Sunday, June 17, 2018

Children's Nonfiction Picture Books. Notes from the Writing and Illustrating for Young Readers Conference with Author Sharlee Glann

I spent last week at the Writing and Illustrating for Young Readers Conference (WIFYR 2018) where I participated in the picture book writing class taught by author Sharlee Glenn.

I met Sharlee many years ago when I was first starting out on this writing journey, and I was so excited for the chance to reconnect with her in a small, week-long class where I could benefit from and become inspired by her wisdom, insights and experiences. I was also able to attend other classes taught by other authors in the afternoons, and I will be sharing bits of what I learned from them in later posts. But today, I am going to focus on Sharlee.

Sharlee Glenn's books include Keeping Up With Roo, Just What Mama Needs, One in a Billion,  Library on Wheels, which is her latest, hot-off-the-press nonfiction picture book, and Beyond the Green, which is a middle-grade novel scheduled for publication this coming fall 2018.

I absolutely love Library on Wheels for several reasons. First, it is about the very first mobile library in America, which many readers would recognize as a bookmobile. Need I say more? How cool is that? Bookmobiles have been a huge part of little Cache Valley, Utah, where I've lived for more than 25 years.

Second, the first mobile library was developed by Mary Lemist Witcomb who hails from my home state, New Hampshire. I love New Hampshire, return to it every year for a visit, and loved seeing the historic photos of places I recognized.

Third, I love the story of Sharlee's personal connection to the mobile library. Having grown up in rural Utah, Sharlee says she would not be the writer she is today were it not for the books that the mobile library brought to her on a regular basis when she was a young girl. For me, the local library in our area also played a vital part of my childhood. We didn't use the bookmobile, but my mother would drive my brother and I to the Nashua library once a week and let us browse the books in the children's section. I remember that the books were kept in wood boxes that jigsawed around the room. I could reach down into the boxes and pull out books. It seems odd that a library would be set up this way, but that is what I remember.

My mother also brought us to different art classes at the library.  My most memorable one involved making a paper kite with a wood frame. My kite ended up being almost as large as me. It was huge, and purple and green, and hung in my bedroom for several years above my bed.

Fourth, I think most writers can attribute their writing careers to the experiences they found within libraries as children, and I believe most readers continue to hold a fondness and appreciation for libraries for similar reasons. Libraries connect us to our local communities and to the world at large through their books, their programs, and the various opportunities that librarians provide for patrons. Thus, Library on Wheels holds appeal to a wide audience--both readers and writers, and its clear, simple, and interesting text make the history of the bookmobile accessible to young readers.

As for the children's picture book market today, Sharlee shared that if you are trying to break into publishing, the nonfiction market is growing and the best opportunities may be found there. The reason for the burgeoning market is the increasing focus on teaching a quality education to all students through a common core that has been adopted in each state. As a science teacher, I can attest to the need for engaging and relevant books for the classroom.

Thus, for new and established writers that are writing for the children's book market, it may be time to tap into your own interests and see if what you are writing or what you may want to write can be connected to the nonfiction market.

If you would like to learn more about Sharlee Glenn and her work, visit her website.

If you have additional information about trends in the nonfiction market, share them in a comment below.

Happy writing!

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Grandma's rhubarb custard pie and hints on how to freeze rhubarb

Rhubarb season is in full swing here, although I have to admit that my garden produces more than I can keep up with. Every year I am burdoned with the guilt of letting much go to waste, although I do manage to freeze a quart or two to enjoy later in the season after the harvest is done, and I also give some away to neighbors who are willing to take it.

There are numerous recipes for enjoying this tart plant. My neighbor makes a slushie, another neigbor makes crumbcake bars, a friend makes rhubarb-strawberry pie, and I have always made rhubarb custard pie. If you aren't a fan of pie dough, then just forgo the pie shell and make a custard pudding with the filling. The pudding has worked for me when I've ended up with more filling than can fit in the pie.

If you're uncertain as to whether you would enjoy this pie, then I offer this simple advice-- If you love meringue, than you'll love this custard pie. It's creamy-sweet like that.

Perhaps the most time consuming part of the recipe preparation involves the peeling of the rhubarb stem skins. I always trim the stem above the root and a couple inches below the leaf. Then I use a paring knife to pull away the stem skin. The skin will come off in strips. Then you will want to slice the rhubarb into small pieces until you have 3 1/2 to 4 cups of chopped rhubarb.

After that, the recipe is straightforward. Look below for what you'l need.

Grandma's rhubarb custard pie

3 large eggs
3 Tablespoons milk
2 cups sugar
1/4 cup flour
3/4 tsp nutmeg
2 teaspoons cornstarch
1 Tablespoon butter, melted
3 1/2 - 4 cups peeled and chopped rhubarb (as described above)
rolled pie dough for 1 single-crust 9-inch pie

Place pie dough in pie pan and decorate edges as desired. Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
In a bowl, beat the eggs, milk, sugar, flour, nutmeg and cornstarch together until smooth. Add melted butter and mix again. Stir in rhubarb, then pour the filling into the pie shell.
Bake at 375 degrees for 40 minutes, then turn heat up to 400 degrees and bake for another 10 minutes.  Remove from oven, lightly brush top of pie with another 1 tablespoon melted butter and allow to cool. Store in refrigerator to chill. Then serve. This recipe makes about 8 servings.

Freezing rhubarb.

After peeling and chopping the rhubarb, blanche it for 2 minutes in boiling water. Then drain and immediately cool the rhubarb down by running it under cold water. Spread the rhubarb out on linen towels to dry. Lightly grease an aluminum cookie pan with oil. After the rhubarb is cool and mostly dry, then spread the chopped rhubarb out on the aluminum pan and set in the freezer.

This step allows the chopped rhubarb peices to freeze individually in their own space, rather than getting clumped up and stuck together if you were to put them directly into a bag. Once the chopped rhubarb is frozen on the aluminum pan, transfer the rhubarb to a labeled plastic bag.

I've added an image of some blackberries that I froze with this same method last year. Although I do NOT blanche the berries. I just rinse and dry them on a towel before freezing. Since these berries are the last of my frozen berries from 2017, I am anticipaing a fantastic new harvest for 2018!

If you have other suggestions, let us know in the comments! Happy summer!

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Hand in Hand - Loving your Audience and Your Writing

Know your audeince.

These are words of advice given to writers and performers, regardless of craft.  In a general sense these words are a good place to start. A writer of Middle Grade fiction will use a different toolbox for story structure and vocabulary than a Romance author. Yet, I've come to realize that it goes much deeper than that. The author has to know herself as much as her reader, and in telling a story a bond needs to be forged from start to finish -- between the author and the words she chooses, between the reader and the words he reads, and between the phrases, the sentences, the commas and the periods that carry the story from begining to end.

As in any relationship, creating bonds takes work. It takes time. It takes careful attention. While we all are capable of creating relationships, some of us are better at doing so than others. So aside from mastering the craft of word-smithing with hours-upon-hours of practice, what is it that helps an author create that masterpeice - that universal story that speaks to many different types of people of so many different experiences and backgrounds?

I believe that the key ingredient in masterful storytelling involves imaging a specific person that you are writing the story for when you sit down to write it. Imagine you are engaged in a conversation and are about to share a best-kept secret for the very first time. Imagine you are sharing that story in a way that it is the only time it will ever be shared.

Why does imaging we are telling a stroy to a cherished friend or family member work? Because when we are with that person, we are comfortable. We share a chemsitry, humor, and history, which doesn't get in the way of saying whatever it is that we want to say. We commicate along established lines of trust. And trust is universal, and I believe readers can feel it coming from the page.

This reflection comes from personal experience. Of the stories I've published, the one I had the most joy writing was Little Red Riding Hood, Into the Foest Again (2011 KART Kids Book List Award).  While writing this story, I imagined I was telling my young nieces a story about characters I had fallen in love with - beginning with a cake platter, then a bitty gray mouse, and a bright blue bird, a jolly round porcupine, and a flat-footed duck -who each join Little Red on a new journey to grandmother's house. And in doing so, I gave my characters and my young audience (my nieces) every bit of attention needed in every word used to entertain them.

I wasn't able to put the experience of writing Little Red into perspective until I was poking around the internet for inspiration and visted the blog for Chronicle Books. and then it all made sense and led to my own blog post today. In their post on The 10 Principles of Story Telling, Chronicle Books advises writers to tell your story as if you are telling it to a friend. Exceptional words of wisdom.

Reading and reflecting on this part of the creative process has brought about a new energy and sense of vistion as I begin tackling new writing projects this summer and reflect on inspirational writing in the books I'm taking time to read now. I love it when I connect with words on paper - words that a author has not hurried - words that relay an experience in the life of a character with spot-on attentiveness.

With that in mind, I will leave you with some of my favorite books where I believe attentiveness is carried throughout the story and left me in wonder at the masterfulness of storytelling.

Owl Moon by Jane Yolen

It was late one winter night, 
long past my bedtime,
when Pa and I went owling.
There was no wind.
The trees stood still
as giant statues.

The Goose Girl by Shannon Hale

   She was born Anidori-Kiladra Talianna Isilee, Crown Princess of Kildenree, and she did not open her eyes for three days. 

The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton

   It was dark where she was crouched, but the little girl did as she'd been told. The lady had said to wait, it wasn't safe yet, they had to be as quiet as larder mice. It was a game, just like hide and seek.
   From behind the wooden barrels the little girl listened. made a picture in her mind the way her Papa had taught her. Men, near and far, sailors she supposed, shouted to one another. Rough, loud voices, full of the sea and its salt. 

Sunday, March 11, 2018

On Jane Austen and the Art of the Duel

So how do you get a man who is prone to mostly watching movies of conquest and conflict, and which often involve victors yielding guns or swords or cannons, into watching Jane Austen's Emma?

Well, it helps if the man comes home late while you're already in the midst of watching another classic, Thomas Hardy's Far from the Madding Crowd, which happens to involve one man yielding a sword, another yielding a gun, and a third yielding a shepherd's hook -- or pitchfork -- depending on the farm chore of the day, and which also happens to involve the death of at least one of them as they all pursue the heart of one woman.

After "the man" respectfully sits through what is left of Hardy's twisty-turny classic, in which some men win and some men lose in various sorts of fashion, it's possible to convince this "significant other" that although Emma does appear to be another match-making, who-will-end-up-with-whom, nail-biter, it will indeed end with a duel at the end. Someone will get hurt. Love is like that, right?

And I suppose I should mention that it especially helps to get the man into believing this potential plot-sequence, if Obi-Wan Kenobi is playing one of the potential suitors in the Emma drama. You know who I'm talking about -- Ewan McGreggor -- who starred as the saber-yielding jedi in Stars Wars 1, 2, and 3 (a.k.a The Phantom Menace, etc)?

And so, when the man-who-shall-go-unnamed commented that Obi-Wan was playing a dude named Mr. Churchill, I went along with it. And when this comment was followed by the question, "Doesn't this movie end in a duel? after one of them starts swinging a sword - or maybe it was a walking stick, I couldn't help but assure the man that yes, yes, it did. Someone will meet their maker. Love is dangerous that way.

It probably also helped that a couple weeks ago he found me watching another well-known and interesting Jane Austen classic, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. With all the blood and gore,  I suppose he found it tolerable. Personally, I thought the breaks taken by the actors for cups of tea to brood over who-liked-whom between scenes of zombies losing their heads and eyeballs and other body parts were quite charming. And given Jane's early interest in writing satire, I think she might have liked it.

If you love Jane Austen, you can't blame me for taking advantage of a man with a one-track mind when it comes to finding movie entertainment centered around warring parties. I simply stepped in line and wore the hat of a sleeper agent, or a mole, or whatever it is that they call misleading behavior these days. I have no idea. Although I can say I knew well what I was doing, and I was enjoying the process. Plus, I guess if one person in particular got really upset about it, I could easily mention the fact that Winston Churchill, a well-known war person, said Jane Austen's books helped him win his own war. A REAL one. (World War II, that is.) No joke. You can read about it here.

All in all it was an entertaining evening, filled with entertaining scenes. Do you remember the fish bowls teetering on precarious towers in the garden? They should have given PETA nightmares.

But the best part was the growing look of confusion on one man's face as the end of Emma neared, and the happy couple on the screen ended up happy, married, and nothing else was going to happen to them. "It's over? That's it? No duel??"

Yep. A glorious happy end to another Austen classic, and all the while, winning the hearts of men, one trick, one step at a time.

Sunday, February 18, 2018


What are your experiences with looking at situations from different perspectives? Is it something you value?

As I've gotten older, seeking alternative viewpoints of different conflicts or problems is a character trait I increasingly strive to make a habit because I believe it guides me to making better decisions. And in writing, it also allows me to come back to a manuscript with fresh eyes that makes my time rewriting and editing more meaningful and worthwhile. Let me to share an analogy.

A couple weeks ago we had a super moon and I viewed it as I drove back into Logan one night. Coming down from from Sardine Canyon, the moon was spectacular in its fullness as it hung above the mountains on the opposite side of the valley. It was definitely one of the brightest things I'd seen in a long time. I assumed that as I got closer, it would only become more beautiful, and I was excited to see how it would change as I approached.

However, as I dropped in elevation across the valley and neared my home I lost sight of the moon altogether as it dipped behind the mountains above Millville. I was so disappointed. I wondered how long I would need to wait before the moon rose back up above the ridge. I thought that would be long after I went to bed. I was tired, and was quickly losing stamina to stay awake. So I decided  I would simply be happy with my memory of the moon's image. That memory was good enough.

Yet, once more I was wrong. And as I pulled into my neighborhood, the moon was back, although perhaps not as full as it had appeared from the other side of the valley. Nevertheless, it was still spectacular. 

This experience reminded me of the idea of "perspective" in the act of writing. 

As writers we work on stories that excite us, stories that compel us forward as the characters develop and sort out their conflicts. When we finish, we love to share our accomplishment with our closest confidants, only to find out that our masterpiece is not as beautiful as we had thought. Closer examination from others with different outlooks and experiences brings certain trouble spots or rough patches to light. These suggestions often come with insight on how to fix them. 

And so we take another look at our manuscript, apply our changes, and make our improvements with the hope that what we end up with on the other side is just as beautiful. And often, it is. Not only that, the story in more tangible and more accessible for our readers than ever. In the same way our Super Moon was viewed and enjoyed by so many and in so many different perspectives.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

About These Things Called Distance and Time

Distance is an interesting concept.

It is intricately coupled with time.

No matter which way you may want to reason, the two are inseparable. Whether you are traveling from point A to point B, or reflecting on your past from where you have come, or pondering where you might be 5 minutes, 2 months, or 15 years from now, it is hard to think of one without the other. Even the act of reading this page involves your eyes moving across the screen, covering distance, and using time to do so.

Another thing that becomes attached to distance is emotional connections -- that is, the relationships we have with people.  No matter what distances we move through in life, we can not do so without maintaining, or creating, or reflecting on the connections we have to people that are important to us. And along with those memories, the emotions we felt in the presence of those relationships frequently rise to the surface.

I find it interesting how memories can bring me back years to a moment that brings joy, gladness, even laughter, no matter how many miles I have traveled in my daily activities since those experiences. It truly seems a both a gift and a profound enigma of the human spirit. How is it possible that the mind can fold back the entirety of distance and time like an accordion and allow us to relive a moment as though it were just within reach?

Certainly I am not alone in valuing the significance and importance of the connections we make in our lives with others. Last summer I read A Voyage for Madmen by Peter Nichols. This book chronicled the journey of nine men who were the first to set out on solo races around the globe, a journey where each sailor could not dock nor set foot on land unless they were to forfeit their race. Not all of them made it. At least one died after losing his sanity, likely in part due to loss of human interaction. Yet one thing I found most interesting was comparing how each man prepared for their journey. It seemed that the degree of each man's success hinged on whether they packed mementos, books, music, radios -- things that would not help them physically survive such a long and dangerous journey through the far reaches of the southern hemisphere, but things that would help them feel connected to people when vast distances would separate them from those they loved most. It has since occurred to me that perhaps the mind has the capability to shelter us in some sort of fantasy whenever it's needed -- the wayward wanderings of the mind can take us to wherever we need to be at any moment in time.

I can't imagine having to spend a year alone on a small boat with nothing but an endless ocean stretching to all horizons. While I enjoy sailing, I don't venture out without company -- the best part of the experience is having significant others along for the ride. So trying to understand the mentality of the solo globe-racers was most difficult for me.

It all comes back to distance. It's something that is so tangible in some respects, such as that with the pavement beneath our feet, and yet so intangible that its true nature can barely be perceived for what it is. Distance, as it is perceived from one individual to the next, really must become a personal concept -- truly imagined and intertwined within the inner workings of the mind, where it becomes layered with its own set of emotions and its own set of rules regarding the interpretation of time.  Folding and unfolding and refolding again, while inexplicably strengthening the bonds we have to those we love while letting others go. I suppose our interpretation of the scale of the world around us depends on what we allow ourselves to believe.... where it is that we want to be and where it is that we feel we must go.

No matter whether you are a physicist tackling the location of the outer boundaries of space, or a writer simply musing as words fill space on a page, I believe that at any given moment in time we likely find ourselves connecting to others who are both within and beyond our reach. The curiosity of it all is how that unfolds in our daily activities. Are we trapped by distance? Are we trapped by time? Our are they constantly rolling out in front of us, along with a list of infinite possibilities wating to be reached.