Oh, Susanna! – What Picture Books Can Help A Child Cope With Loss Of A Loved One?

Good Morning, Everyone!

So sorry to be late with this post!  Cable is coming to Blueberry Hill but it’s not here yet! and heavy HEAVY rain last night took out my internet (just for a change! 🙂 ).  Since I spent the weekend in New Brunswick at NJSCBWI (SO awesome, and SO great to see everyone I got to see!!!) I did not write this ahead of time and schedule the post.

(Okay.  Who am I kidding?  I’m always writing posts at the last minute!  You know me too well 🙂 )

Anyway, although today’s topic is sad, I think it’s a very important one for parents, teachers, kids, and writers, so I hope even though you might not have need of it right now, you’ll tuck it away as a resource just in case the need should arise.

Today’s question comes from Anonymous who says, “I am in the unfortunate and sad situation of needing to find picture books about loss.  My friend has two young kids – ages 6 and 3 – who lost their father 2 1/2 years ago, and now recently lost a cousin to SIDS.  I would love some recommendations for books to help them understand death and deal with it.”

First, let me take a moment to say how sorry I am for all the loss – to your friend’s kids, to your friend, and to you.  So much hardship, so much to cope with at such a young age… it is heartbreaking.

But one of the things books are good for – not just for kids, but for all of us – is helping us to understand the common life challenges we all share, and helping us to know we’re not alone in the experience.  There is comfort in knowing that others know and understand.

I’m sure there are many people besides our questioner for today – parents, teachers, grandparents, and other good friends seeking to help someone they love – who will find the following list of books useful at some point.  Although these are all amazing books, I recommend that you pre-read before sharing with your child.  Some books may not be quite right for your child’s personality or sensibilities or specific situation.  Browse the list and find the ones best suited.

A side note to writers: well-written books on difficult topics are always in demand, precisely because hard things happen even to the very young and they (and the adults in their lives who search for a way to explain) need help to find their way through the tough times.  The books listed below are excellent and may serve as mentor texts for anyone trying to write picture books on painful topics.

Boats For PapaBagley, Jessixa, Boats For Papa (Roaring Brook Press, June 2015): “”They didn’t have much, but they always had each other.” So begins this spare tale of longing and acceptance. Buckley and his mother (a pair of beavers) spend their days near their ocean-front home, gathering driftwood treasures, playing together, and having picnics in the sand. His favorite pastime is using his discoveries to make miniature ships to send out to sea with a note that reads, “For Papa, Love Buckley.” He is sure the boats will reach his father if they don’t wash back up on shore. He works tirelessly over the course of a year to create new and beautiful boats for his absent parent. One evening when he forgets his customary note, he runs back to grab a piece of paper from Mama’s desk and discovers his ships hidden there.That night when Mama goes to retrieve Buckley’s boat, the note reads, “For Mama, Love Buckley.” Bagley’s tender watercolors and lyrical text give weight and volume to a family’s grief. Her portrayal of Buckley’s hope and his mother’s acts of love are heartbreakingly beautiful and authentic. The ambiguity of Papa’s absence allows this story to transcend specifics and gives it a timeless and universal appeal. VERDICT The only thing better than this title for anyone who has experienced loss is the redemptive nature of time.—Jenna Boles, Greene County Public Library, Beavercreek, OH” (from School Library Journal)

Where Is GrandpaBarron, T.A., Where Is Grandpa? (Philomel Books, January 2000): “Where is Grandpa? This question haunts a young boy on the day his grandpa dies. Grandpa has been so richly present in so many places–at the tree house, at the waterfall, at the door ready to carve pumpkins. But where is he now? As the boy searches for an answer, he makes a surprising discovery: perhaps Grandpa is closer to home than anyone ever realized. In this deeply moving tale, the poetic words of T. A. Barron and the luminous illustrations of Chris K. Soentpiet remind us all that a family’s sorrow can be shared–and that even in the greatest loss, love can still be found.” (from the Amazon description)

Sun KissesBernardo, Susan Schaefer, Sun Kisses, Moon Hugs (Inner Flower Child Books, November 2012): “Sun Kisses, Moon Hugs is a beautiful picture book with a simple but powerful message: love lasts forever. Lyrical writing and delightful illustrations provide perfect bedtime reading for any child. The book is also ideal for supporting children through grief, separation anxiety, divorce, illness or other traumatic situations, by wrapping them in a warm and comforting emotional security blanket and opening a dialogue on the nature of love. Even when loved ones cannot be with us, we can feel their presence through our deep connections to the natural world. Sun Kisses, Moon Hugs has received glowing testimonials from parents, librarians, social workers, teachers, hospice caregivers…and most importantly, kids.” (from the Amazon description)

Tess's TreeBrallier, Jess, Tess’s Tree (Harper Collins, August 2009):
“Tess loved her tree.
She liked to swing on it
and sit in its shade
and catch its leaves in the fall.
When Tess’s tree has to come down, Tess is very sad . . . until she finds a way to gather friends and family and celebrate her tree’s remarkable life.” (from the Amazon description)  Reviewer Jack Keely adds: “This emotionally resonant picture book tells the story of Tess who is “nine years, three months, and two days old” and her love for a one hundred and seventy five year old tree. When the tree has to be cut down, Tess must find a way to deal with the anger and sorrow she feels. Jess Brallier has managed to craft a story about dealing with loss and grief in a way that a child can understand, and he has done it with charm, sensitivity, and a touch of humor. The illustrations by Peter H. Reynolds have a subtle, soft focus charm. With expert lines and a wash of color Mr. Reynolds creates memorable images that perceptively illuminate the text.”

When Dino'sBrown, Laura Krasny, When Dinosaurs Die: A Guide To Understanding Death (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, April 1998): ” The authors explain in simple language the feelings people may have regarding the death of a loved one and the ways to honor the memory of someone who has died.” (from the Amazon description)  An added note from reviewers: although this book is written and intended for picture book aged kids and is nicely done, it does touch on many ways that people CAN die including some that may not be appropriate for your child’s specific situation.

Fall of Freddie LeafBuscaglia, Leo, The Fall Of Freddie The Leaf (Slack Incorporated, June 1982): “This story by Leo Buscaglia is a warm, wonderfully wise and strikingly simple story about a leaf names Freddie. How Freddie and his companion leaves change with the passing seasons, finally falling to the ground with winter’s snow, is an inspiring allegory illustrating the delicate balance between life and death.  Both children and adults will be deeply touched by this inspiring book.” (from the jacket)

RabbitynessEmpson, Jo, Rabbityness (Child’s Play International, November 2012): “I am an elementary school counselor and am using the book in my practice.
Sometimes I get requests from parents or teachers for books dealing with very specific grief situations. If I can’t find the perfect fit from my bookshelf I definitely feel frustrated. Rabbityness is a really special story I can use to cover a lot of different grief or tragedy situations. Rabbit disappears in the story – but no one knows why or what happened to him. I like that there’s no answer as to what happened because I can help the child relate their own story to Rabbit.
“One day. Rabbit disappeared. The other rabbits were very sad. They couldn’t find him anywhere. The woods were quiet and gray. All that Rabbit had left was a hole…a DEEP dark hole.”
Wow. The deep dark hole can represent a lot of different feelings for children. The second part of the story shows the other rabbits learning how to cope with their loss. What I see as a healing step for kids is to talk about how to fill the void they might be feeling. What coping skills could they use to fill that deep dark hole…….
Absolutely love this one and see it HELPING me as a counselor and the grieving children I work with throughout the year.” (from an Amazon review by an elementary school counselor)

Goblin
Fox, Mem, The Goblin And The Empty Chair (Beach Lane Books, September 2009): “In a time long past, in a land far away, a family has suffered an unspeakable loss.
But a lonely goblin has been watching. And he knows what to do to help them heal.
From internationally acclaimed picture book masters Mem Fox and Leo and Diane Dillon, here is a rich and moving original fairy tale about family, friendship, and the power compassion has to unite us all.” (from the Amazon description)

The Next Place
Hanson, Warren, The Next Place (Waldman House Press, August 2002): “”The Next Place” is an inspirational journey of light and hope to a place where earthly hurts are left behind. An uncomplicated journey of awe and wonder to a destination without barriers.” (from the Amazon description)

Death Is Stupid
Higginbotham, Anastasia, Death Is Stupid (The Feminist Press at CUNY, April 2016): “This exploration of death and grieving begins with a boy mourning the loss of his grandma and his bold observation that “When a loved one dies/people can say some/…stupid things”—referring to the platitudes offered to him (e.g., “Just be grateful for the time you had with her.”). Through mixed-media collage, speech bubbles, and simple text, Higginbotham explores a child’s experience of loss: “Dying is not a punishment. But it mostly doesn’t feel fair.” The bold collages, set against a plain brown background, visually reinforce the child’s disoriented swirl of emotion. A few of the images are unclear or ambiguous, but the boy’s grief and responses are kidlike and recognizable. Readers follow along as he contemplates the reactions of his family members, imagines having a conversation with Gramma, and continues to feel her absence in his life. Eventually, he shares cherished memories with his father, and they work together in Gramma’s garden. The author recommends activities that may help (“keep someone and, at the same time, let them go”), such as reading the same books that they enjoyed. She also offers suggestions for dealing with the death of a pet. VERDICT Clearly written to validate and respect a child’s feelings, this book is a useful resource for parenting collections or patrons looking for a relatable exploration of death.—Marilyn Taniguchi, Beverly Hills Public Library, CA” (from School Library Journal)

Heart And BottleJeffers, Oliver, The Heart And The Bottle, (Philomel Books, March 2010): “A little girl delights in the boundless discoveries of the world around her with an older gentleman, likely her grandfather. But then the man’s chair is empty, and the girl puts her heart in a bottle to help with the hurt. As she grows older, she loses her sense of wonderment, and it isn’t until she meets another young girl that she finds a way to free her heart again. This book showcases some absolutely captivating artwork. The way in which Jeffers employs pictures in word balloons to convey the limberness of imagination is brilliant: the man points to the sky to talk about constellations, while the girl sees stars as inflamed bumblebees. But what begins promisingly runs into trouble, and it’s not clear who the message is directed toward: children just opening their eyes to the world, or parents who have lost their sense of curiosity? Even if children don’t glean much from the abstractions and subtleties of the narrative, they’re nevertheless in for a treat with the unforgettable visuals of imagination at play. Preschool-Grade 1. –Ian Chipman” (from Booklist)

Invisible StringKarst, Patrice, The Invisible String (Devorss & Co, September 2000): “Specifically written to address children’s fear of being apart from the ones they love, The Invisible String delivers a particularly compelling message in today’s uncertain times that though we may be separated from the ones we care for, whether through anger, or distance or even death, love is the unending connection that binds us all, and, by extension, ultimately binds every person on the planet to everyone else. Parents and children everywhere who are looking for reassurance and reaffirmation of the transcendent power of love, to bind, connect and comfort us through those inevitable times when life challenges us!” (from the Amazon description)

Ida AlwaysLevis, Caron, Ida, Always (Atheneum Books for Young Readers, February 2016): “A beautiful, honest portrait of loss and deep friendship told through the story of two iconic polar bears.
Gus lives in a big park in the middle of an even bigger city, and he spends his days with Ida. Ida is right there. Always.
Then one sad day, Gus learns that Ida is very sick, and she isn’t going to get better. The friends help each other face the difficult news with whispers, sniffles, cuddles, and even laughs. Slowly Gus realizes that even after Ida is gone, she will still be with him—through the sounds of their city, and the memories that live in their favorite spots.
Ida, Always is an exquisitely told story of two best friends—inspired by a real bear friendship—and a gentle, moving, needed reminder that loved ones lost will stay in our hearts, always.” (from the Amazon description)

LifetimesMellonie, Bryan, Lifetimes: The Beautiful Way To Explain Death To Children (Bantam, October 1983): “When the death of a relative, a friend, or a pet happens or is about to happen . . . how can we help a child to understand?
Lifetimes is a moving book for children of all ages, even parents too. It lets us explain life and death in a sensitive, caring, beautiful way. Lifetimes tells us about beginnings. And about endings. And about living in between. With large, wonderful illustrations, it tells about plants. About animals. About people. It tells that dying is as much a part of living as being born. It helps us to remember. It helps us to understand.
Lifetimes . . . a very special, very important book for you and your child. The book that explains—beautifully—that all living things have their own special Lifetimes.” (from the GoodReads description)

The ScarMoundlic, Charlotte, The Scar (Candlewick, November 2011): “When the boy in this story wakes to find that his mother has died, he is overwhelmed with sadness, anger, and fear that he will forget her. He shuts all the windows to keep in his mother’s familiar smell and scratches open the cut on his knee to remember her comforting voice. He doesn’t know how to speak to his dad anymore, and when Grandma visits and throws open the windows, it’s more than the boy can take–until his grandmother shows him another way to feel that his mom’s love is near. With tenderness, touches of humor, and unflinching emotional truth, Charlotte Moundlic captures the loneliness of grief through the eyes of a child, rendered with sympathy and charm in Olivier Tallec’s expressive illustrations.” (from the Amazon description)

Flat RabbitOskarsson, Bardur, The Flat Rabbit (Owlkids, September 2014): “When a dog and a rat come upon a rabbit flattened on the road in their neighborhood, they contemplate her situation, wondering what they should do to help her. They decide it can’t be much fun to lie there; she should be moved. But how? And to where? Finally, the dog comes up with an inspired and unique idea and they work together through the night to make it happen. Once finished, they can’t be positive, but they think they have done their best to help the flat rabbit get somewhere better than the middle of the road where they found her. Sparely told with simple artwork, The Flat Rabbit treats the concept of death with a sense of compassion and gentle humor — and a note of practicality. In the end, the dog’s and the rat’s caring, thoughtful approach results in an unusual yet perfect way to respect their departed friend.” (from the Amazon review) This book received starred reviews from Kirkus and Booklist, but a few other reviewers felt it might be too humorous for children actively grieving, so again, check it out first 🙂

Goodbye BookParr, Todd, The Goodbye Book (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, November 2015): “This picture book shows young children that even when goodbyes bring sadness and unfamiliar emotions, those feelings will ease with the help of time, remembrance, and support. The Goodbye Book addresses the range of emotions someone might feel after a loss, including anger, sadness, lack of joy, and denial, as well as the desire to stop eating or sleeping. Parr explains that even when a person starts to feel better, there could be moments of grief or confusion, but at the end of the day, another person will always be available to provide love and comfort. The colorful illustrations, in an naive, childlike style and outlined in black, feature a goldfish that experiences the emotions discussed throughout the book. Young readers can infer what the goldfish is feeling by looking at the picture, and the imaginative representation gives the book a soothing tone. The Goodbye Book never specifies what the exact scenario is, making it an appropriate choice whether a child is dealing with death or another difficult situation. VERDICT An honest but gentle look at the grief that comes with saying goodbye. An essential purchase for all early childhood collections.—Liz Anderson, D.C. Public Library” (from School Library Journal)

Cry Heart

Ringtved, Glenn, Cry, Heart, But Never Break (Enchanted Lion, February 2016): “Aware their grandmother is gravely ill, four siblings make a pact to keep death from taking her away. But Death does arrive all the same, as it must. He comes gently, naturally. And he comes with enough time to share a story with the children that helps them to realize the value of loss to life and the importance of being able to say goodbye.” (from the Amazon description)

 

 
Waterbugs and Dragonflies
Stickney, Doris, Waterbugs And Dragonflies: Explaining Death To Young Children (Pilgrim Press, December 1998): “Waterbugs and Dragonflies is a graceful fable written by Doris Stickney who sought a meaningful way to explain to neighborhood children the death of a five-year-old friend. The small book is beautifully illustrtated by artist Gloria Ortiz Hernandez.” (from the Barnes & Noble description)

 
The Memory Tree
Teckentrup, Britta, The Memory Tree (Orchard Books, November 2014): “A beautiful and heartfelt picture book to help children celebrate the memories left behind when a loved one dies.
Fox has lived a long and happy life in the forest. One day, he lies down in his favourite clearing, takes a deep breath, and falls asleep for ever.
Before long, Fox’s friends begin to gather in the clearing. One by one, they tell stories of the special moments that they shared with Fox. And, as they share their memories, a tree begins to grow, becoming bigger and stronger, sheltering and protecting all the animals in the forest, just as Fox did when he was alive.
This uplifting, lyrical story about the loss of a loved one is perfect for sharing and will bring comfort to both children and parents. (from the Amazon description)

BadgerVarley, Susan, Badger’s Parting Gifts (HarperCollins, July 1992): “Warm and sensitive illustrations reflect the hopeful mood of this tale about woodland animals learning to accept their friend Badger’s death.” (from Publisher’s Weekly)
“Badger’s friends are overwhelmed with their loss when he dies. By sharing their memories of his gifts, they find the strength to face the future with hope.” (from School Library Journal)

Jubilee
Yeomans, Ellen, Jubilee (Eerdmans Books For Young Readers, January 2010): “This book works beautifully on two levels: it shares the simple joyous experience of a family reunion/picnic and, on a deeper level, if the adult reader chooses, it introduces the child to heaven. The book helps the reader envision a loving, light-filled place that exists beyond life as we know it. Beautiful illustrations, lyrical text. The author should be congratulated for approaching the very difficult idea of “what happens to us after we die” with a very tender hand.” (from reviewer Susan Keeter)

I’m sure this list just begins to scratch the surface.  There are undoubtedly others that have been reviewed for Perfect Picture Book Friday (actually, several of these have been.)  (And Perfect Picture Books also includes books that more specifically address loss of a pet or loss of a beloved item/object.)

If anyone has other titles they highly recommend to add to this list, Anonymous and I would be grateful.

Have a question for Oh, Susanna!?  Please send it to me!!!  Our next installment will be on Monday July 3!

Have a marvelous Monday, everyone (in spite of our heavy topic for today!) 🙂

Oh, Susanna! What Verbs Should I Avoid And Why?

Hey, Everyone!

What an exciting day it is!

It’s time for . . .

(cue dramatic soap opera theme music 🙂 )

. . . the long-awaited return of Oh, Susanna! (your picture book questions answered!)

Today’s question comes to us from BoldWriter who wonders:

In writing picture books strong verbs are a must. My question is this,
‘What are the most common verbs to avoid using, if possible, and why?’

BoldWriter, I’m so glad you asked!

As writers, it is our goal to express ourselves with the strongest, most articulate, most evocative language we can muster.  We use our words to bring stories to life for our readers.  In addition, as writers of picture books, our word count is extremely limited and we never want to use two or three words where one will do… and do a better job!

We’ve probably all seen those blog posts or articles that instruct us on The 5 Verbs To Avoid At All Costs! or how to Make Your Story Jump Off The Page By Eliminating These Action-Sucking Verbs!

It’s tempting to try to come up with a list.  It would be so simple, wouldn’t it, if we had a list of No-No Verbs that we could just search our documents for and remove, thereby turning our stories into perfect gems of literary genius?! 🙂

But it isn’t quite that simple.  (It never is with writing 🙂 )  While there are a few verbs you want to try to avoid when you can, it’s more an overall question of choosing the right word in every instance throughout your story – not just verbs, but nouns and the very judicious sprinkling of adjectives and adverbs we use where necessary and appropriate.  Every word has to earn its place in your picture book manuscript.  As George Carlin said, “There are no such things as bad words.  Only poor choices.” 🙂

So while I can’t necessarily give you a be-all-and-end-all list of verbs to avoid, there are a few verbs that belong on the Use-With-Caution list for one reason or another:

CAUTION! (1)

to be (am, is, was, were, etc.)
to do (does, did)
to go (go, went)
to have (has, had)
to seem
to feel
to think
to believe
to know

Others to use carefully include:

to get
to make
to let
to put

I don’t imagine this is an exhaustive list, but it names the majority of the main culprits.  (Readers, if there are others that leap to mind, please share them in the comments!)

The potential pitfall of most of the verbs on this list is that they are weak and/or vague.  They lure you into using modifiers (a word, phrase, or clause which functions as an adjective or adverb to describe a word or make its meaning more specific) when you’d be better off choosing a stronger more descriptive verb to begin with.

A weak verb will fit almost anywhere because it’s nonspecific.  A strong verb uses context to be the best verb for that spot.

Why say I went when you could say:

I skipped
I strolled
I dashed
I wandered
I galloped
I biked
I tiptoed
etc…?

Any of the alternate choices is stronger, clearer and more active, and conveys more information.  In addition, each of the alternate choices indicate very different things occurring in the story – someone who is wandering is a different kind of character, or is in a different situation, than someone who is galloping.  The alternate choices rely on context.

The verb to be has added dangers.

  1. It may take you down the “telling” path (you know, Show’s arch nemesis 🙂 ) and invite you to use weak descriptors like “nice” and “great” or vague descriptors like “big”.  Let’s look at an example:
    The building was big.
    Well, how big?  We’re being told something but not shown.  Is it bigger than a car?bigger than a house?  bigger than a mountain?
    The verb to be has led us astray! 🙂
    A better way to say it would be:
    The building thrust its peak into the clouds.
    Thrust is a stronger verb than was and used in conjunction with the clouds allows us to envision how big the building is.  It also conveys a sense of action.
  2. It may inadvertently set you up for passivity.  For example:
    Lucie and Lily were looked on with disgust after they ate a mustard sundae.
    “Were looked on” is passive – the action is being done to the characters instead of the characters doing the action.  Who is looking on Lucie and Lily with disgust and why should we care?  You’d be better off with something like:
    The whole first grade avoided Lucie and Lily after the mustard sundae episode.  “You guys are disgusting!”

The verbs to feel, to think, to believe, to seem, and to know are in a slightly different category.  They create unnecessary distance and weaker forms of expression.  For example:

Joe thought the goblin smelled like toe jam.

Does the goblin smell like toe jam or doesn’t he?

If he does, it would be a stronger statement to simply say: The goblin smelled like toe jam.  If he doesn’t, there’s no reason to bring it up at all! (I mean really, why would you bring up toe jam if you didn’t have to? 🙂 )

Most times if you find you’ve used think, know, believe, seem, or feel, you can simply cut them to make your sentence stronger and more active.

Choosing strong verbs and nouns also has the advantage of allowing you to avoid flowery or overly descriptive language which a) runs up your word count, b) slows the pace of your story, c) can distract from the action, and d) can potentially confuse picture book aged readers.

All verbs, however, even those on the caution list,  are useful and have their place, and in some cases are the best choice when you want to stay simple and direct.

For example:

Phyllis was not like the other groundhogs.

Yes, I used the verb to be.  But as an opening sentence, this is simple and direct and conveys immediately the information that Phyllis is different.  In this case (I would argue 🙂 ) the verb to be was the right verb for the job.

So it’s not really that there are verbs you want to avoid.  Rather, you want to choose the strongest word you can in any instance, verb or otherwise – the word that does the very best job of conveying your meaning in that sentence.

Part of the fun of writing is polishing our work until it shines, going over and over our sentences until each word is perfect.  🙂

BoldWriter, I hope that answers your question, at least somewhat!

And now, I open the floor to readers.  Do you have thoughts on verb usage?  Do you have a list of verbs you avoid?

Please feel free to email me your picture book writing, reading or teaching questions!  The next installment of Oh, Susanna! will be Monday June 5.

Have a marvelous Monday, everyone! 🙂

 

 

Oh Susanna! – Does A Similar Book Mean I Should Not Submit My Story?

Good Monday, Everyone!

I hope you all had a lovely weekend!

I finally put my annuals in because, after a week of over 90 degree weather, we are hoping the danger of frost (which we had last weekend) is past!  Who is in charge of the weather around here?  It’s nuts! 🙂

Of course, given my reputation as The Black Thumb Of Poughquag, my plants will probably be looking like this before long 🙂

Also (thanks to Beth Stilborn and Laura Miller) I MAY have a new plan for Perfect Picture Books which would make the list easier to search and easier to update.  Keep your fingers crossed!  It will probably take me the whole summer to put it together, but it will be great if it works! 🙂

Today, after many weeks in which we have been distracted by other things, we have an Oh Susanna question!

Oh Susanna!

I am currently working to get my first picture book published. I have been studying the market and in doing so I came across a recently published book that looks somewhat similar to mine. Should I be discouraged? Will anyone be interested in publishing my book if there is already one with a similar topic in the market? 

Sincerely, Clueless 

I think this is an excellent question.

Although we are all told to be original, there are some who say there are no new stories.  New baby and sibling rivalry and fear of the dark and first day of school and wanting a pet, etc., etc., etc. have already been told.

This may be true.  But if you spend five minutes in the library or bookstore, you’ll see (using new baby as an example) Julius The Baby Of The World, Not Yet Rose, The Best Kind Of Baby, Penny Loves Pink, A Baby Sister For Frances, The New Baby, On Mother’s Lap, Hello Baby, Babies Don’t Eat Pizza, Waiting For Baby, Peter’s Chair… I could go on, but I’m sure you get the idea – there are LOTS of picture books about kids getting a new sibling.

Pretty much any topic/idea/theme you choose to write about will have been done before in some way.  The trick is to make it your own – to put a spin on it that hasn’t been done so that your story is new and fresh even if it deals with a tried and true topic.  If you were to read those 10 books listed above, you’d see that although they all revolve around the arrival of a new baby, they are all different stories.  In Julius The Baby Of The World, Lilly is jealous and doesn’t have much nice to say about her new brother until her friends criticize him and she rushes to his defense.  In Not Yet Rose, Rose worries that she won’t like being a big sister or that the baby might not like her.  In The Best Kind Of Baby, Sophie imagines all the kinds of babies her mother could have, thinking puppies and monkeys and fish would be much more fun than a human baby.  As you can see, those are all very different types of stories, which address different aspects of getting a new sibling and have different moods and atmospheres.

In addition to trying to put your own unique spin on your story, you will also want to research the publishing houses you plan to submit to.  For example, (sticking with the idea of new babies), does the house already have a new baby book?  How old is it?  Is it still in print?  Has it sold well and become a classic or is it lesser known?  Is the actual story it tells similar to yours (e.g. is it a brother waiting for a sister and yours is too?  Or is it a jealousy story and yours is too?)?

A house that has a book very similar to yours will probably not want to compete with itself.  But another house may be happy to have it… overjoyed if they love it and think they can outsell other houses’ books on that topic 🙂

If you find that your story really is too similar to one or more books already out there, think about ways you could tweak your story to make it different.  Could you tell it from a different point of view?  Could you change the focus slightly?  Could you make it a sister waiting for a brother instead of a brother waiting for a sister?  Could you place it in a very unusual setting or time period, or make it about an animal family instead of a human family?  Try stretching your idea in different directions and see where you end up 🙂

I hope that answers your question and helps you out a bit!  And as always I’d be grateful to have all our readers chime in with their thoughts and experience in the matter!

Have a magical Monday everyone! 🙂

Oh Susanna – How Do You Handle Illustrator Notes In Picture Book Manuscripts?

Happy Earth Day, everyone!

And Happy Birthday to my wonderful dad!!!  I have been exceptionally lucky in the parent department! 🙂  I’m a writer, I know.  I’m supposed to be good at words.  But for some things, there just aren’t good enough words, or I’m not good enough with them, so here’s a picture.  They say that’s worth 1000 🙂

in case you were wondering,
that beauty in the saggy diaper is yours truly, age 15 months 🙂

And now that you’ve had your comic relief for the day 🙂 let’s get on with Oh Susanna, shall we?

Today’s question comes to us from Pam who asks:  I was wondering how many illustrator’s notes you use in your writing.  For example, inApril Fool, Phyllis! did you give any since most of the story could be understood with your words alone?  And, in Not Yet, Rose, did you decide that Rose was a mouse, or was that decided by Nicole Rutten?  I’m utterly confused about illustrator’s notes.  I keep hearing that editors don’t like them unless they’re absolutely necessary, but then I also keep hearing that nowadays editors really want half the story to be told through pictures and half through words, in which case illustrator notes are essential.  Can you help me navigate this dilemma?  Would you be willing to share a portion of a MS in which you designated an illustrator’s note?

We had a similar question back in March of 2012, so I refer you to THIS POST for some information on the subject.

But your question is slightly different… so I will add a little more detail in another direction in case that might be helpful.  (And as always, I hope you alert readers out there will chime in with your two cents – it is always such a contribution!)

In response to your overall question about “how many illustrator’s notes I use” my answer is hardly any.  I try to let the story and the writing speak for themselves as much as possible.

But of course it is not always possible to convey your whole intent, especially for something that’s meant as a secret twist, or a surprise, or an added element of humor, or various other things.  Sometimes a few words to the wise are necessary.

My personal feeling is that illustrator notes break up the flow of your writing when an editor is reading. I know they are trained to kind of skim over them and not get distracted, but I still try to avoid them when I can.

For example, in the case of both April Fool, Phyllis! and Not Yet, Rose, I put the illustration suggestions, such as they were, in the cover letter.    If you recall the story line of April Fool, Phyllis!, you will remember that Phyllis is able to lead her little cousins back to safety by following the sap line.  I didn’t want to give away the ending by calling attention to the sap line too early in the story, but it couldn’t come completely out of nowhere either.  I also wanted the weather to sneak up on the story characters, but I wanted the reader to be able to see it coming.  So I included a note in the cover letter that said that the sap line should be visible in the illustration at various points (so that a reader going back to check Phyllis’s clever solution would see the sap line had been there all along) and that there should be indicators of the coming blizzard in the illustrations – a darkening sky… a few snowflakes… a bit more snow etc. so that the reader could see it coming even while the characters were so caught up in their treasure hunt that they didn’t notice.

For Not Yet, Rose, I did a similar thing.  I included a note in the cover letter pointing out that, although I’d written the story with a human girl in mind, there was no reason why the characters couldn’t be animals, which might be helpful in adding a comforting layer of distance in a story whose emotional arc cut close to the concerns and confusion that many children feel when a sibling arrives – concerns and confusion that are hard for a child to own.  The editor agreed this could work nicely, which is how Rose and her family came to be hamsters (I will not tell Nicole you thought her hamsters were mice 🙂 tee-hee :))

In both cases, those were rather global things that were better mentioned/described in the cover letter.

But sometimes you can’t escape it 🙂 you have to put some art notes in.  My suggestion is to format them correctly and keep them to a minimum.  You are correct that neither editors nor illustrators want too much interference.  They prefer not to have the art dictated to them by the author.  But sometimes it really is necessary to get your point across and/or crucial to the reader’s comprehension of the story.

I’m sure people have been taught differently, and I expect we will get some alternative methods in the comments, but I have been taught that art notes should be bracketed in square brackets, begun with ART in all caps and followed by your notes, single spaced, in small font and kept to the right-hand side as much as possible.  I will try to put an example in here, but I know blogger isn’t going to let me format it right so I won’t be able to do more than one line of art note.

(From Can’t Sleep Without Sheep):

The cows were a complete disaster!  [ART: the cow completely smashes the fence]

Can you get the general idea?  It’s not perfect… if you had more description of your art, it would drop down a line or more, so you would single space and tab over to keep it all on the right-hand side, as easy as possible for the editor to skim over for the time being… but hopefully you can kind of see how you would do it.

I guess as a general rule I’d say if it’s something broad (like the characters could work equally well as humans or animals) you can put it in your cover letter, or in an art note at the start of your manuscript.  If it’s something quite specific to a point in the story, a particular line of text, that would call for an art note.

I understand your concern about editors wanting “half through the pictures and half through the words.”  As authors who don’t draw, this is hard for us!  How will we get across what we’re imagining in our heads?  How will we be sure the editor “gets” our stories?

But remember this:  the pictures are the illustrators’ job.  They are fantastic at what they do – excellent, gifted individuals who see things differently than we do and bring a whole other dimension to our stories.  We don’t need to tell them how to do their jobs – they know 🙂  We only need to be sure that the story concept is clear – to the editor and to the illustrator.  The words are our job, the art is theirs.  So write the best story you can write.  Add a little note in your cover letter if there’s something that can be well explained there.  Put a judicious art note or two in your manuscript if necessary.  And then be prepared to be surprised and delighted by what your illustrator brings to your story 🙂

I hope this helps answer your questions, Pam.  If not, feel free to ask for clarification in the comments and all our helpful readers and I will do our best to make it more understandable.

Helpful Readers, I invite you to add anything from your experience that might be of use to Pam, whether your opinion/experience corroborates mine or yours is different and will add another avenue of help.

Have a terrific Monday, everyone! 🙂

Oh Susanna – What About Word Count?

Well, we made it.

Out to Ohio by way of Pennsylvania and West Virginia (thanks for that Jo-Jilly) and back again (the right way thank you very much because sometimes I just have to pull rank!)

In Ohio we saw a building shaped like a giant picnic basket – I kid you not!  I was driving, and hence unable to engage in photography, but luckily my copilot happened to be awake just then and had his iPhone and the picture came out.  Which is amazing because we were traveling at approximately 65 mph (which was the speed limit and when I say approximately I mean we were barely over it so don’t raise those eyebrows at me :))  He took the photo out Princess Blue Kitty’s window.  Check it out!

It is not everyday you see a building shaped like a giant basket!

So now, see?  I have added to your trivia fund.  Next time you need an icebreaker or a scintillating topic of conversation, you can say, “Did you know that there’s a building shaped like a giant picnic basket in Newark, Ohio?”and thoroughly dazzle and amaze your companion.

We also saw this statue (which I LOVE) in front of the library in Granville – a boy, a girl, and a little dog…

Isn’t it just the perfect statue for outside a library?

Also I can highly recommend Audible’s recording of all of James Herriot’s books up through The Lord God Made Them All which is what we are up to after all these drives (yes, we have driven through the unabridged All Creatures Great And Small, All Things Bright And Beautiful, and All Things Wise And Wonderful… as well as The DaVinci Code and about half of Divergent which we had to leave unfinished because the narrator was deemed whiny by my son, who also felt there was too much romance involved… luckily I had already read it :))

Also, in case you were wondering (and I know you were :)), Snickers is still hands down the best candy bar ever.

So now that we’ve got that settled, let’s move on to Oh Susanna, which it feels like we haven’t done in an age!

Today’s excellent question comes to us from the lovely Cathy, and she says:

I have an Oh Susanna! question – is there a ’rounding’ rule when adding your word count to a query?  As in, my manuscript is 509 words.  Or perhaps 497 words.  Do I say OH SUSANNA’S STORY is a 500 word fairy tale for readers ages 3-6?  Or should I use the exact number of words per my Microsoft Word for Windows count?  Just wondered if there is an word count convention that I should know.  

My personal feeling on the matter is that Microsoft Word makes it very easy to establish your word count, and it doesn’t take much room at the top of our manuscript to pop it in there, so why not?  I always include it.  But I don’t think it matters too much if you round slightly… you’re just not likely to get away with passing off your 1506 word manuscript as “about 500 words” 🙂

But I figured an authority on the matter wouldn’t hurt, so I asked editor Erin Molta, our friend from Would You Read It 🙂  She said:

Word counts are not that necessary for picture books UNLESS there is a certain restriction. Word counts are needed for easy readers because each level determines how many words. Though it doesn’t hurt to mention word counts in the query letter—only because some editors may be looking for something short and sweet to read right then . . . It doesn’t matter—unless there are guidelines—if the word count is exact or not. Though since WORD does give it to you fairly easily, it’s not hard to do so.

So there you have it.  What does everyone else do?  Do you include your word count or not?  Do you give the exact count, or round?  Has anyone had a different experience with word counts than Erin or I? Have you ever seen a building shaped like a giant basket?  Or anything else interesting?  Please share! 🙂

Have a wonderful day and beginning of your week, everyone! 🙂

Oh Susanna – How To Submit Author Notes And Factual Back Matter?

Happy Monday, everybody!  I hope you all had an excellent weekend!

I would like to start this week by congratulating my friend Renee LaTulippe on the publication of the first 2 pieces of writing she ever submitted (seriously, that kind of talent doesn’t come along every day!) in The Poetry Friday Anthology For Middle School!  Congratulations, Renee!  We are all mucho proud of you (and I’m hoping in this case that mucho might pass for something Italian because that’s all I’ve got :))  You can enter to win a copy HERE or you can purchase a copy HERE.

I would also like to let you know that my friend Iza Trapani is celebrating the 20th anniversary of her wonderful book, The Itsy Bitsy Spider.  She has spun the familiar rhyme into a delightful and engaging story and accompanied it with her gorgeous art.  This book has been a favorite in our family for years, and if you have a young one in your life this is a story you won’t want to miss.  You can enter to win a copy on her blog HERE just by writing a few lines about the continuing adventures of Itsy Bitsy 🙂

In other news, since today is the alternate Monday from Short & Sweets, we have an Oh Susanna question, which I hope you will find enlightening 🙂

Alayne asks:  “Manuscript formatting question. If a glossary and author note/fact sheets accompany your picture book manuscript, how is the back matter formatted? Are they just a continuation of the manuscript, double spaced after the end? Are they brand new sheets starting five inches down on the page? Here’s a totally different question: Would you send the back matter with the manuscript? Or only mention it in the cover letter?

Good question, Alayne.  I think many fiction writers are accustomed to submitting their story manuscripts, but if a story idea comes up that lends itself to some educational back matter, they might not know how to handle that, so I’m glad you asked.

To begin with, I would recommend researching titles at the house you’re submitting to to see if they publish books with back matter of any kind.  Not every house does, and you don’t want to submit a story with back matter to a house that doesn’t publish them.

My opinion on this issue is that if you have back matter you should mention it in your cover letter (I believe it is an added hook if there is an educational component and/or a curriculum connection) and include the back matter with your story.  (But a little note on this below…)

Write and format your story manuscript as you usually would.  When you get to the end of the story and are ready to supply the back matter, begin it on the top of a new page with whatever title it requires (Glossary, Fun Facts About Teeth, Pictorial Guide To State Flags, etc.), and continue your header (last name and manuscript title in the upper left, page number in the upper right), with the page numbers continuing (e.g. if your story ended on page 3, the first page of back matter would be page 4, not page 1 of back matter.)  If you have more than one type/category/section of back matter, I would begin each separate section on a new page (e.g. a new page for the Glossary, another new page for Fun Facts About Teeth, etc.)

Any time you include back matter, you should also include a bibliography to show where you got your information, and that can be the last page of your submission.  A bibliography should be formatted according to any standard method – MLA, or Chicago Manual of Style, etc.  You will want to show solid sources – not just Wikipedia 🙂  If you include an explanatory Author Note of some kind you should likewise back that up with evidence/reference to personal knowledge, interview, research etc.

Edit 3/4/13: Huge thanks to Joanna and Tina for reminding me about word count!  The word count for the back matter should be separate from the word count for the story.  So put your story’s word count on the first/cover page of your manuscript in the upper right, and then put the word count for your back matter in the upper right of the page where the back matter begins.

That is how I would approach it.  However, here is my “note below” 🙂  Some might argue that it depends on how critical the back matter is to the story.  If the story can stand completely on its own without the back matter, so that the back matter is essentially an optional bonus, some might say that you could mention in your cover letter that you have back matter (or that you would be willing to write it if the editor is interested) on Phases Of The Moon (or whatever) to accompany the story.  If the editor feels it might enhance the book, you will submit it at their request.  I think this is a matter of personal preference.  But of course, if full comprehension of the story depends on the explanation provided by the back matter, then there is no option and the back matter should be mentioned in the cover letter and submitted with the story.

My approach is to lay all my cards on the table, as it were.  When submitting to houses that publish books with back matter, if I’ve got back matter, I submit it.  The way I see it, it may be an added appeal for the book.  If the editor doesn’t feel it’s necessary, she can always say she’d like to publish the story without the back matter.  But the presence of the educational component might be a deciding factor for an editor who is on the fence – a book that has a possible market in schools and libraries as opposed to retail-only has added potential for sales.

I hope that answers your questions somewhat, Alayne, but I would be very grateful to hear from our readers on this issue.  How do you handle back matter?  Do you format it differently than I do?  Please share – we can always benefit from the knowledge of the group!

Thanks, everyone, and have a great Monday and a great start to your week! 🙂

Oh Susanna – How Do You Know What Books Are Already Published In The Picture Book Market?

Happy Monday, Everyone!

First off, before we do anything, I’d like to give a virtual high five to Julie Foster Hedlund whose debut storybook app A Troop Is  Group Of Monkeys is now officially published!  Woo-hoo!

Released yesterday from Little Bahalia Publishing, this delightful app is both an entertaining story and an education in collective nouns for animal groups.  Beautiful illustrations bursting with color (created by Pamela Baron) complement the engaging text, along with plenty of fun interactive add-ons… wait until you see the skunk 🙂 … and the story is sung to a catchy tune by Tim McCanna.  You can view the trailer HERE and purchase it on iTunes HERE.  Congratulations, Julie!!! 🙂

I will wait while you all skip on over to iTunes App Store and purchase your copy 🙂

Alrighty then, onward to our topic of conversation for today, which is an Oh Susanna question.

Cheryl asks, “Oh, Susanna, could you please give some pointers on how to research what’s already out there in the picture book market?

Well, Cheryl, I’ll be happy to give it the old college try :), although I am the first to admit that I don’t feel like an authority on the subject, so I hope lots of our devoted readers will chime in with their knowledge.

The short answer is, a lot of things have already been done, so no matter what you write, you’ll have to put a new spin on it – your own spin 🙂

But there are places you can look.

For the low, low price of only $400 (EEK!) you can purchase the 2012 Subject Guide To Children’s Books In Print – hardcover and 3154 pages chock full of information that is mostly up-to-date for about 10 minutes 🙂  But unless you’re independently wealthy and have a really sturdy desk to hold up a book that size you’re probably better off just going to the local public library and using theirs 🙂

The Subject Guide to Books In Print is available at most larger libraries in the reference section.  The Subject Guide To Children’s Books In Print and Children’s Books In Print may also be available.

From Greyhouse Publishing’s Website:

Children’s Books In Print: “Children’s Books In Print®, now in its 43nd edition, is the go-to source for locating children’s and young adult titles in the US.

  • Volume 1, the Title Index, provides immediate access to over 250,000 children’s books from over 18,000 US publishers
  • Entries include title, author, translator, illustrator, photographer, edition, LCC number, series information, pages, binding, grade range, year of publication, price, ISBN, publisher and imprint
  • Volume 2, the Author & Illustrator Index, features more than 223,000 contributors, including photographers
  • Publisher Name Index and Wholesaler & Distributor Name Index, with complete contact information for all listed publishers, distributors and wholesalers”

The Subject Guide To Children’s Books In Print: “A natural complement to Children’s Books In Print®, Subject Guide to Children’s Books In Print® is a valuable tool when expanding children’s literature collections and new curriculum areas.

  • Subject Index with over 347,000 titles classified under over 9,500 Library of Congress Subject Headings, from Actors and Actresses to Zoo Animals and everything in between
  • Entries include title, author, translator, illustrator, photographer, edition, LCC number, series information, pages, binding, grade range, year of publication, price, ISBN, publisher and imprint
  • Publisher Name Index and Wholesaler & Distributor Index, with complete contact information makes easy work for your acquisitions department”

So there is a lot of information there.

Another useful avenue of research is publishing house websites.  They all have sections that list their current titles and their backlists.  It is time-consuming, but worthwhile, and something you’ll be doing anyway when the time comes to research houses for submission.

In terms of what publishers might be looking for, SCBWI has a section in their bulletin that addresses that, and other publications like the CBI Newsletter and the Children’s Writer (issued by the Institute Of Children’s Literature) frequently post subjects/topics/specific things that agents and editors have mentioned they would be interested in seeing in both book and magazine markets.  If editors are looking for something, it’s a good bet there’s nothing like it currently in print.

Another place you can look is Amazon.  I know.  They’re taking over the world. 🙂  But they do have a huge data base of books.  You can search by a title you’re thinking of using and see if other books with that title already exist.  You can search by subject matter within children’s books and see what comes up that might be similar to your idea.  And then underneath the book you’ve chosen to look at there is usually a long list of similar books that people also viewed or purchased when they looked at that book, so you can often find related items easily.

You should always check the publication date.  A book that is similar to your story but is 20 years old and not a well-known classic may be ready for a fresh new version.

I think, in the end, you have to write the stories you want to write to the best of your ability.  Then research publishing houses that might be interested in the type of story you’ve written.  Go to the library or bookstore and read lots of picture books and take note of who publishes books similar to yours.  Then go on their websites and read through their current and backlist titles.  Do they already have your book, or something so similar that they’d be competing with their own list by purchasing yours?  Hopefully you can find a house that might fit your manuscript that hasn’t already published a similar story.  If not, you may discover ways you can tweak your story to make it different from what’s already out there.

I hope that’s a little bit helpful.  Unfortunately there’s no quick, easy method I know of for accomplishing this task.  But I’d love to hear from readers about how they go about this, whether they know any tricks of the trade, or know any better ways of doing this!  Please, readers, share your thoughts!!!

Thanks for a great question, Cheryl.

Have a fabulous Monday, everyone, especially those of you who have the day off 🙂

Oh Susanna – What Is The Difference Between A Hook And A Pitch?

All right.

Someone around here has been just a little asleep at the switch (and I won’t mention any names, but it’s the person in charge so I think we all know who THAT is!)

What with all the holiday high jinx and shenanigans the lists got neglected and I have discovered in the last two days of posting that:

#1 we are nearly out of pitches for Would You Read It – we are only scheduled through mid-February – so if you have a pitch you’d like some friendly and constructive input on, as well as a potential chance for it to be read by editor Erin Molta, please send it my way! (Please use the handy Email Me button in the righthand sidebar or send to susanna[at]susannahill[dot]com and put Would You Read It in the subject line)

#2 we are COMPLETELY out of Oh Susanna questions!  Today’s is the last one!  So if you’re wondering anything about anything to do with reading, writing, or teaching picture books – great choices for a child with a certain need, what to do on a school visit, what book would complement your teaching unit on apple picking, etc… please send those my way as well!  (Please use the handy Email Me button in the righthand sidebar or send to susanna[at]susannahill[dot]com and put Oh Susanna in the subject line)

and #3 it’s only 12 days until Groundhog Day and SOMEONE (ahem ahem) has not thought up an excellent hair-brained scheme for Phyllis’s celebration!  What is the world coming to?!

As of this moment, the person in charge will be put in time out and forbidden to have chocolate for two days hours minutes while she contemplates the error of her ways!

Meanwhile, here is today’s Oh Susanna question:

What is the difference between a hook and a pitch, or are they the same thing? 
I often get these two confused. When I took a pb class the instructor taught us how to write a hook. But when we pitch our idea to the editor or agent, we’re pitching our hook, right? 

I’m glad you asked, Tina, because this is an important distinction to understand, and a tricky one that can easily be confusing… as you will see by how convoluted my answer is 🙂

A hook, as I would define it, is essentially the opening of your story.  It’s a well-contructed first line or two of writing that draws your reader in and makes her want to turn the page and find out what happens next.  It usually includes the main character and sets up the problem that character is going to have to deal with, making the reader wonder, well gee whiz!  How is Janie going to deal with that bully on the school bus (or whatever.)  For example:

My hat is gone.  I want it back.” (I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen)

One hot summer in Itching Down
Four million wasps flew into town.”  (The Giant Jam Sandwich by John Vernon Lord)

Last winter I found a penguin.  He told me he’d been flying.  But… penguins can’t fly.”  (Learning To Fly by Sebastian Meschenmoser)

These are all hooks.  They are the opening sentences of stories, and they set up the main character and the problem for us immediately, making us want to find out what happened to that hat, or how do you cope with four million wasps, or why would a penguin say he’d been flying when it must be untrue… or if it IS true, how did he manage it?  They make you turn the page.

A pitch, as I would define it, gives more of an overview of your story.  It might include the hook concept, but it will give a little more detail in a descriptive way, as opposed to quoting direct lines.  A pitch is still quite short, and is usually a teaser – trying to pique someone’s interest without giving away the resolution of your story – but it’s purpose is a little different from the hook’s.  While the hook is part of the actual writing that draws your reader directly into the story, the pitch encourages someone to want to pick up your story to begin with.  For example:

Carrie’s pitch for Would You Read It from  July

Working Title: Singin’ Sam, the Ice Cream Man
Age/Genre: Picture Book (ages 4-8)
Pitch: Sam loves dishing out ice cream to his favorite customers. But when a rival ice cream truck shows up on his corner, Sam must find a way to out-sing, out-scoop, and out-serve the competition to keep his customers — and himself — happy.

and

Dana’s pitch for Would You Read It, also from July

Working Title:  CJ’s Tiger
Age/Genre:  Picture Book (ages 4-8)
CJ has always dreamed of having a tiger for a pet, so he is thrilled when he awakens one day to find that his cat “Tiger” has transformed into a real tiger. However he soon learns that having a pet tiger is a lot harder than he imagined when the day turns into one big catastrophe!

Both of these give you a sense of what the story will be about, whetting your appetite and making you want to read it and find out how Sam will keep his customers and himself happy, or how owning a tiger turns out to be trouble.  But they are essentially descriptions of the story, not the writing of the story itself.

If you pitch to an editor or agent, you are most likely pitching the concept of your hook – the great idea behind your story… up until the point when she asks to read it 🙂  Then she’ll get to read your hook!

Does that make any sense?  I hope all our devoted and very clever readers will chime in with their thoughts on hook and pitch definitions and what the differences are!!!  And if anyone has any great ideas for celebrating Groundhog Day I am open to suggestion!!! 🙂

Have a delightful Monday, everyone!  (Especially if you are excused from school/work today! :))


Oh Susanna – Will Agents Rep Poetry?

Happy Monday Everyone!

It feels like ages since we had an Oh Susanna day, and the next question in the queue seemed like a good one for the start of a new year.

Penny asked: I have noticed when researching agent blogs, that a lot of them don’t represent poetry. So what if you write poetry along with picture books/middle grade, etc.? Do you have to submit poetry on your own? Or will agents usually work with you to find a home for your poems, too?

This is the first time an Oh Susanna question has come in that I really had no experience with, but I think it’s something a lot of you might wonder about, so I wanted to address it.  Since I don’t have any direct, personal knowledge on the topic, I of course reached out to writer friends who might know the answer.  And being children’s writers they were of course all wonderful and helpful and wrote back immediately with the best information they could provide.

Laura Sassi whose poems, stories, articles and crafts have appeared in many publications including Highlights for ChildrenCricketLadybugSpider, Focus on the Family’s Clubhouse and Clubhouse Jr.FamilyFun, and Pack-O-Fun and whose debut picture book GOODNIGHT, ARK is forthcoming from Zonderkidz, a division of HarperCollins says:

According to my contract, when I had an agent, she represented all of my writing, but what she was interested in were my rhyming picture books, so that’s what I focussed on and sent her.  Not sure this answer helps in your question – except to point out that maybe part of the answer needs to be that it’s a very individual thing.  Depends probably on name recognition of poet etc.

Iza Trapani, author and illustrator of many wonderful rhyming stories for children, including ITSY BITSY SPIDER (Whispering Coyote Press, 1993) and THE BEAR WENT OVER THE MOUNTAIN (Sky Pony Press 2012) as well as 2 poetry compilations – RUFUS AND FRIENDS RHYME TIME (Charlesbridge 2008) and RUFUS AND FRIENDS SCHOOL DAYS (Charlesbridge 2010) says:

My agent represents me on picture books, individual poems, poem collections, whatever I write. But that’s our agreement. I am sure some agents may be only interested in picture books, rhyming or not. Poetry continues to be a hard sell…

Laura Purdie Salas (not to be confused with Laura Sassi :)) who is the author of many books and poems for children including
A LEAF CAN BE… (Millbrook Press, 2012) (which was  Perfect Picture Book HERE)
BOOKSPEAK! (Clarion, 2011) NCTE Notable; 2012 Minnesota Book Award
STAMPEDE! (Clarion, 2009) Finalist, 2010 Minnesota Book Award says:

Good question. I've run into that same thing. What seems to be the
typical case is that if an agent represents you for picture books and
novels, she will also submit your poetry, but only for book
manuscripts for traditional publishers. Not individual poems for
anthologies, magazines, etc. Poetry, in general, makes so little money
that agents don't have a whole lot of interest in representing it,
even if they personally love it. They know that it's just not all that
salable (can you hear me sob as I type that?).


Just my 2 cents. Interested to hear if others have different
experiences.

Amy Ludwig VanDerwater who is the author of FOREST HAS A SONG (Clarion 2013) and READING TIME (Wordsong, date TBA) and who you can visit at The Poem Farm and Sharing Our Notebooks in addition to her website linked to her name above has this to contribute:

I don’t know the bigger answer to this question, only my own experience.  I met my agent through the generous introduction and sharing of my work by my teacher, Lee Bennett Hopkins.  Elizabeth Harding (Curtis Brown Ltd.) does represent and submit my poetry, and while I have not yet sold a picture book…she is encouraging me to write one.  

From this, I’d imagine that if you’re already working with an agent, s/he would most likely work with you and your poems.  But poetry is such a tough sell these days, I wonder if agents hesitate to advertise that they might even read it.

I hope this helps?

Clearly this is a tough question to answer!  In general, it seems that if you write other children’s genres, at least some agents will probably help you sub traditional book length poetry mss.  But it sounds like poetry by itself would be a hard way to secure an agent.  Thanks ever so much to Laura, Laura, Iza, and Amy for sharing their knowledge and expertise, and if anyone in the reading audience has experience in this area, please share!  We are all very curious to find out!  Catherine? Anyone?  Not to put you on the spot or anything 🙂

I hope we’ll get some good information in the comments!  Thanks for a great question, Penny!

Have a wonderful day everyone! 🙂

Oh Susanna – What About Copyright Infringement?

Happy Monday, Everyone!

I hope you all had wonderful Thanksgiving weekends!  Did anyone get a Christmas tree yet?  I saw a surprising number of cars with trees up on their roof racks, and while I love having a Christmas tree I know better than to get one this early.  I have a bad habit of forgetting to put water in the the stand, so our trees have a tendency to dry up rather faster than one might hope.  If we got one a whole month head it would look exactly like that tree in How The Grinch Stole Christmas by December 25th… you know… a bare dried up brown thing with no needles whatsoever 🙂

So how exciting is this?  We’ve got an Oh Susanna question today!  It feels like it’s been ages!

Here’s the question of the day:

Oh, Susanna, lately there has been a lot of talk about bloggers putting pictures (not their own pictures that they have taken, but images found on sites like Google) on their blogs. But I have seen some picture books read in their entirety on YouTube with each spread visible. Isn’t this really chancy, too? Does this break copyright rules? Or does an author feel that this is a wonderful form of advertisement for their books?

I have to say, this is something I have wondered too, because I have also seen picture books on YouTube in this form and I simply can’t believe it.  My knowledge of law is not as extensive as you might think, given that you can’t swing a cat in my family without hitting a lawyer 🙂 (my grandfather, both my parents, and one of my brothers are all lawyers!)  I don’t think any of my contracts specifically say it is against copyright to read the book aloud and show all the pictures in a YouTube video, but the message of most contracts, whether they’re that specific or not, is quite clear.  The general idea is NOT to give away the book you worked so hard on and that the publisher spent a lot of time and money producing.

And make no mistake, that is what you’re doing.  If you read a picture book in its entirety and show all the pictures in a YouTube video you have given away your book (or someone else’s should you happen to be reading a book that’s not your own.)  Where is the incentive for anyone to buy the book if they can view it whenever they want for free?  I would think that was a serious copyright infringement, far worse than posting a single picture you don’t own.

By making a book available in this way, you are potentially taking away someone’s royalties and cutting into their sales numbers.  You are sharing something that isn’t yours to share.

In answer to the second part of your question, although I as an author would be flattered if someone liked one of my books enough to share it in this way, I would be very unhappy and hurt if someone were to do it.  The only entity that would have the right to do something like that is the publisher, and they would have no reason to.

I’d be very interested to hear from everyone, though, what you think about this.  Is it okay to make videos such as those described above?  Would you feel like you were doing the author/illustrator a favor, or celebrating the book, or helping in some way?  I’m looking forward to the discussion, because maybe I’m wrong…!

Have a great day, everyone! 🙂