May 29, 2009

Goodnight Moon -- More than a Classic

I was at a baby shower recently where the mom-to-be received a copy of Goodnight Moon. A guest behind me whispered, “I don’t get why kids love that book. I think it’s dumb.” I wished that she had been with me when our public library honored Goodnight Moon in 2007. It was the book’s 60th anniversary, and at a story hour kids were asked why the book is a favorite. From their point of view, this is why Goodnight Moon isn’t dumb:

First of all, there’s the little, white mouse. She silently scampers through the story, but grownups might not notice until a child points her out. You have to look hard to find her. You might miss that she’s snatching mush from a bowl on the bedside table or that she’s silhouetted in the moonlight on the book’s last page. Children see her right away. They wish that there were more pages in Goodnight Moon, so they could find the mouse again.

If you look closely, in the Great Green Room you’ll see kittens playing with balls of yarn. Grownups ask: "Don’t those kittens see the mouse? Why isn’t the mouse afraid of the kittens?" Children know the answer. According to a young boy named Benjamin, there’s a very good reason why the mouse isn’t afraid. “It’s a story, and in stories cats don’t actually eat mice.” The idea that children see the mouse when the cats don’t is another little secret in Goodnight Moon.

Children identify with Little Bunny in his blue striped pajamas. He’s tucked into bed, but just for a while. They notice that he climbs out from under the covers and fluffs his pillow. He sits with his paws wrapped around his bent knees, watching the kittens play. Children giggle when he says goodnight to – nobody! That’s because they understand that nobody goes to bed until they've exhausted all their excuses to stay up just a little bit longer.

Then there’s the old lady in the rocking chair. Who is she? Ask a child, and you might learn that it’s Little Bunny's grandma. She’s come to tuck him in. The old lady sits quietly in the rocking chair and whispers, “Hush.” Grownups don’t notice, but kids do, that Little Bunny is getting sleepy. Kids know that the old lady will stay until Little Bunny is sound asleep. That’s what grownups do, after all, when kids are afraid of the dark. The proof is on the last page where Little Bunny lies sleeping, and the old lady is gone.

Benjamin offered another observation. Don’t forget about the toy house. It’s there, tucked away in the corner of the pages. There’s nothing particularly interesting about it. “But, hey! Somebody left the lights on!” Children notice that although the bedroom is dark and the old lady is gone, there are lights on inside the toy house. They find those lights comforting.

Oh, and there’s one more thing grownups might not notice when they read Goodnight Moon. A five-year-old named Ashley pointed it out. “They left a fire burning in the fireplace, and nobody is watching it. That’s not safe; it’s dumb.”

Yes, Ashley, leaving a fire burning unattended is dumb, and Goodnight Moon is not. You know it, and so does every other child who’s recited the words: "Goodnight room, goodnight moon, goodnight cow jumping over the moon…"


To commemorate the 50th anniversary of this classic, the publisher, Harper Collins, invited readers to leave comments on their web site. I can’t end this week’s blog posting without sharing the following with my readers. It appeared on the Harper Collins site in 1997.

“I hesitate to send in a very personal story, but I want to share a different aspect of the power of this little book. It's power to comfort and to sooth bedtime fears with the warmth and security of the "great green room" on every page, has taken on an even more profound meaning in our family and our community. I have read Goodnight Moon to my two sons since the oldest was born in 1980. When I was 42, I found out that I was going to have a daughter. Goodnight Moon was Georgia's first and her favorite book. She kissed the kittens and waved to the moon. She begged all of us to read it to her, but it was our 10-year-old son, Walker, who was most often found sitting with her reading the story. Georgia died in 1994 in an accident on her second birthday. 500 people crowded into the church to comfort us and to comfort each other. Walker, who has learning disabilities and has had a hard time learning to read, got up to read Goodnight Moon. He was visibly nervous, but several pages in, he forgot all about the people crowded into the church, and he read unhesitatingly from the heart. A friend sitting beside the children's librarian from our public library, noticed her lips moving as she silently recited the words of this beloved book along with him. Later, we realized that she wasn't the only one. Of all the events of that week, of all the music, talk and readings at the funeral, it was Goodnight Moon that brought the greatest comfort. Thank you Margaret Wise Brown for this enduring book and thank-you Harper Collins for honoring it.”

Goodnight stars,
Goodnight air,
Goodnight noises everywhere.

May 18, 2009

Look, Listen, and Learn. Three Simple Steps to Creating Great Children’s Book Characters

Lemony Snicket, Severus Snape, Sludge, Petunia Periwinkle. I love funny or unusual names. When I stumble across one, I scribble it on a three-by-five card and store it in a small, plastic box on my desk. It’s a great help when I’m creating story characters. A unique name fashions an image in my mind. As I “see” the character, I form a basic idea of his or her personality. Imagine these colorful individuals romping through the pages of children’s books: Ruby Knuckles, Roman Peeples, Ivory Hunter, Clora Odora. Of course, naming characters is just the beginning. The real task is giving them life.

A great character-generating tool is a Look, Listen, and Learn Journal. To make one, you simply divide a notebook into three equal parts labeled Look, Listen, Learn. Then, follow these steps:

1. Look. Get into the habit of looking for interesting people. Some great people watching spots are train stations, airports, fast food restaurants, and other places that attract an eclectic mix of cultures, ages, and personalities. Choose one person. Then write a detailed description of him or her in the Look section of your journal. Try to do this every day, and include a wide variety of people. Focus just on what you see, and add details beyond a basic physical description. Ask yourself, “What is it about this person that provides clues to his or her individuality?” Look for things like facial expressions, gestures, a unique gait, and so on. When you write a story, this part of the journal will help your character development. How characters look and act provide clues about their personalities. You want to show readers who your characters are instead of tell them.

2. Listen. Tune in to conversations all around you. I know; it’s eavesdropping, but it’s also a great way to become keenly aware of dialogue – how real people sound when they’re having real conversations. Listen and make notes in the Listen section of your notebook. If you hear an interesting conversation that you think might work in a story, capture the essence in your journal. Also, listen for dialect and unusual words and phrases. Describe the different tones of voice that you hear and the unique ways that people pronounce individual words. For example, here’s a conversation that I heard between a couple in a hospital waiting room.

“Moira, those sure were good panacakes we had at the diner this morning.”
“Henry, ain’t ya glad I seen the coupon in the Handy Shopper?”
“Yeah. I sure liked them blueberry ones. Very tasty.”
“I meant to tell ya, Henry, but I forgot. They stained your dentures.”

Dialogue can provide an excellent starting point for character development. As you listen, try not to look. Let your imagination suggest an image of the person speaking. Listen for personality clues in tone and inflection.
Try this exercise: Write a paragraph that includes the dialogue between Moira and Henry. In your paragraph, show readers what the characters look like, and provide details that hint at their individual personalities. If you’d like, you may share your paragraph in the Comments section following this post.

3. Learn. The third step toward creating great characters is to learn about customs and cultures very different from your own. Pick a world nation, and learn about its people. Choose a period in the past, and discover how people lived. Find out about unique occupations, ethnic foods, and traditional dress. Try to do this at least weekly, and record your findings in the Learn section of your notebook. As you create characters for your stories, think about heritage. Where did your character, or his/her family come from? What customs might have been handed down through the generations?

Some of the best fictional characters are based on real people. As you add to your Look, Listen, and Learn Journal, you will be creating a valuable character reference guide for your writing. Try it this week, and share some of your entries in the Comments section. I look forward to reading them.

May 10, 2009

National Children’s Book Week -- May 11-17

I was a lucky kid. My mom loved books almost as much as she loved me. Because I had no brothers or sisters to compete with her time, I was spoiled by hours upon hours of stories. Mom often read from the classics. When I was three, my favorite was Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem, “The Song of Hiawatha.” I had no idea what the poem meant, but I loved the way the words sounded when my mother read them: “On the shores of Gitche Gumee/ Of the shining Big-Sea-Water/ Stood Nokomis, the old woman/ Pointing with her finger westward/ O'er the water pointing westward/ To the purple clouds of sunset.” My other favorites were Editha’s Burgler by Frances Hodgson Burnett and also a great anthology of children’s stories packed into several musty, old volumes called Journeys Through Bookland. These books that my mother kept from her childhood were treasures. I knew it then as well as I know it today.

By the time I was five, I had a library card. Every week, Mom took me to the library, and we spent an hour or more wandering among the stacks. It was there that she introduced me to books by Dr. Seuss, Robert McCloskey, and the Madeline books by Ludwig Bemelmans. I was only allowed to check out three books at a time. It was the librarians' rule, not my mother's. I was jealous that Mom went home with more books than I did, and I couldn't wait until I was grown up so I could check all of the books out of the library at once – if I wanted to.

In elementary school, I discovered series books. Oh, how I loved the Bobbsey Twins, Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, and the Boxcar Mysteries. By third grade, I couldn't get enough of simple chapter books like Pippi Longstocking and Ramona the Pest. Later, I enjoyed the Newbery winners The Witch of Blackbird Pond, Island of the Blue Dolphins, and A Wrinkle in Time. I'm sure that after I went to sleep at night, Mom borrowed my books and read a few chapters. She knew way more about what was in those books than any mom was supposed to know.

When I was a teenager, I still liked the classics. My favorites were To Kill a Mockingbird, The Chronicles of Narnia, and Great Expectations. I also read contemporary young adult fiction
like The Pigman and Go Ask Alice. Mom thought that some of the young adult books were okay; others she disapproved of. Society was changing and so was its literature. Mom, not so much.
I went on to the university to study elementary education. There, I read every picture book that I could get my hands on. I shared the best ones with my mother, and she enjoyed them as much as I did. Together, we savored soon-to-be classics by Ezra Jack Keats, Maurice Sendak, and Jane Yolen. We also fell in love with the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Mom never went to college, but she got her degree by proxy. She didn't just read the kids' books, she read all of my textbooks, too.

In my senior year, I decided to change my career path. After receiving my teaching degree, I went for a Master’s in Library Science. My thesis was titled “An Annotated Bibliography and Evaluation of Young Adult Fiction – Social Concerns of the Adolescent.” I read dozens of contemporary young adult novels for research. I enjoyed every minute of it. Mom read them too, and she complained about how much books had changed since she was a girl when authors wrote about “nice things.” (It was the 70’s after all, and Mom was beyond relating to hippies, protest marches, and Three Dog Night.)

My mother's love of books had a powerful influence on my life. If she hadn’t introduced me to “The Song of Hiawatha,” Editha’s Burgler, and Journeys Through Bookland, I doubt that I would be writing today. She lived long enough to see me through a career as an editor at a children’s publishing company, and then, shortly before she died, to read several books with my name on the cover. She was so proud of me, but not as proud as I am of her for introducing me to great literature at such a young age.

Sometimes, I complained when she read my books. Sometimes, I said not-so-nice things to her when she complained about the "not so nice" YA novels. Through the years, Mom and I talked for hours and hours about books. The one thing I never told her was how grateful I was for her love of literature, and how much I loved sharing it with her. This week – Children’s Book Week – seems like the perfect time to say:

"Thanks, Mom."

May 5, 2009

Journaling for Posterity – 10 Tips for Writers

Writers journal for many reasons. One of the best is for posterity. The simple observations you write today could become history lessons for the next generation. Wonderful whispered secrets lie between the covers of old journals, hidden bits of life tucked away waiting to be rediscovered.

While researching a writing assignment, I stumbled across a diary that Laura Ingalls Wilder kept during the summer of 1894. She and her young family were traveling by wagon from South Dakota to Missouri, and Laura wrote with pencil in a tiny five-cent memory book. She recorded simple details of their 650-mile journey, the rough roads, small towns, and people they met along the way. She wasn’t thinking of publication, instead she was writing just to write – to give her thoughts substance and sustainability. Years later, Laura’s daughter, Rose, edited the journal, and in 1962 it was published as an historical account of life on the pioneer trail. You might know it as Laura Ingalls Wilder's book, On the Way Home.

The writing desk Laura Ingalls Wilder used, made by her husband, Almanzo

Each spring, when the daffodils and tulips bloom, I pull out my copy of The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady. As I browse the pages, I remember that its author, Edith Holden, like Laura Ingalls Wilder, never planned for her diary to be published. Its pages were merely the canvas on which she recorded notes and paintings about nature. In fact, her journal wasn’t discovered until 1977, decades after her death. Most likely, Edith Holden would be surprised to know that her simple musings had become a best-selling book and a respected historical guide for naturalists.

©Henry Holt & Co (August 1977)

With these two examples in mind, think about journaling not only for yourself, but also for future generations. Plan to write about your life as if it will be read 100 years from now.

Here are ten tips to get you started:

1. Don’t worry about journaling every day. If something tugs at your heart, catches your interest, or makes you laugh, pick up your notebook or laptop and write about it.

2. Try not to sugarcoat your words. Write truthfully about your heartaches and frustrations.

3. Write about your family, friends, and the strangers you meet. Include facts, events, details, and dates.

4. Write about what you love and what you find interesting. Don’t worry about it being boring. What seems like the most ordinary thought today might be of great interest decades, or even a century, from now.

5. Write about the world. What is happening socially and politically? How do you feel about it?

6. Imagine your journal being passed from generation to generation. What would you like future generations to know? What ideas and values would you share with them? What advice would you give?

7. Don’t revise, rewrite, or be concerned about punctuation and spelling. Record your thoughts or observations, and then move on.

8. Let your words flow. Don’t worry about writing too much or too little. Write from the heart and let your gut tell you when enough is enough.

9. Include sketches, photographs, and other keepsakes. Although this isn’t a scrapbook, there’s no reason not to tuck little treasures among its pages.

10. Preserve what you write. Don’t keep your journal such a secret that it can’t be found. Keep it in a safe place. Tell your children about it. Some writers I know have willed their journals to their children with the request that they be kept in the family and passed down through the generations.

Who knows? Maybe someday yours will be among other famous published journals, like
The Diary of Anne Frank, The Journals of Lewis and Clark, or Caroline Henderson’s Letters From the Dust Bowl. If not, the outcome will be just as gratifying. You will have preserved your personal history and given your children and grandchildren the wonderful gift of their family legacy.