Archive for the ‘Children’s Books’ Category

Homecoming weekend

March 22, 2017

Maybe you can’t go home again. But sometimes, if you’re extraordinarily lucky, you get to stop by for a gratifying visit. That’s how lucky I was last weekend, when I returned to Vermont to celebrate the publication of my first book in twelve years – titled, appropriately enough, Are We Still Friends?

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Just a fraction of the crowd at The Flying Pig

During the two decades my family lived in Burlington, we laid down a wide network of deep roots. Between neighbors, school and library connections, local politics, synagogue, kid-lit circles, David’s work at UVM and mine at Seven Days newspaper, we got attached to an awful lot of people. When we moved to Rhode Island 10 years ago, an awful lot of those friends stayed in Vermont. And thanks to the magic of the interwebs, we’ve been able to keep in touch.

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With Chris Tebbets and Joe Nusbaum, one half of my online critique group…in the flesh!

When my son’s preschool sweetheart had a baby, I saw the pictures. When writers I’d edited and mentored wrote great articles and published books, I kvelled. I followed friends’ and allies political and professional careers, commiserated over deaths, watched kids grow up, go away to school and start careers….and through it all, kept our Vermont peeps up to date about our milestones. Needless to say, when the baby I’d held as a newborn got ready to became a bat mitzvah just a few weeks after my book was to be released, I jumped at the chance to share both events with my old friends.

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With Elizabeth Bluemle children’s author and bookseller extraordinaire

The bat mitzvah was on Saturday, so I arranged to do a book launch at Flying Pig Bookstore in Shelburne on Sunday. I posted the event on Facebook and Twitter, and wrote about it on my children’s writer website. I made up special postcards and sent them to 100 people, including personalized notes; if I knew the name of someone’s grandchild, I used it. In some cases, I followed up with emails.

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It felt a little bit like my old days in politics — trying to accurately ID likely voters and then make sure they vote. And it was almost as nerve-wracking. What if they held an election, I mean, a book-signing, and nobody came? I lost some sleep and suffered through some stomach cramps. But that turned out to be all I suffered. The folks at Flying Pig were as welcoming and well-organized as any bookstore people I’ve ever worked with. More importantly, though, my friends came through. Like crazy.

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With my wonderful friend Trish Hanson, the entomologist behind Breakout at the Bug Lab

They just kept pouring in through the door, each with a huge grin and a big hug. It was actually sort of overwhelming. But in the very best possible way. I am stunned and thrilled and oh, so very grateful to everyone who came – and to those who couldn’t make it, but wanted to. (We would have found a way to squeeze you into that room, but we wouldn’t have had enough books.)

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Thank you all for still being my friends! I sure hope you like the book!

 

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Whose book is it, anyway?

November 13, 2015

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Abel and Beatrice are best friends and neighbors. Abel grows apples. Beatrice raises bees. They get along perfectly – until a sting and a misunderstanding escalate into a feud.

That’s the premise of my picture book, BEES IN THE TREES, which Scholastic Press has scheduled for release in Spring 2017, with illustrations by the wonderful Blanca Gomez.

When I first conceived of the story, more than 20 years ago, I sketched cartoons of my characters. Abel was as roly-poly as an apple, with my dad’s male-pattern baldness and glasses, and an unlikely bow tie. Beatrice was brittle, with pointy features and a penchant for wearing stripes.

My words don’t mention either Abel or Beatrice’s appearance. The way they look doesn’t figure in the story, and in a picture book, you can’t spare any unnecessary words. But those early sketches stuck in my mind. Through draft after draft, revision after revision and decade after decade, as I have been waiting for an artist to give my characters life, I have pictured roly-poly Abel and brittle Beatrice.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I recently saw Blanca Gomez’s first sketches for the book, and discovered that all this time I’ve picturing Abel and Beatrice wrong. He is actually a skittery mouse, and she is a roly-poly bear.

But wait! Some of you may be thinking. Can she do that? Isn’t it your story? If you had wanted them to be a mouse and a bear, wouldn’t you have said so? And shouldn’t she have at least asked your permission?

To which I say, yes, maybe, and no.

I started the story with my words, but it won’t be complete until her pictures are. And the finished book will be a marriage of my words and her pictures that will belong to her as much as it belongs to me. That’s the contract a picture book writer makes in her mind when she sets down her first sentence – if an artist will agree to turn my words into pictures, I will give her a half share in the story’s creation.

This process of sharing begins when the picture book writer decides which details to spell out, and which to leave for the illustrator to fill in. My mental picture of Abel and Beatrice had nothing to do with the story. So I saved my words for the essentials.

The sharing process continues when an editor gets involved. My original manuscript included several sentences listing various pieces of junk. Tracy Mack, my editor at Scholastic, suggested leaving those out, to give the artist freer reign. The advice made sense to me. I didn’t want to hamstring the artist. And at that point in the story would have a stronger impact if it had fewer words, and gave the reader time to quietly study the details in the picture and maybe list them aloud herself.

As Blanca’s art takes further shape, the sharing process will move into yet another phase. I’ll undoubtedly discover more truths about my story, and Tracy is likely to make more editorial suggestions to make a more perfect union between the pictures and the words.

And the sharing process won’t end there. Once BEES IN THE TREES has become a real book and readers get their hands on it, they will also share in the story’s creation. Each time a parent reads Abel’s dialogue in a special funny voice and Beatrice’s in another – each time a child searches out a certain detail on a certain page – each time the book makes someone think about apples and bees and friends and feuds – the story will become theirs as well.

And that’s the whole point of writing a picture book.

We Need Diverse Books Because…

May 3, 2014

There’s a campaign happening online to push for more diversity in children’s books.  Children’s authors and illustrators and editors and librarians and so on are posting  pictures of themselves holding up signs that say, “We need diverse books because [fill in the blank.]”

It’s an issue I believe in, and one I think about a lot when I write. But I missed the memo about the campaign. I guess I’m not in the right social media circles. Also, I don’t do Tumblr. And anyway, I’m not much for taking selfies.

But then I was browsing through the children’s department at my local public library today, and I came across Big Snow, by Jonathan Bean.

Big Snow is about David, who can’t wait for it to snow. His mother tries to distract him with one indoor activity after another. But everything David does reminds him of snow, and he can’t stop checking the weather until the storm he’s been waiting for finally arrives. The story is lively, warm, and universal. The text is perfectly structured, with illustrations that alternate between cozy indoor scenes and zoomed-out double spreads that show the progressive  tableaux of David’s neighborhood as the day darkens and the snow falls, accumulates, and drifts.

The pictures are packed full of fun details to discover, from the bird feeder blowing in the wind and the snow-plow clearing the road to the darkening sky and the rising snow drifts. But what I’m interested here are two details that have nothing to do with meteorology.

The first, and much more obvious, detail is the color David and his parents’ skin – medium brown. (Their hair is black and curly.)

The second detail I didn’t even notice until I’d gone through the book a couple of times. It’s the menorah in David’s next-door neighbors’ window.  (It remains unlit until the final spread, when keen-eyed readers will learn that it’s the fifth night of Hanukkah. And there’s a Christmas tree inside David’s house, by the way.)

But wait. This is a book about snow, not religion or race. Why throw in those extraneous details?  Because not every kid is white and not every kid is Christian (or non-disabled, or growing up in a household headed two biological, heterosexual parents).

We need diverse books because kids who don’t fit the dominant demographic need to see characters like themselves. And because kids who do fit the dominant demographic to see characters unlike themselves.

It’s important to have books that explicitly address famous African-Americans, say, or Jewish holidays, or other topics that specifically focus on experiences that makes different kinds of people different. But it’s also important to have books that show people who don’t fit the dominant demographic living ordinary, everyday lives. Because guess what? Jews and blacks and people who use wheelchairs or are adopted or have two dads spend most of their time living ordinary, everyday lives.  And kids need books that show just how every-day and ordinary that is.

Picture This

February 11, 2014

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When I tell people that I write picture books, the conversation often goes something like this.

— Do you do the pictures, too?

— Nope. Just the words.

— Huh. Well, do you get to decide who does them?

— No. That’s up to the editor.

— Really! But doesn’t it bother you to give up control like that? What if they’re not like what you had in mind?

— With any luck, they’ll be better.

Okay. I never have actually said that last line. But now that I’ve thought of it, maybe I will.

Because here’s the thing. I like looking at art, and when I write a picture book, I absolutely see pictures in my head. I see color and mood and composition. Does it fill just one page, or spill across a whole spread? Is what’s happening sufficiently different from what happened on the last page, and what will happen on the page that comes next?

I know that someone else will produce the art that accompanies my words. But if I didn’t imagine pictures to go with them, I couldn’t write a successful picture book.

Without some idea of the images’ color and mood, I couldn’t calibrate the tone of my language – is it funny? Quiet? Suspenseful? Factual?  Fantastic?

If I didn’t imagine some sort of composition, I couldn’t keep track of point of view – who’s telling the story? What does the narrator know? What does the reader know (through the picture) that the narrator doesn’t know, or doesn’t tell? Which details do I need to include, and which will the pictures convey?

Knowing whether a picture will fit on one page or spill across two is crucial for pacing. Should the story slow down here, or speed up? Should the page-by-page tempo be steady, or varied?

Finally, if I don’t have some idea of what each picture will show, I risk writing a story that doesn’t leave room for enough visual variety to hold the reader’s interest.

Back in when I was starting out, I used to make dummies of the picture books I was writing. I would take eight sheets of typing paper, fold them in half, and nest one inside the other to make a miniature book. I would write the title on the “cover,” paste the words onto their proper pages, and draw the pictures I imagined accompanying them.

It was a fun project. But it didn’t take me long to realize that for my purposes, a flat, comic-style storyboard worked as well as a 3D model of the book, and that the pictures I managed to produce were a far cry from the ones I imagined.

It’s not just a question of technical execution – although that’s huge. It’s also a matter of insight. Sure I see pictures when I write. But in the end, they’re secondary to the words I hear. Bringing a visual artist into a project means putting my words in the hands of someone whose whole job is to make the imagined visible, and to visualize images I couldn’t have imagined.

Do I envy those talented souls who can do both? You bet.

Do I worry as I wait to find out what the pictures will look like? Of course.  But writing picture books is an act of faith – and an exercise in ceding control. Once an illustrator takes on a project, it becomes as much hers as mine. Her vision carries as much weight as mine. And while her pictures wouldn’t exist without my words, my words could never fly without her pictures.

That’s what I’m thinking about as I await word on who will illustrate my next picture book. It’s exciting and excruciating. And I’ll let you know who it is as soon I know.

Both Sides Now

December 4, 2013

both waysSometimes you feel like a nut; sometimes you don’t.

Sometimes you’re the windshield; sometimes you’re the bug.

Sometimes I’m a children’s book author; sometimes I write for adults. I never set out to be one thing or the other, or to be both things at once. It just happened that way. And it works for me.

Writing picture books satisfies the part of my brain that loves listening to language, enjoys the elegance of concision, and gets off on the marriage of words with images (although I don’t do my own artwork). Writing for grown-ups lets me spend longer on and delve more deeply into a topic, write about issues that kids couldn’t care less about, and use a wider vocabulary (with bigger words as well as ones with four letters.) And switching back and forth between picture books and adult fiction helps me stay energized and interested.

Back when I was writing my second cockroach reader, I was also spinning cynical, sexy stories for Seven Days, and composing the occasional sermon to deliver at my synagogue. I would sit down at my desk and have to ask myself, “Which of my voices am I supposed to be using today?”

My writing life is saner these days. I’ll spend a month or more in one genre before switching to the other. But thanks to social media, my writing persona is much more public than it was in the old century. And with a new picture book under contract – for the first time in more than ten years – I find myself taking stock of how I show myself to the world.

On this blog, I have felt free to talk about everything, from therapeutic bloodletting to prayers without God to my collection of disembodied doll parts and the recipe for perfect latkes. Those themes are fitting for Ruth Horowitz, the former Seven Days writer, who has written a novel for adults that deals with sex and religion and grief. But are they the right topics for a children’s book author? What are the rules here? Are there rules?

And what about the business side of being a writer? I’ve always seen this blog as a place to have a conversation with the world — not as a showcase for my books. But with a new children’s book on the way (and with luck more to come) self-promotion has become part of my job.

What to do?

One thing I’ve done is set up a new website: Ruth Horowitz, Children’s Author. It showcases my kid’s books in a kid-friendly, easy-to-navigate environment. My plan is to continue posting here as I have been, including updates on my life as a children’s book author. But if you just want to kids’ stuff, you can find it at ruthhorowitz.com. And while you’re over there, why not pick up one of my books?

New Picture Book Coming!

November 20, 2013

IMG_20131118_0001_NEWHey! Look what just got announced in Publisher’s Marketplace!

Ruth Horowitz’s BEES IN THE TREES, about an apple grower and a beekeeper, and a misunderstanding that escalates into a feud, to Tracy Mack at Scholastic, by Linda Epstein at the Jennifer DeChiara Literary Agency (World).

I am thrilled that my story has found a home at Scholastic, grateful as all get-out for my wonderful agent and friend Linda Epstein for making it happen, and eager to start working with my editor Tracy Mack, as we polish my words to fit with the pictures. But first Tracy and her team have to find the perfect artist to create those pictures.

Making a picture book takes time. How much time?

I wrote the first version of BEES in 1991. We were living in Vermont. My kids were little, and we’d gone apple picking. I noticed that the orchard also sold honey, and started thinking about how bees need apple trees and apple trees need bees. It seemed like the perfect set-up for a picture book. So I began playing around with the idea, and pretty soon it was about more than just bees and trees. It was also about friendship and fences, fuzzy slippers and funny insults. When it felt just right, I started sending the book out in search of a publisher.

Back then, submitting a picture book manuscript meant mailing a physical object. Even if you had no intention of illustrating the book, yourself, you created a dummy to show how the book might look. That meant literally cutting (with scissors) and pasting (with rubber cement), and going to Kinko’s (because in those days, who had a copier at home?). (The pictures on this post are from that dummy — I got a little carried away.)

My buddy Robert Resnik walked over to Kinko’s with me. On the way, I recited my story to him.

“What will you do if it doesn’t sell?” he asked.

“Oh, it’ll sell.” I said. How could it not? It was so good! And I wasn’t just anyone. I had already published two picture books, Bat Time and Mommy’s Lap.

The next morning I sent BEES out to the first editor. In those days, most children’s book editors would still consider unsolicited manuscripts from writers who didn’t have literary agents. And even if they returned your manuscript, they sometimes included a personal letter telling you why. Over the next 10 years, I sent the story out to and got it back from 26 editors, and accumulated a fat stack of encouraging no-thank-you letters in the process.

At that point, I set the project aside. By now, Crab Moon and Breakout at the Bug Lab had come out, and Big Surprise in the Bug Tank was in the works. But I was starting to get interested in other kinds of writing, for readers who weren’t children. My own kids were nearly grown. I was working for Seven Days newspaper, and had just started on a big, ambitious novel for adults.

Fast-forward another decade, to the summer of 2012. My kids have graduated from college, and my husband David and I have moved from Vermont to Rhode Island.  I have finished my big, ambitious novel and signed with an agent, who is shopping it around. I’m a full-time writer now — no day job — but I’m feeling stuck, creatively. I have all the time and energy I could possibly want to devote to my writing, but I can’t seem to settle into my next project.

Linda and I are chatting one day when she asks, “Why aren’t you writing children’s books anymore?”

“I have filing cabinets full of children’s book manuscripts,” I tell her. (That’s a slight exaggeration – it’s more like folders full. But there are a lot of folders.)

She’s like, “So why don’t you pick out the best ones and show them to me?”IMG_20131118_0002_NEW

And I’m like, “Because they’re picture books, and you don’t represent picture books?”

And she’s all like, “I represent you.”

Thank you, Linda. I go home and start combing through my children’s book manuscripts. I have paper folders full of stories printed out on paper from the days before computers, and digital stories in electronic folders from the days since computers. Some of them are garbage, and some of them are promising, and a few of them are pretty damned good — like the one about bees and trees and friendship and fences and fuzzy slippers and funny insults.

That one is really good. But looking at it now, after leaving it alone for those years and honing my writing skills with all those other projects, I can see how it could be better. By a lot.

So I fuss with it and fix it, and when it feels just right, I send it to Linda – no scissors-and- cement dummy, just my text in a Word document attached to an email. And she does the rest.

If my bee story has a moral, it might be, “It’s dumb to pick fights with your friends.” But if the story of my bee story has a moral, it might be, “Never say never.” Or, “Patience makes perfect.” Or — in the case of me and the world of children’s books — “There’s no place like home.”

Seed Season

September 24, 2012

Seeds are usually associated with spring, and fall with fruit. But autumn is seed season, too.

Yesterday I snipped the spent flowers from the tithonia, aka Mexican Sunflower, the brilliant orange annual we grow beside the garage. It grows to nearly six feet, and is apparently indestructible. Last year, when Hurricane Irene snapped its stems almost in two, our tithonia kept on stubbornly producing its fiery flower heads. We’ve been starting it from plants we buy at our local land trust’s yearly plant sale. But my mother-in-law wants to try it at her home in Colorado, and asked for some seeds.

Maybe I’ll keep some more myself and try it from scratch next year. We’ll see. The point is, I’m thinking about seeds.

Take my new novel, for example. The seed of the idea is still compelling, but the story refuses to grow. I have been vacillating between two desires: to submerge myself in a whole, long book, and to write a series of connected short stories, which would be easier to commit to than another big book.

When I admitted to my agent the other day that the big book wasn’t going, she gently suggested I might want try the short stories, instead. So yesterday, after collecting those tithonia flower heads, I started writing a new short story, taking the seed of my novel idea and trying it out in compressed form. We’ll see.

And then there’s that old picture book idea of mine. The one I’d set aside years ago, and recently retrieved and revised. My agent is now sending it out. And although it hasn’t found a home yet, one of the editors who read it liked my writing enough to invite me to try my hand at a picture book idea she has had in mind for a while.

I started working on it last week, and completed what I would call a serviceable first draft. I went to bed last night thinking I needed a stronger “hook,” an approach to the idea that would be fresh and compelling, something that would deepen the story, make it be about more than just itself. This morning I woke up with four ideas of how to do that. I’m hopeful and excited. But we’ll have to see how it goes.

You never know what’s going to work. At least, I don’t. At the risk of belaboring the metaphor I started with, some seeds never germinate, either because they land in the wrong soil, or they don’t get enough water, or they weren’t any good in the first place. And even when they do grow, you don’t know how they’ll end up. Some flowers are cut at their prime and brought inside to be admired, and some get left to mature and create the seeds of next year’s plants.

While I was outside collecting those tithonia seeds, I spent a while with our tomato plants. I harvested ripe fruit, removed withered leaves, propped up sagging stems, and took stock of what was left of the season. Dozens of tomatoes were still green or just beginning to redden, and a few cherry tomato branches had new flowers.

And then I noticed a fruit I had forgotten all about. It was one of our first black krims. I had waited too long to harvest it, and it had split and rotted on the vine. I had considered removing it, but it was too slimy to touch. So I left it where it was, and before long the growing vines and leaves and other tomatoes had obscured it. But now that the plant had died back, it revealed itself once again.

It was paper white, pleated and creased like crinoline, as wrinkled and puckered as a scrotum. Beautiful in a way I had never imagined a tomato could be.

Here’s to autumn, the season of new beginnings.

Picture (Book) Perfect?

September 2, 2012

So I’m sitting in shul yesterday, listening to the prayers and the chanting of the Torah and so on, and I’m thinking, “What’s a verb that either alliterates or rhymes with pancake flipper?” And I’m also thinking, “If I have to be distracted, how great is it that this is the most pressing question on my mind?”

Once upon a time, I was a writer of books for children. I wrote picture books for children who were too young to read (and the people who read to tem), and easy readers for children who were just learning to translate abstract squiggles into stories (and the people who helped them become literate).

Writing for children wasn’t a conscious decision. It came to me naturally, because my own children were little, and I was reading to them constantly. The cadences of books like Blueberries for Sal and Owl Moon and The Stinky Cheese Man got stuck in my head. And when I imagined an audience, the kids who regularly snuggled in my lap to listen automatically came to mind.

Once I started doing it, I fell in love. I loved that I could read the whole story through at once, hold the whole thing in my head, grasp the rhythm and arc. I find my way into a story primary by sound, so being able to hear the whole story at once, like a song, worked well for me.

Writing well in any format means not wasting words, but this is especially true for picture books. For me, this means millions of revisions. Since I love manipulating minutiae, and generally view writing as creating the opportunity to rewrite, picture books’ stingy word-allotment suited my temperament perfectly.

Plus, it was working. Once I’d sold my first picture book, writing and selling more was easier. Or not. In fact, for every story I started, I abandoned a dozen. And for every five I finished and submitted to publishers, I sold one.

Why? Some of my ideas just weren’t developed, and others just weren’t that good. Also, my writing was getting more and more “quiet” as industry tastes moved the other way. Editors became more cautious. Publishers merged or got swallowed up. The imprints that published my first two books disappeared. And I had no one to tell me what to do.

I had had an agent, briefly. I’d sold one of my books through her, and then decided I didn’t need an agent, because I had so many contacts in children’s publishing. Then most of those contacts either left or lost their jobs. And now that my own kids were nearly grown, I was no longer reading children’s books the way I had been.

I was doing other things, like writing newspaper stories, and then editing other people’s newspaper stories. And I started writing a novel. A big one, for grown-ups. After a while, the big novel consumed all my writing energy. When it was finished, all I could think of doing was starting another one. Children’s books were something I remembered fondly, from a former life.

Then, a few weeks ago, I was chatting with my agent, the one whom I signed with to help me sell my big novel for grown-ups. She doesn’t handle picture books. But I didn’t care, because she loves my big novel for grown-ups, and she believes in it, probably even more than I do. She also understands me. When we talk, it’s like we’re old friends who lost touch for a while, and are rediscovering all the things we have in common.

So one day my agent I are chatting, and I happen to mention one of my kids’ books. And she asks, “Why aren’t you writing kids’ books anymore?”

“I have drawers full of kids’ book manuscripts,” I tell her.

And she says something like, “Why don’t you show them to me?”

So I go through all my unpublished children’s books, and I send her the four I consider my best. She hates one of them. Another she’s not sure about. She loves another, but thinks it needs work. But one – my favorite, the one about bees — she thinks just needs a few tweaks, and then should go out on submission to publishers. She reminds me that picture books are not her area of expertise, but says a colleague at her agency who knows all about them is willing to help.

The colleague agrees with my agent’s assessment. He also says that I need to cut 200 words from the bee book.

First I balk, and then I rally. I let the information simmer overnight, and in the morning I get to work. For the next day or two, I cut back and rebuild the text. I shave unneeded helping verbs and prepositions. I delete adverbs and replace them with more descriptive verbs. I eliminate extraneous details and compress scenes to their essence. When I realize that I’ve lost some crucial phrases, I put them back, and remove others that matter less.

In a picture book, the illustrations tell at least as much of the story as the words do. After an artist comes on board (God willing), more of my words will be expendable. But for now, I need to leave in enough so an editor will envision pictures like the ones in my mind.

I keep clicking “recount,” watching my progress, and I keep printing the story out and reading it aloud to myself, pacing from one end of my office to other. When I can’t find anything else to fix, I send it back to my agent. The next day, sitting in shul, I realize I need to make one more change.

“That must be awfully humbling,” a friend commiserates.

Actually not, I tell her. Mostly, what I feel is grateful. The revised, shorter text is much stronger than the original, but I couldn’t see that for myself. I am thrilled to be working with such a supportive agent, and grateful that she has colleagues she can call on for help – and that she recognizes when she needs it. And I’m gratified beyond words to have my old love for children’s books rekindled.

As for the pancake flipper, I ended up rewriting the whole sentence to say slipper fuzz, instead. When I read the new phrasing to my husband, he came up with exactly the right verb. I’m grateful for that, too.

What’s the Big Idea?

November 9, 2010

Where do you get your ideas? When I have presented my children’s books at schools and libraries, that’s the one question that has always come up. The answer is, of course, that every book is different.

I got the idea for Mommy’s Lap, a picture book about the birth of a new baby, when my daughter was five months old. As I pushed her stroller around the neighborhood, I started thinking about the best time to have another baby, and how my daughter would react when she had to share her parents with a sibling.

Bat Time pretty closely describes the summer bedtime ritual my husband established with our daughter when she was four.

Crab Moon was inspired by a series of emails I received from my aunt, who has a beach house on Long Island, where she watches the annual spectacle of horseshoe crab gathering at high tide to spawn.

Breakout at the Bug Lab grew out of a profile I wrote for Seven Days about a local entomologist and her giant hissing Madagascar cockroaches pets. In the course of our interview I gathered more material than could fit in one story. Bug Lab plays off some of those unused anecdotes.

After Bug Lab was published, I got my own roaches – a male and a female – to embellish my author visits. Eventually the stage roaches reproduced. When I tried to find homes for the roach offspring, Big Surprise in the Bug Tank was born.

Inspiration for Little Grandma’s Mirror, the novel for adults now in the hands of my agent, was both more simple and more complicated. The simple inspiration was my mother’s death. The only way I could deal with my loss was to write.

What to write was more complicated. Several approaches vied for my attention: the literal details of what actually happened; a freer interpretation of how it felt and what it meant; the realistic, contemporary fiction that grew from the other two; and the fantastic tale of an imaginary shtetl that mirrored the themes I was getting at with the other approaches, the way a dream reflects and refracts the residue of waking reality. Did I mention that each approach demanded a different voice?

I guess I could have just picked one path. Or I could have written several separate stories. But as strong as my need to get this stuff down was the sense that it all belonged together. The question that consumed me for nearly a decade was how. The answer to that question is the essence of the finished work.

And here I sit, casting about for my next project, and I find myself asking myself, Where do ideas come from? Of course I know the answer. They come from our lives and from other people’s stories. They come from our obsessions and from the dreamy associations the mind manufactures when we’re thinking about something else. And they  come from the words that find their way onto the page without any particular plan. That’s how it has worked for me, anyway. The trick now is to remember that, and to trust that in one way or another, it will happen again.

You Are What You Read

June 11, 2010

How do the books we encounter as kids influence our reading later in life? Jessica Freeman-Slade recently asked this question in the [tk] reviews blog – a source of smart essays on reading by a handful of women who work in publishing. Freeman-Slade traces her own love for Vladimir Nabokov’s word play back to the tongue-twisting poetry of Shel Silverstein and Lewis Carroll, and connects says she learned to enjoy the introspective plotting of Ian McEwan and John Updike by absorbing the psychological insights of Beverly Cleary and Judy Blume.

The post got me thinking about the books I loved as a kid, and the ones we read as a family when our children were little.

I was four or five, the last sibling yet to enter school, when my mother went back to school to become a librarian. Mom’s interest in children’s books happily coincided with mine. I no longer recall many of the specific books we read, but I do remember the stillness that surrounded us as I sat beside her on the sofa, the softness of her arm against my cheek and the rattle of ice cubes in Mom’s Diet Pepsi filling the pauses in her speech.

One book that has stayed with me is Robert McCloskey’s Time of Wonder. Mom loved poetry, and had happy memories of summers at camp in the Adirondacks. Time of Wonder is set farther north, on the coast of Maine. But his atmospheric paintings of that rugged landscape doubtless struck a cord with her, and his liquid language stirred us both. I blame Time of Wonder for my propensity to produce dreamy texts in which the language is lovely and the landscape is the protagonist – the type of picture book my agent gently tells me will never fly in today’s market.

As much as I loved being read to and making up stories, I didn’t really become an independent reader until the fourth grade. In 1966, Edgemont School was K-4, and the library comprised one classroom, plus a walk-in closet with the books for the oldest students. The first time the librarian ushered me into that closet, I was thrilled. That’s where I found Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books, which taught me, in turn, that I could trust any book with illustrations by Garth Williams. I didn’t know Garth Williams’ name, but his style was instantly identifiable. I’m pretty sure it’s what led me to Charlotte’s Web and A Cricket in Times Square.

Crispian had a little kitchen upstairs in his two-story doghouse where he fixed himself a good dinner three times a day because he liked to eat.

And when I had kids of my own, Garth Williams’ imprimatur led me back to Margaret Wise Brown’s trippy Golden Books, which my husband and I both loved as children. One of our favorites: Mister Dog: The Dog Who Belonged to Himself. Mister Dog (aka Crispin’s Crispian) is a shaggy brown mutt who takes himself for walks and buys himself bones. One day he meets a boy and invites him home, where they settle into a cozy domestic arrangement.

“Crispin’s Crispian was a conservative,” Brown writes. “He liked everything a the right time – dinner at dinner time, lunch at lunchtime, breakfast in time for breakfast, and sunrise at sunrise, and sunset at sunset. And at bedtime – At bedtime, he liked everything in its own place – the cup in the saucer, the chair under the table, the stars in the heavens, the moon in the sky, and himself in his own little bed.” (Shades of Good Night, Moon, which Brown wrote five years earlier).

For all our progressive politics, within the privacy of our home, we were fairly conservative, ourselves. Meals were regularly sit-down affairs at predictable hours, bedtimes happened at set times, and so on. We loved Mr. Dog’s orderly universe, and we also loved how the book turned the predictable paradigm on its head by having the dog take care of the boy.

When it came to reading books to our kids, we were all about challenging the dominant paradigm. We loved Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith’s hilarious The Stinky Cheese Man, in which the narrator breaks through the fourth wall to challenge the conventions governing of the very book the reader holds in her hands. Ditto Louis the Fish, written by Arthur Yorinks and illustrated by Richard Egielski. “One day last spring, Louis, a butcher, turned into a fish,” this surreal tale begins, in brilliant deadpan. “Silvery scales. Big lips. A tail. A salmon.”

Reading aloud didn’t end for our family for the kids could read to themselves. As parents, we enjoyed revisiting books from our own childhoods, like the Little House books, whose how-to details and enthusiastic descriptions of food (especially in Farmer Boy) particularly appealed to Sam. And we were glad for the excuse to discover new children’s books, such as Brian JacquesRed Wall series, Lynne Reid Banks’ The Indian in the Cupboard books, and anything by Roald Dahl. David, who remembers his father reading the Sunday funnies aloud, loved sharing the comics with our kids. A particular favorite for all of us was Calvin and Hobbes. We loved Watterson’s loopy blend of realism and fantasy, his instantly recognizable characters, the strips’ warped logic and metaphysical puzzles.

It would be silly to suggest that our kids are the way they are because of what they read when they were little. But it’s hard not to see the pleasure Sam takes in creating things with his hands and remember his fascination with the DIY spirit of Laura Ingalls Wilder. And when Sophie discusses philosophy with her father, it’s tempting to think that Bill Watterson deserves at least partial credit. And as they both begin planning their own marriages, I remember all those times we read together as a family, and can’t help but think that the sweetness of those hours worked its way into their blood as surely as the rhythm of my mother’s reading voice worked its way into mine.