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Thursday, June 21, 2012


     Facebook is an amazing tool when you make so many connections with other writers and illustrators who share the same passion.  I can't remember who contacted the other first as Lee Wardlaw's newest book is appearing simultaneously on my "other" blog, Book Wisdom By Diane.   Years ago, I first learned about Lee as a one of the " Fairy God-Sisters" that help a newer writer who wants to attend the summer SCBWI conference.  This week, it is my honor to support and share award winning author, Lee Wardlaw on 

Lee, welcome and please tell us what pulled you down the rabbit hole of writing picture books ?

     The short answer?  Naiveté!  I assumed that because picture books were short, they’d be easy to write. (Insert hysterical laughter here.)  Little did I know that good writing means making it look easy…
The long answer:  In the late 1970’s, when I’d first earned my B.A. in Education and my teaching credential, jobs at the elementary level were rare.  So I ended up working for two years as the director/head teacher of a pre-school .  The school didn’t have much money, so to supplement our meager library I wrote stories to share with the children. They were awful!  (The stories, not the children!) Everything you could possibly do wrong in creating a picture book, I unknowingly did with gusto.
One of the first picture book manuscripts I wrote was called The Smallest Square.  It told the tale of five squares that live one inside of the other.  The baby square yearns to be free of his claustrophobic existence, so he changes himself into different shapes in order to escape:  first a circle to roll himself out (which doesn’t work)…next a rectangle to muscle his way out (ditto)…and, finally, a triangle, breaking free at last with his new pointy head. Then he turns into a circle again and rolls off to see the world.
Riveting, right?  J  The story was derivative of Shel Silverstein’s The Missing Piece – but without his wisdom, wit, talent, voice and clever illustrations. I got so many form rejection letters on that manuscript (and many others like it), that I gave up on picture books and started writing stuff for older readers.  I published eight other books (YA novels, non-fiction and first chapter books) before I got up the nerve to try my hand again at picture books.

When you are writing a pb manuscript, what area of the story do you get the most satisfaction in developing and exploring? 

     Mem Fox, the award-winning, Australian children’s book author, once said that writing a picture book is like writing War and Peace – in haiku.  
True!  A good picture book contains all the same elements as a novel for adults, such as:
     -an opening that grabs and pulls in the reader;
     -three-dimensional characters whom you care about and root for;
-a vital conflict that has serious consequences if not resolved by the main characters;  
-a logical plot line;
-suspenseful pace;
-a fresh, unique voice;
-sparkling dialogue;
-rhythmic, expressive, evocative  language;
-and a satisfying conclusion.  
The main difference between these two forms of literature is that a picture book story must be told in a way that is appropriate for the physical, psychological and emotional development of the child. Tricky!
I enjoy that challenge. So although it’s always a treat to create characters I’d like to meet in real life, to express their authentic voices, to give them the opportunity to solve their own conflicts, etc., etc., what I find most satisfying about writing picture books is the distillation process:  taking a big story and honing it to its essence.

Lee is there any part of writing a picture book that you find frustrating or difficult to develop?

     Thinking visually.  A picture book needs to have a minimum of 13 different illustratable scenes.  I tend to be better at creating dialogue than action, and dialogue is difficult for an artist to illustrate.  So I spend a lot of time revising my manuscripts to create more action.

If you could choose one pb 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?  
     I love funny, quirky picture books with heart, such as Officer Buckle and Gloria, (Peggy Rathmann); Martha Speaks (Susan Meddaugh); Benjamin and Tulip (Rosemary Wells); Bootsie Barker Bites (Barbara Bottner); Zelda and Ivy (Laura McGee Kvasnosky).  The master of this genre was the author/illustrator James Marshall (who also wrote as Edward Marshall).  His simple line drawings – in books such as George and Martha, The Stupids, Fox Outfoxed, etc. – could bring me to my knees with spasms of silliness and giggles.  As for what I would want from him?  Just to sit quietly in a corner and watch him work…

Lee, I have one last question.  Do you have a favorite picture book you never tire of?

     OH, my. There are so many of them!  So I'll pick the one that springs to mind first:  Officer Buckle and Gloria written/illustrated by Peggy Rathmann.
The story is hilarious, the pictures (and the story THEY tell) are even more so.  Too, there are many tidbits in each picture, that you discover new things
each time you read it.  A picture book has to be able to stand up to a minimum of 500 readings aloud, and this is one I never, ever tire of!

     Lee, thank you for taking time to participate in two blogs timed near a book launch and a vacation.  I look forward to seeing your published list continue to grow & grow.

Won Ton by Lee Wardlaw

      Lee Wardlaw’s first spoken word was ‘kitty’. Since then, she’s shared her home with more than two-dozen cats (not all at the same time!) and written more than two-dozen, award-winning books for young readers, including Won Ton – A Cat Tale Told in Haiku (Holt; illustrated by Eugene Yelchin), winner of the 2012 Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award and many other honors.

     Lee has a B.A. in education, and taught school for five years before deciding to write full-time. She recently received her AMI Primary Diploma from the Montessori Institute of San Diego, and will earn her M.Ed. from Loyola University, Maryland, in 2013. She still enjoys teaching, and presents a variety of lively programs each year for students, educators, librarians, parents and writers at schools, workshops, and conferences.
Red, White, and Boom! by Lee Wardlaw
Lee’s books have been honored by the American Library Association, the International Reading Association, the National Council of Teachers of English, the International School Librarians Association, and more. She is an active member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators, the Authors Guild, the California Reading Association and, yes, even the Cat Writers’ Association!
     Lee lives in Santa Barbara, CA with her husband, teenaged son, and three former shelter cats. Her newest book Red, White and Boom! (Holt; illustrated by Huy Voun Lee), celebrates the many cultures and traditions that make America’s birthday BOOM!

For more info about Lee and her books, visit:

Monday, June 11, 2012

PASSION FOR PICTURE BOOKS, Alison Pearce Stevens, Interview


Last summer, I met Alison.  Our bonding took place in a hot, steamy, narrow fourth floor hallway.   The turn of the century, Ashland Inn served as home for a week during the last Highlight's Foundation's "famous" Chautauqua Children's Writers and Illustrators Workshop.  When we were not plotting to get another cold shower from a tiny shared bathroom in 100 degree heat with no air conditioning, we were spending time soaking up all the incredible science and non-fiction workshops we could squeeze in.

    Alison loves science and writing about it.  Her thirst for the answer to the question "Why?" is not quenchable.  Scientist turned children's writer, Alison's passion for nature and answers to questions lifts her up and out of the herd of children's non-fiction, science writers. Bright and spunky, Alison keeps up with her boys and husband while juggling her multiple writing projects.

    It is my pleasure to interview, Alison Pearce Stevens on my Passion for Picture Books blog today.

Alison, what drew you into writing picture books?

Like many people, I had kids and spent an extraordinary amount of time reading picture books. I fell in love with the way the illustrations complemented the text to create a fully-developed, well-rounded story. As my kids got older, we started reading more non-fiction, including picture books. I became a huge fan of Nicola Davies’ work, which is lyrical yet factual, and always beautifully illustrated by talented artists. (Perhaps I should say well illustrated, since the art for POOP: A NATURAL HISTORY OF THE UNMENTIONABLE isn’t exactly beautiful, but it is both apropros and highly entertaining.)

When you are writing a pb manuscript, what area of the story do you get the most satisfaction in developing and exploring?

Because my stories are non-fiction (science and nature), it’s a different kind of beast. The setting and character actually exist, so I don’t get to play around with those (but I love working on those aspects of my critique partners’ work). For me, it’s a matter of taking a critter and telling the story of its life (or some part of its life) in a dynamic, interesting way. It requires just as much story arc, conflict, and tension as fiction, and getting those things just right takes time and patience. But to answer your question, it’s immensely satisfying when I know I’ve finally figured them out.

Is there an area of the non fiction story that you find difficult to develop?

The story arc. For some topics I’ve tried to write about, I just haven’t been able to find a good story for the subject.

Alison, if you could choose one pb author or  author/illustrator to spend a day with, who would that be and what would you want t from your time with them? 

Hmm, this is tough, because I love Nicola Davies’ gorgeous prose, and I would love to meet her, but in terms of meeting someone who can help me hone my craft, I would have to say Joanna Cole and Bruce Degen, author and illustrator of the Magic School Bus series. THE MAGIC SCHOOL BUS   When I read their books, I am continually impressed with how they can be broken down into a stand-alone central narrative (which always has a great story arc, complete with heightened tension at the climax), the additional narrative from the speech bubbles that can be interwoven into the central narrative (or not, depending on how much time we have to read), and the additional information that packs the margins. It’s like getting three books in one! When I write, I try to figure out how I can make my side bars and back matter build upon the central story the way Joanna Cole and Bruce Degen do. But I think it would take a series of mentor-like meetings for me to reach a point at which I could readily apply what I’d learned from them to my own work. (So if either of them happen to read this and are interested in a mentee, let me know!) ;)

Alison, do you have an all time favorite pb to read over and over again?

That's a tough question! Certainly THE LORAX had a huge influence on me, and I love reading it to my kids. I also love reading Julia Donaldson's books aloud, ROOM ON THE BROOM, MONKEY PUZZLE (which might have a different title in the U.S.), and TIDDLER are some of our favorites. Her stories flow off the tongue and are just such fun to read, and we adore Axel Scheffler's illustrations.

Alison, it has been very interesting for me to interview a non-fiction pb writer and to witness the excitement about the writing process as well as the difficulties.  Thanks for taking time out of your busy schedule to share with me and my readers.

Alison Pearce Stevens is a former beekeeper and duck-wrangler who grew tired of writing scientific papers in her role as a biologist/zoologist/ecologist. She wanted to write something fun; something with lyrical prose and lots of voice, and children’s writing was a perfect fit. She writes to share the utterly fascinating things she learned as a scientist with curious minds everywhere. You can learn more about Alison and her work on her web site.