Picture book biography

picture book biographyI’ve been reading, and in some cases reading, picture book biographies lately.  Here are a few things to consider before you try creating something in this genre.

  1. Birth to Death or Slice of Life.  If you are going to write a biography that is short enough to be a picture book, the first thing to decide is whether or not you are going to try to cover your subjects entire life or only a small part of it.  Fifty Cents and a Dream by Jabari Asim is a slice of life biography about Booker T. Washington and his quest for an educaiton.  Even if the biography you write is birth to death, it must be focused.  In Jane Yolen’s Lost Boy: The Story of the Man Who Created Peter Pan, the story starts with his birth but all facts about Barrie must feed into writing this play.  No extraneous details allowed.
  2. Age Appropriate.  In addition to narrowing the topic enough to fit the format, you must also narrow it to be age appropriate for the early elementary reader.  How do you do that with someone who lived life in the proverbial fast lane?  When Gary Giglio wrote about Jimi Hendrix, Giglio focused on the fact that, as a boy, Hendrix loved to draw.  When he later became a musician, he created pictures with sound.  Yes, the author’s note discusses addiction and how Hendrix died, but in a way that makes the entire book age appropriate.
  3. Dialogue Must Be Real.  Once you have established what story you are telling and defined its limits, the next most difficult task is finding dialogue.  To include dialogue in your story, you have to find it in source material.  If you put the text in quoation marks, you must have the sources to back it up.  No paraphraising allowed.

There’s no doubt about it, picture book biographers are tough to write.  But there are places to go to learn more about this form. My friend Darcy Pattison wrote this blog post about the picture book biography.   Paula Yoo is a biographer who writes picture books.  She was interviewed on Cynthia Leitich Smith’s blog. You can also read Yoo’s own blog. There is also a group blog devoted to biography, Kidsbiographer.com.

It isn’t an easy form to master but it is well worth your while if you have the passion.


A Book Is a Door

I recently discovered this TED talk by Mac Barnett.  Barnett is the author of Billy Twitters and His Blue Whale Problem, the book that Barnett discusses in the video, but also several books illustrated by Dan Santat including Oh No! Or How My Science Project Destroyed the World.

It isn’t uncommon for writers to think of their books as doors between the world of the reader and the world of story.  After all, we spend a lot of time finding ways to hook our readers, engage their interest and keep them reading.  At the extreme, we have books in which the narrator speaks to the reader, as Lemony Snickett does in the Series of Unfortunate Events books.

Barnett challenges us to use this door in a different way — to bring the world of story into the world of the reader.  He tells how he did this in Billy Twitters and His Blue Whale Problem.  The book design includes an end paper advertisement.  Send in a SASE and the company will send you your very own blue whale.  What do readers who send in a SASE get?  You’ll have to watch the video the find out.  Suffice it to say that they are invited into the world of the story.

Barnett has done this with his books, when he worked as a camp counselor and again with a tutoring program where participants pass through unique retail space (think pirate supply store or time travel mart) to get to the educational program.  Watch the video and be inspired to find ways to bring your story out into the world of the reader.




Why do blog comments disappear?

ICommentsf you try to comment on my post and the comment disppears, please e-mail me (suebradfordedwards at yahoo dot com).  There are a variety of reasons that this might happen on a blog and I can fix most of them.

Comment Moderation.  I don’t moderate comments as they come in but some bloggers do this.  If that is that case your comment will disappear until the blogger okays it. That will not be the case here.

New Commentor.  For whatever reason, the first time you comment, WordPress is suspicious.  What if this person isn’t legit?  It holds the comment for moderation.  I just have to click post and then, not only should that comment appear, your future comments will also post no problem, no delay.

Overzealous Filter.  Sometimes, and I have no clue why this happens, my filter goes crazy and, suddenly, perfectly legitimate comments go into the spam folder. I can retrieve them but I have to admit that I seldom look at this folder closely before I empty it. Why?  Because all of my parts are the right size and I don’t want any bootleg anything.  I’m just boring that way.

These are the only reasons that I know of that a post would *POOF* and disappear.  If you know of another, please comment below.  If you can.  Ahem.





Read The Coldest Girl in Coldtown to learn how to create a top notch villain.

I haven’t written a post on characterization in a while so I thought I’d write one on creating villains.

Villains can be hard characters to make believable for two reasons:

They are all-bad, unbelievably bad.  Note:  Your villain does not think of himself (or herself or itself) as a villain.  The villain is, in fact, the hero of his own story.  He just happens to be the characters whose goals put him in conflict with your main character.  The stakes could be huge — who will inherit the kingdom?  Or they could be highly personal — who will win the boy?  But something has put these two characters against each other.  They cannot both win.

You see, your villain is quite often just a regular person.  Even if he is truly bad or evil, he must have some redeeming qualities.  Otherwise, no one will put up with him long enough to read your book.  In Holly Black’s The Coldest Girl in Coldtown, Black’s villain is the head vampire.  He’s an astonishingly handsome reality TV star bent on remaking the world.  His positive qualities?  His alarming good looks, he loves pretty things, the fact that he can make you a star (unless you become dinner), and his sense of humor (which is admittedly more than a little wharped).

But these balance out the negatives of Black’s main character, a girl named Tana, quite nicely.  She is attractive, also likes attractive things (especially male things), doesn’t follow the herd (doesn’t care about stardom), and has a sense of humor although she tends toward snark.

Read Black’s books for well-balanced characters. You might not like them but they are both good and bad although her bad guys are definitely more bad.

Last but not least, problem #2, your villain’s motivations, if they exist at all, are unbelievable.  

Your villain has to have a reason for what he does.  This means that he can’t be a mustache twirling, silent film bad guy.  Give him a reason and make it good.

The bad guy who wants the kingdom could feel that he was cheated out of it in the first place.  The bad guy who wants the love interest might believe he is experiencing true love.

In Black’s book, the bad guy does what he does to make over the world.  The old time vampires look down on him and he’s had it.  He wants a change of power.  He wants to be at the top.

Put as much thought into your evil-doers as you put into your heroes.  The bigger your story, the bigger the stakes, the bigger your hero and your villain.



Goal Setting

Goal trackingHave you reviewed how you set your goals lately?

I turned an inexpensive picture frame into a dry erase board where I make a list.  I organize it by Deadline Paying, which is generally contracted items and my Muffin posts; Deadline No Pay, for blog posts and assignments etc for any classes that I’m taking; and Slush which is pretty self-explanatory.  That works pretty well because things with deadlines don’t get lost on those week where I have 6 video lectures to watch, a quiz to take and a mess of blog posts to write.  As I worked through the list,  I would mark things off with a black dry erase pen.

The problem I’ve noticed is that unless I have a deadline, I’ve gotten really bad about getting to things.  Even deadline items lag.  No, I’m never late but I end up working like mad for a few days before a deadline.  This has been an issue for about 3 months now.

Last week, I updated this system.  Each day, Monday through Friday and sometimes Saturday, I mark things off with a single color.  That way I can see how much I got done in any one day.  If I make sure I get a lot done on Monday, purple this last time around, then I push myself to get a lot done on Tuesday and Wednesday.  Fortunately, I’m competitive enough that I’m willing to compete with myself.

The good news is that my productivity has greatly increased.  For more on this, read my blog post for today at the Muffin.


National Book Award, Long List

Last week, the National Book Foundation published their “longlist” for this year’s National Book Award for Young People’s Literature.  These are the ten books that are under consideration for the award.  How many of them have you read?
The Impossible Knife of Memory by Laurie Halse Anderson.  

Description:  For the past five years, Hayley Kincaid and her father, Andy, have been on the road, never staying long in one place as he struggles to escape the demons that have tortured him since his return from Iraq. Now they are back in the town where he grew up so Hayley can attend school. Perhaps, for the first time, Hayley can have a normal life, put aside her own painful memories, even have a relationship with Finn, the hot guy who obviously likes her but is hiding secrets of his own. Will being back home help Andy’s PTSD, or will his terrible memories drag him to the edge of hell, and drugs push him over?

I haven’t read this one yet, but it is on my list.  Anderson’s work often covers edgy topics with well-developed characters and knife-edge plots.  IMO, a must read.

Girls like Us by Gail Giles

Description:  Quincy and Biddy are both graduates of their high school’s special ed program, but they couldn’t be more different: suspicious Quincy faces the world with her fists up, while gentle Biddy is frightened to step outside her front door. When they’re thrown together as roommates in the first “real world” apartments it initially seems like an uneasy fit. But as Biddy’s past resurfaces and Quincy faces something that on one should have to go through alone, the two of them realize that they might have more in common than they thought–and more important, that they might be able to help each other move forward, together.

I have to admit that I missed the buzz on this one, but it is intriguing.  

Skink No Surrender by Carl Hiaasen

Description: Classic Malley — to avoid being shipped off to boarding school, she takes off with some guy she met online. Poor Richard — he knows his cousin’s in trouble before she does. Wild Skink — he’s a ragged, one-eyed ex-governor of Florida, and enough of a renegade to think he can track Malley down. With Richard riding shotgun, the unlikely pair scour the state, undaunted by blinding storms, crazed pigs, flying bullets, and giant gators.

Classic Malley, perhaps.  Classic Hiaasen?  Definitely.  No other author could work crazed pigs and giant gators into the same book.  Still, will it stand up to my all time favorite, Hoot?

The Port Chicago 50 by Steven Sheinkin

Description: A group of young African American sailors – many of them teenagers – are assigned to load ammunition at Port Chicago, a segregated naval base in California. But they are never trained to handle ammunition safely, and are constantly being rushed by their officers. When a terrifying disaster rocks the base, the men face the toughest decision of their lives: do they return to duty as ordered, or do they risk everything to take a stand against segregation in the military?


This has been on my short list since I heard Sheinkin speak about it two weeks ago.  Another edge-of-your-seat nonfiction thriller.


100 Sideways Miles by Andrew Smith

Description: Finn Easton sees the world through miles instead of minutes. It’s how he makes sense of the world, and how he tries to convince himself that he’s a real boy and not just a character in his father’s bestselling cult-classic book. Finn has two things going for him: his best friend, the possibly-insane-but-definitely-excellent Cade Hernandez, and Julia Bishop, the first girl he’s ever loved. Then Julia moves away, and Finn is heartbroken. Feeling restless and trapped in the book, Finn embarks on a road trip with Cade to visit their college of choice in Oklahoma. When an unexpected accident happens and the boys become unlikely heroes, they take an eye-opening detour away from everything they thought they had planned—and learn how to write their own destiny.

Another one that has been below my radar until now.  Interested to see what the cover has to do with the story. 
Noggin by John Corey Whaley

Description: Listen—Travis Coates was alive once and then he wasn’t. Now he’s alive again. Simple as that. The in between part is still a little fuzzy, but he can tell you that, at some point or another, his head got chopped off and shoved into a freezer in Denver, Colorado. Five years later, it was reattached to some other guy’s body, and well, here he is. Despite all logic, he’s still 16 and everything and everyone around him has changed. That includes his bedroom, his parents, his best friend, and his girlfriend. Or maybe she’s not his girlfriend anymore? That’s a bit fuzzy too. Looks like if the new Travis and the old Travis are ever going to find a way to exist together, then there are going to be a few more scars. Oh well, you only live twice.

By merry coincidence, just brought this one home from the library.  Morbidly fascintated with the idea since I read about the book.

Revolution by Deborah Wiles.

Description: It’s 1964, and Sunny’s town is being invaded. Or at least that’s what the adults of Greenwood, Mississippi are saying. All Sunny knows is that people from up north are coming to help people register to vote. They’re calling it Freedom Summer. Meanwhile, Sunny can’t help but feel like her house is being invaded, too. She has a new stepmother, a new brother, and a new sister crowding her life, giving her little room to breathe. And things get even trickier when Sunny and her brother are caught sneaking into the local swimming pool — where they bump into a mystery boy whose life is going to become tangled up in theirs.
I am always amazed by the number of books on this list that I have never, ever heard of before.  Looks like a great job of mirroring plot with subplot.

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

Description:  Raised in South Carolina and New York, Woodson always felt halfway home in each place. In vivid poems, she shares what it was like to grow up as an African American in the 1960s and 1970s, living with the remnants of Jim Crow and her growing awareness of the Civil Rights movement. Touching and powerful, each poem is both accessible and emotionally charged, each line a glimpse into a child’s soul as she searches for her place in the world. Woodson’s eloquent poetry also reflects the joy of finding her voice through writing stories, despite the fact that she struggled with reading as a child. Her love of stories inspired her and stayed with her, creating the first sparks of the gifted writer she was to become.

Haven’t managed to get ahold of this one yet but sure to be a fascinating look at the early life of this author.

Threatened by Eliot Schrefer

Description: Into the jungle. Into the wild. Into harm’s way. When he was a boy, Luc’s mother would warn him about the “mock men” living in the trees by their home — chimpanzees whose cries would fill the night. Luc is older now, his mother gone. He lives in a house of mistreated orphans, barely getting by. Then a man calling himself Prof comes to town with a mysterious mission. When Luc tries to rob him, the man isn’t mad. Instead, he offers Luc a job. Together, Luc and Prof head into the rough, dangerous jungle in order to study the elusive chimpanzees. There, Luc finally finds a new family — and must act when that family comes under attack.
This description raises a lot of questions and I definitely want to read this book.  

Greenglass House by Kate Milford

Description:   A rambling old smuggler’s inn, a strange map, an attic packed with treasures, squabbling guests, theft, friendship, and an unusual haunting mark this smart mystery in the tradition of the Mysterious Benedict Society books.

I tried to check this one out from the library as soon as it came out.  No luck.  Fortunately there are now copies available.  

Let me know what you think of these books as you read them!



Banned Books

BannedBooksWeek1 Texas Pastor Attempts to Ban “Twilight” from Austin Memorial LibraryJust last Friday, I posted about banned books. But this story is a must hear on why it is so important to be aware  and of the important work that our librarian do.

In Texas, a Cleveland pastor demanded that the Austin Memorial Library remove all books from the shelves that are occult in nature.  According to Pastor Missick there are 75 such books.  I couldn’t find a complete list but according to an article in The Advocate, the list includes Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series, the P.C. Cast and Kristin Cast’s House of Night series, and all other teen books that include romance with vampires.

Personally, I’d rather eat a raw steak than read a vampire romance book, but that’s me.  I’m not interested in forbidding everyone else from reading them, because I’d rather they read something than nothing.

For me, the icing on the proverbial cake was his additional complaint about “a demonic stuffed doll and a witch’s hat” sitting on one of the shelves.  Think about it.  A witch’s hat and a demon?  Have you figured it out?  That would be the Sorting Hat and Dobby from Harry Potter.  Talk about a day late and a dollar short.

If they don’t remove the books completely, Messick requested that the libraries force the parents to check the books out for their teen readers.

Said library director Mary Cohn, “Since the majority of the children using the library come with their parents, I believe this is a moot point.”  Furthermore, the materials will not be removed.

If you don’t want to read about magic or vampires or purple tutus, that is strictly your business.  But don’t try to tell me what to read.  I’ll just have to pick it up and read it. Speaking of which, I have to go accompany a boy wizard on a quest for a special stone.


Book Banning

  1. Captain Underpants (series), by Dav Pilkey for offensive language, unsuitability for age group, and violence.  These books have been around since my son was of the inappropriate age group.  He was never interested.  
  2. The Bluest Eye, by Toni Morrison for offensive language, sex, unsuitability for age group, and violence.
  3. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie for substance abuse, offensive language, racism, sex, unsuitability for age group.  I adore this book for the honest portrayal of the characters.  No, they aren’t always spotless, but they are real.  Honestly, this should be required reading for . . . people.  I mean it. 
  4. Fifty Shades of Grey, by E.L. James for nudity, offensive language, religious viewpoint, sex, unsuitability to age group.  Have I read this?  No.  Did I read an excerpt?  Only part of it.  I simply was not impressed.  I did have to laugh when I saw “nudity” on the list.  Seriously?  Every time a character takes a shower, the reader can assume there is nudity.  I did see a student carrying this book at the high school today.  Would she have voluntarilly picked up Tom Sawyer?  Probably not.
  5. The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins for religious viewpoint and unsuitability for age group.  Again, loved them.  Loved.  Them.  I can’t decide.  Do people who want to ban this book not get the statement it makes about the world we live in?  
  6. A Bad Boy Can Be Good for A Girl, by Tanya Lee Stone for substance abuse, nudity, offensive language, and sex.  Honestly, I don’t remember seeing nudity before this year.  
  7. Looking for Alaska, by John Green for substance abuse, sex, and unsuitability for age group.  Another truly amazing book.  Why don’t they ever ban the boring books?  Oh, wait.  They do if someone is nekked.  
  8. The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky for substance abuse, homosexuality, sex, and unsuitability for age group.
  9. Bless Me Ultima, by Rudolfo Anaya for occult, offensive language, religious viewpoint, and sex.  Makes me wonder how “offensive language” differs from “swearing.”  
  10. Bone (series), by Jeff Smith for political viewpoint, racism, and violence.

If there is something on the list that I haven’t read yet, I always try to get ahold of it.  Off to search my library for Bless Me Ultima or Bones.  


5 Tips on How to Find an Agent

agentIt is probably a wee bit ironic that I am writing a post about finding an agent.  I, after all, have yet to find one.  That said, I’ve submitted my work to a dozen or less so it really isn’t too surprising that I’m agent free.

How then do you find an agent?

  1. Attend events.  Attend the writing events where agents are speaking.  You may think someone is perfect for you until you hear her speak at which point you realize that your interests aren’t all that close.  On the other hand, an agent who didn’t interest you very much might say something that clicks with you.
  2. Friends and acquaintances.  At conferences, retreats and workshops, when someone gushes about their agent, I ask for a name.  I’m still going to have to do some research but that’s okay.
  3. Read online.  There are lots of sites and blogs you can read to find out about individual agents.  Two of my favorites is Literary Rambles and Writer’s Digest Guide to Literary Agents Blog .  I also look at the SCBWI Blue Boards and check the listings in the SCBWI Book.
  4. Google.  Whether I get a recommendation from a friend or a blog, my next step is Google.  I do a search on the agent’s name.  There are all kinds of interviews and the like online.  If ten pages of results come up, I go through all ten pages.  Why?  Because you don’t know what you might find on page 6 (read on).
  5. Look for Trouble.  That’s right.  Look for coplaints and gripes and whithering commentary.  First check Preditors and Editors.  This site lists agents who are not on the up-and-up.  If there is someone out there taking advantage of writers, there is often a listing here.  But not always . . .

Not long ago I Googled an agent other writers were complaining about.  I’m nosey.  I wanted to know what had happened.  Even knowing this agent was a problem, I didn’t see word one until about 6 pages into my Google search.  Six pages!  No one agent is right for every writer but when you see complaint after complaint of non-response, no proof of submission and agents leaving her agency, that’s a solid warning.

Those are the bad things, but there are also good things to see — a client list, a list of sales, and a professional looking site.  A new agent may not have a client list but as part of a larger agency she can use the agency name to open doors.  Perhaps one of those doors will lead to the editor who will buy your book.


How Close Is Too Close? What to do When You Find a Story Much Like Your Own

too closeThe other day, as I was doing research on my latest nonfiction project, I popped open the library web site to do a few searches.  Ferreting out all of the details that I need for a chapter takes hours of work but I love the work so I’m more than willing.

Unfortunately, I was less than happy with the results.  Why?  Because right there on the screen was a brand new piece of chilren’s nonfiction.  The topic?  Way too close to my own, thank you very much.

So what do you do when you find a book that could be the evil twin to your own manuscript?

First things first, don’t panic.  Until you actually read the book, you don’t know just how similar they truly are.  This is a gruesome science topic but my manuscript is full of tongue-in-cheek humor.  It’s more than a touch irreverant, yes, but there’s hard science holding it all up.  For all I know, the other book is more quirky fact and less science.

I also need to look at the audience.  If the book is for an older or younger audience, no worries.  They won’t be direct competition for each other.

In part, audience is also determined by the publisher.  Although trade publishers love school sales, the markets don’t entirely overlap.  While teachers are happy to see their students reading and sharing a fun book, they want the book to have a certain amount of science (or history or whatever) if these same students might be using it to research a paper.

Last but not least, you also have to ask yourself just how much you love your topic.  I’m having a blast researching and writing this.  Yes, it will be a serious bother if it never sells because of the other book.  But am I ready to give it up?  Heck, no.

I’ve requested the other book from the library.  Their copies have yet to arrive from wherever but I’m not going to panic until I see what I’m up against.  If the book is direct competition, I will have to follow the advice that I give to my students and see if I can avoid the competition by somehow reslanting my idea.  As they say, we shall see what we shall see.