Tag Archive | children’s books

Becky’s Favorite Picture Books

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I really do love making lists. Lately I’ve been so tickled to share picture book recommendations with friends that I got the idea to compile a list of my all-time favorites. This list could go on forever, so let’s see if I can limit the number to fifty—for now. It should be noted that I haven’t included any Dr. Seuss books here, as the Doc really deserves his own list. Also not listed here is Winnie-the-Pooh, which falls somewhere in between picture books, chapter books, and middle grade, but just know that no matter what, Winnie-the-Pooh is always on the top of my list.

I do so deeply love picture books, and not just because I write them. I love them because they introduce human minds to the concept of reading. How weighty is that? I love them because they are a perfect marriage of the written word and visual art. We don’t get that enough in the “adult” world. Much of the art you’ll find in picture books is daring and experimental. I love them because when you condense storytelling into such short form, you often can’t help but end up with myth and fable. To read a brilliant new picture book is to witness a fairy tale being born. It’s exciting.

If you’re wondering about my taste, okay I’ll tell you. I like books that pull on specific strings in the old heart. I like books that make me cry hard, laugh hard, or feel weird inside. It’s like I’ve got these book-shaped holes in my heart and my favorite books are the ones that were meant to fill those holes. I’m not one for lukewarm books. That sounds negative, but I don’t mean it to be. There are plenty of books in the world that are solid from beginning to end and I read them and I didn’t necessarily cry or laugh or question much, but I liked it a whole lot. Knuffle Bunny comes to mind. It’s a great book. It’s charming. It’s lovely. It’s solid. You should read it. I just wouldn’t put it on my fifty list.

Here they are, in some particular order but certainly not in any sort of scientific ranking. My favorite picture books:

  1. Extra Yarn by Mac Barnett illus. Jon Klassen
  2. Heckedy Peg by Audrey Wood illus. Don Wood
  3. The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein
  4. Sam and Dave Dig a Hole by Mac Barnett illus. Jon Klassen
  5. The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg
  6. Miss Nelson is Missing by Harry Allard illus. James Marshall
  7. Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown illus. Clement Hurd
  8. The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter
  9. Finding Winnie by Lindsay Mattick illus. Sophie Blackall
  10. A Child of Books by Oliver Jeffers
  11. Penguin Problems by Jory John illus. Lane Smith
  12. Du Iz Tak? by Carson Ellis
  13. Dream Snow by Eric Carle
  14. The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats
  15. Chu’s Day by Neil Gaiman illus. Adam Rex
  16. This is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen
  17. The Dead Bird by Margaret Wise Brown illus. Christian Robinson
  18. Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak
  19. The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales by Jon Scieszka illus. Lane Smith
  20. Waiting by Kevin Henkes
  21. Egg by Kevin Henkes
  22. Tough Boris by Mem Fox illus. Kathryn Brown
  23. Boats for Papa by Jessixa Bagley
  24. The Day the Crayons Came Home by Drew Daywalt illus. Oliver Jeffers
  25. Flotsam by David Wiesner
  26. The Friend Ship by Kat Yeh illus. Chuck Groenik
  27. A Letter for Leo by Sergio Ruzzier
  28. Chloe and the Lion by Mac Barnett illus. Adam Rex
  29. Otis by Loren Long
  30. Lon Po Po by Ed Young
  31. This is Sadie by Sara O’Leary illus. Julie Morstad
  32. Leo: A Ghost Story by Mac Barnett illus. Christian Robinson
  33. The Rough-Face Girl by Rafe Martin illus. David Shannon
  34. The Tale of the Mandarin Ducks by Katherine Paterson illus. Diane Dillon
  35. The Snurtch by Sean Ferrell illus. Charles Santoso
  36. Clever Jack Takes the Cake by Candace Fleming illus. G. Brian Karas
  37. Creepy Carrots by Aaron Reynolds illus. Peter Brown
  38. Orion and the Dark by Emma Yarlett
  39. Nerdy Birdy by Aaron Reynolds illus. Matt Davies
  40. Too Many Tamales by Gary Soto illus. Ed Martinez
  41. Old Bear by Kevin Henkes
  42. Tea Rex by Molly Idle
  43. The Watermelon Seed by Greg Pizzoli
  44. The Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munsch illus. Michael Martchenko
  45. Aberdeen by Stacy Previn
  46. President Taft is Stuck in the Bath by Mac Barnett illus. Chris Van Dusen
  47. Journey, Quest, and Return (Journey Trilogy) by Aaron Becker
  48. The Whisper by Pamela Zagarenski
  49. Teeny Tiny Toady by Jill Esbaum illus. Keika Yamaguchi
  50. Guess Again! by Mac Barnett illus. Adam Rex

Oh goodness there are many more, but I promised to stop at fifty. There are lots of books that I love for specific reasons, e.g. how they address a certain issue, but for this list I tried to stick to my general favorites. What do you think? Any big ones that I missed? What picture books would you add to the list?

 

top illustration from A Child of Books, by Oliver Jeffers

Patience, not-so-young Grasshopper

I’m too impatient to think of a clever way to begin this post. Gah! So impatient! The cat is out of the bag. I’m impatient. It’s a toxic state of mind. The overwhelming desire to have something extraordinary happen overnight often thwarts the possibility of that extraordinary something happening over time. This is why it’s essential to enjoy and take meaning from the journey. Not because it’s so wise, because it’s 95% of the process. You may as well enjoy it. You can’t drive from California to New York overnight, so if you don’t find pleasure in staring out your window at the Oklahoma prairie or Missouri’s rolling hills, it’s going to be a long and painful drive. Learn to savor the journey; something I’m discovering about my endeavors as a children’s book author.

Earlier this year I actually, truly, really, actively, once-and-for-all began taking steps toward becoming a published children’s picture book author. I’d dreamed of such a thing since I was 6 years old, but other than a library of ideas messily cataloged in my brain I’d never pursued it. All that changed with the new year. Knowing NOTHING about the publishing industry I began with as rudimentary a step as possible. I bought Writing Children’s Books for Dummies. Hello, dummy. *Proudly points to self*

Not even knowing how to format a manuscript properly, I needed the basics. It’s actually quite a good book. I recommend it for publishing preschoolers like me.

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I read this book. I joined Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). I launched a personal website. I finished my first manuscript. I researched publishing houses accepting unsolicited material. I wrote a cover letter. I signed up for my first conference. I’m ready now! Do you hear me universe! I’m ready, so can this happen now? Oh universe, I know YOU waited patiently for 30 years for me to accept this as my life’s calling, but now that I’m ready let’s do this thing.

I don’t know if writing for children has led me to think like a child, but I am impatient with a capital I. Impatient. IMpatient.

So what has led to this impatience? Well I’ll tell you. Obstacles. There are numerous itchy realities that have put a little bee in my bonnet since I started actively writing. Here are the discouraging things I’ve learned since I’ve gotten myself in the game.

On average it takes 3-6 months for a publisher to respond to your manuscript submission. Most responses will be a rejection.

Many publishers require an exclusive submission so while you’re waiting SIX MONTHS for them to read your three page manuscript you can’t really even submit it to anyone else. This isn’t always the case but SOMETIMES. SOMETIMES!

If and when a publisher wants to buy your manuscript, which you can almost guarantee won’t happen with the first submission, it will then take 18+ months (at least) for your book to be paired with an illustrator, art directed, produced, and published. It can and does take years.

Once your beautiful book baby is born and there you are on the shelves of Barnes & Noble, unless you’re among the incredibly rare breed of New York Times bestselling picture book authors, your book will probably go out of print in 2 years and you’ll net maybe $5,000 of royalties once you make back your advance. It will most likely be 10-15 years before you’ve published enough books to quit your day job and write full time.

So here I am, eager as a little beaver for my life to begin, and all I see are obstacles and “Turn Back Now” signs. I’m not old, but I’m not young either. I’m considering children in a few years. I’d like to start saving for a home, and for kid’s education, and for retirement. I want my life to begin NOW. Now, do you hear me universe? I’m ready! Do I really have to wait years for my three-page manuscript to make it to bookshelves, if it ever makes it at all? There are no guarantees. This could all be for naught. I could be a hack. I could be delusional. I can’t wait years to find that out.

I’m realizing I’m at this point in the story:

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There are many things I don’t know but I’m fairly certain of one thing. For the first time in my life I feel that I’m on the right path. I’ve started my journey down that path feeling prepared and enthused, only to now come across a chasm of unknowns, of long periods of waiting, of inconveniences and obstacles. There are signs that say “Wait here for 6 months, then proceed… maybe,” and others that read “Please pay $500 to advance,” while still others read “Congrats, you’ve earned $5,000! Now make that last for three years!”

A famous actor can indeed make millions. As can a famous author. However the majority of actors are not famous. They work. They struggle. They hustle to make $2,000 for one week on a show they don’t even really like that much and pray they’ll make enough money in their careers for health insurance and maybe a pension. It’s hard. For most, it’s very hard, so if you don’t love it, if Jiminy Cricket isn’t whispering in your ear, “Yes, this is right,” then maybe don’t do it.

Who knew writing would be just as challenging? Well, probably everyone who ever tried to be a writer, but hey I’m new at this. The difference now is Jiminy Cricket is talking to me. I’m starting to sound a little crazy but you know what I mean. It’s there! Some sort of warm omniscient speaking heart telling me that it will all be worth it somehow. This is my story. This is my path.

Okay. I accept. I will wait. I will make the leap. I will stay on the path no matter how hairy it gets. I will employ patience by enjoying the view from the window of this moving train. And while I wait, I’ll keep writing. I’ll see what I see out the window and it will inspire me and I’ll write it down. Even if I’m never published and they line my coffin with rejection letters from Random House, someone will one day clean out my desk and they’ll find what I wrote and they’ll say “Hey, look what she did.”

Hey, look what I did. Look what I’m doing. All you need is patience, young grasshopper.

Or should I say… cricket.

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No Time Like the Pressure

Whenever I talk to my husband about something I need to do, the conversation usually veers towards me finding a way to procrastinate. “Oh I’ll do it tomorrow,” “I’ll call them tonight,” “We’ll deal with it later.” This came up time and again throughout the wedding planning process. We’d talk about a vendor we needed to contact and I would say, “Ok we’ll call them tomorrow” and Brad would reply “How about right now?” He would almost always follow this up with the quip “No time like the pressure.”

Isn’t that so true? Obviously we’ve seen ‘No Time Like the Present’ plastered across multiple self-help platforms, but I love Brad’s little adjustment. Because the present is very beautiful, there’s nothing like it, I appreciate it, but the present is in fact accompanied by pressure where dreams are concerned. The present is lovely, but pressure is active. Do things right now.

This morning I ran 5 miles along the Venice Boardwalk; a route that takes me past my dream house. My ABSOLUTE DREAM HOUSE! I love it so much. It is everything that I am. It’s a two story craftsmen right along the beach, accented with a sort of Indiana Jones adventure vibe. Jungle flora fills the yard (there’s a yard!) complete with yeti-like footprints through the grass. Tiki torches and palm trees line the house. But it’s classy. It’s beach, mountain, adventure all wrapped up into one house. It is MY house. Today as we ran past we noticed the house had a For Sale sign out front. You’ve gotta be kidding me. It’s for sale! Damn! It is actually possible to purchase this house… if only I were someone else. After all it’s only 10 million dollars. Now, the point of this story is not that my life’s goal is to obtain a ton of money and a big house. Sometimes I wish that was my life’s goal because it would probably be easier, but it’s not. This house represents something and today that For Sale sign brought everything into focus. The house is a dream. I’ve run, walked, or biked past it repeatedly throughout the years and every time would dream to myself “one day…” with a sigh. “One day” is so safe. Kind of like saying “we’ll call them tomorrow.” This morning the universe gave me a gut check. It said, here you go, and I wasn’t ready. You have no idea when opportunity will present itself to you but one thing is for sure, you can be ready.

The truth is I will most likely never live in that house. No matter what I do I will most likely never be financially successful enough to justify the purchase of a two-story double-plot dream house along the sand in Venice Beach. So that will probably always be a dream, and that’s ok because I don’t actually believe that things like dream houses would make me happy. BUT, as far as metaphors go, message received loud and clear. Thanks universe. There’s a lot of other stuff I dream about that I’m realizing I’m not ready for. Real stuff that I could actually have.

Like babies.

I think I want babies. I’m not positive but I’m pretty positive. When you get married it’s funny that you do start to think about things like that in a more realistic way. At least I do. I fantasize about a growing family. No matter whether we end up childless (save two furry faced kitties), Brad will always be my family. I love our little family of four (the kitties of course), but I won’t deny that I dream about reading to my kids before bed, and trips to Disneyland with offspring, and Halloween costumes, and seeing Brad teach our kids how to snorkel, and rubbing the backs of babes with upset tummies, and bake sales, and soccer games, and all that jazz. It sounds appealing to me as a dream. Like a house I can’t afford. Just like my bank account prohibits me from purchasing that house, my emotional account is not ready for an extended family. I don’t know what’s going to happen to our finances. I hope they improve but who knows. However, if I feel like I’m really living the life I was meant to live, if I’m telling MY story, then I think I could be ready to help a little one into the world to tell his too. But I have to get my story ready first.

The past couple of years I’ve had a realigning of my personal priorities. If you’ve been reading my blog then you know I’ve become rather disillusioned with the industry of acting. Although I still do it, and I still love it, I don’t feel compelled to throw my heart and soul into “making it.” It would be nice if it was just, y’know, handed to me. That’s not how life works for most people. You have to work for your dreams and if they are the right dreams the work will pay off. Not sure acting is the right dream. I still struggle with this, and my split focus has me a bit paralyzed and discombobulated. What do I throw myself into? Whimsy Do? Acting? Writing? Or should I work my way up the ladder of non-profit administration? It’s important to have many interests but dangerous to attempt pursuit of them all at once. Success requires focus, so what should I focus on? I try to listen to the little God voice in my head about this and still she whispers to me about writing. She doesn’t seem to denounce the others, but writing sings a little louder in my heart.

So today I finished a story. It’s one I’ve been working on since my friend Scott McKinley passed away and although I have dozens of story ideas and rough sketches for manuscripts, this is the first one that feels really incredibly close to finished.

So there you have it. I wrote. And I feel a little bit more ready to buy that dream house, metaphorically speaking.

I leave you with this article I read on Huffington Post this morning. It’s a good-bye letter from a woman who died two days ago. She asked that the article be published posthumously. How odd to read the words of a ghost.

It basically broke my heart and lit my fire. There really is no time like the pressure you guys. Between my dream house being on the market and the words of this dearly departed writer, the message is clear. Let’s love each other, love life, “Take it by both hands, grab it, shake it and believe in every second of it.” Go get that house.

No time like the pressure.

Where we'll one day drink our morning coffee from the roof of our dream house. *le sigh*

Where Brad and I will one day drink our morning coffee, watching the dolphins play in the surf… *le sigh*

NaNoWriMo: childhood confessions

I sympathize with the thousands upon thousands of people out there to whom “writing a novel” is an expressly important line item on the old bucket list. Me however? I’m not one of them. I love to read. I devour novels. I am the wormiest of book worms. My Kindle is my most prized possession and when I thought I lost it last week I wept for 2 days nonstop. Seriously. Ask Brad. I never had the itch to write my own novel, though. Don’t know why. I certainly fit the description for the type of person I’m referencing in that first sentence. Creativity, intelligence, art, beauty, all huge priorities to me. Perhaps I always worried that trying to climb that mountain myself would destroy the joy I get out of reading. There’s a great line in a Billy Bragg song: “The temptation to take the precious things apart in life to see how they work, must be resisted for they never fit together again.” God I love that line. It’s like going backstage at Disneyland. You think you want to, but the second you see Mickey Mouse with his head off smoking a cigarette you regret the decision. I don’t know what it took for F. Scott Fitzgerald to write something so elegant, so brilliantly threaded together and evocative as The Great Gatsby and I’m not sure I want to know. I like to think it was magic. 

I am, however, a writer of children’s stories. Writing children’s books is something I’ve aspired to do since I was 7 years old. I loved to read at that age, and I had a vivid imagination of my own so writing stories seemed accessible, easy, something I could actually succeed in doing. I had plans to be published by my 8th birthday. Of course, I wasn’t. That plan fell into the trap of something one always *talks* about doing but never actually does. Allow me to quickly share with you the story of the The Little Red Toolbox:

I have very few crystal clear memories of my childhood. I don’t know why, I had a happy one, I just have an absolutely terrible memory. I do remember a small handful of moments incredibly vividly as if they just happened. One such moment was the day I realized it would be “easy” to be a children’s book author. I was 7 years old. My mom was driving me to school in the morning and I sat in the backseat quietly daydreaming to myself, as I was wont to do. I had already discovered my love of reading and writing but I wanted to take it to the next level. I wanted to be published by 8. It just seemed so easy. I had this great idea for a book about a toolbox, a little red toolbox to be exact. I practically had my pitch to Random House completely worked out. Each page would have a description and illustration about different things one can find in a toolbox. It would target the pre-K to Kindergarten age group and would be very simple, elegant, and educational. My little 7 year old brain thought to itself on this morning drive to school “This is going to be so easy. I’ll just write, draw the pictures, send it all off to a publisher and voila! I’ll be published by the time I’m 8!” I kid you not. I thought that. No fear of failure. No struggle. No bellyaching about how hard it would be to succeed. A sentiment that we adults seemed to be plagued by from our peers as well as ourselves. Pure, innocent, beautiful childhood delusion. 

I  never wrote The Little Red Toolbox. I suppose even as a child I had a penchant for becoming easily distracted. I’m sure as soon as Thaddeus from the 2nd grade class walked by I forgot all about my career goals and became consumed with whether he would sit next to me at lunch that day. I never wrote it, but I also never forgot it. I’ve conjured up that memory and thought about it constantly over the years. I never let the idea go. Somewhere in the back of my mind I figured someday I’d write The Little Red Toolbox. Someday.

2 years ago I’m in a Barnes & Noble shopping for a gift for my little cousin Ian. I’m browsing through all of the children’s books. I turn a corner to look at the Pre-K reading level and, oh my god, what is that? Oh my god it’s impossible. It was a book called My Little Red Toolbox. And every page had a description and illustration about what one might find in a toolbox. I couldn’t believe it. My jaw dropped, my stomach turned and my heart broke. Someone did it. Someone stole my idea. Someone stole my childhood dream. In fact, he did not. I know for a fact that no one could have stolen the idea from me because I never told anyone about it. I kept it to myself. Someone just did what I was too lazy, too scared, too apathetic to do. In that moment of frustration and heartbreak, a cloud over my head cleared away and I had one of those whatchamacalits, those moments of clarity. The truth is, our ideas are not our own. They are gifts to be used and if we don’t use them, someone else will. Creative people are merely vessels for stories and ideas to flow through, but the stories existed long before us. If Herman Melville had not written Moby Dick I’m certain someone else would have come along and written, not the same novel, but a similar one that filled that same needed hole in the canon of great literature. No, an idea that’s just an idea does not belong to you until you claim it, and more importantly share it with the world. Then it becomes yours forever. I could say that I had the idea first, but who cares? That person discovered the same idea. The difference is that he had the guts to write it down. He had the guts to share it, and now it’s his forever. He didn’t steal it from me. I let it go. I know why I never wrote The Little Red Toolbox. I was afraid. As I got older I lost my sheen of childhood optimism and became afraid that, oh, maybe it was actually a stupid idea or, oh, maybe it would actually be kind of hard to get published. Maybe people would judge me. I was afraid and creativity has no patience for fear. The idea lost patience with me and left to go find someone who would have the guts to realize it. 

I realize we’re talking about a pre-school book about a toolbox. We’re not discussing the lost text of War & Peace here, I know. But god, that little red toolbox meant a lot to me. The profundity of the moment I discovered that book opened my eyes to the potential I was neglecting in myself. I have a million other ideas in my head to accompany The Little Red Toolbox. Better ideas. I made a promise to myself that day that I would not let anyone else take those ideas away from me simply by writing them down first. Standing in that bookstore amidst the likes of Dr. Seuss and R.L. Stine, I wanted to be there too and I knew that I could. I was right about everything when I was 7. I did have a great idea, I could have been published. I was right about everything except for one thing, the easy part. The truth is, it would not have been easy, and the day I realized that is the day I gave up. Such a shame. 

The moral of the story: All of the great ideas in the world are like fairies flying around in the air. Not everyone can see fairies. Special people can. Artists. Dreamers. The passionate ones know that fairies exist. But you have to figure out how to catch them, make them your own, and send them back into the world as something people will recognize, will see, and will believe in. If you don’t, someone else will. 

So what does this have to do with NaNoWriMo(National Novel Writing Month)? Everything. If you don’t know what it is, click on that link. I’m not going to become a novelist and I’m pretty sure the novel I started yesterday is going to be an embarrassment to the English language, but I will write everyday. Writers have to write. Every. Single. Day. That much I’ve heard from the best, and I believe them. I look at the next 30 days (29 now) as writing boot camp. This month is going to discipline me beyond belief and whip my lazy Say Yes to the Dress/Roseanne/South Park-watching butt into creative shape. Come December 1st 2011, I will be so used to sitting down with a pen and paper everyday, the rest of those Little Red Toolboxes will finally start to flow out through my pen and into the world. And I will accomplish my childhood dream of being a published children’s book author. You just wait and see. I missed the 8 year old mark. Let’s aim for 30.

the great mind of a miniature becky