The Trojan Horse of Shock Value- Poop

Why a children’s book author would write a book called Poop.


No one ever said writing is without risk. Writing is a funny thing, people ask all the time for you to bear your soul and to be as honest as possible. Actually, only writing that is honest, perceptive, and takes a risk has any shot of being noticed by readers. Yet, even when we bare our core there is still a chance that people won’t like it, or worse, they simply won’t care.

When I started working on Poop two years ago, I was in a bad place both financially and spiritually. I did what most writers do when they can’t figure life out; we write. I purchased a little red Moleskin journal, the writer’s confidant, and plotted out a story about a boy who was also going through a hard time and his imaginary friend that would help him go through it. The plot sat at the front of the book, though I didn’t have all of it, and I would reference back and forth as the year went on and the story continued.

Normally I don’t hand write work, it takes too long, but there is a certain magic that happens when you slow down. Text gets more dense, meaning becomes more layered, and the texture of the words feel organic. The red notebook came out anytime that life got particularly stressful. One of the key moments in the book was even worked on as a real estate agent was negotiating the contract for the house I was living in in the room next to me- a contract that would eventually lead to me needing to find a new home. Emotions charge writing, even if that emotion doesn’t come through on the page.

I wanted Poop to be honest. I wanted it to have emotion, to feel like something that actually happened. Characters were allowed to act on their own, say what they wanted to, and only move the plot forward when they felt like it. Many times I had to restructure the plot simply to afford a character who had made a different decision and, unlike most of my work, I had no idea what the ending would be until the book was almost done.

Poop came from a vast reserve of life experience- much of the plot actually happened to me. During the writing I underwent two cat scans and an endoscopy to root out the cause of my own stomach issues. I had arguments with loved ones just like Liam did and I came to some of the same conclusions on maturity and life that Liam eventually holds. In short, I was translating and understanding my own real world experience into this book. It felt like crystallization, like the memories were being converted into something more solid. Yet it wasn’t a journal.

When I finally finished, I started to understand what I had created. This book, the one with a smiling pile of poo on the cover, was actually about maturity. It was a Trojan horse ready to spring on unsuspecting readers. Liam’s journey through the book is one of self-realization in regards to his place in the world. He starts off feeling like he is the butt of existence, at the mercy of everyone, and it slowly dawns on him that not only is the world not against him- the world really could care less about him.

While that may seem like a harsh lesson, in reality it’s a great relief to the boy. That moment when we realize that life isn’t about us is crucial to maturity. It’s a threshold that some adults never cross (Liam’s father is just such an adult.) This change is entirely facilitated by Liam’s imaginary friend, Poop, who is in actuality Liam’s sense of fatherhood guiding him through the process.

Liam makes mistakes, he acts out for attention, and he heroically strives to solve his problems. He is everything that I wish I was and, eventually, what I became in my own life. For me, Poop represents turning your weaknesses into your strengths through a process of confronting life. Writing the book, in the same way that Liam writes his essay for the climax, was an alchemical process turning a miserable situation into inner peace.

My greatest hope for this book is for it to translate that same process for children going through their own difficulties. Yes, most of the people that respond to it have suffered from celiac or some other stomach condition, however, maturity is something that we all grapple with at one time or another- if not continually.

So why would a writer risk his reputation to publish something with a shocking title? Answer: when a writer feels that it’s the best avenue for conveying truth.

Poop is out and available for your Kindle and in Print. Follow this link to claim your copy.

My Autism, Colette Evangelista- Fellow Fridays

My autism is a part of who I am, like the sound of my laugh and the color of my hair….”

At this point and time I am a dinosaur.  Ten years ago when I noticed that my son seemed a bit “off”, Google predominately said that the three signs of autism were “non-verbal, doesn’t make eye contact, not affectionate”.  Or something to that effect.  My son was a hugger.  He had 12 whole words (for a solid year).  It can’t be autism.  When I questioned our pediatrician at a chronic ear infection visit, he got frustrated that my son kept flipping the lights on and off and opening the cabinet doors over and over.  He was however extremely impressed that a 15 month old could write the most perfect alphabet on the crinkled paper covering the examination table using crayons.  His expert opinion was that I was a “first-time mom” hypochondriac.

When the diagnosis actually came, it knocked my feet out from underneath me.  It would take years before I would even begin to find my equilibrium again.  Why?  Because I hit the hamster wheel.  Fix it.  Fix it. Fix it.  Try this.  Try that.  Do this.  Do that.  Diet.  ABA.  Therapy.  Shots.  Horses…….  WHERE IS MY MAGIC WAND?!?!?  Everyone else seemed to have one.

One night I lay in bed choking on my fear and failure.  I got up, went downstairs, banged out “My Autism” in about twenty minutes, and then promptly forgot all about it.  For 3 years.

I gave up.  Not totally.  I would never do that.  Too much at stake.  But I let go of the intensity of it.  I did my best.  I started to realize that I sucked at implementing ABA in our day, but I was good at pushing my son outside his comfort zone.  I tried to give him as much solid nutrition as possible but didn’t cry over another night where I allowed  Dominos to be for dinner.  

And one typical day in the middle of the week, my son was standing in our kitchen.  I looked at him and had a breathtaking moment of clarity.  He was perfect.  As he was.  I no longer saw “autism” flashing on his forehead.  Autism was one part of who he was, but certainly not all of it.  Autism was now neutral.  How did that happen?  When did that happen?  For years it was something to fight.  To fix.  What total crap.  What a total waste of energy.  My son deserved to have every part of him loved.  And that included the autism.  How could I have conveyed that there was a part of him that was not right?  That his beautiful self could have aspects to it that were scary and broken?  

Let’s be clear.  I had to stop right there.  I had already spent years punishing myself with the guilt of all the things I had done wrong.  Or worse, there were the “right” things I didn’t do enough of.  Now my energy would be directed at acceptance.  “Dear Lord…please help me to love with kindness and without judgment or agenda.”  It was time to celebrate all the good and do our best with what we had to work with.

And then I remembered “My Autism”.  I went back and looked at it.  I wrote THAT?  This positive story from a child’s perspective about having autism?  But  that wasn’t MY truth at the time.  How could I have done that?  

It’s been said that…as autism advocates….it is our job to be the voice of those who need help communicating their message.  “My Autism”  is my son’s truth.  This is our kid’s truth.

My autism is a part of who I am, just like the sound of my laugh and the color of my hair….”

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Colette’s Website: http://www.everyonehasautism.com/

Colette’s “My Autism” Facebook Group: https://www.facebook.com/MyAutismbook/

Writing for Autistic Children

Back in February of this year (2016) I had the pleasure of visiting a class via Skype. I didn’t know this going in, but the class was mostly composed of children on the Autism spectrum. They had a profound love of my books and that drove me to understand more about their needs and how to better serve their families.

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I went on Instagram and started interacting with the parents of ASD children. This led to a lot of fantastic conversations and a heaping helping of empathy on my part. I realized that I had an unusually large number of autistic friends (and former partners) and that the connection between myself and ASD was that I tended to be both over-sensitive and over emotive. My illustrations and writing also have the same tendency.

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So the question became, what kind of books could I make specifically for this audience?  One mother in particular, Mrs. Contreras (who also wrote the dedication for the new book), had a striking story to tell. Her three children are all on the spectrum, albeit at varying ends of the chart, and her household peace exists in a precarious balance. I asked her directly “What could a book do to improve your life?”

“Honestly,” she replied, “I just want to tell my son that it’s okay to hug me.”

I can’t imagine much that’s more painful than your own child refusing physical contact with you.

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From there we discussed pattern breaking (as I brutally phrase it) where a parent is able to convince or coax an ASD child off of an ingrained habit. Usually the pattern is disruptive in some way to either the child’s life or the parent’s well being. Notable examples include needing the parents nearby to sleep, keeping the house pin-drop quiet, or having one specific toy at bath time.

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I couldn’t address all of these issues, but I wanted to create a frame for discussion and specifically talk about Mrs. Contreras chief concern: intimacy. This subject became the central point of the book. The rest of the story, and I’m using that term loosely here, is focused on statement pairs. The first statement normalizes the pattern behavior while the second statement suggests something new that is outside of the pattern. I didn’t want to chide children for doing something that comes natural to them, neither did I want to fall into the trope of “you are a special snowflake that needs separate treatment because you’re not normal.” (I hate any attempt at division, even well-intended division.) The final pattern can be replicated endlessly and my hope is that parents will create their own pairs for their children.

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Once we had the story and the sketches down, I started showing the book to other parents on Instagram. The feedback was fabulous and contributed a lot to the look and feel of the book (even my own father got in the act by demanding better backgrounds.) I also met a therapist that specialized in working with ASD children, Saundra S. Harris M.Ed., CCC-SLP, who was kind enough to create a letter to the parents for the book- to which I am supremely grateful. Other parents noted that the simple language and direct illustrations were well suited to the audience. They were glad that I didn’t go into metaphor land.

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All in all, let his was the most collaborative project I have ever done. It’s my sincerest hope that this work is truly helpful to families out there coping with ASD issues. Doing work like this restricts the audience, as “It’s Ok to Hug” is by no means a bedtime story, but that’ skins of the point. Books are like shoes, there’s no one size fits all, and I much prefer to make books that people need rather than guess what people will want.

“It’s Ok to Hug” is available now on the Amazon Kindle store and on Apple’s iBook platform.

Playing Teacher, Ky Adams- Fellow Fridays

According to my parents, I have been playing “teacher” since I was very young. When I couldn’t corral parents, siblings, cousins or the dog into being my “students”, I would line up stuffed animals and dolls and “teach” them.

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No surprise then that my entire career has been teaching in one way or another. I started my professional life as a Kindergarten teacher and I will never forget the 2nd day of my first year of teaching when the mother of one of my students came to speak to me when she brought her son to class. She told me how much her son loved Kindergarten the day before and that he told her I read them four books. He told her what each one was about. And then she said… “If I had known he liked books so much, I would have read to him.”

I was stunned! But I learned that not everyone views books and reading in the same way. There are many homes where no books are present. Not everyone comes to it from the point of view of an educator. I am so thankful that there are many groups who have done much in the past few years to encourage reading to young children. Many hospitals now even give books to new parents when they leave the hospital with their new baby.

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Even the smallest children learn so much from being read to. They learn about the rhythms and cadences of language. They learn vocabulary. They learn the mechanics of reading: we go from the left to the right and top to bottom. And of course it’s always wonderful to be snuggled on a lap and read to!

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I’m a firm believer that every child should have books that they own and learn to take care of and read over and over. My Zana books are broken up into easy chapters and have lots of pictures to keep young readers engaged. I love early chapter books for young readers, they make them feel “big” and accomplished as readers and they encourage children to stay with a book over several readings. You have to remember the story line and where you left off. Beginning chapter books teach many critical skills like logic (I wonder how that character will get out of this?) Sequencing (understanding how the elements of a story or an event happened in sequence). They can give children valuable insight into decision making. (Well, that didn’t work; I bet she tries something else.)

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I have always been passionate about encouraging young people to read all books but my particular love is science, space and the future. My series of “Zana’s Space Adventures” is a way to get children thinking about the future and space and what our roles will be in it. I created a funny world where a young girl can take off in her own rocket to have space adventures with her sidekick robot Ira and still be home in time for dinner.

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This creates a problem at home for me because my husband is a NASA engineer. He is a wonderful proof reader and he will check manuscripts for grammatical errors and then he’ll say something like; “Now you know this could never really happen… right?” LOL, bless his heart! I tell him that’s why they call it “fiction” honey! And who is to say what is possible in the future? People who drove a horse and buggy never dreamed of the possibilities of flight.

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Children are our future scientists, diplomats, policy makers and inventors. Let’s give them tools that foster creativity, imagination, and problem solving. Our world is complex and only becoming more so, we are going to need some creative thinkers!


Ky’s Books are available at Amazon.com

Follow Ky on Twitter: @GKyAdams

And Facebook: KyAdamsAuthor

How a Forgotten Journal Helped Me Move Beyond a Painful Past – Cat Michaels

Whenever I visit schools visits, some dear child inevitably raises a shy hand to ask how to become a writer. I urge her to write. Keep a journal of your thoughts and what you see around you, I say. Keeping a record sharpens your writing skills and helps you find story ideas.

Children are surprised to learn that I started journaling decades ago as a teen-ager. I let them know my journals provide precious insights into my teen years as I look back on them as an adult. Kids don’t understand this yet. Such wisdom comes with age, I guess.

I stumbled across my first journal recently when cleaning out the attic. Startled to re-read the tiny handwritten scrawls of an insecure adolescent after all this time, I addressed my entries to older darlin’ — the future ME! How did I know capturing my thoughts would offer insights to unravel future challenges and help me move through life! And I can’t tell you why I wrote in slang, but I transcribed my journal, warts and all, faithfully as written.

It’s not easy for me to read Teen Cat’s journal as she pours her heart out. It brings back painful high-school years as if they were yesterday, when my middle-class upbringing and my father’s occupation as a teacher put me on the wrong side of the popular clique tracks in an affluent Connecticut suburb. The timing of this journal, started days before my youngest sibling’s birth, also offers context for my confusion and seeking solace in journaling.

I think there could be a YA coming-of-age story here — if I can find the rest of my journal stashed somewhere in the attic and steel myself to page through so many tender memories.

Please read on and meet Teen Cat. Then encourage the kids in your life to start their own journal. And if YOU haven’t started yet, what are you waiting for?

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===========TEEN CAT’S JOURNAL======================

Page 1 – Introduction

November 1

 

Let me tell you about myself. I’m 15 ½ years old, 5’-1” tall, 113 lbs., brown hair and eyes, a big mouth, but that’s not all. I’m starting this account of all these events for two main reasons.

  1. I can’t tell everybody my problems and
  2. I’ve got to have some way to let out my emotions.

When you finish reading this, older darlin’, if you do finish this and there is an end to these unrelated tales, you can finish the but that’s not all business yourself.

Oh, I suppose that in a few years from now when I read this, I’ll think what a dope I was to feel like this. Remember, older darlin’, in all your wisdom, don’t knock us younger kids. We have feelings, too.

Where did it all begin? I suppose I started the change from a quiet, shy, fat, intelligent girl into a noisier, still shy, and not so fat and not half as intelligent young lady. No, I dislike that word intensely– young lady. I’m young, but a lady sounds so old! What am I really? I’m not that young, but certainly, in the eyes of parents, I’m a mere babe in arms.

Parents…Now there’s a word. If there’s any one thing or any people, who have complete lack of understanding, they’re it. “Do this!” and “Do that!” “What did you say? I’m your mother, not she!”

Know what I say? To h…. with parents!

I gather you think I’m mad. Well, you’re right! Parents think this new generation is so wild and rotten. They go around citing statistics on juvenile crimes, teenage car accidents, and illegitimate pregnancies. Got news for ya, all you parents: it’s all your fault! Who can kids turn to if they have problems? Parents? Don’t be crazy.


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November 3

Had a usual Sunday. Went to church and Sunday school. I was really quiet today. Muriel kept askin’ me what was wrong. I really think this thing [journal] is helpin’ me. What a mess if they [parents] find it.

Oh yes, I saw Scott [at church] today. I think he thinks I like him. Maybe I used to and I could, but not now.

Why do I make such an ass out of myself? I’ve got a big mouth, but it gets me places. Is it good for helpin’ ya be popular? Maybe I should try bein’ quieter.

I wonder what everybody’s opinion is of me? Do they call me giddy or boy crazy? I don’t want that. They must say, ‘Oh, God, here she comes again!” Maybe I should try to act older, not too terribly old. Or I just would smile and shut up and don’t say or do crazy things?

 

Nov. 10 19xx Sunday 10:50 p.m.

I’m in a snot mood.   First of all, I went off my diet. Yesterday, I went shopping and bought a black sweater that doesn’t fit. The only good thing that happened was “The Diary of Anne Frank” was on Saturday Night at the Movies. It was absolutely terrific. I couldn’t stop cryin’ at the end when the Gestapo came to get ‘em.

 

November 11

Lynn came over yesterday and we went for a walk and we got lost. Then she gave me a perm last night   I guess it came out OK, but my hair smells of that Alberto VO-5 junk I put on it to make it less frizzy.

I have no desire to go to school tomorrow. There’s nothin’ for me to look forward to. Maybe if I fixed up my hair really pretty and wore something really sharp, I’d feel a heck of a lot better. My black sweater and knee socks with a gray kilt should be okay.

I just decided to have a mad, passionate, silent unrequited crush on Vinny E. Now wait, maybe I could just go to school for once and not like any fella, couldn’t I, older darlin’? Sure, why not?!?! Go to school with a free mind. Maybe I’ll just happen to like somebody and he’ll like me back. That’d be really sharp!!! What ya say to that, older, darlin’? Think I could?

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Yes, indeed, insecure, desperately searching for identity and belonging, Teen Cat. Yes, indeed. You can do that and tons of even more awesome things. Sending hugs, kisses, and oodles of affirmation that you’ll turn out just fine.

Xxx,

Your Older Darlin’

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About Cat

Cat Michaels writes The Sweet T Tales, chapter books for beginning readers that tell of every day life with a twist of magic and mystery. A former special educator, communications manager for a high-tech company in another lifetime, and enthusiastic digital-dabbler, Cat lives with her family and writes in North Carolina. She is working on her third book in the Sweet T Tales for publication in winter 2016.

Find Cat’s books on Amazon:

http://www.amazon.com/Cat-Michaels/e/B00GEAJQTQ

 Social Media Sites

Website: www.catmichaelswriter.com

Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/catmichaelsbook @catmichaelsbook

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Join Cat’s tribe of readers. Be in the know with in her monthly e-newsletter. http://www.catmichaelswriter.com/contact-cat.html

EXTREME cautionary tales! – Jean Lee

This is part 3 of commentary from Jean Lee. Read Part 1 here and part 2 here.


I don’t pretend to know the vast wealth of children’s literature available to today’s kids. My idea of a classic is NOT another’s; I started reading Sherlock Holmes stories at the age of 8, and my father even read them to me at bedtime. (Link to Jean’s article.) But I also read more age-appropriate fare, such as the Ramona Quimby series and the Chronicles of Narnia.

But in a recent discussion with AJ Cosmo over “how dark is too dark?”, two particular authors arose: Roald Dahl, and Philip Pullman. AJ felt that “Dahl wrote for adults and kids happened to like it.” I can’t help but wonder that in his switching back and forth between stories for kids and grown-ups, he found himself a grey area and plunked down there every now and again to write.

Goodness, I hadn’t even thought about the fact that Dahl did write for adults: Some Time Never, Kiss Kiss, My Uncle Oswald…yowza. And even the cover series seems to blend the lines a little. If you visit the official Roald Dahl website, you’ll see that the latest cover illustrations aren’t limited to the kid’s books. Going Solo is Dahl’s account of his early adulthood, which includes war conflicts and a plane crash.

Appropriate material for one on the cusp of puberty, I suppose, but not for one my daughter’s age. And if one’s a beleaguered parent on three hours of sleep snatching up pretty-looking covers like Matilda and James and the Giant Peach, what’s to stop her from grabbing Going Solo?

Then there’s the stories themselves. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is well-known by all, with two film adaptations, to boot. Children get to read/watch other children be squished through tubes, shrunk, turned into fruit, attacked by squirrels (in Tim Burton’s version, anyway) and sent towards an incinerator, all in a magical factory full of sweets. This is barely one level up from a gingerbread house and a witch determined to throw kids into an oven. The Brothers Grimm tale “Hansel and Gretel” was told as a cautionary tale, and I wonder if Dahl didn’t have that same mindset as he wrote: parents, tell your kids to beware of too many sweets. Of wanting too much. Of staring at the tv too long. Of being too competitive. Of stealing. Dahl WANTED kids to be scared.

Don’t agree? Have you read/seen The Witches? If ever a story scared me s***less, it’s that one. People threw a huge hulabaloo over Suzanne Collins’ description of a child getting speared in Hunger Games. The witches of Dahl’s story are kidnapping children, never to return them into the proper world. One child is magically inserted into a painting inside her family’s house. Her family gets to watch her live the rest of her life in the painting. She dies, in. The. Painting. How is that NOT horrifying?

Philip Pullman gives his villains an equally horrific task in The Golden Compass. In the primary world of the His Dark Materials trilogy, protagonist Lyra and other human beings are born with what are called daemons—an animal-like creature. It has its own thoughts and speech, but it can’t help but reflect the inner nature of its companion human, too, especially children, for it morphs into creatures that befit the child’s maturity and/or mood. It is the human’s soul, and companion. Upon first reading this, I thought it a very creative, cool move on Pullman’s part.

Then come the Magisterium, the powerful theocratic force throughout Lyra’s world. On the surface they are simply bureaucratic and awful. But when Lyra’s hunt for her kidnapped friend takes her up to the snowy north, she discovers a secret facility run by the Magisterium, where they perform intercisions. What are intercisions? We learn when Lyra meets one of the practice’s victims in a forest:

He spoke, and Iorek Byrnison said: “He says that isn’t the not the only child of that kind. He’s seen others in the forest. Sometimes they die quickly, sometimes they don’t die. This one is tough he thinks. But it would be better for him if he died.”

The little boy was huddled against the wood drying rack where hung row upon row of gutted fish, all as stiff as boards. He was clutching a piece of fish to him as Lyra was clutching Pantalaimon (her daemon), with her left hand, hard, against her heart; but that was all he had, a piece of dried fish; because he had no daemon at all. The Gobblers had cut it away. That was intercision, and this was a severed child.

Later Lyra is kidnapped by the Magisterium and joins other children being held for intercisions. Nurses there call it “just a little cut” to help them grow up and ensure their daemons don’t change. Only the daemons turn ghost-like, and the children, worse. Beware the church, children, I could see Pullman say. It will take your soul, and leave you lifeless.

Did I mention Lyra is only 11 years old in The Golden Compass? Stories with kid protagonists are usually marketed to the age group slightly younger; that means kids not much older than my daughter are meant to read about children literally being severed from their souls. How is that not terrifying?

Yes, different children can handle different levels of darkness, just as some kids need nightlights and some kids don’t. A friend of mine would see Golden Compass as “full of talking points” to have with her daughter. Perhaps your child is capable of discussing soul severance and witches snatching you from your doorstep. Considering the state of today’s world, these talks are certainly worth having. But please, do consider when you start that talk. Know your child. Nurture her bravery, wit, and spirit. Only then, when she can walk over the separation from reality to story and back can you, as parent and child, face the darkness together.


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Jean Lee has been writing all her life, from picture books for preschool to a screenplay for her Masters in Fine Arts. Nowadays she blogs about the fiction, music, and landscape that inspire her as a writer. She currently lives in Wisconsin with her husband and three children.

A Different Sort of Alphabet – Sarah Steele, Fellow Fridays

I met Sarah through on online writer’s group. Shortly after my blog imploded, Sarah was kind enough to help me re-start Fellow Fridays. So please give her a warm welcome. 😀


Our children are learning daily in school that there is one right answer. One way to write their numbers, one date for each event, one character that was the hero. And there is certainly a place for the one right response! But when it comes to art and the imagination and entrepreneurship, children need to be encouraged to think outside of what is expected, to look at the world with eyes, fresh and unassuming. We (the ones with the old, assuming eyes) need them to do this! And this is why my husband and I collaborated on our first two children’s books—to give us all an opportunity to look at ordinary items in unusual ways.

Our first book, The Shoephabet, features colored pencil illustrations of shoes formed into letters (shoelaces are quite helpful in this endeavor). Each shoe has a rhyme that highlights its personality. Children are constantly trying to place their own shoes into letter formation while they read this book, and in fact, we encourage this. Shoes will always only be accessories worn on the bottoms of feet unless we gain the ability to look at them in different ways.

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Our second book, The Monsterbet, is much sillier and downright Seussical. From the creative monsters and hilarious rhymes to the bright colors and monster font, this whole book shouts for kids to engage their imaginations and to let this book only be the diving board into the world of the unusual, the inventive, and yes, even the slimy. And the repetitive phrase “The ABCs do not scare me!” is sure to keep your kids actively participating while you read together. (While our books are officially targeted to ages 3-7, we have found that no one is too young…or too old to be entertained by shoes and monsters.)

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As a one-right-answer girl myself, I found The Monsterbet much more difficult to write. (We wrote these books backwards to many—illustrations first and then words.) The shoes in The Shoephabet were easy to identify and had clear roles—the steel-toed boots worked hard, the wrestling shoe wrestled, the ballet slipper danced. Even the more ambiguous ones still obviously walked or played. But when I came to the creatures in The Monsterbet, I found my box expanding or better yet, disappearing altogether. What does a monster do? The answer was always…anything! So I took my cues from some of their unique characteristics and started making lists upon lists of adjectives, nouns, and verbs that pertained to each individual monster. (The snot and slime also pushed me out of my usual comfort zone and deep into the middle school boy section of my brain. Who knew that even existed?!)

Because of these books, my own children now look at trees and clouds and blades of grass to see what letters they can find all around them. So if your child has a great imagination or one that could use some prodding (or if your own imagination could stand to be stirred), you will surely find inspiration enough in these two alphabet books, The Shoephabet and The Monsterbet.

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Check out my website for free coloring pages of the illustrations in both of these books!

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Sarah’s books are available on both Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble.com

Visit Sarah at here website: http://bysarahsteele.com/

Or connect with her via Linked in!

How dark is too dark in kid’s lit? – Jean Lee

This is part 2 in a series from Jean Lee. You can check out part 1 here.


As my daughter’s sixth birthday drew to a close, my husband Bo revealed one final present: a tattered paperback titled Bunnicula. “This was one of my favorite stories when I was a kid,” he said as Blondie jumped into bed. She studied the cover showing a shaggy dog, wide-eyed cat, and red-eyed rabbit with pointed teeth. “Oooo, it’s a vampire bunny!” she squealed.

My copy of Diana Wynne Jones’ Wild Robert was quickly forgotten. Any request to read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe with me was met with a, “Those books are weird.” But vampire bunnies? Totally acceptable.

Still, I sighed, it’s a good Daddy-Daughter time. Let’em be.

Bunnicula devoured, Bo dug out Howliday Inn. The cover itself is quite a change: Chester the cat’s hair stands on end as Harold the shaggy dog cowers behind him. A house reminiscent of Psycho looms behind them while lightning flashes across the sky. It’s literally darker, and spookier.

The content even more so. Just two nights into reading, Bo steps out during Blondie’s prayers with a worried look on his face. “Maybe I should’ve skimmed through this first.”

I look up from grading. “Why, what’s wrong?”

“Chester’s accusing some dogs of murder, and another pet’s talking about husband’s murdering wives.”

Uh oh. “Is Blondie okay?”

“She just sat quiet, like normal, but…eesh.” He went back to finish prayers with her. I listened to Blondie carefully the next day: no play-talk about murder, or questions about murder. She understood death as much as a little kid can (her grandfather died when she was three), but “murder” had been just a word in a story she knew to be made-up. And the story itself focused more on disappearing pets than on murder…until the end, where Chester explained he felt certain the human culprit behind the disappearances planned on exterminating pet parents after selling off their valuable puppies.

Yikes! We’re reading this to a first-grader!

Now our Blondie, and many other children, can handle this level of darkness just fine. They see a stark separation between “story” and “reality,” so if something unpleasant happens in the story, they know it won’t directly affect them. It’s when that separation thins that we get into trouble with such kids. For example, my kids finally saw Wall-E for the first time a month ago. After the fourth viewing Blondie started inserting her own commentary. “Look at that planet! It’s EARTH! It’s covered in garbage! Our earth could never be like that.” When I told her that actually, if we don’t take care of our earth, it could very well look like that, she grew solemn. “But Wall-E isn’t real. It’s just a story.” Yes, but it’s a story that reminds us we need to be careful so the real earth doesn’t look like that. She thinks again. “Wall-E is real, but it happened a long time ago.” Sigh, no, I didn’t say that, but I was doing something she wasn’t used to: I was thinning the separation between story and reality. Wall-E is a delightful science fiction adventure, yes, but it’s a cautionary tale, too, one that not all kids are prepared to handle.

Other authors push the limits into darkness, too, if you care to hear me out next week.


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Jean Lee has been writing all her life, from picture books for preschool to a screenplay for her Masters in Fine Arts. Nowadays she blogs about the fiction, music, and landscape that inspire her as a writer. She currently lives in Wisconsin with her husband and three children.

Real Lessons in Unreal Books, Jean Lee

I met Jean via Twitter and connected over the idea that sometimes the best way to communicate a solution to a real problem is through a fantasy story. Personally, I go back and forth between realism and screaming monsters, so this question is particularly pertinent. So here’s Jean Lee with an excerpt from “Lessons Learned, a collection of essays” to shed some light.


In Reflections on the Magic of Writing, Diana Wynne Jones notes more than once that she received flak for not writing “Real Books.” Real Books were to be about present-day, everyday-world children handling real, everyday problems: abusive parents, poverty, illness, etc. These books should then be passed on to kids actually experiencing said problems to…I don’t know, strengthen character or something. She didn’t get it either, which is why you don’t see any Real Books with Jones’ name on them. (Personally I like her recollection of fellow writer Jill Paton Walsh’s words on the matter: “If you know two people who are divorcing, would you give them each a copy of Anna Karenina? Can you imagine a less helpful book? Yet people do this to children all the time.”)

What I do love is Jones’ own style of handling Real Problems in Unreal Ways. Take Witch Week, or Year of the Griffin—who doesn’t experience some lousy spells (couldn’t resist, sorry) in school? It doesn’t matter that one of the main characters in Year is a griffin: she’s a still a new student trying to find her way through a school with horrible teachers. Eight Days of Luke, Black Maria, and Fire and Hemlock all have terrible adult guardians the child protagonist has to survive; some are mean, some are self-centered, and some are, well, magical.

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Now granted, I haven’t completed my journey through all of Jones’ work, but I did just finish The Ogre Downstairs. As I read the final pages, it occurred to me that this was the first book where magic was part of the problem, but not the solution. It’s a story of a mixed family created by a widow marrying a divorced man the widow’s children nickname The Ogre. The Ogre’s two sons are just as beastly at the outset. When The Ogre gives each group of children a unique chemical set (enter the magic!), everything gets profoundly worse with The Ogre, but better among the children. Why? Because they work together to figure out how to stop floating, or how to get their minds re-switched to their proper bodies. Magic forces them to see things from each other’s perspective, and from this they unite against The Ogre.

Magic completely destroys a party the widow wanted so badly to succeed, and the row afterwards drives the widow out of the house for space. Everyone feels terrible, including The Ogre, who is not, the children realize, an ogre at all. The story ends with a family that better understands each other and, thanks to a final round with the magical chemistry sets, enough money to live in a new house sans magic toffee creatures or living dust balls. So yes, I suppose the magic did help with a solution in the way end, but the primary conflict was not solved by magic, but by understanding and teamwork.

A Real Book kind of solution to a Real Book kind of problem in an Unreal Book. Fancy that.


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Jean Lee has been writing all her life, from picture books for preschool to a screenplay for her Masters in Fine Arts. Nowadays she blogs about the fiction, music, and landscape that inspire her as a writer. She currently lives in Wisconsin with her husband and three children.

Sandra Bennett, Australian Children’s Author- Fellow Friday

Picture Books Are Wonderful Conversation Starters

Have you ever been afraid of the dark?

Frightened of monsters hidden under your bed or in your wardrobe?

Picture books can be a wonderful way to start a conversation with children about ways of facing those fears or sorting through other emotions.

Why not read a picture book and start a discussion today?

I realized the power of picture books and their potential to start a dialogue when I was teaching a year 5 class one day. It was one of those moments when I needed an impromptu lesson, so I grabbed a picture book out of my trusty resource bag and began to read aloud. The initial class response was stunned silence. What was I thinking reading them something with pictures and very few words! It didn’t take them long to sit back, relax and enjoy the experience. After reading the story, the real work began. A lengthy conversation ensued that lead to some amazing writing of their own. I had re-opened the world of picture books to 10 and 11 year old students.

 

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What was this amazing picture book that enlightened and brought so much wonder to our classroom? One of my favourites, “Diary of a Wombat” by Jackie French. Written so simplistically, yet capturing the character of a wombat so magnificently.

Since then I’ve now written two Australian picture books myself. My goal, is to introduce unusual Australian creatures to children around the world while opening opportunities for conversations with parents and teachers. Through my stories children can learn a little about Australia’s environment, the animals that call it home and something about themselves along the way. Each book finishes with a few fun facts about the characters contained in the story.

My newest release is “Frazzled Freya.” A rather timid frill neck lizard so scared of shadows and unknown monsters she is too frightened to join in all the fun and games with her desert friends. Set in the harsh Australian Outback, the vivid yet earthy colours used by my illustrator, Dianna Budd, depict perfectly the heat of the sun Freya is desperate to avoid.

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Parents, teachers and children can read along and discover Freya’s journey to triumph as she conquers her fear with a little help from a few unusual desert friends. The story provides an excellent opportunity to begin talking to your little ones about facing their fears, trying new experiences and stepping outside of their comfort zone.

Emma the Eager Emu,” tells the tale of a very unusual bird who can’t understand why she is so different from all her friends at flying school. She is desperate to learn to fly and be just like everyone else. An assortment of colourful yet different species of Australian birds come to Emma’s aid. Through her tenacity to never give up, Emma eventually learns the significance of individualism and discovers her own special way of doing things. This is another wonderful conversation starter as children struggle to fit into peer groups at school and learn to understand and embrace their own unique qualities and differences.

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Is there a topic you feel you would like to discuss with your child? I’ll bet you can find a picture book to help lead you into the conversation. So, pick up a picture book today, snuggle with your child tonight, share the book and read aloud together. If you’re a teacher, don’t be afraid to use a picture book in a middle grade classroom. You just might be surprised by the conversation it helps start.


Sandra’s Website

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Grab your copy of Frazzled Freya here or Emma the Eager Emu here