My seventh year of attending the Plum Creek Children’s Literacy Festival was special in two new ways. For the first time, I had the opportunity to attend the sessions for students. I accompanied the grade two classes at the school where I taught on the bus drive to and from the festival. When we arrived, students scattered to participate in literacy activities. Around 10:00, they were gathered back together to listen to one picture book author, eat lunch on the lawn, and then listen to a second author.
For the first time, I also had the opportunity to attend the adult sessions with my group of writing ladies. We drove to and from the festival together, browsed available books by featured authors together, and attended the luncheon together. Most of the presentations we attended separately, as we all had unique author interests. A couple of the ladies focused on picture book authors, while two of us mostly wanted to hear those who wrote for teenagers.
As usual, at the end of the day, I walked away with a bagful of signed books and dozens of typed pages of notes. This week’s post will focus on the authors who write mostly for younger readers. Notes are transcribed as I heard them, but at times edited or rearranged for a more cohesive read.
LOREN LONG: OTIS THE TRACTOR SERIES
Loren Long never saw his parents draw pictures but someone in his life must have been interested because he grew up liking to illustrate. As a child, he used to turn to the funny papers in the newspaper and try to draw the comics the way they were in the newspaper.
Like many kids, Long liked sports. He followed his brothers around. They all liked to play football. His only interest in museums was one that he called the cowboy one. He would draw horses.
Something conventional that Long’s parents did was read to him. His mom read many books to him. Long himself had a hard time sitting and reading a book. He never dreamed that he’d become an author. He thought they were smarter than him. “It’s not about smartness but about ideas.”
In college, Long didn’t know what he wanted to do. He worked on horse farms, but got told to stay away from horses. “College boys don’t know anything about horses.” His job was to weed, rake, pile hay, and stack. Long also got to drive an old tractor. “You’ll see right away that I used from something from my experience in my Otis books.”
I like to think of my books as little movies. The pictures are movies. Page turns create suspense. We can have quiet and loud images. Otis and the kittens was a tribute to those who run toward danger to save people. Read Otis and the Kitten. Read the original Otis.
After sharing his background, Long turned to giving advice about how to write. He said to start with a character. Create a main character and then a secondary one. This is the entry to a story. Next comes setting. Then mood and emotion. “These are needed for songs, movies, anything really and are especially needed for a story.” Of course, in every story, something has to go terribly wrong. Long develops a framework: There is a problem, then Otis always saves the day, and then he returns to the tranquil start.
Long switched here to once again talking about his background. He was illustrating magazines and never dreamed that he’d ever write, but then he started illustrating other people’s books and getting his own ideas. He started by writing down his sons’ stories and changing them to make them more interesting and simple. His sons used to make up stories about a green tractor and a farmer’s son and a cat who got stuck in the mud. It’s not hard to see where the inspiration for Otis came from.
Long starts with a painting. It takes about seven months for a story to unfold. He puts the paintings in front of him and let them surround him. Then he writes and rewrites. It takes about fifteen rewrites. Then he’ll ship off his manuscript and the artwork. He’ll receive three or more pages of edits asking him to provide more details. “My wife says you know this will happen. I say I thought this was perfect this time. It hurts to have the critiques but it also makes me a better author.”
SARA PENNYPACKER: CLEMENTINE SERIES, WAYLON SERIES, PAX
Sara Pennypacker started her presentation by showing a photo of her laying down. This is when she does her best work. She tells kids that writing is a lot about dreaming.
Writing is hard. One can make it easier by writing about what makes them passionate. That might be what you love OR what terrifies you. Students will ask her what makes her passionate. When she was younger, she used to love mannequins and feel terrified of moss. One day she combined those two passions. The result reminds her everyday of what she should be writing about.
I hope what I share will inspire those working on the other side of the book. I think we’re all working on the same side. I met with a bunch of other authors at a conference. We were asked, “Why do you do what you do?” Their answers were similar: To make order out of chaos; To make beauty out of what was ugly. To heal or make something feel good that originally felt bad. Mine was to make just out of what was unjust. I realized we all said the same thing but in a different way. Good books have to connect people by their goals.
After this ice-breaker, Pennypacker shared her thoughts on books. She believes that they connect readers to the rest of “their tribe” through time and space. Readers may not know they’re connected. But they are every time a kid reads something and thinks they were the only one.
She also believes books also raise questions. Questions are more important than answers. Answers separate people. Readers should toss a book that is trying to teach. Yes, books will have a moral. They’ll have a strong compass. Authors don’t write books about nothing. It’s hard to keep morality out a book. But a book shouldn’t preach.
To illustrate, she explains how her own books came about. “What happened with the Clementine books is I had a child who struggled with paying attention and having impulse control.” The series shows that these young people might also be problem-solvers and possess creativity and empathy. Pennypacker is passionate about this issue, but her job is to keep morality out of it. “As many times as my character is criticized, someone also compliments her. But you need to keep proselytizing out of it.”
In the Clementine series, Pennypacker writes about a character who has strong views. Her job is to threaten those passions. “Look for how an author feels about character. Do they feel honest and kind?” Books are windows and mirrors. Everyone should be able to see themselves in books; that they’re worthy of stories. Books should also show what’s out there and what’s possible. “I start every book with faults. A standard is to begin with a character who messes up.”
The character of Clementine has been compared to that of Ramona, the famous creation of Beverly Clearly. While Pennypacker acknowledges that she wants to write the same way as Clearly by telling stories of ordinary kids, she feels Clementine is a different character. Pennypacker believes that readers need books about dysfunctional families, but she also missed seeing functional character books. “I told my kids that I know I failed as a parent but I made up good parents for you.” From the start, Pennypacker knew she wanted a limited number of books. She wanted Clementine to be a strong presence and not dry her out. She also wanted to give Clementine privacy as she matured into adolescence. So she choose to end the series after seven books. “In the last book I wept at the signature scene with the principal.”
The Waylon series came about because Pennypacker loves the idea of chapter books, where one can live with a character as a friend and expand upon that character’s life. After Clementine, she wanted to write about a different type of character, but stay in the school system. Pennypacker believes that ten-year-old kids can be highly developed in some ways such as being gifted in science) but young in other areas such as emotional maturity, and wanted to explore these contradictions. “One day they’re two years old and another time they’re one hundred years old.” Pennypacker picked to have a boy as the main character, because she feels it’s tougher to be male in elementary school than female. “They’re fewer molds that keep you safe, reflected in the fact boys get into trouble more, drop out more, and commit suicide more. Boys have more rigid modes that he’s allowed to show, boys are denied being allowed to show humanness and Waylon will say there’s a science reason.”
Pax is one of Pennypacker’s most recent publications. She heard a story of a mother’s son who went to war and who got injured and will never be able to walk. This inspired Pax. It just won The National Book Award. Pennypacker refers to it as, “the book of my life”. Pax started six years ago. Pennypacker wanted to write about the injustice of war and about the passion that children have for animals. When someone complimented her on her book Sparrow’s Song and said it reminded her of Elephant’s Compassion (a sentient animal in WW11), she realized the two stories needed to be combined. She couldn’t write about war without writing about animals.
Pennypacker switches back to talking about the importance of books. The story is a map of life. All stories start in an ordinary world. The character doesn’t get to actualize. Then there’s a call to a different world. The hero refuses the call, which leads to all kinds of questions:
- Do you seek a mentor?
- Do you need to bond and seek allies?
- Are you surprised by a trickster?
- Have you avoided fixing a problem and isn’t that real challenge?
- Does it require you to develop a new facet of yourself?
In the end, the hero brings back an elixir. Stories help us process our life as stories and share those stories with the tribe.
Pennypacker concludes by telling of a conference she attended where she heard ones talking about Carl Jung and the question, “Why is their evil in the world?” The answer according to Pennypacker? “When people can’t tell their stories.” People need voice, power, platform, and audience. Children don’t have this. But adults do. And so authors can tell stories for young people. “This is why it’s important for children to read and have access to books. I tell young people that they need to tell their story and in a way that they will listen.”
SALINA YOON: NOVELTY BOOKS, PENGUIN SERIES, BEAR SERIES, BE A FRIEND
Salina Yoon is from Korea. There, she grew up in a house with a thatched roof. There were no books, television, toys, or even plumbing. “I tell my kids that I grew up with sticks and rocks. My grandmother would use two mirrors and reflect them to tell a puppet show.”
Even after the family moved to the United States, English was never spoken by her parents. Yoon would look at the pictures in books. This sparked her imagination. She grew up to write almost 200 books.
As an adult, Yoon discovered she enjoyed producing “really creative books” for children, the type she would have liked when a child. She keeps an open mind. Everything can inspire an idea. Eventually, the idea will turn into something beautiful.
Yoon started out in the novelty book industry. She would build the entire book and then send it to a publisher to get them to purchase it. If a project doesn’t sell, she’ll move on to the next project. She doesn’t obsess over it. One idea can lead to many other ideas. Out of fifty submitted books, Yoon used to sell an average of ten.
After this sharing her background, Yoon gave specifics about some of her novelty projects.
- Do Cows Meow? “I had to research to find out the inside of animal mouths. I had to look at the diagrams of biology of animals. I like the large flaps because kids can grasp hold of them. You can’t sell an obvious concept book; those are done in-house or by a book packager. For me to sell a concept book, it must go beyond the basics. Publishers hate to acquire because they have to spend money on these. So my books have to be unique.”
- OppoSnakes: “It’s tricky as an illustrator to make it interesting. So straight snake is also sheriff snake. The opposite is tangled snake and is also a bandit snake. Art has more layers to it than just the text. If I start out with an idea, I always have to ask: How can I push it? When I design my books, I have to think of their size and shape too. I made a horizontal book to accommodate the snake.”
- Pinwheel book: “I used a pinwheel. Everyone knows them. It’s fun to blow on and see in the dark. I want to bring this into a book. How can I put something so thick into a book? This is when I have to use my ingenuity to design a book. I created the book pinwheel. It was special and one of my hardest to create. One can spin the wheels in the book and you get to see all different designs. It doesn’t require batteries. If you spin it enough, a horse pops up like in a carousel. The carousel page took me three weeks to figure out. I want kids to grab my books and to learn from them. The books are interactive toys but also books.”
In 2010, there were a lot of transitions in the publishing market and downsizing in novelty books. “Novelty books have less of a profit. They are made by people not machines. So publishers began buying fewer of them.” Yoon started to feel the pinch. She submitted her usual fifty projects and received only two acceptances. She considered leaving the book world and going into a paying world, but the dilemma was what career to pursue. She used to be a designer but hadn’t kept up with that field. She also considered Barnes & Noble or Starbucks. A third option was to create picture books.
Yoon hadn’t grown up drawing or writing and so that idea terrified her. The agony over not wanting another job led her to try. Life experience and relationships give Yoon ideas for picture books. Her oldest son would always pick up things including sticks and pine cones. One day her son asked Yoon to make a blanket for his pine cone. From that idea, Yoon wrote Penguin and Pinecone. Her first attempt caused her many doubts. “What were you thinking? Of course you can’t write! Am I being selfish wanting to do something that I like?”
Yoon now has six books in the penguin series. She explained that a lot of decisions are made to create a spread. She wanted to start out with a character who wouldn’t know what a pinecone would be. A penguin would be in the woods. An opposite would be a pinecone. She used animals because this made the story less problematic and she used a simple palette to create a cold cool feeling but also a gender neutral and warm color. Her mother loves to knit and so she had penguin knit. Penguin is a blend of her son and her mother. The penguin books have made a connection with adoptive parents and empty-nesters.
Yoon also talked about her Bear series, in particular the title Found. It was inspired by her son who couldn’t live without a floppy toy.
One of her most special picture books is Be A Friend, originally called Silent Adventures of Mime Boy. The book draws on Yoon’s own life. When she first came to the United States at age four, it was tough for her to make friends. She spoke, ate, and dressed different. She felt alone. The Mime in Be a Friend represents how different Yoon used to feel. She made the illustrations in black and white, so that the red line adventures and the mime’s red heart would stand out. Yoon tells of how a whole class acted the story out and shared it with her through video. The book has also connected with autistic kids because of the nonverbal communication in it.
Novelty books are pretty anonymous. I never got fan mail. That was fine by me because I’m introverted. Picture books brought me fan mail. This makes me realize the importance of books.