Announcing KidLit Gems!

MARCH 15th KEM GEMS WILL BECOME KIDLIT GEMS!

Elise, our E in KEMs, will retire from KEM Gems to make time for a good cause: creating children’s picture books. Her début title, If You Ever Want to Bring Your Alligator to School, Don’t!, comes out July 14, 2015. Plus she’s writing new stories, all  while illustrating The Magic Word, written by Mac Barnett. Unfortunately, (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it), she no longer has time to review books.

Kristi Janikula Herro

Kristi  Herro

Me, Anna Marras

Me, Anna Marras

Louise Aamodt

Louise Aamodt

 

 
Kristi Janikula Herro, co-owner and editor of SpotOn Editing, Minnesota SCBWI Meet-up Coordinator, and Literacy Volunteer of America  will continue reading, reviewing, and recommending Gems with me.

We’re pleased to announce that critique buddy, Louise Aamodt, 2015 MN Book Awards judge for Children’s Literature, runner-up of the 2011 Cheerios Spoonful of Stories Contest, and bilingual ESL teacher, joins us to form KidLit Gems. We think you’ll agree, Lou has the perfect qualifications to serve as a children’s literature ambassador.

We chose our new name because KLM Gems sounds too much like an airline and MLK Gems . . . well, you get the gist.

To properly close our KEM Gem Chapter we awarded a “thank you” gift to our most faithful KEM Gem supporter, Randy Holland.

The Grand Poobah of all KEM Gem supporters, Randy Holland. Kidlit Gems supporters, there will be more awards to come. Just sayin . . .

To properly close our KEM Gem Chapter we awarded our most faithful KEM Gem supporter, Randy Holland, a “thank you” gift of To Kill A Mockingbird.

Lucky for us, Elise will still be a constant in our lives as a critique partner, but we will miss her keen illustrator’s-eye  appreciation for the visual artistry of each Gem. We hope she’ll continue to educate us with regular cameo appearances in the Comment Section.

ELISE’S FAREWELL

Elise Parsley

Elise Parsley

“I want to thank Marlys for hosting our Gem reviews for the past year! Personally, I tend to stick to short, funny books with lots and lots of illustrations. Marlys and Kristi, however, have pushed me to read a wider range of titles than I otherwise would, and I’ve learned much from their unique perspectives and book choices. I’ll do my best to keep up with the monthly KidLit titles reviewed on this blog, and I hope you’ll do the same.

 

KIDLIT GEM’S MISSION

To have a coffee-style chat about children’s books and the elements that make them shine.

 

It’s just like KEM Gems with a twist. Each month Kristi, Lou, and I will recommend three books (one each) that match a theme. We’d like to hear your selections, too!


Gems can come from any children’s genre–picture book, chapter book/easy reader, middle grade, graphic novel, or YA.


MARCH’S THEME (A tribute to all illustrators out there!)

Illustrative Gem

What illustrative gem would you recommend?

Critique friends Elise Parsley. Kristi Herro, Alicia Schwab, Louise Aamodt, and me. Elise will pass the Gem reviewing torch to Lou, starting March 15th.

Critique friends, including Alicia Schwab, center. Elise says, “Here’s the torch, Lou! Thanks for picking up my slack!”

 

Writer Mentorship Lesson #3

COWABUNGA

Trisha’s jewelry was udderly divine.

Cowabunga! My last meeting  with MN SCBWI Writers Mentor Trisha Speed Shaskan moo-ved me. Charming bovines  surrounded us, rendering me defenseless  against cheesy puns.

Oh, no!
I can’t stop!

All bull aside, I’m so thankful for Trisha’s encouragement,  gently prodding me to a new level of children’s book writing. I hope my notes will encourage you, too.

Cow! Cows! Cows! And a little bull.

Café Latte art. Didn’t I notice it before? Cows! Cows! Cows! And a little bull.

 ANNIHILATE THOSE DARLINGS!

Killing darlings is especially essential for picture books, where low word count is optimum. Darlings can be extra characters, clever twists, funny dialog, or witty phrases–any words we think we can’t live without (but can). Writers’ minds understand killing darlings, but our hearts are reluctant to sacrifice our beloved(s).

Regarding my manuscript, my critique group had already encouraged the execution of a funny old knight and some annoying songbirds, so I thought I’d whittled to its bare bones. But Trisha still Cow!found phrases and adjectives that needed to march to the guillotine.

Since my picture book is bordering long, at 560 words, I needed to cut the fat. (Sorry about my grizzly metaphors.)

Could the illustrator show that “wigs, walking sticks, and wooden teeth flew” without those seven extra words?

Could the illustrator show that the environment is cramped, dark, and musty, even if I just call it a cellar?

CowCould the illustrator deliver more punch?

YES! YES! YES!

Killing your darlings is all about trusting the illustrator!

WORLD BUILDING

Trisha reminded me to ponder the world I’d created. Is it authentic?

Cows, Cows, Cows! And a little bull.

For instance, my tale is set in medieval times and I needed a place for my characters to escape an impending threat. Only one of these truly fit my story:

  • a cramped tunnel
  • a cellar
  • a dark dungeon
  • the musty basement

If you picked “cellar,” I know you read the “Annihilate Those Darlings” segment.  Cramped, dark, and musty can be illustrated with colors, space, and character expressions and mannerisms.

I originally chose tunnel, but after Trisha encouraged me to reconsider, it occurred to me that I wanted the next scene to flow up, not to another destination. I passed on a dungeon, because a dungeon infers imprisonment and I already had a prison in a different place. I rejected the basement, because the word “basement” originated in 1730, after the middle ages.  Cellars were underground chambers–usually cramped, dark, and musty–where medievals kept perishables. Cellar was perfect.

Certainly, some time travel stories are built to interject medieval with modern themes, but mine wasn’t one of them.

Scrutinize your word choices. Are they consistent with the rules you have set?

BE PATIENT AND PERSISTENT!

I love writing stories, but I hadn’t done any querying since my early days of children’s book writing when I naïvely thought the process was easy. Now I’m embarrassed and would like a do-over. Since then, there is one bit of advice I’d like to extend to all picture book writers: BE PATIENT! Do NOT query agents and editors until two experienced  critique partners and one mentor says your manuscript is perfect. And, wait–still don’t send that query until you write another manuscript and have that approved.

After three and a half years of hard work, I’ve finally received the thumbs up I need for two stories, plus I’ve accumulated almost a dozen other manuscripts in various stages of polish. I am ready.

Here’s where the next stage of PERSISTENCE comes in. Finding the perfect agent or editor may be as hard as writing the perfect manuscript. Be selective and ask the right questions.

  1. Does she represent picture books? Editors who prefer YA? Probably not for me.
  2. Does my work fit his taste? Vampire seeking agents? Nada.
  3. Is she accepting new clients? This question should be #1.
  4. Does he accept authors who don’t illustrate? My list just got smaller.
  5. Do she have a sense of humor? You vill write and you vill like it! Nyet.
  6. Which publishing houses represent my favorite illustrators? There are so many!
  7. Which publishing houses distribute my favorite books? Publishers, like people, have unique tastes.

When I showed Trisha my list of ten well-researched possibilities, she encouraged me to increase it to 30-40, and start sending three or four at a time, (each a personalized query, of course). She also advised me to consider newer agents, as well as the experienced. She reminded me that new agents are building their base and would work hard for their clients.

Back to the search engines.

In gratitude, these blog posts are my small effort to pay my mentorship experience forward, hoping you will benefit from Trisha’s wisdom as well.

On behalf of both of us, may you learn a latte’! (Lucky for you, I couldn’t think of another cow pun.)

SOLD

“Fact: There are more individuals in slavery today than at the height of trans-Atlantic slave trade.” Polaris, a non-profit organization working to combat human trafficking

SOLDPatriciaMcCormickI must admit, we didn’t consider the Valentine’s  weekend timing when we selected our  February 2015 KEM GEM. But I couldn’t think of a better story to show what happens without love.

We are especially proud to recommend SOLD by Patricia McCormick, author of Cut, My Brother’s Keeper, Purple Heart, and Never Fall Down. As you read on, consider the gravity of the statistics. According to Polaris, trafficking affects 161 countries worldwide, enslaving an estimated 20.9 million men, women, and children for forced labor or commercial sex.

Educate Yourself:

Do Something:

Get Help:

Read Our Reviews and Join in the Conversation:

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Watch for details!

HOW KEM GEMS BEGAN
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IF YOU EVER WANT TO BUY THESE ALLIGATOR/BIGFOOT BOOKS, DO!

It’s your lucky day!  I’m pleased to announce the preorder availability of two amazing picture books by two amazing talents:

  • Elise Parsley’s If You Ever Want to Bring an Alligator to School, DON’T!
  • Jill Esbaum’s Elwood Bigfoot: Wanted: Birdie Friends!

Click on the boxes below to get yours before the rush!

Trust me. You’ll be the coolest picture book aficionados around.

Another perk: you’ll know what to buy for your friends from the independent bookstores this summer and fall.

IFYOUWANTBIGFOOT

Writer Mentorship Lesson #2

2015Jan23MentorhipImages600

You could find children’s book author Trisha Speed Shaskan in a crowd. She’s the “cool glasses” girl. She also has great taste in meeting places and mentors.

My greatest lesson from my second MN SCBWI Writers Mentorship meeting with Trisha Speed Shaskan:

It takes a village to raise a writer. Find a good village.

I’m one of those people who needs leaders to hold the bar for me and make me believe that it’s within reach. We all learn better with a diverse group of people challenging, inspiring, and encouraging. That’s why I was relieved to know that my mentor, too, has mentors.

My mentor's mentor: Long time MFA teacher at Hamline University, Jane Resh Thomas.

My mentor’s mentor: Jane Resh Thomas.

When I shared with Trisha that I had enrolled in an writing program with Jane Resh Thomas, she  almost spit out her tea.  I didn’t know it, but Trisha trained under Thomas for four years. In fact, Trisha attended the very same class, the very same time, the very same night of the week. Trisha LOVES Jane. (And, I learned Jane LOVES Trisha.)

When an SCBWI friend mentioned that Jane Resh Thomas workshops were available, I had no intention of attending, thinking I was much too busy. I really had no clue what a big deal these workshops were.

Then one day I checked out my two-week children’s book stack from the library. When I got home, I thought I’d lost my marbles, because I’d selected a picture book that I’d just read. It was Jackie Urbanovic’s DUCK AT THE DOOR. But I read it again anyway. On the copyright page, Jackie wrote: “With Thanks to Jane Resh Thomas, who taught me to write, and to her writing group for so much laughter and support.”

YIKES! I dashed to my computer. Here’s what Hamline University has to say about Jane Resh Thomas:

Jane Resh Thomas, a recipient of the Kerlan Award for contributions to children’s literature, is the author of fifteen published and contracted books, including picture books, short fiction, middle-grade fiction, and biography. The Comeback Dog; Saying Good-Bye to Grandma; Courage at Indian Deep; and Behind the Mask: The Life of Queen Elizabeth I have won, among other honors, a Parent’s Choice Award; Notable Books and Best of the Best listing by the ALA; and a Minnesota Book Award. Her most recent books from Clarion are Blind Mountain, an adventure story, and The Counterfeit Princess, a historical novel.

I couldn’t email Ms. Thomas fast enough. She only had one opening available. I took it.

Before my first class, another friend emailed me a link to an article recognizing Minnesota children’s literature superstar Kate DiCamillo as STAR TRIBUNE’S Artist of the Year. Kate belonged to a writer’s group led by–wait for it–Jane Resh Thomas. That only sweetened the deal.

I’ll have tangible tips from Trisha in the February mentorship post. In the meantime, I hope you’ve found your cheerleading leaders. The reason Trisha is such a fabulous mentor (besides all the talent, personality, and humility, of course) is that she comes from a fabulous village and she’s a fabulous mentee.

THE STORY OF FROG BELLY RAT BONE

FBRBAs our January KEM GEM, we’re excited to recommend The Story of Frog Belly Rat Bone, written and illustrated by creative superstar Timothy Basil Ering.

Why is that name familiar? Well, Timothy Basil Ering illustrated Kate DiCamillo’s Newberry Award Winning The Tale of Despereaux. Or maybe you’ve seen his amazing oil on wood or oil on canvas.

We’re betting the way-out-there Story of Frog Belly Rat Bone will entice you to dive into other Ering-illustrated creations, out of sheer curiosity. Here are a few more titles to enjoy:

  • Finn Throws a Fit by David Elliot
  • Punkzilla by Adam Rapp
  • Necks Out For Adventure by Timothy Basil Ering
  • Sad Doggy by Jennifer B. Lawrence

We invite you to our review page to see why we think The Story of Frog Belly Rat Bone is a KEM GEM.

We hope you’ll join in the conversation for this and all of our GEMs. Let us know, have we featured any of your favorites?

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HOW KEM GEMS BEGAN
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Writer Mentorship Lesson #1

Thankful for my writer friends: Lou Aamodt, Kristi Herro, Alicia Scwab, Elise Parsley.

Thankful for my children’s critique friends: Lou Aamodt, Kristi Herro, Alicia Scwab, Elise Parsley. (See who else I’m thankful for on MY WRITING FRIENDS page.)

Recently, my wise writer/illustrator friend, Elise, marveled that we’re learning so much while reading, researching, writing, and reviewing with our writers groups; it’s like receiving a free graduate degree in children’s literature.

Her reflection sparked this meet-up mindset for me: This is more than friend-time. I’m part of a graduate program, learning from some of the best and the brightest. Don’t take one minute of this for granted.

2014-2015 SCBWI Writer Mentor Trisha Speed Shaskan has written over 40 books, including HONESTLY, LITTLE RED RIDING HOOD WAS ROTTEN!; TRULY, WE BOTH LOVED BEAUTY DEARLY!; and her 2015 release, PUNK SKUNKS, co-created with her husband, Stephen Shaskan. I’m beyond grateful for this opportunity to learn from her and get to know her as a friend and fellow lover of children’s literature.

After friendship, the best part about writers groups is the knowledge we share. For me, it’s definitely a win-win, because my comrades are all smarter than me. We’re like one big, spongy, interconnected brain. So, of course I had my writing friends in mind when I was selected this October by the MN Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators (SCBWI) Conference Committee for the 2014-2015 Writer Mentorship with children’s book author, Trisha Speed Shaskan. Woo hoo! I would finally have something juicy and substantial to bring to the table!

I’m honored that Ms. Speed Shaskan (Trisha) and the committee found promise in my work and are devoted to prodding me past mediocrity. To pay this kindness forward, I’ve asked Trisha if I could share her wisdom, not only with my writers group friends, but with anyone who visits this blog. She generously said “yes,” so, rather than recapping from memory, I’ll share the email I sent to my critique friends.

To: Critique Lovelies

Subject: Mentorship notes

Hello!

I met with Trisha last evening and came away with a treasure chest full of wisdom.

I inquired about diverse reactions we’ve received from reviewers pertaining to alliteration in picture books. (Who’s right, those for and against?) Trisha laughed, because she wrote a book called, IF YOU WERE ALLITERATION. For picture books, she loves it.

Concerning word choices in children’s books, she thought words like “clambered” and “musty” were perfectly acceptable—even more desirable than dumbed down words. She said to think of picture books like a poem or a song and to go with the rhythm and words that ring true to the story. Since picture books are usually read by adults to children, (unlike easy readers and early chapter books, where the words need to be carefully selected for young readers) she said, “By all means, go for elevated, beautiful, active language.”

And she loves onomatopoeia. In fact, in my story she suggested I add more onomatopoeia, such as a “shuffled” during the stampede scene.

Concerning critique format, the following is the one her group incorporated. They’ve tried others and like this best:

Summary:

What Works:

Questions:
Character
Setting/World Building
Physical Description
Refrain

Final Note:

The process is similar to ours, but more formal.

The “summary” helps determine whether the writer’s vision has been successfully communicated. A bonus: it’s a helpful tool later, when creating a pitch.

“What works” helps the writer determine what to keep.

“Questions” make the story stronger. For instance, Trisha asked some of the same questions you asked. That showed me what I need to clarify.

She said it’s important to know the rules of the world we’re creating and stay consistent.

And sometimes to be generous and just tell the reader information directly, rather than trying to be subtle.

To reduce words, she gave me two examples where I used repetitive emotions  (that the illustrator will certainly reinforce) and said that eliminating one in each phrase would be an effective way to condense:

  • Shuddering, she slumped over her tomatoes and stroked the empty peddler space on her sash.
  • The Grand Duchess stomped toward the tower. (One word can replace four.) “I’LL TOSS HER TO THE CROCODILES MYSELF!”

Her critique for my manuscript was a page and a half, single-spaced. She suggested starting with the above format, then she will follow-up with line-by-line reviews after the questions have been addressed.

I hope I’ve shared something that will help you as well.

Much thanks to Trisha for her thoughtfulness and generosity! Watch for more Speed Shaskan wisdom in future posts.