Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Otto Grows Down

Jealously of a sibling is definitely something my kids can relate to. That’s why I was excited to get a copy of the new picture book OTTO GROWS DOWN by Michael Sussman. I wasn’t disappointed.

In Otto Grows Down, Otto’s little sister, Anna, spoils everything—by being born. When Otto makes a birthday wish that Anna was never born, strange things start to happen. Otto’s life switches into reverse! Everything goes backwards starting with Otto giving his birthday presents back to his friends, to a strange day at school, bringing in the trash, and to Otto’s joy, returning Anna to the hospital.

Otto soon realizes that all is not bliss. He keeps growing down. Plus he feels a little guilty for making his baby sister disappear. What's a boy to do when he’s only got five birthday wishes to try to get things back to normal, and fewer and fewer words to make wishes?

My entire family has had great laughs with Otto Grows Down. There are all sorts of funny backwards happenings to get a kick out of, one that may be a bit shocking or totally hilarious depending on your sense of humor. Otto Grows Down has opened up many discussions with my little ones as they imagine what it might be like to live life backwards and wonder what would happen if Otto didn’t figure out how to fix his wish. It’s also caused them to talk about jealousy and being kind to one another, which is always a good thing.

Otto Grows Down is the best book on sibling rivalry that I’ve read in a long time. Scott Magoon’s illustrations add the right amount of humor to the story. The dark pages set the mood and let readers know that something isn’t quite right. And when the love finally comes into the story, you can feel it.

I liked Otto Grows Down so much that I asked author Michael Sussman if he would grant me an interview. Not only was he kind enough to say yes, he’s also going to give away a signed copy of Otto Grows Down! Come back Thursday, April 2nd to read some great insights from Michael and enter to win a copy Otto Grows Down.

Otto Grows Down is published by Sterling Publishing.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

An Orange in January

I love oranges in the winter, they're always so delicious, so full of flavor and color. When I saw the book AN ORANGE IN JANUARY, written by Dianna Hutts Aston and illustrated by Julie Maren, I had to pick it up.

The story follows an orange from the time it blossoms on the tree, to its getting plucked, then follows the orange's journey all the way through to the grocery store where a little boy chooses it. This boy loves his orange. He plays with it... he dreams about it... finally he shares it.

The illustrations by Julie Maren are irresistible. Bright and colorful, lots of orange, of course, but really, very warm. The depiction of the orange's journey is wonderful and one that is great for kids to think about. It's always enlightening to know where your food comes from, to know of the great journey it takes to reach your mouth.

The lyrical text and beautiful visuals show how an orange feels like summer, even in the coldest of months. It was just what I needed to get me through these last dreary days of winter.

An Orange in January is published by Dial Books for Young Readers.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Earth Hour

Today people are going to make a stand for the earth by participating in Earth Hour, where they all turn off their lights for one hour. It seems to be a great way to bring attention to that fact that we all use too much electricity unnecessarily.

But I wonder, will Earth Hour change the way people think? It is definitely a start, but are the cities and corporations that are turning off their unnecessary lighting for an hour going to flick that switch right back on at 9:31? (Earth hour starts at 8:30 p.m. wherever you live.) Will people be checking their watches to see if they can turn their lights back on yet? Of course, some will, but maybe some will find a new way of thinking in that dark hour. A new way of doing things.

We definitely don’t need all the lights we turn on throughout the course of a day. We don’t need to leave our outside lights on. And I think we should go farther. Electronics use phantom loads. They use electricity even though they are turned off. It’s not hard to be electrically conservative. I live this everyday, and turning things off, all the way off, is second nature now that I’ve been doing it for so long.

So what can people do to use less power? Turn off lights when you aren’t using them, of course. But go further. Do you really need that light? Could you just open the curtain? Could you sit in the same room as someone else and use one light instead of two? Do you use energy efficient light bulbs? Unplug the television/stereo, etc. when you aren’t using it. We have our television system on a power bar so turning it off is just pulling on simple plug, the same with our computer. We don’t use outside lights unless it’s necessary. And you won’t find any fancy gadgets here—-no electronic picture frames or electric pencil sharpeners. Sure, these are little things, but if we all can cut out some of the little things, together we can make a big difference.

I’m not saying that I don’t enjoy convenience. Everybody does. But it seems that we may be taking convenience too far. Here we are, thinking that turning off our lights for one hour is an amazing thing, when people lived for centuries without so much as a light bulb, and many people today still live without the conveniences electricity brings. I feel like I can speak to this and see things from both sides. I lived for two years without electricity or running water. Sure, there were inconveniences, but there is also great peace in avoiding some of our modern ways. We can all find a balance that uses much less and perhaps brings us even more. Think about all the things you use that require some sort of power: water and sewage pumps, transportation, heating, etc. What do you hold most dear without even realizing it? What could you live without? In Pakistan they are being forced to undergo a 14 hour blackout. I bet they wish it was only turning off the lights for an hour.

Here's a link to an interesting article that gives alot to think about.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

It's About the Writing

I picked up my mail at the post office this morning. The only thing there was a big manila envelope. One I'd been waiting for. Really waiting for. But I had the feeling, if the envelope was there the news wasn't what I'd hoped. I'd been rejected.

It so happened that a writer friend of mine was at the post office too. She asked me how I was and I said, "I just got rejected," because, ya know, she'd understand. And she did. She reminded me of something I sometimes forget. She looked me in the eye and said, "it's about the writing... the rest will come, eventually".

It's about the writing. So simple. So true. I didn't used to write because I cared if it got turned into a book. I wrote because I like to; because I find it relaxing and fun. Because a story is something that I can--I won't go as far as to say control--but it is something that I can create.

Now that I write with the idea of getting published always in the back(sometimes not far enough back) of my mind, for better or worse, it changes the choices I make when writing a story. I'd even venture as far as to say that it at times has even influenced which story I work on. I know that I've improved my stories now that I think of arc, page turns, and emotional payoff. I try hard to make my characters sympathetic. I do my best to make my plots unique.

Truly, I know that writing for publication won't take over my writing. I can't help but write what I write. But, my thinking as a writer has evolved, and it's a good thing. It's still about the writing. I just want mine to be the best it can be.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Random Things About Winter

I've been thinking about winter because, well, it's getting so darn long. Here are some of my random thoughts:

Snow ice cream is really good.
You can leave food in your parked car all day and it doesn't go bad.
Milk freezes well. Half and half doesn't. The barbeque makes a good freezer.
The cold isn't that bad if it's not windy.
Cross country skiing is really relaxing.
I like to chop wood, unless it's apple wood. Apple wood is really hard.
Pull-start snowmobiles are not a good idea, plus once I finally get the snowmobile started, driving it makes my thumb hurt. Husband: "Why do you use your thumb?" Me: "?"
You can drive your car on top of the snow if it is cold enough. It's not cold enough anymore.
Snow caves can keep kids busy all winter.
I don't mind not going anywhere for long periods of time.
Even though I hardly ever go anywhere I am still extremely busy. What's up with that?
Boys are not afraid to ride their bikes downhill in the snow because flipping over your handlebars isn't supposed to hurt.
Dogs that jump like bunny-rabbits through the snow are crazy.
A snowmobile without brakes is a motorized sled that goes really fast.

I know there's more. I'll add more when I think of them. I have to go cook dinner on the woodstove. We ran out of propane.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Bedtime Monster has an Illustrator!

Yay! I received the new cover for my picture book, BEDTIME MONSTER, and can share it. It's light yet a little mysterious--see the shadow? I like the assortment of toys and, of course, there has to be a bed for the bedtime monster.

Raven Tree Press has chosen Bonnie Adamson to illustrate. She does wonderful drawings, cute children and adorable animals. She's already illustrated a few books for Raven Tree Press including I WISH I WAS STRONG LIKE MANUAL written by Kathryn Heling and Deborah Hembrook.

I wonder what the boy and the monster will look like. I'm sure it will be a while before I find out. Bonnie is just starting the inside illustrations and BEDTIME MONSTER isn't coming out until 2010. Still, it's exciting to see a picture book cover with my title and name on it and with illustrations inspired by a story I wrote. It's something I've been waiting for for a long time.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Rock On!

I’ve wanted to play the guitar for a long time now. My sweet husband bought me an acoustic as a birthday gift before we were married. Unfortunately, I get frustrated easily and never played around with it for too long before setting it down. My husband has gone through periods of fooling around with the guitar too, but hasn’t stuck with it. I guess we have short attention spans.

Thank goodness for long winters. We are finally learning a few things on the guitar. Well, I’m learning a few things. My husband is learning a whole lot of things. He plays while he sits at the computer and trades stocks every day. He plays in the afternoon. He plays in the evening. Me, not so much. I play when the kids give me a bit of a break and I don’t feel like writing, which was like, um, never.

And since I was playing never, my husband decided I needed a guitar that was more my size. He got one from his dad, who happens to be quite a musician and has lots of guitars laying around. He gave us a 1956 Fender Music Master. Doesn’t that sound official? Well, it was officially thrashed.

It happens that my husband is a do-it-yourself sort of guy. After playing on that ugly guitar for a few days he decided to do something about it. And viola! A beautiful “new” guitar. Isn’t he good? Now we just need to find a cover for where the strings connect at the bottom of the guitar. Yeah, I’m sure there’s a better way to explain that, but I’m too lazy figure it out.

This guitar is a ¾ size and it’s quite a bit easier for me to hold down the strings. I’ve actually been practicing, a little. If I could just remember where the fingers go for the chords and what they’re called. Sheesh! I am able to pick out single notes, by ear a lot of the time, so at least I can do something. One song at a time, I guess.

We’re teaching ourselves, which is a challenge in itself since we know nothing. But it’s fun. The kids are digging it too and are learning here and there. There are lots of good sites online that give guitar lessons (we like Guitar Noise ) plus we are able to find the songs we’re trying to play and listen to them online, which is cool. Maybe this time I’ll actually learn to play an entire song.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Interview with J.C. Phillipps, author and illustrator of WINK! THE NINJA WHO WANTED TO BE NOTICED

High-ya! Today I’m super stoked to have debut author/illustrator J.C. Phillipps here to answer some questions about her book, WINK! THE NINJA WHO WANTED TO BE NOTICED. Wink is a ninja student who wants to prove his awesomeness, but finds that being stealthy is no way to be noticed. Fortunately, Wink finds a place where he can show off his talents, even if it’s not the place he expected.

Wink is your first published book. What was your road to publication like?

I have to say it was a well-paved path --not too bumpy. A few years ago I started by putting together some dummy books and sending them out myself. I waited the standard 6-12 months for rejections, but most of the time got a nice note that said something along the lines of, "This title is not right for us, but please feel free to send us future projects." - which was encouraging. Then I joined SCBWI and went to an illustrator's conference in New York. There, my agent, Scott Treimel, saw my dummy book of Wink and we started working on it together. After a few months of edits, he sent it out. I think about 4 months after that Viking sent me a letter with some notes. When I had incorporated their suggestions into the book - and they were great suggestions - then I got a contract. It took a decent amount of time, but considering how long it can take some people, I really can't complain.

How does it feel to be able to call yourself an author now?

At first, when the book was still six months from coming out, I felt sheepish about it. Like I was lying. I've been an artist for such a long time - I'm comfortable with that title. But author?! Yikes. And it's funny, because I'm not eloquent with words - at all. For me, the best thing about writing is the rewriting.

But I certainly am very proud of this book and I love to say I'm an author/illustrator. What a cool job, you know?


Three or Four years ago, when my son was still very young, my husband, Michael, and I were taking him trick-o-treating for Halloween. We noticed one of our young neighbors dressed as a ninja, hiding across the street. He was clearly visible in his red ninja costume, but we wanted him to feel good about his stealth skills, so we ignored him. The boy got bored of that quickly and then started jumping around with his arms waving in the air. Michael laughed and said, "Look. It's the ninja who wants to be noticed." And I thought that was a great idea for a book.

Are there any similarities between you and your main character?

Well, we're both kind of spazzy - but in a good way. I'm more introverted than he is. And I was the kind of student who would never, ever battle a panda in the zoo. I would have been the gold-star ninja. Or the teacher's-pet ninja. But it's always nice to be noticed.

Which came first, the illustrations or the manuscript? As an author/illustrator does one have more pull over the other?

The text came first on this one. What I usually do is start writing things down, giving shape to the story. I have illustrations in my head, but I don't put them down on paper at this point. When I have a rough draft or even an outline, then I start sketching out page layouts. This is something new that I just started doing but it really helps me pace the story better and not overwrite. I can tell a lot of the story with the illustrations so I try not to be redundant.

I don't know if one has more pull over the other. Illustration is easier for me. I have more confidence in my art skills than my writing. But they both work together like two kids on a teeter-totter, back and forth and back and forth, until I think they are ready to go.

How long did the entire process of writing and illustration take you?

Working on the dummy art and the text probably took about two years. Then, when the book was signed and the text hammered out, I had to re-do all the art from scratch. That took another five months. If you count the waiting time, I think it's safe to say Wink was a big part of my life for three years. (Not that he's out of my life, because he's certainly not. Pesky little guy.)

Did any other artist's work influence your illustrations for Wink?

I steal my profiles from Edward Gorey. He draws foreheads that slope right into noses. I completely ripped that off. Then - well - no one else really. Not to say that I don't have favorite illustrators that I look to for inspiration - like Oliver Jeffers, Lauren Child, and Jon J. Muth. But they didn't really influence what I do with my paper. I just sort of figure that out as I go.

The lovely thing about working with paper is I can cut pieces out and move them around a bit and see how this kid looks with his legs further apart, or closer together. Or I can say, this red shirt it too bright, how would pink look? And I can piece things together and let them inform me rather than figure everything out ahead of time. I'm essentially playing.

What medium did you use for the illustrations and why?

I work with cut paper collage. Sometimes I paint the paper with watercolors to get a certain effect before I cut. I always paint my skin tones and sometimes I'll paint a gradation of dark blue to light for a dramatic sky. Otherwise, I have piles and drawers and boxes of paper all around my studio that I use for my illustrations.

When I first started out, playing with what I wanted "my look" to be, I did straight-up watercolors. They were fine but they didn't sing. What I love about the collage is that no matter what is going on in the paper, (flowers, dots, what have you) there is a solid cut line that defines the shape. I feel that brings a certain boldness and drama to the art. It's not soft, that's for sure. I don't think I'll be asked to illustrate a story about fluffy lambs. But I like stories that have a lot of energy and I think my style suits my taste in that way.

Do you have any other books in the works? Tell us about your work-in-progress.

I have two book projects on my editor's desk that I have yet to hear about. One is a follow-up to Wink. It's the story of what happens after he gets noticed - and maybe a little too noticed. Then I have a story about a boy who makes his gym class more exciting than he originally intended. I won't go into them too much, since my editor could call me up and say they both stink. But I'm hoping she'll like at least one of them.

If you could live in any book, which one would it be and why?

Ooooh. Good question. Hmmmm. Let me think. Where the Wild Things Are would be too scary. I would get fat if I live in The Hungry Caterpillar. I think I'd have to go with Zen Shorts by Jon J. Muth, because hanging out with a giant panda, painting and swimming, sounds like a good day to me. Of course, I did take karate in my youth, so attending a ninja school might not be too shabby either. ;)

What are you doing to celebrate publication day?

I don't think I have anything special planned on the actual day. Is that sad? I'm just not a big occasion person. But I am doing a reading at my town library soon after, March 28th, and I'm really looking forward to that. I think a lot of my friends with kids are coming and that will be kinda like my "launch."

Reading your book to a bunch of friends and kids sounds like a great launch to me!

Thanks to J.C. Phillipps for frolicking over to share some background on her book. It sounds like a story readers will get a kick out of!

WINK! THE NINJA WHO WANTED TO BE NOTICED will be released March 19th from Viking Children's. You can read more about J.C. Phillipps at at her blog and website, and at Authors Now!

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Quiet Bunny

I recently received the cutest book. QUIET BUNNY is written and illustrated by Lisa McCue. The art has to be a contender for most adorable ever, with a bunny so sweet you wish you could scoop him up and give him a cuddle.

In the story, Quiet Bunny loves the sounds of the forest and wants to join in the night song where the animals sing, each with their own sound. Unfortunately for Quiet Bunny, he can’t make as much as a peep. We follow Quiet Bunny and all his cuteness as he travels through the forest visiting the different animals and trying to copy their sounds. This is where the fun comes in. My little guy has been having a great time making the animal sounds along with the story, some new to him and some familiar. He loves the loon’s unique sound the best and is determined to get it correct, to my delight. I love it when he puckers his lips!

After much searching, the story crescendos with a new night in the meadow where Quiet Bunny discovers, after a bit of advice, that he just needs to be himself. This gives Quiet Bunny pause and he examines the things that make him unique. They're all very cute, of course. Not much later, he finds that he does indeed have a sound of his own. The animals assemble and join in as Quiet Bunny leads the night song on a fold out page that gathers the animals in all their adorable glory.

Quiet Bunny is a fun read and is an excellent book for storytime. With all the animal sounds, it easily encourages participation. I can imagine a group of children loving this beautiful book and practicing the sounds with each creature. I can hear the oohs and ahhhs as they gather around the big, fold out page at the end, each playing a part in the night song. There’s plenty of sounds to choose from whether it’s the grrrr of the bear, the ch-cheet of the cricket or the wha-wha-wha of the bat.

This book definitely makes my list of books I would want to live in. The soft illustrations are so detailed and beautiful that they invite you right into the story. The setting is lush and green. I can imagine lying in the long grass right next to Quiet Bunny, even if there are a few mosquitos.

And the best part? My little guy has been running around chanting be who you are. Be who you are! Not a bad thing to take away from a book.

QUIET BUNNY, written and illustrated by Lisa McCue, is published by Sterling Publishing Company.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

I Want a Rolling Buddy

I was at the hospital yesterday, and as I'm sure you know, when you're at the hospital you have alot of time to look around. I found something there that is super cool. It was shoved up in the corner behind a curtain like no one even uses it.

Imagine one of those things that they hook IV's up to with the wheels on the bottom so you can walk around with your butt hanging out of your gown. It was a tall pole like that, on wheels, but on the pole was a massive computer screen. I'm not good with guessing measurements, but I want to say at least two of my laptop screens put toghether so that would be like 34". So the screen was at standing height. Below, at comfortable hand height, was a tray with a keyboard. Strapped to the bottom, above the wheels, was the hard drive.

It was perfect. I could get a long extention cord and wheel my computer around with me all day. Into the kitchen, the living room. Out onto the porch. There it would be, my rolling buddy. Don't get me wrong, my laptop is nice. It's just a bit tricky to use, especially when I'm washing dishes.

Thursday, March 5, 2009