Tuesday, November 29, 2011


I was asked when I started writing seriously. I have to confess it was long ago. I was six and had just learned how to form the letters. I wanted to be a poet, so I wrote:


The flower grows and grows

And so it goes.

Something like that, for it was in Hebrew, my native tongue. I think it’s improved a bit in translation.

My parents had a close friend who was a more or less famous poet. Well, at least he was published and we had his books. So when I heard he was coming for a visit, I sat with my notebook in front of the door, waiting for him, so I could show him my poetry.

The published poet gave my poems serious consideration. It exceeded the consideration I have gotten from most slush piles since. But the verdict was the same. In fact, he went one further. “I don’t think you should be a poet,” he said.

And this is my excuse for rarely writing poetry. But he didn’t say anything about writing stories, so I continued to write those for many years. I did this until I reached that strange age, the age where nothing you do seems good enough. Then I stopped.

But time didn’t stop, and finally I reached another age, where getting anything done seems miraculous. I started writing again, and this time I was thinking about sharing my writing with people I didn’t know personally.

Writing for publication is a much more disciplined sort for me. But in a way it connects all the way back to a six year old girl, sitting on a door step, waiting for her reader.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Losing a feline Friend

When our neighbors relocated six months ago, they moved about a mile away. With them went their adorable dog and two cats, all of whom had become an extension of our family. A few weeks later, one of the cats, Clyde, showed up at our back door. We called his family and they picked him up.

This was the beginning of a hundred such calls. Clyde was doing his best to move to our house. How he found his way here in the first place amazed me, but he was one of the smartest cats I have ever known.

Our former neighbors did not give up easily. They told us we best not let their cat in the house, never feed him, and return him as soon as we spot him. This started phase two of  ‘Operation Acclimate Clyde’. I think I drove him in my car back to them at least fifteen times. He didn’t mind the car at all, and almost like a dog, he would look out the side window. That’s when he didn’t sit on the dashboard looking out the windshield window, obstructing my drivers’ view. You can imagine a cop waving me over to tell me, “Ma’am, do you know you have a cat on your windshield?”

We adored this fellow, but he was not ours, so we kept returning him. Then two weeks ago it all stopped. I hoped he was finally at his new home for good. A week ago our old neighbors Emailed to ask if we had seen him, for they have not, for a week or so.

This morning I got this Email:

I write with very sad news about our Clyde. We found him dead under the lemon tree in our back garden two days ago. He was not cut, nor outwardly physically harmed. Just before he disappeared last week, he had stopped wolfing down his wet food as he did, and we remarked that he did not seem like himself. I'd say he was sick, and he ran away to die in peace and away from us all.

So Clyde has been dead for at least two days. Now here’s an odd bit: yesterday evening (about six or so) my daughter heard scratching at our living room window. When she turned around, she thought she saw Clyde. When he disappeared, she was convinced he had fallen into the ivy below, and she ran out with a flashlight and called him over and over.

DH suggested I write to our former neighbors and tell them our daughter had spotted Clyde. I didn’t, because I thought she could not have been right about it. He never ever came in through that window before, and I just didn’t think it even possible for him, or any cat, to reach it.

A bit of Wuthering Heights with a feline twist.

I’m posting this as a memorial to a special cat friend. Just seeing his name up here makes me feel good.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011


Most “How-to” books for picture book writers tell us that after our book is contracted, it is the editor’s job to find the illustrator. In most cases, these books say, the writer is not consulted.

            Harold Underdown’s Idiot’s Guide is my go-to reference book for every stage I have not yet been through. So when I got The Call after years of submitting, I read ahead.

            All right, it’s not my role. Let’s hope for the best. Regardless, I will respond in a professional manner.

            The editor sent samples from three artists. I had a strong preference. My preference turned out not to be available for some time. The editor sent links to six other illustrators. Again, I had a preference. Yet again, this artist was not available.

            But I kept reminding myself that I am being consulted, and this is more than I had the right to expect. I thanked my editor at every stage of consultation.

            One of the main characters in my story is a turkey. I was anxious that the artist be up to the task- a lovable turkey any kid would want to hang out with is not a simple matter. I shared my concern with the editor, who then informed me that an artist was working on a sample of the main characters right then. Niles, the boy, and the turkey, will soon enter the formal realm.

Only days later, the Email arrived. What do you think? It said. I could feel my temples throbbing as I opened the attachment. I stared, and Niles and his turkey stared back at me.

The turkey was likable enough, but Niles the kid looked like Niles the brat. The colors could have been done better, and the feeling of the illustration had the effect of deflating my balloon.

Breath, I thought. Let the editor know, using the most positive language you can muster, why this isn’t right. Remember this is not your decision.

The editor responded almost immediately, agreeing that we needed to look further. I felt that I have dodged a bullet, and again thanked him for caring about my opinion.

“We want you to like the illustrations,” he said. I thanked the powers that be for the umpteenth time for giving me this opportunity, and putting such a caring editor in charge.

So when the second illustrator’s sample of Niles and his turkey showed up, I was not quivering anymore. But I did take a deep breath before opening the Email. Reactions? The editor asked.

This one was a monumental letdown, making the first artist’s rendering shine. This Niles looked positively stupid, (I know, we’re not supposed to use this word) and his turkey was the stuff nightmares are made of. I longed for the first artist. At least there the turkey was all right. How can I use the sandwich method and reply to this? The ship was going down.

Once again I thanked my editor for consulting me, and I told him the first sample was better than the second. I tried to keep Underdown’s advice and sound professional, not emotional.

I shared my feelings, but not the illustrations, with my kids. “Mom,” my son said. “You’d better accept the third one no matter what, or the publisher will not like you anymore.” Don’t think that hadn’t occurred to me. I could just hear the publisher in my mind: “Go away, you ungrateful, picky, who-do-you-think-you-are.”

And then the third sample came. When I opened it, like in a movie, a symphony of harmonious sound burst from the page. Like in a good story, the third one was the climax. And the charm. And the answer to my prayers. I was in love.

I could not have done a better job of the illustration. It was, simply put, right.

Like a classic story there was one more obstacle to overcome.

“I hope we get this artist,” I wrote to the editor.

Less than a day later the Email came. Ms. Sonya Hallett agreed to take the project.

Of all the happy milestones of a first-time publication, it was not The Call, or getting the contract, or the first part of the advance. It was the match with the right illustrator that has made me the happiest.

When I shared my surprise at this with a multi-published picture book colleague, she had the perfect explanation. “It was the first time you no longer dreamed of, but could actually see your book.”

Sadly, the project was canceled on the eve of publication. The small publisher, feeling the squeeze of financial contraction, aborted all new titles. But I am not bitter. I feel fortunate to have had the amazing experience of seeing my scenes come alive with art. I am more wedded than ever to creating picture book stories.
And happily, my novel for middle grades, VOICE OF THUNDER, is slated for release in mid-2012.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Writing clichés

How many mystery writers does it take to screw in a light bulb?

Two. One to screw it almost all the way in, and the other to give it a surprising twist at the end.

Writers are told to have a ‘twist at the end.’ It’s almost dogma for picture books. Ever since Where the Wild Things Are, endings are supposed to make the listener/reader gasp. Whoa.

As a writer I find these easy to conjure, and they are satisfying to create. As a reader, I find that I long for the quieter, old fashioned, and more organic last paragraph.

The twist at the end has become cliché.

Light bulb now in. No light. Turns out the wiring was faulty.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The Shrinking Word Count

A few years ago, when I began writing story picture books, conventional wisdom in How-To books was that such stories must not exceed 2,000 words. No problem. None of mine were that long.

A bit later I ran into a new site that said picture book writers should never exceed 1,200 words per story. A writers’ conference in New York brought the news that 1,000 words was the new upper limit, and one agent claimed she has not sold a story longer than 800 words.

Fast forward a couple of years, and the busy bees were buzzing. A new chant was in the air, perfuming it and permeating the printer paper everywhere a picture book writer was at work. Our quaky-shaky typing hands trembled at the admonition: 500 words. That’s it.

Recently an agent told a writer friend that her 500 word stories were, well, iffy. Good, but possibly too long for today’s market. The new sweet-spot was closer to 300 words.

Why do I get the feeling that writers are being written out of picture books?


I took the challenge, and my last few picture book manuscripts come in at 221, 310 and (gulp) 124 words each.