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Monday, December 19, 2011

Passion for Picture Books - Ellen Jackson, Interview

   I am ever so grateful to have a critique group and larger community around me that understands how to write and illustrate picture books.  Pens and Brushes  There is a great deal of diverse talent out there.  These individuals understand that a picture book is highly appreciated art form, not just a passing type of children's literature that will gather dust in our attics.   They understand the need for a child or multiple children, and a reader to create in their minds and interaction, the magic of a picture book. No technology can replace that piece.  Today, I am happy to introduce picture book author, Ellen Jackson.

    Ellen, picture books are a complicated art form.   What drew you into writing picture books and why?

   As a child, I loved to write.  But my parents discouraged me. They wanted me 1) to get married, and 2) to train for something that had an actual salary–so I became a teacher.  I read at least one picture book to my class every day, and I came to love the genre.
   Eventually I moved to Santa Barbara to take care of my mother who had cancer.  Santa Barbara is a tourist town, and there were no jobs–especially for teachers. I decided I’d just make my living as a writer. My mother was getting chemo, and I spent many days in hospital waiting rooms or in doctor’s offices.  So to get through the ordeal, I concocted picture book plots in my head.
   My first manuscript was about a snail.  I worked and worked on the manuscript and probably rewrote it fifty times, but it never sold.  
   One morning, I got another idea.  I wrote it up and quickly sent my first draft off to five different publishers.  (You can see by the story so far that I did everything they tell writers not to do.)  I also submitted story no. 2 to a writing class, where the teacher tore it apart in front of everyone.  I lost interest after that, but one of the publishers actually bought it. 
    Then the publisher did something that publishers never do.  He asked me for the name of some illustrators.
   After all these experiences, I realized that there are no rules.  Do whatever works.  And always keep a file of illustrators.
   By the way, manuscript no. 2, THE GRUMPUS UNDER THE RUG, was still in print until a couple of months ago and has done very well.

   So when you are writing a picture book manuscript, what area of the story do you get the most satisfaction in developing and exploring? 

   I’m not sure I know how to separate all those different elements from each other.  Stories come to me in all different ways.   Sometimes I wake up in the morning with a fully developed story in my head.  (Actually that’s rare.)  Sometimes an image comes.  Sometimes I read a picture book and a little voice says, “Hmmm.  If I were writing this, it wouldn’t be about dinosaurs, it would be about monsters.  And they’d be quarrelsome, not friendly.  Etc.”  Then suddenly, I have an entirely different story begging to be told.
   But I suppose the part of the process I enjoy the most is coming up with the humor.  I like to think of truly outlandish situations and characters.  If the story isn’t humorous, than I like finding evocative language.

   Since you enjoy humor, then what area of the story do you find the most frustrating or difficult to develop and why?

This one is easy–the ending.  I’m not particularly good at coming up with a twist (and setting it up).

   Ellen, if you could choose one picture book author, author/illustrator, or illustrator to spend a day with, who would that be and what would you want to receive from your time with them?  

   Omigosh!  Just one?  The first names that come to mind are the illustrators I’ve already worked with.  I’ve met very few of the artists who have illustrated my books. 
   Jan Davey Ellis and I worked together on about six or seven books.  She’s so talented and we got to be phone friends.  I’d love to meet her.
   Doris Ettlinger is another.  She gives fabulous presentations and helped make ABE LINCOLN LOVED ANIMALS the success that it is.  Plus, I just like her.
   Kevin O’Malley has a wicked sense of humor.  I have met him, and he’s terrifically entertaining and a joy to be around.  So if I wanted to have fun, I’d spend a day with Kevin.
    Right at the top of the list would be the Dillons, Leo and Diane who illustrated EARTH MOTHER, because they’re world-class talents.  I have such admiration for both of them.

   I know you don't like to do favorites but was your favorite picture book as a child or your favorite one to read aloud as an adult and why did/do you never tire of the book?

   I’m not much for choosing favorites because it elevates one above the others.  (I don’t have a “best friend” for the same reason.  All my friends are special.)
   But I admit that I have a special place in my heart for THANK YOU, MR. FALKER by Patricia Polacco.  In the book, Ms. Polacco tells about her struggle with dyslexia and how she had to hide the fact that she couldn’t read.  For some reason, I find that book particularly touching.

   I would like to thank Ellen for sharing her perspective on my blog this week.  

One of her picture books, SCATTERBRAIN SAM, received many accolades, including a starred review from Kirkus.  The review said, in part: “Belly laughs and bravos will punctuate every reading of this fresh, funny recasting.”  This book was also a Parents’ Choice Fall 2001 Gold Award Winner and received a storytelling award from Storytelling World Magazine (out of 3000 entries).

Her picture book CINDER EDNA has now sold more than 100,000 hardcover copies and was featured in GREAT BOOKS FOR GIRLS and LET’S HEAR IT FOR THE GIRLS.  It was also nominated for a Young Reader’s award in Nevada, South Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Colorado, and has received other awards as well.

Her nonfiction picture book, TURN OF THE CENTURY, received a starred review in Kirkus, a pointed review in Booklist, was named a Booklist Editor’s Choice and was short-listed for the Texas Bluebonnet, Charlotte, and Children’s Crown awards.

Ellen currently lives in Santa Barbara, California, with her family and enjoys hiking, beach combing, reading, playing Renaissance music with a local music group, and doing volunteer work in the community.  To learn more, visit  Ellen's

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Passion for Picture Books

Today, I celebrated.  PiBoldMo 2011 came to a close.  It was the end of a month long challenge to come up with 30 new ideas for a picture book.  In October, a critique group member brought PiBoldMo to my attention.  I signed on.  I love a good challenge.  You can never have to many good ideas for a picture book.

What did I get from this adventure?  I arrived at the end with 33 new ideas.  How exciting is that?  Well, for a person who is passionate about picture books, it's as exciting as a nursery full of new born babies who will blossom into unique human beings with the potential to change the world.

In addition,  I have acquired a ton of inspiration from authors and illustrators, and publishing folks.  If inspiration had caloric content, I would seriously would not need to eat for a long time.

 I made new friends.  Friends who are as passionate about picture books as I am.  Children's writers and illustrators are a force of passion and caring and creativity that is unsurpassed from any group I have been a part of.  And, they love to share the wealth of knowledge, inspiration, and passion. They love the art of a good picture book, and they love kids.  Most of them are kids!

To continue this passion, I have invited my critique group who only focuses on picture book manuscripts to  participate on my blog sharing their passion for picture books on my future posts.  Then, I will offer the spot light to other PiBoldMo 2011 winners.

 I would like to close with sharing my appreciation for Tara Lazar and her changing the world with her challenge. PiBoldMo  Thank YOU, Tara!

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Self-Editing, the Andy Way * Part Five * The Final Cut


     I really appreciate the comments and connections with other writers as I have worked on this series.  What becomes clear to me is that Andy shared a great deal of wisdom at Chautauqua which has continued to inspire other writers to try something new in their editing process.  It certainly has helped me.  I am very grateful for Andy and his support and to be able to share this with you.

     I have three more editing tips that I have found very helpful.  The first is to go through your manuscript and rate you paragraphs.  A number 1 means this feels good. A number 2 means not bad. And a number 3 means this has problems.  Looking at the numbers helps to clarify problem areas and make your writing more concise.

    The second process is to lay out all your pages and look at the pacing.  When I do this with one of my manuscripts, I look at the physical form of the story.  Being a visual artist, I can pick out flaws easier by doing this.

    Then, the third editing process is to put a slash mark after each sentence to see how the length of your sentence structure is. You do not want it to be choppy or even, including in a picture book text.  This really helps me to look at if I am using variety in my sentence structure.

    Finally, it all comes down to the simple goals you need to have to make your writing a great piece.

  • clarity & reader understanding
  • concise 
  • flow or smoothness
  • vivid, said with style and voice
     Thanks for following these Highlights Chautauqua Tidbits.  I will see you at the end of October.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Self-Editing, the Andy Way * Part Four

 Now that you are done with the 101 questions a writer needs to ask themselves when editing, we are  ready for the another pass.  This time let's look at our dialogue.

    Well written, dialogue moves the story a long and reveals the character.  I had the pleasure of working with Mitali Perkins in a workshop on dialogue so this blog has a little bit of Andy and a little bit of Mitali expertise. You get two experts through my filter.

     When you edit dialogue, always read it a loud and have someone else read it.  Then try reading only one character at a time.  Ask yourself if you can make sense out of the one sided dialogue?    Another way to see if you have strong dialogue is to get rid of the tags and read it through.  How does it sound?  Dialogue should always be natural sounding.

     Dialogue busters have to do with words, pacing, dialects, and not needed information that bust a great dialogue and ruin your story.

  • Annoying dialogue tags.  Try reading with and without.  The best dialogue does not focus on said.  It may be written but it feels invisible.
  • Abounding adverbs do not trust the reader.  Get rid of them.
  • Badly placed beats.  Beats speed up the pace or slow it down so get it right.
  • Random reactions that do not belong.
  • Pesky pauses that may take the reader out of the moment.
  • Disturbing dialect.  Write to be real and only as if your character has 20 seconds to answer.
  • Irritating information.  Dialogue is meant to be overheard by the reader so leave only the important information.
     Remember dialogue adds to the mood.  It can give the scene a different perspective. It has to be well paced and natural sounding.

    Next week is my final blog on editing.  I will wrap up with a few final ways to get out of your patterns and look at your work.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Self-Editing, the Andy Way * Part Three

As we continue with the self-editing process, Andy suggests that you go into your document, save it as a copy and change the font.  I did this, and it worked great. 

Choose a font you are not use to typing in or reading. Print it off and read it through, again.  

Same story, different font is like the same image with a different style or look. It changes the way we see something and allows us to look at it differently.  Sometimes it shows us the major flaws. Lets look at this past weeks Harvest Moon to illuminate this point.

It is time to ask some serious questions.  They are not in a specific order. Feel free to rearrange them. Remember, editing is the craft part of writing and you have to question everything, or not.  Someone will ask the questions. Who do you prefer asking the hard questions?

   Are your ideas clear and logical?

   Does the story make sense?
   Are all scenes required?
   Is the sequence still logical?
 Are there gaps that need to be filled?
   Are there unneeded or repetitive scenes that fail to advance the plot?
Are there unneeded or repetitive scenes that fail to develop the character?
   Are your character’s motives and actions clear?

   Do all actions provide insight into the character?
               Have you given the necessary background?
                 Is your character or their actions repetitive with another character?
                   Is the writing suitable for the audience/reader?

           Is the main theme expressed well?
                Is it lively and interesting?
                  Is there too much showing before a critical moment? 

I think that will keep you busy for a bit.  Check back for part four of my five part series.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Self-Editing, the Andy Way * Part Two

     In the editing process, this step is sometimes one of the hardest parts.  Just like my fisherman, you have to be patient and let the story sit or lay.  Put the story away.  Tuck it into a drawer and forget about it for a while.  How long?  Now that is a personal question. If you have a hard time doing this then go fishing or sit on your hands, write another story, or take a nap in the sun.

     Have you pulled  something you wrote out several years later and wonder who wrote this?  I cringe when I look at some things that have sat for a long time.  When you take a break from your work, your head and heart get out of your way.  You are not as attached to your work and are more able to see where there may be issues.  


     When your ready to pull out a piece and start the editing process, print out a hard copy and make sure it is double or triple spaced.  Read the whole thing through once without actually doing anything.  Sorry, you are not done yet.

     Next, it is important to look and see if you actually have a beginning, a middle, and an end.  Simple as it sounds, starting the real story too late will loose your reader.  Ask your self some questions about your three parts and make some notes off to the side.

    Grammar comes next.  Correct your grammatical errors.  It does not hurt to have someone else read just for grammar.  This is where my critique group, Pens & Brushes gets an A++.  They see blatant errors that I have missed multiple times.  

    My last suggestion in this post is to take adjectives and adverbs that the story does not need.  We storytellers love to embellish and often we bore and do not allow our readers much room to participate in our stories.  We dumb the reader down.  Let's give them a break and trust they understand.  

    I bet you knew all this.  It is nothing new to most of us. How often do you skip through or over parts of your editing process?  This is where I believe having a systematic approach like Andy does is helpful.

     Tune in next week for some serious questions to ask yourself about your writing.


Friday, September 2, 2011

Self-Editing, the Andy Way

     Taking time to review and revise all those words, sentences, and paragraphs as an author is either a part of the writing process that is enjoyable or not, mostly it falls in somewhere in between.  For myself, I have had to learn not mixing the creative writing process up with my editing process. 

     At Highlights Chautauqua 2011, writer and editor, Andy Gutelle gave a wonderful talk on self-editing that really helped me to take my writing to the next level.  My next several blogs will be dedicated to what I am calling Self-Editing, the Andy Way.  What I am sharing is coming from 4 pages of notes that I took so the information is more about what I heard than necessarily what Andy said.

     Editing is a personal process.  Everyone has they’re own way or style, likes and dislikes.  What works for one writer does not always work for someone else.  I found it helpful to add some of what I learned to what I already do to create a system that works for me.

     Editing should not begin until you are done writing.  This is a hard one for me because I like to change words as soon as another one pops in my head that I like.  I think this is really part of my creative process as a very random thinker.  Words and ideas pop into my head from what seems like nowhere.  For others, this could be editing or changing things that are part of the creative process.  Which way is it for you?  I think it is good to know if you are creating or getting in your own way.

     Writing is creative, subjective, personal, sub-conscious art that involves no questioning about what is getting put down.  Editing is the objective, non-personal, conscious craft that involves questioning everything. 

     So why don’t you join me as I start my next picture book and write, write, write.  At the end of next week, tune in and see the first steps in Self-Editing, the Andy Way.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Final Thoughts on Highlights Chautauqua 2011

Chautauqua Daybreak

      It’s hard to believe it has taken me this long to get back to sharing about my time at Highlights Chautauqua 2011.  There were so many “ah ha” moments in the lectures I attended, breakout workshops, the 1:1 mentoring, and talking with other conferees and faculty informally which happened frequently.

       The things that I learned or lifted to a new level were all very personal to my writing and illustration, and my beliefs about publishing.  Daily walking of the streets where other authors and notable writers, artists, musicians, and thespians had walked before me infused a deepened passion and commitment to my creativity.  As I walked away from Chautauqua, clarity about why I write and illustrate for children had been significantly heightened and the bar elevated higher. 

       So how did this all occur seven days?  First, there was magic.  It runs thick at Chautauqua where creativity, knowledge, and wisdom abound in the souls living there or passing through or teaching, or including those who have been Chautauquans in the past.  It is infused in the energy of the grounds and inhabitants.  You cannot escape it.  Kim Griswell referred to Chautauqua as a cauldron in her closing speech.  She captured the essence of the transformation we went through during the week with such eloquence.  We truly were boiled in a pot with the precise ingredients simmering in our blood to generate success.
Another Chautauqua Sunrise
     Second, there was inspiration.  Each faculty members’ story sprang from their writing careers. Every story was unique as the individual standing before us. What voices these authors came across with as they shared their authentic authority.   What was not unique was the passion, commitment, intelligence, risk-taking, and “going to the well” or writing from the heart that were common threads. Pure inspiration. Joy Cowley continued to remind us “all writers begin at the same place” and our job was to walk away from the week being our own best editors, knowing our voice.  She went on to later say that writing for children is like a prayer without the religion.  It’s spiritual.   Joy ended here informal talk with a blessing.  “May the fire of divine creation consume you and make you its’ co-creator.”
Joy Cowley
       Third there was the abundance of giving.  The willingness coupled with the openness of the faculty, the staff, and the conferees to be of service in any way asked for or needed was beyond words.  Thank you and your welcome were said multiple times an hour.  It was not hard to say thank you but for me, it seemed an insufficient phrase for the level of genuine caring, knowledge, wisdom, and service that was freely given.  It felt like when I was a child and someone picked me up and placed me on their shoulders to see a parade or fireworks. The abundance of giving lifted us up and the parade and fireworks were stantastic.  (Stantastic is my synonym for fantastic.  Having a moment that is like my dog enjoys life is stantastic. It does not get any better.)

Diane &  Her Stantastic Mentor, Candy Fleming
The Serenading Brown Brothers; Kent, Gary, & David       
        Magic, inspiration, and giving or being of service were the three top things that made my week at Chautauqua stantastic and unforgettable. There are no excuses for not “stepping up” and taking my writing and illustrating to the next level.  If you ever get accepted/invited to attend, you won't be disappointed, just be ready. 

New Neighbors & Friends, Alison, Leslie, & Diane

New Friends, Leigh & Regina
Diane & Roommate, Katherine

Friday, July 22, 2011



       My dear father-in-law said, " you won't have time to blog." I am eating my words after missing 2 days. 

     Actually, I am only claiming one day of lost time as my fault from being busy and tired and busy, some more.  Yesterday, it was the blackout that occurred in the middle of the afternoon that disrupted Julie Ham from Charlesbridge.  She did not miss a beat. 
 The Brown Brothers sang their ballad and the auction went on despite no air conditioning or fans.  I tried, and the blackout disrupted my blog.  Sleepless in Chautauqua was an experience this author does not ever want to experience again.  With the humidity, the temperature was noted to be 104 yesterday. We woke to the fan coming back on and the fire alarm going off.  I was dreaming I was in hell. 

        I am about to embark for the closing banquet.  I am not sure if I can fit any more food in my belly or information from such incredibly creative humans, in my head.  I have so much to share with you but it will have to wait so that I can do it properly from my studio, next week.  Thanks for your patience.


Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Highlights Chautauqua Day 4

     Sorry for the short post.  It was a full day with a critique that has me working on a revision at 10:30pm, and  I have a 5:30 am wake up call for a naturalist journaling activity. 

     In the mean time, enjoy this link and visit the Roger Tory Peterson Museum where we went on a field trip to and ate dinner this evening.  It was another simply amazing time! 


Highlights Chautauqua Day 3

Day 3, Monday

        Our morning started out with a fantastic talk by Peter Jacobi who led us down the yellow brick road to OZ where we were encouraged to find our brain to think and create, our heart to follow, our courage to keep on plugging along, and our spirit to dream. Peter spun his lifetime of wisdom, humor, and compassion into a magical and inspirational talk which received a standing ovation.

         Next, I unexpectedly found myself in front to the amphitheater where the Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts gave a speech to all of Chautauqua. He was interrupted by a Flash Mob from the Chautauqua Opera Company which sang a variety of opera and songs starting with Mr. Chairman’s own Toni winning play. I could not resist and stayed for the whole speech which also got a standing ovation for the Flash Mob and the lecture. As a Commissioner for Arts and Culture for GJ, I walked away satisfied that we are moving in the right direction as a community expanding the arts and arts education on the West Slope of Colorado.

       My afternoon was filled with lunch with the sr. art director from Highlights, Robin Gourley and three workshops ranging from learning more about dialogue from Mitali Perkins, editing from Andy Gutelle, and nonfiction writing from Sneed Collard.

         Tonight, after sharing a dinner table with Andy Boyles, science editor for Highlights and Boyd Mills Press and Julie Agnone, vp of National Geographic for Kids, I am awe struck as I try and reflect back. Each and every one of these encounters left me with inspiration, knowledge, and hope from examining myself and my creativity as well as looking at the world we live in and create for children.

            Hot, tired, and satisfied for the night, I wonder what nighttime dreams I will have as I integrate this marvelous day down the yellow brick road.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Highlights Chautauqua Day 2

            Day 2 was a continuation of getting accuainted with fellow conferees, faculty, and the Chautauqua grounds.  What seemed to transpire very quickly was a building of community.  Everyone is friendly, helpful, welcoming, and encouraging. 

       I had breakfast sitting next to Andy Boyles, science editor.  After breakfast, we were given an over view of Highlights Magazine by the editors.  What continued to come up was the original vision and mission of the publishing company is what continues to drive what gets published, no exceptions.

     After lunch we boarded a bus for Director, Ken Browns' brothers' family home in Westfield for a BBQ.  We were given a surprise speech by award winning,  author Joy Cowly who inspired us by reminding us that all authors start out at the same place.  She went on to say that writing for children is like a prayer with out the religion.  It's spiritual.  In her closure, she said may the fire of the divine creation consume you and make you its' co-creator. It gave a few of us that were sitting together goose bumps.

        At the meal, Patti Gauch, former editor and VP for Philomil sat across from me and talked candidly with us about what we needed to get from this conference. She talked about critiquing Eric Carle's manuscript and him telling her that he would rather sink of his own steam than that of an editors.  Patti said to be our own boss of our own business when we leave.  She also made it clear to find and hold on to your own unique voice.

Today was about building community.  The community is now ready to move forward into the learning, honing, and making the next steps. 

Highlights Chautauqua 2011, Day 2 Wee Hours of the Morning


Saturday, July 16, 2011

Highlights Chautauqua 2011 Day 1

     You know your in New York when you see Lake Erie, the miles to Buffalo are decreasing, and you see billboards for the welcome center for Niagra Falls.  It was about this time that I let go of my traveling thoughts and began to think what an incredible gift I had been given in having this opportunity.  The lady who gave me my ticket at the entry to the NY Thruway wished me an amazing weekend.  Do you think she knew what I was getting into?

     This is my home for the next week. I am staying on the top floor in a small corner room with my writer roommate from Texas, Katherine. We are lucky to have 2 windows and a ceiling fan. I can get a wireless connection from the balcony which I think I will spend a lot of time on when it is not in sun. The good news about being on the top floor is lots and lots of stairs and rationalization about burning off calories with all the stairs and walking everywhere for the week.
The Ashland Inn

When I arrived, I was given a bag with many books in it. It was like Christmas or a birthday pulling them out one by one and looking at who the author was and what it meant for me to receive these books. I’ll be sure to let you know if I find out.

     Tonight at our opening banquet, Kathryn Erskine gave the keynote talk. Kathryn won the 2010 National Book Award, Young People’s Literature for her novel Mockingbird. Kathryn spoke about her 2004 Chautauqua experience. Here is her top 10 magic list that makes Chautauqua a very special experience.

• The Cooking

• Chautauqua the Place

• Creative Outlets (many)

• The Classes

• The Critiques

• The Confidence

• The Community

• Charging up

• Clarity

• Career Changing

Kathyrn Erskine

     In her closing statement, she reminded us that we were chosen to come because of our talents and that everyone in that room knew that and was rooting for us and wanted us to reach our goals. 
     I walked home to the Ashland listening to the Opera going on 3 blocks from my room thinking that this truely is going to be an amazing weekend and week, just like the ticket booth employee said.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Highlights Chautauqua 2011

Welcome to my 2011 Highlights Chautauqua blog. 

 I am very excited to have this incredible experience right around the corner. 

Highlights Chautauqua 2011 starts July 16th and closes on July 23rd.
Check back to see my postings daily! 

What will I be posting about?  Why writing and illustrating for children, of course and a whole lot more.  

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Everything Canine, Inspiration & Advice For Writers & Artists From The Labs


It's time for a summer vacation. Get away.  Get out. Vacation means vacate  your routine, mind, and location.  If you cannot leave town, change up your routine and how you think about things and your work.  Even the dogs enjoy a little time off.

snoozing with a friend

enjoying mountain meadows

romping in the meadow

waterplay on the lake

sand play on the shoreline

All work and no play leads to a dull life.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Everything Canine, Inspiration & Advice For Writers & Artists From The Labs

Creativity takes energy.  As a wise old woman once told me, you cannot burn the candle at both ends.  Rest and restful sleep allows us to be ready for what comes next.  

I am taking my role model dog to heart as the school year ends.