggests authors introduce the characters and conflict early in the story, preferably on page one. Each sentence should progress the story, and repetition should be employed only if truly necessary. Lastly, keep in mind the mentality of the child and the creative license of the illustrator, who will tell half the story visually.

     Stacy showed an original manuscript of a picture book and the subsequent markings and revisions made before publication. That little gem was wonderfully illustrative; less is more.

A Story Primer

Linda Sue Park     Pull out your English grammar book because it’s time to review story structure. Yay, yippie, I eat this stuff up! 🙂 Here we go…

     Speaking at the SCBWI-WI fall retreal, Newbery Award winner Linda Sue Park admits that she doesn’t really know her writing process. She says she reads so much that plot, for her, is innate; automatic. And she’s read enough and written enough to know good work when she sees it.

     So first, a bit on structure or, as Linda puts it, how to tell the story. There’s macro-structure, that is, the method used to tell the story; through letters (think C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters), poetry, etc. Then there’s micro-structure, that is, point of view, first or third person, past or present tense, etc. Linda makes a strong case against first person present (I run away) because it’s meant to showcase repetitive or recurring action, whereas third person is the traditional method of storytelling and one she calls the hallmark of good writing.

     Next, Linda gave great advice on voice. She finds it helpful to think of her narrator as a person instead of a disembodied voice with a motive to tell the story. That doesn’t mean the narrator must be reliable nor serious; (s)he could be comical or ironic. Linda nails this down before starting.

     Lastly, Linda spoke of scenes, defined as progress toward the quest or impediments blocking the way. Writing them in a sentence helps narrow them. Revisions are your friend.

     Honestly, I could have listened to her talk about story structure and writing for hours. Her writing is clear evidence that she knows her craft.

Rules of Writing Fantasy

Jeff Miracola, Holly Black, Silvia Acevedo     It had been a really long time since I’d seen Holly Black, so it was great to see her again at the SCBWI-WI fall retreat this weekend. You all know of her, through her Spiderwick and Faerie Tales series or her other works. She’s hilarious and very friendly and was a big hit at the event.

     Holly presented her ten rules of writing fantasy. I won’t give them all here (let her reveal them to the world as she wishes), but I will point out one rule which really spoke to me: Fantasy needs to be rooted in a sense of place. To further explain, she continues, your world has to be real enough so as to allow a person to “walk” into it. She recommends knowing your world so thoroughly that you can detail a great deal more of it than what you necessarily include in your story. For example, what is the primary form of communication, transportation, business, etc, in your imaginary world? Furthermore, she emphasizes that both the fantastical and the real must be described equally to distribute their weight throughout the book.

     Holly also gave some funny anecdotes about her childhood. Apparently, her mother was quite convinced of the supernatural. Her mother’s childhood stories of playing in the attic with ghosts naturally made Holly a wee bit tense, especially living in the “creepy” house that they inhabited. The dangling branches of a large tree regularly scraped against her bedroom window, so, whenever forced to pass said tree, Holly would flat-out sprint past them. She confessed to her mother her fear that the trees would reach down and snatch her. “Don’t worry,” her mother replied. “That probably won’t happen.” Nice.

     Pictured here are my husband Jeff, Holly, and me. It was a good time.


     Remember that novel you read awhile back — the one with three, four, five (seemingly endless) pages describing a room/field/plaza/whatever? Guh. Yeah, you remember. That may have been the point where you put the thing down. Maybe you never picked it back up.

     That is exactly what can’t happen for the writer, and it was a danger mentioned several times at the retreat I spoke of in my last post. We’re talking about children’s books here. You know, shorter attention spans. Yes, adults too.

     So the warning was put out by people in the know; people like Newbery Award winner Linda Sue Park, who spoke so well about story structure and style that she will merit her own post. That’s coming, but for descriptions and internal monologues, she says she tends to limit herself to a few paragraphs because any more kills the action (progress) in the scene.

     Author and editor Ann Angel compared description to an actor on stage suspending the scene to address the audience directly, pulling their attention right out of the story.

     No doubt description has its place. How else would a reader understand the author’s world? The description’s got to have relevance, though, and can’t drag on forever. As I don’t wish this post to drag forever, I’ll end here. More on the retreat soon.

Retreat Business, Banter, and Brownies

SCBWI-WI 2008 Pin, Designed by Michael Kress-Russick     Soooo good is time spent learning and laughing with other authors and illustrators! My husband and I are back from a fun and informative weekend in Racine at the Fall Retreat for the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators Wisconsin Chapter.

     The retreat is a chance to network, share, and critique. It’s an opportunity to learn of the business, changes, and trends. It’s an extended moment to laugh, meet colleagues, and make new friends. And there’s just too much to say it all here.

     Over the course of the next few days, I’ll post more about the SCBWI-WI event; who spoke, useful tips, and great moments.

     Notice the image above right? It’s the 2008 retreat pin designed by Michael Kress-Russick. Well done.

     And perhaps you’re wondering about the “brownie” part of this post’s title? Well, there was a fantastically well-stocked snack table, groaning under the weight of the many offerings provided by members. It was a happy place to hover — around a great group of people.


   We all have so many hats we wear on a daily basis: Parent (home manager, teacher, chauffeur), daughter/son, friend, along with the title associated with whatever work we do in or out of the home.

     Today I add the title of commentator to my repetoire. WTMJ-TV asked me to return to the airwaves to comment on a news topic of the day. I joined Anchors Courtny Gerrish and George Mallet and WTMJ-AM Host Jeff Wagner for two short segments. The first was about Republican Vice Presidential Candidate Sarah Palin’s comment on Democratic Vice Presidential Candidate Joe Biden. Check it out:

     The second segment was about Harbor 550’s imminent closing and TGI Friday’s dismissal of a musician who sang the Chicago Cub’s theme song. See that here:

     It was an interesting change for me, and it was superb to see my former colleagues at the station. Many thanks to those who watched and commented.

     By the way, how many commentators does it take to screw in a light bulb? The world will never know — commentators never shut up long enough to do it.