World of Books: France, Belgium and Czech Republic

by Joyce Audy Zarins

Les Mammouths

In my small collection of children’s books from around the world, some help explain ways of thinking to the young. The world can be a scary and sometimes puzzling place, so clues are always useful.

In Les Mammouths, Les Ogres, Les Extraterrestres, et ma petite soeur, as the title suggests, creatures of the past and future meet and the question of what is real and what is imaginary is raised. It is also self-referential. This Tom’poche publication originated in Nice, France and is written by Alex Cousseau and illustrated by Nathalie Choux with whimsical decorations that include many references to folk tales and other children’s stories. The colors are warm and bright and blend the possible with the impossible.

Les Mammouths4The existentialism begins with the first sentence, “Papa says that mammoths do not exist.” Well, considering that Papa appears to be that very species, albeit with a bow tie, the fun begins. Papa says that ogres don’t exist either. Mama adds that mammoths only existed a long, long time ago. So what about this nice family with their wide open eyes? The little mammoth asks, “Do you exist or not?”

Papa explains as they walk out on the street and into the world that they only exist when the author of the book writes their story and the illustrator draws it so. In spite of appearances, they are not really on the street or in the world. If the author wants to show on the street an ogre on top of a sheep, he will ask the artist to draw that. Little mammoth notes that the result looks more like a green extraterrestrial than an ogre. Papa concurs. That is because the artist lady is not so good at drawing ogres. She is very good at drawing sheep, though.

Les Mammouths6The little guy with the red pants turns out to be the ogre and imagine his surprise when he is riding in the pannier of Papa Mammoth’s doughnut-wheeled motorcycle and overhears that he doesn’t exist either! Imaginative adventures happen. Past, present, and future collide and there is a lovely mix of realistic artichoke roofs on buildings and doll-faced characters (one of whom is reading the very book we’re discussing) dancing across the pages with the Seven Dwarfs, a blind mouse, and lots of other improbables.

At the end of this philosophical day, the little mammoth mentions something else suggested by the book’s title. “I would love to have a little sister.” But that won’t happen unless the author thinks of it and writes her into the book and the artist draws her, right? No, Papa explains. The little sister will only exist when Papa and Mama wink to each other. This is the way it always begins.

This is a completely delightful book, and I know for a fact that it does actually exist.


In Trouwen met Tanja (Married with Tanja) by Bart Van Nuffelen and Klaas Verplancke there is also a huge emphasis on the written word, but in a different way. For example, the endpapers are covered with a child’s cursive writing that repeats endlessly, “I will not marry Tanja.” The typography throughout the book uses scale and color changes to emphasize the action and meaning of the story using Clarendon type. And the underlying message regards keeping your word, though maybe not when your promise has been coerced.

Trouwen2BOn Marc’s last day of kindergarten before a vacation he and the other kids are doing foolish things, running in circles until they see stars and so on. Along comes Stief, who is grosser than most, especially about bodily functions. He also knows more about the female anatomy than anyone. He imitates a robot making everyone laugh and Marc falls to the ground with the hilarity of it all.

He feels someone grab him – first by his neck, then in other places. It is Tanja. She is silent, then she gently asks him, “Will you marry me?”

She looks weird to Mark because she’s so close. He can only see a bit of her at a time. Her freckles remind him of countries on the globe and he feels like a fly caught in a spiderweb. She asks again and he says no. She squeezes his fingers. Her sharp teeth remind him of the Ural mountains, the Central Massif…even Mount Saint Helen. Steif yells at him to answer her and under pressure he caves in and squeaks out a “yes.” Oh no. What did he do?

Trouwen3During vacation Marc tries outlandish ways to change his bad luck, because he does not want to marry Tanja. When he asks Mom and Dad what happens if you promise… Mom interrupts and says he must keep his promise. Marc feels doomed. He decides to hold his breath until it isn’t true anymore. That doesn’t work. He tries other tricks. Nothing. Zorro, who is Stief in disguise, appears and gives him a clue. And the saga continues. This goes on through the entire vacation, then once back at school, there she is again, the inescapable Tanja. Amid kids chanting and other chaos, The chant from the beginning of the book is repeated and Marc flies head over heels off toward America to escape.

The mixed media images are large-scale madcap exaggerations which makes them completely engaging, especially Tanja as a global entity. And everyone’s eyes are the same bugging-out-of-their-heads type as those in the previously described book – round white circles with expressive black pupils. The illustration colors used are deep tones that make the compositions pop.

The drama is clear and the characters certainly emote.

Jako by

Jako by se tu nekdo snazil nevydat ani hlasku (A Sound Like Someone Trying Not to Make a Sound) by John Irving, illustrated by Tatjana Hauptmannova, was translated from the original English by Meander publishers, Czech Republic. It was originally published by Bloomsbury Publishing, London.

This picture book was first told within Mr. Irvings’ novel A Widow for One Year, which was made into the movie The Door in The Floor. In it, the main character is a children’s book writer named Ted Cole. According to an interview with Mr. Irving, he did not set out to write a children’s book until he needed some examples to attribute to the main character of his novel. Does this suggest similarities with the Les Mammouths version of reality?

Jako by3In the picture book story, Tom is awakened in the middle of the night by a sound. He sits bolt upright in bed, eyes wide and bulging. What was that? We can imagine the pounding of his heart. He can’t identify what the sound is because it isn’t like anything he’s heard before. To him it evokes  the movement of a monster with no arms or legs dragging itself along the ground, among other imaginative responses. How creepy is that? Tom’s dad (who wisely does not actually appear in the pictures) explains that it’s just the scurrying of mice in the walls, which comforts Tom. But his little brother Tim can’t sleep for worrying because he doesn’t know what the word “mouse” means. Here again is a reference to the power of really understanding what words mean.

Jako by4This small format book is illustrated with wonderful, semi-disheveled drawings that vividly evoke Tom’s humanity, the shadowy setting, the dim moonlight, and the bulges in the wall. One clue to the mystery of the noises is an image in which a mouse, dramatized by its long shadow, crosses a room in the foreground.

In the end, all three of these books say, in different evocative ways, that reality is what you believe it to be.


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Young-Deok Seo

Young-Deok SeoHere is the work of Young-Deok Seo, a South Korean artist who wisely uses bicycle chain as his medium. This is a smart move aesthetically because the chain is beautiful and gives texture and a perforated pattern to these large scale visages. And perhaps more importantly because of its connections to global society and to motion. Here are some examples.

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Female Power Symbol

Today we walked among snow-encrusted trees at Maudslay State Park and an idea came to me. Now that I have drawn it, let me explain. can be powerful. Consider Gerald Holtom’s peace symbol, which he designed for the Direct Action Committee against Nuclear War in the fifties. It is now widely used and is a universally known symbol for peace.

During the Renaissance symbols were created to represent the male and female genders, which we still use today. The female design refers to the planet Venus and suggests a distaff used for hand spinning yarn. The male symbol represents Mars and the wielding of a spear.

I wanted to design a new symbol for female power, without aggression. The universal female symbol suggests to me a figure with arms outstretched as if welcoming or showing support. Adjusting the position of the horizontal line could imply other meanings. Bent arms did not work very well, nor did curved ones. A simple vee configuration can represent upraised arms, an active pose that implies victory and empowerment. A surrounding circle uses the other female shape and suggests the globe.Female Power origin

This symbol would be visually strongest in black and white due to the nature of those two colors as providing the widest possible contrast. And black and white is beautiful. But it would also be emotionally strong in one color plus white. That color must be purple, a blend of a warm color and a cool one, suggesting both passion and restraint. Purple also represents a union between red and blue, which has additional meaning.

Female Power symbol 1 B&WFemale Power symbol 2 B&W

Female Power symbol 1 PurpleFemale Power symbol 2 P



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Linda Sue Park: Ted talk

In this terrific TedX talk, author Linda Sue Park talks about a path to changing the world. Life is not fair, but stories engage the minds of those who can develop empathy and act in heroic ways.

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Books going global!

Check this out! “Sand Dollar, Sand Dollar,” my first picture book of long ago, is now available on Amazon in five languages! French, Spanish, Vietnamese, Portuguese, and Tagalog. All are paperback and all have the English text also. The book is being reissued by a small Boston start-up, Bab’l Books, Inc., whose mission is to provide dual language books to kids ages 3-7. Other languages and a Kindle version may follow.

Sand Dollar, 5 languages

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Yellow, the Noble Color, is for Emperors and Empresses

This is a review of two books with different target audiences that have one mission: to share some of the treasures and history of the Forbidden City in China with the world. They are voices from the other side of the globe. Can you hear them?

Bowls of Happiness

Bowls of Happiness: Treasures from China and the Forbidden City 

Bowls of Happiness is a picture storybook in sections, part non-fiction. The first, Happiness: Joyful Meetings, begins with the birth of a little girl nicknamed Piggy. The type is scaled for a child and the story is fully illustrated with lovely, delicate line work and colors in an appropriately innocent picture book style. As the child grows, Mom is making a new porcelain bowl for Piggy, painting it with designs from traditional Chinese depictions of nature. See, there are the symbols for cloud, for bat, for longevity. There are peonies and egrets and butterflies just as they were painted on the emperor’s rice bowls, but this bowl is for Piggy.

The second section, Wishing for the Best in Life, is non-fiction for older kids or adults, which suggests that this is a book to be enjoyed by a family together. There are explanations of elements of Chinese language, the ritual use of some of the emperor’s bowls and the symbolism of the designs. Delicate drawings show the artwork on all sides of some, including on the inside of one – a surprise butterfly visible once all the rice has been eaten.

And the final section, Let’s Make a Bowl, talks about the parts of a rice bowl and the practical reasons for their shape. There is even a dye cut bowl on a page where the reader can make a wish, presumably for happiness or something similar.

This beautifully designed and illustrated book is a wonderful window on Chinese culture written by Brian Tse, Illustrated by Alice Mak, and translated by Ben Wang, through the auspices of the Design and Cultural Studies Workshop. Both this and the following book are part of a four book series which were funded by The Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation in Hong Kong to promote a deeper understanding of China’s rich cultural heritage, beginning with the culture of the Forbidden City.

What Was It Like, Mr. Emperor? Life in China’s Forbidden City


Children everywhere will be amazed to read that heirs to the imperial throne of China were schooled from 5:00 am until 3:00 pm seven days a week with only five holidays each year! By comparison, this makes contemporary education appear super easy. What Was It Like, Mr. Emperor?: Life in China’s Forbidden City is an attractive one hundred and eight page hardcover book that answers the question asked in the title by showing aspects of the daily life of each ruler within the enormous Imperial Palace complex, of 980 buildings and nearly 10,000 rooms, called the Forbidden City. I’ve been there. It is truly amazing. The map below and the photographs are meant to give context, but are not in the book. Share this fascinating slice of history and royal life, illustrated for young people, with your child.

The book shows that beginning in 206 BC Imperial Palace court officials recommended to the emperor that “studying is the only noble thing to do in life” and consequently there were always more scholars on the palace staff than military men. The emperor’s daily needs were well satisfied as shown by the list of foods cooked each day for him, although his meals were always tested first by an entourage of eunuchs. Poison and other risks to the emperor’s life needed to be guarded against. Thousands of eunuchs, female consorts, and others supplied the emperor’s every desire.

Traditionally the first born boy of the royal family would become the next emperor, so princesses were out of luck and would instead be married off young, some even at the age of ten, to suitors from faraway lands. However there was one female emperor, Wu Zetian, who reigned for a time during the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907). Accounts suggest that she was no sweetheart.

W 238_Forbidden City

The Gate of Supreme Harmony (#5 on map) photographed by me in 2008.

This carefully designed book employs a beautiful yellow color throughout, perhaps in honor of Qin Shi Huangdi, who more than 4,000 years ago unified the various tribes into the nation of Chinese people, becoming their first emperor. He was nicknamed the Yellow Emperor. The simple graphic novel style drawings with thick black outlines and the clean page layouts, along with easy to understand text, showcase a surprising amount of information in an accessible way. This may be a good resource for report writing at the younger grade levels and there are many basic facts of interest to the book’s young audience.

The Hall of Supreme Harmony (#6 on map), Forbidden City, Beijing, China, 2008

Kids will be intrigued by the 12 personality symbols embroidered into every emperor’s imperial robe starting in the Zhou Dynasty (1046-256 B.C.), brief bios of the Ming and Qing emperors (some wise and brave, others not), and accounts of uprisings and entertainments. There is one set of gatefolds to illustrate the ceremony at the Hall of Supreme Harmony in the Forbidden City where Emperor Shunzhi was crowned at the age of six and eventually began his reign when only fourteen, as was customary.

Trade publishers today and organizations such as WeNeedDiverseBooks insist that books for children about the world’s cultures and ethnicities should be written and illustrated by members of that group. Diverse literature for kids doesn’t get more authentic than this non-fiction book about life in China’s Forbidden City. It was written by Chiu Kwong-chui and Eileen Ng, translated by Ben Wang, and illustrated by the Design and Cultural Studies Workshop, which Mr. Kwong-chiu founded in Hong Kong.  What Was It Like Mr. Emperor was written and illustrated by acknowledged experts from Hong Kong and printed in China as well. Although Kirkus found issue with some aspects of the book, it’s simple distillation of a complex and long history is an appropriate introduction for young audiences. The Qing and Ming Dynasties’ Forbidden City in Beijing, originally built under orders of Zhu Di, the Emperor Yongle, who reigned from 1403-1424, is now a museum and World Heritage site.

The online description of What Was It Like, Mr. Emperor?: Life in China’s Forbidden City states that it is intended for children grades 3 and up. In the Forbidden City, a companion book in this series, received the Parents’ Choice Gold Award for 2015.

What Was it Like, Mr. Emperor?: Life in the Forbidden City is an authentic introduction to the daily life of typical Chinese emperors, well-presented for today’s children. Note: These reviews are based on copies of the books sent to me by the publisher for that purpose, which is a common practice.

Two stone dragons of the many at the Forbidden City. JAZ

Two stone dragons of the many at the Forbidden City. JAZ

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Galleta de Mar, Galleta de Mar

W Sand Dollar, Sand Dollar SpanishToday I received a copy of my book Sand Dollar, Sand Dollar in its final Spanish/ English dual language paperback version, published by Bab’l Books, Boston.

I am excited to see this book in print again! I love the idea of reaching out to bilingual kids. And, its hidden message is environmental – that we need to act responsibly toward nature to keep things in balance. That’s so important right now. The story was inspired by an experience with my children at Plum Island in Newburyport and Newbury, MA
Sand Dollar, Sand Dollar / Galleta de Mar will be available in the UK, US, and Europe and eventually in four or five other languages and as an e-book. If you know of anyone interested in purchasing one, they can get them through Amazon. Here’s the link.

Anyone who has read it can write a short review for Amazon or Goodreads, if you like. (hint, hint)

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Last chance!

W-Elision-2We’ve just de-installed Elision from Sanctuary Arts in Eliot, Maine where it was all summer. There’s still time to see Solidarity and the Flying Horse sculpture exhibit at the Pingree School in Hamilton, MA. De-installation is scheduled for November 23rd.

Sept. 2, 2015 - Pingree School, Hamilton, Massachusetts

Sept. 2, 2015 – Pingree School, Hamilton, Massachusetts

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Sand Dollar, Sand Dollar

I have a teeny bit of news, but it’s in five or six languages!

My first ever picturebook, published in 1980 by J.B. Lippincott, then taken on by Harper and Row, which has been out of print for years, is being reissued by a small start-up as a bilingual paperback and Kindle book. Bab’l Books was started by two Harvard Business school graduates who are not native English speakers. Their mission is to make available dual language books with universal themes for kids ages 3-7. Their translations are obtained through crowd-sourcing.

W Sand Dollar, Sand Dollar cover

Sand Dollar, Sand Dollar, which I wrote and illustrated, will soon be available in Spanish, Portuguese, French, Vietnamese, Tagalog, and possibly German. Each also contains the English text.

Marianne Knowles interviewed Jair Hernandez, my contact at Bab’l Books, for her WritersRumpus blog. In case you are interested, that interview can be found here.

I’m psyched!

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Advice from a kid: Miranda at age 9 and at age 13

A while ago I posted an interview here with Miranda, a very special person to me. Recently, I asked her similar questions about her reading habits and those of kids she knows. The answers show a trajectory  and are useful information for writers, so I also posted this on


Nine-year-old Miranda and I went for a walk. She told me what she thinks about books.

Here’s what she said.

Topics that some kids like (kids that I know):

  • Fluffy kitty cat books (I hate them completely)
  • Books with some scary moments and action (I personally like these best :)
  • Craft books like how to decorate cupcakes, paper mache or mask making
  • Humorous books like Junie B. Jones
  • Romance with a little bit of horror
  • New stories with older settings or a combo of two older stories with a new twist.

The best rated stories have…

Only a few scary moments so you don’t get nightmares for a week or so.

Something real has to happen (unlike I bought a kitty and named it Lucie and I put a bow in her hair. The end. BORING!)

A little realistic drama (NO fainting randomly and other random things like SUPER MAN TO THE rescue!)

No cartoons except Diary of a Wimpy Kid (whole series)

Which character is most important?

The heroine/hero and the evil witch, wizard or whatever is in the story.

For example: The Hobbit. In the story a little hobbit named Bilbo wanted to live in peace and quiet. When his wizard friend drops by and talks to him and then leaves he finds that the next day there are a whole group of homeless dwarfs sitting in his house talking. They pull him in to a crazy adventure of rafting, dragons and all sorts of crazy dangers that he never even thought of. He stayed calm and went anyway and never gave up.

The evil person, character, or whatever is important (I actually think it’s most important) because if they weren’t  there what would the hero do?

A final thought from Miranda age 9:

School kids should have library class twice a week (at least) so that they can actually have time to read ‘cause kids really do need to read more than they do now.

W Miranda at Crane'sMiranda, at 13, has this to say:

What are some topics for books that teens like? (kids that you know, and yourself)
Many teens like the hyped up books like Hunger Games and the Fault in our stars. I have not read either of them, but I am sure they are great books. I really enjoy fantasy novels, especially ones with sequels, or ones in a long series.
What characteristics do the best stories have?
I think the best stories are believable, but I also think that suspension of disbelief is an important practice too. I like books that aren’t set in our world or time because I like to read in order to get away from my problems.
Which character in a book is most important?
The most important character in a book is always the antagonist. Without the antagonist, there would be no inciting incident, no rising action, and no climax. It’d be pretty boring.
What is your favorite book ever?
My favorite book ever would definitely have to be the “The Tempest” by William Shakespeare.
Is there anything you wish that there was a book about?
I wish there were more young teen “romance” novels. I enjoy reading that sort of thing, but it’s so hard to find a nice romance novel that is appropriate. I do think that current day writers are doing a great job, but I also enjoy older literature such as Shakespeare. I LOVE SHAKESPEARE!!!!!!!!! Even if the sentences are a tad difficult to understand, the stories are so beautiful, and I’d love to see more like that, perhaps written in book form, instead of a play. I might like Shakespeare so much because I myself act and can therefore envision the stage, and beautiful scenery, all tied together with the perfect actors. But, maybe that’s just me. That and maybe because William Shakespeare invented my name… I’m not biased though. In fact that is how I was introduced to Shakespearian literature.
Do you have any final thoughts for writers and illustrators?

All in all I think that if there were more stories set in Shakespeare’s time with beautiful story lines such as his were I would read a lot more (of them).

Miranda Rose dos Santos
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Interview: Carey F. Armstrong-Ellis, Thriving Author/Illustrator

by Joyce Audy Zarins

Also posted at

“Armstrong-Ellis fills the page with slime and sludge, and careful readers will even spy monster-themed parodies of works from da Vinci, Cassatt, George Rodrigue, and other artists.”

—Publishers Weekly

Moldy Ham

Picture books by Carey F. Armstrong-Ellis are filled with hyperbole and delightfully disgusting detail. Her most recent book, released August 4, 2015, is I Love You More Than Moldy Ham, a heartwarming ode to mom and repulsive foods. You might call Carey’s illustration style refuse rococo, which is characterized by a charming over-the-topness. She has strayed afar from Read More »

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World of Books #4

This post is #4 in a series. The earlier ones are here, here and here. This article also appears on another blog, here on

W-Thailand-lizardWe see hundreds of excellent children’s books each year published here in the U.S., but what about those published in other countries? The rest of the world is producing books with interesting pictures for kids, too. What kinds of artwork are done by illustrators from elsewhere? Are they similar or different? What can we learn from them?

A while ago I decided to collect children’s books when I travel. Good friends and family have added to that collection. I look for books that seem endemic, that is, written and illustrated by people from the visited country and that portray stories that don’t seem in imitation of something American. The real deal. So far, I have forty-three books from far-off places with intriguing artwork and book design. Many have stories I can’t read, but there are things to be learned from the pictures.


This lovely book (above) was given to me by my daughter Melody who traveled through Thailand and Indonesia. I’m not sure which of those countries this comes from and I can’t read a single word of the gorgeous calligraphic letterforms, but I love the use of patterns in the pictures and the clean, bright colors. Also, the background on every page is white, becoming space, air, and a source of light.



In Catalina de Binimel-lá,written by Ricardo Alcántara and illustrated by Jesús Gabán, all of the backgrounds are dark, here lending a spooky feel that’s compatible with greedy don Benhali’s mood. The powerful sweeping curves and repeated columns along with the sense of mystery the style imparts and use of red highlights gives this book a sense of dynamism.

W Japanese storyAs you can see by the cover, this board book is read from right to left. The interior text flows top to bottom and calligraphy is a lyrical design element of its twenty-four pages. The beautiful watercolor illustrations of this Japanese folktale retold by Matsutani Miyoko, are reminiscent of traditional paintings with textured washes and linear elements done with a brush. It seems more sophisticated than we might expect for a board book presumably for young children. The content of the story is equally mature. I do not have a translation, however here is an attempt at describing what the pictures show. The story appears to be about a man who encounters a village with some serious problem. He tells the villagers to go to a shrine to pray near what seems to be a wooden casket. Two big monkey-like beings (or demons?) break the casket open and steal the woman’s body from inside. The man continues on his way, greeting others. Another man chases a white wolf from near a house where people live. Again villagers appear to bring a coffin to a shrine. Again the monkey demons come, but this time the white wolf attacks them, killing both, but also sacrificing his own life. The villagers are sorrowful that they had not treated the white wolf well. They now see that he was a good being. It is a powerful story.

W Japanese story 2

W Japanese story 4W Japanese story 3

Halfdan’s ABC, published by Carlsen Publishers in Denmark includes a music CD and an alphabet a bit longer than ours. The art style is earthy with hand lettered text that lends a sense of spontaneity. Note that in the X picture, the illustrator has included an extra detail that’s not in the text – the presumably illiterate witch uses Xs when writing.


W Halfdan's ABC 3W Halfdan's ABC 2

Curious about the verses, I tried Babylon, the free online translator and obtained what might be the gist of what is written on these two spreads for X and Y:

X is the loop you binding in curl (knot used to bind a curl?).

X is a pink plaster on the wound.

X is a pair of scissors to cut kay in your hair (to cut your hair?).

X is in Texas, and Alex and Brix.

X is a letter which rhyme witch (which rhymes with witch?)!

I chose this verse in part because of the word “Texas” and discovered that there is a manufacturer of garden machinery in Odense, Denmark by that name. To be fair, there is a ghost town named Denmark in East Texas, USA. And here’s another verse translated:

Ylle, Dylle, Dolle,

three small furry trolls

went hunting with mittens on

to shoot what they saw.

Ylle shot a coffeepot.

Dylle shot a frying pan.

Dolle shot a casserole.

Ylle, Dylle, Dolle.

These few books demonstrate a range of art styles and philosophies about illustration from bright and lively to deeper, more contemplative works. Not unlike the range you will find in an American bookstore or library. But the flavor of each country’s books for children does carry some essence of the place they are from.

To see more picture books from other lands, check out this post and this one and this other one from my blog. (I especially recommend the third one, vom Kleinen Maulwurf, which is really funny).

photos by Egils Zarins

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Diversity Part 2

I originally posted this article on

mosquito01As one of my heroes, the Dalai Lama, once said…“If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito.”  Let’s each one of us be the mosquito!   —Lin Oliver

This week Lin Oliver, co-founder and Executive Director of the international Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI), posted a great article on making all forms of diversity in children’s publishing more mainstream to reflect our world. Many of her action items are for the gatekeepers who publish or otherwise make books available for kids, while others are aimed at writers and illustrators. SCBWI has Read More »

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Pain-free Writing and Art

also posted on

most visuals by author

W-Pain-free-Writing-1Here’s something for writers and illustrators to consider: the painful physical effects of your work. Don’t laugh. I kid you not.

You might think that the arm in the photo (mine, actually) looks pretty healthy. After years of making welded steel sculpture using all sorts of heavy equipment including angle grinders and such, spending a bunch of hours daily at a computer should be a breeze, right? However, for much of this past winter I had enough pain in a ring around the top of my right bicep that it would wake me up in the middle of the night demanding Aleve. That deep aching bothered me for months before I mentioned it to anyone.

At the gym when I tried to lift a four pound weight horizontally out from my right shoulder (90 degrees from the torso), I could not do it without pain. So what was causing this and how could I correct the problem?

The only thing I had done differently since the discomfort began was that I had spent significantly longer days on the computer. Could writing be the culprit? When I mentioned Read More »

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Prose Pointers: Stylistic Features


we were liarsThere are two aspects to each story— what it is about and how it is written. Three young adult novels I’ve read over a span of two weeks excel in certain intriguing elements of style – meaning the tools used to write them. We Were Liars by E. Lockhart, I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson, and Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan each include techniques that help propel their prose and make these stories remarkable.

Some examples:

  • magical realism and psychological hyperbole
  • stream of consciousness
  • dual narrators
  • unreliable narrator
  •  punctuated.word.strings.
  •  use of extreme opposites

We Were Liars is set on a small island off the coast of Massachusetts owned by the Sinclair family, apparently Mayflower bluebloods to the core. Stiff upper lip and old money attitudes are the stated norm, although there is the title of the book to make one wonder. I'll Give you the sunWhen Cadence’s father leaves her mother at the beginning of chapter two—the book incidentally is told in first person—Cadence states that he pulls out a handgun and shoots her in the chest. So shocking. Why would he do that to his daughter? She graphically describes her heart and organs spilling out and so on, so that by sentence three or four the psychological metaphor reveals itself. The author has used a dramatic and compact way to show the pain that Cadence feels at the loss of her father. It is stunning. This device appears later, also to powerful advantage. Noah, in I’ll Give You the Sun, explodes with passionate, hyperbolic sensations involving the entire universe, especially when he is under pressure. He also creates mind paintings and in general views the world through a kaleidoscopic, creative lens that is often conveyed in a stream-of-consciousness way, as if the reader can see the inner workings of his mind in all its chaos. Magical realism is the ultimate use of psychological metaphor for both Cadence and Noah.

Noah’s twin sister Jude, whose voice is more rational, Will Graysonmore “normal,” is also a narrator, one who is completely distinct from her brother. Since the different chapters Jude and Noah narrate also careen back and forth in time within a three year span, the emotional turmoil the characters are experiencing in their shared response to tragedy are echoed for the reader in the trajectory of the narration. Jude and Noah are shown as two halves of one soul. Will Grayson, Will Grayson is also told by dual narrators, as reflected in the book’s title. In this case, readers needn’t go past the first sentence of a chapter to recognize which W.G. is speaking. One of the W.G.s uses no capitalization at all while the other uses upper and lower case in the standard way. Their voices are also distinctive, but the text itself looks completely different even before either character is heard.

One of these three novels has an unreliable narrator, but I can’t reveal which book it is without spoiling the big reveal. This device, where a trusted character suddenly is seen from a shockingly antipodal point of view, is responsible for a totally mind-blowing plot twist that will knock the wind out of you when you read it. Trust me. Read all three. One of them has a huge surprise waiting for you. Without premeditation on my part, I have created an unreliable narrator in one of my novels, too. It is a useful tool.

In nearly every YA and tween novel I’ve read recently there are examples of what I’ll call the punctuated.word.string. Maybe there’s an official name for this? When extra emphasis is desired, a character will say a string of individual words with a period after each. No. Stinking.Way. or perhaps something like: Totally. Completely. Inconceivable. Most often these are written horizontally, but on occasion, the word string will be vertical, as sometimes when Noah uses this trope in I’ll Give You the Sun. The string thus gains the advantage of reading like poetry.






One of the ways to heighten tension in any plot is to widely contrast opposites and these three books maximize that effect. In We Were Liars the title itself sets up a dichotomy between what is stated and what the narrator tells us about the events that unfold. There is friction between the privileged life and the commonplace norm as well as between life on the island vs. life on the mainland. Even Cadence’s hair color raises tensions in that all Sinclairs are blond, including her, but she has dyed hers black. Skin color is also a dark/light source of stress. Each of the other two novels show strong tension between opposing sexual orientations, see-sawing boy/girl relationships, and a gigantic-sized character (named Tiny) with a personality to match juxtaposed with a little twiggy one who is shrunken within himself.

These six narrative tools only scratch the surface of what makes these books so effective. But they do have a role in distinguishing the way they were written— their style, which helps set them apart as remarkable.

Coming next – Prose Pointers: Content

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Author to Bookstore: Timeline

IMG_2967The process of writing or illustrating a children’s has often been compared to having a baby. That gestation-to-birth time is partly the work of creating the story and pictures, but that’s just the beginning. Here is a fantastic explanation of the actual publication timeline, written by tween and teen author extraordinaire, Jen Malone.

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Writing Devices: Pros and Cons of Connectivity

By Joyce Audy Zarins

connectivity-tmMobility increases productivity. Although you write B.I.C. (Jane Yolen’s famous rule #1 on writing: keep your “Butt in Chair”), that chair now has wings. With the right connectivity between devices, you can write anywhere you are. There are definite pros and cons to being connected through different devices, so be aware to maximize the benefits while minimizing issues.

Your range of devices to write with determines how you will manage your work. Andre Dubus III famously escaped to his pickup truck for quiet, distraction-free time to write with a pencil on a legal pad when his kids were little. A colorful scenario, but don’t lose those pages or it’s all over Read More »

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The Scholastic Art & Writing Awards: A Golden Key

Scholastic gold key 2What do Ezra Jack Keats, Sylvia Plath, Stephen King, Richard Avedon, Truman Capote, Robert McClosky, and Andy Warhol have in common, besides being incredibly creative? Ding. Time’s up. Each won a Scholastic Art & Writing Award when they were in their teens. Of this experience Richard Avedon, among others, said winning was “the defining moment of my life.” Recognition and scholarships helped launch these talented teens to stardom. Well, okay, the stardom part was their own doing, but it did launch them.

Recently, I was honored to be a juror for both writing and art submissions for the 2015 competition, an amazing and daunting experience. We chose Honorable Mentions, Silver Read More »

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Perfect Weather for Creative Work

Today the weather is perfect for writing, drawing, painting, or other creative work. It’s 9 degrees F. and snowing like crazy. There’ll probably be an additional 12″ by the time it’s over, on top of the 22″ we already had.

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A Twisty Path to Publication–with Dragons

Post #5: Morris Award Finalist Blog Tour Week

YALSA’s Morris Award honors the year’s best young adult novel by a debut author. The Morris Award winner for 2014 will be announced at the upcoming ALA 2015 Midwinter Meeting in Chicago. Writers’ Rumpus is honored to host a week of posts about the Morris Award Finalists.


GUEST POST by E.K. Johnston, author of The Story of Owen: Dragon Slayer of Trondheim

It would probably be easier to start off this blog post if I could say “I have always wanted to be a writer.” It’s a nice opening to a post about the path to publication, and one that’s relatable. But, sadly, it is not the truth. I have not always wanted to be a writer.

The first thing I clearly remember wanting to be (that wasn’t, you know, a dinosaur or a professional basketball player), was a marine biologist. We had spent a year living in Australia, and my science teacher was half of the marine biology department at the high school, and the other half of the department had invited my family camping on a coral reef island over the Christmas holiday. Think Survivor, only with better meal planning and no evictions. Anyway, I loved it, and if we had stayed in Australia, there’s a good chance that’s the path I might have taken, but instead we came back to Ontario, which is not exactly the same as the Great Barrier Reef in the interesting fish department.

The second thing I wanted to be was an archaeologist, and this one stuck. I decided in grade 11 (two years before I needed to make the decision), that I was going to go to Wilfrid Laurier and study Near Eastern Archaeology, and nothing my guidance counselor said could talk me out of it. And that is what I did.

And I loved it. And I was good at it. And then I went and got an MSc in Forensic Archaeology and Crime Scene Management in the UK, and then I came home with two less than practical degrees and ran full steam into the 2008 economic recession.

I spent some time teaching in South Korea, which did not work out, and then moved in with my brother and soon to be sister-in-law. I was preparing myself to buckle down and do something I didn’t like because I needed money to pay back the student loans I’d accrued getting the education I wasn’t yet using. My parents told me I had to give up all the writing I did for fun (I was big into fanfic, and had been since high school), along with my dreams of a PhD in archaeology, and become a grown up, and I was going to do it…but then a friend reminded me that I had been putting off NaNoWriMo for years. It always fell during final papers at school, but now I was OUT of school, and she said I should write a book.

I decided to listen to my friend, and that November, I wrote 85,000 words of a novel that will probably never see the light of day, but it was so. much. fun.

I got a job as an archaeologist in Alberta, which was not my first choice, but the money was good and it was what I went to school for (sort of), so I moved across the country and spent 10 months wandering around in the forest (slight exaggeration: I also spent some time in the office, and ten very memorable days at 40 degrees below zero on the wide Saskatchewan prairie). During this time, I continued to write fanfiction, and through various online communities met a few other authors whose association improved my writing dramatically. I also got a Twitter account, which meant I could more effectively stalk make friends with Actual Published Authors.

At some point that winter (probably while sitting in a Starbucks, writing Sanctuary fanfiction), I had a vision of a dragon slayer falling from the Burlington Skyway bridge. I’d say “and the rest was history,” except it really wasn’t. I still didn’t want to be a writer. I wanted to be an archaeologist. But I planned the book and moved home to Ontario to give academic archaeology one more shot (spoilers: I missed), and then when NaNoWriMo 2011 came around, I wrote The Story of Owen, Dragon Slayer of Trondheim.

In April of 2012, Andrew Karre, then Editorial Director at Carolrhoda Books, put out an open call. Since this time he hadn’t specifically said “no dragons” (as he had done the previous December), I sent him and five agents the manuscript. And that’s when it became history. I sent the email on Tuesday, and by Friday morning, I was re-querying the agents I’d emailed with the line “Andrew Karre has expressed interest in this book” added in. There were phone calls and there were nerves, but by Easter, it was all in order, and I was going to be published.

At that point, I had to admit a few things to myself. The first was that archaeology and I were probably on a break for an indefinite period. The second was that I was very sad about it. The third, though, was that while I didn’t want to be a writer, it turned out that I was a writer. Handily enough, this was also the thesis of the only “how to be a writer” guide I have ever read: the first 100 or so pages of David Eddings’ and Leigh Eddings’ The Rivan Codex. Moreover, I had always been a writer. My training came in learning to research and write papers on Iron Age Moabite landscape use for fortification and burial (amongst other things), but if nothing else, I learned how to write a lot on a short deadline.

Now that we’ve come all this way together, I’ve thought of a better beginning: I have always been a writer. That’s how I started my path to publication, and that’s how I’ve navigated it. Looking back, the people I met and learned from were so CLEARLY signposts, but I didn’t know it at the time. The path hasn’t always made a lot of sense, but I have learned some truly amazing things on my way through (Operation Overlord. Look it up), and it’s been quite a bit of fun.

Further up and further in.

StoryofOwen_coversmallTHE STORY OF OWEN
Dragon Slayer of Trondheim
By E. K. Johnston
Carolrhoda Lab. Young adult; ages 12 to 18)

Finalist for the William C. Morris Award. The William C. Morris YA Debut Award, first awarded in 2009, honors a debut book published by a first-time author writing for teens and celebrating impressive new voices in young adult literature.

Check out all the other stops on the Morris Finalist blog tour! Links here.

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