Thursday, September 10, 2015

Concept Books: What are they and how do I know if I’ve written one?

The first picture book manuscript I ever wrote was about ocean animals. I hadn’t done any research about children’s writing, much less the specifics of picture books. I just wrote—and in rhyme too! (yikes!)  I then attended a children’s writing conference and found myself utterly confused because so many editors kept saying that they wanted character-driven stories, not plot-driven. Hmm…my story didn’t have either of those things! But then, after doing some research at home (studying the craft—which I should have done first), I discovered there was a type of picture book called “concept books.”

Like my story, concept books often lack characters and their problems. They also lack a plot (e.g., rising story arc), instead structured by other frameworks, such as the alphabet, numbers, time, categories or a host of other structures. I was thrilled to discover this wonderful type of picture book! My story “fit” in somewhere. Through the years, I’ve learned more about concept books, which is why I wanted to write this—to help others understand more about these wonderful treasures in the picture book world.

What they are…
Concept books (either fiction or nonfiction) introduce children to an idea, concept or theme such as (but not limited to) the alphabet, counting, colors or shapes. Sometimes they tell a story using a character or they focus on a concept using some other form of structure (such as the alphabet). A classic example of a straightforward concept book is Brown Bear, Brown Bear by Bill Martin Jr. My own Blackberry Banquet is a rhyming concept book with a cumulative structure that features forest animals. An example of a concept book that uses a character to drive the story is Kelly Bingham’s Z is for Moose. The best way to learn more about concept books is to read them. Click here for a terrific list of books. 

So how do you know if you’ve written a concept book? The first thing I tell my writing students is to think about what drives the reader to turn the page. Does he seek information? Is his curiosity driven by the need to learn something? If the answer is yes; then the book is a concept book. Concept books are read by children whose curiosity is information-based. Structures such as a sequence, a journey, a cumulative build-up, a definition, or question and answer (to name a few) will provide the framework for a concept book.

What they are not…
Now, if the answer to the above question is no (the reader is not seeking information); then you must dig deeper and ask yourself again what drives the reader to turn the page. Does your story have a main character with some sort of problem or goal? If so, then the book is a character-driven story. The reader will turn the page because he cares about the main character and wants to see how he solves his problem. Character-driven stories are read by children whose curiosity is emotion-based. These stories use a traditional rising story arc with a beginning, middle and end to frame the story and show how the character resolves his/her problem. Examples are Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak or Sophie’s Squash by Pat Zietlow Miller.

So there you have it! Easy as pie, right? Well, probably not. As the picture book market continues to expand with amazing creativity, the variations of stories will grow and more hybrid versions will likely appear. But for now, I hope this helps you to determine if you’ve written a concept book.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Save That Date!

The Ridgecrest branch of the Kern County Library System is hosting an author panel, showcasing local authors. I'm happy to say I'll be one of the panelists! If you're in the area on Saturday, October 17, please stop by--I'd love to see you!

Sunday, May 31, 2015

New Book Release!

Schoolwide, Inc. has released my latest picture book, WHERE IN THE WORLD ARE YOU?

This concept picture book is rich in photographs and is meant to teach basics of geography and cosmology. It explores the universal truth that that we are all part of the same place in space. In cumulative fashion, the story takes the reader from the outer reaches of the universe to our galaxy to our solar system to our planet, continuing to the reader's own room.

Way out in space, there is a universe--
an ever-growing universe--
where all of us are living.

Schoolwide, Inc. is the largest producer of educational e-books. Because reading and writing are critical for success in the school, the community, and the workplace, Schoolwide, Inc. has a central mission to improve students' reading, writing, and learning by increasing the tools teachers can use to teach effectively. 

Teachers from schools with site licenses  can access my book through their account.

Monday, April 20, 2015

KRA Young Author Day Signing

I'll be appearing at the KRA Young Author Day on Saturday, April 15, signing books and giving two presentations. Stop by and say "Hi!" if you're in the area!

Monday, March 23, 2015


Rhyming Picture Book Month is just around the corner! For anyone interested in joining the fun, click here.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

PiBoIdMo is just around the corner. Sign-ups have started. Are you in?

Click here to join!

Thursday, October 2, 2014

SDT: That Awful Writing Disease! (Show Don't Tell)

“Show, don’t tell” is a problem with which many writers struggle. We see “SDT” scribbled in the margin of a critiqued manuscript. But what exactly is “show don’t tell?” Simply put, it occurs when a writer tells the reader what’s happening in the story, rather than showing what’s happening. And this creates a problem—it makes for a passive reading experience.  

Showing puts the reader in the moment. Showing trusts the reader to interpret what’s happening and understand. On the other hand, when a writer tells the reader what is happening on the page, he’s conveying that he doesn’t trust the reader to figure things out for himself. He’s selling the reader short. Writing that “shows” is richer and more engaging for the reader.

How can you “show” when you write? Here’s one trick that might help: Imagine yourself (the story teller) as a camera, recording the scene. A camera cannot get into the head of the characters and identify their emotions; it can only show what is happening with the action. A camera can’t say someone is sad, it can only show them being sad by their facial expressions and body language. Imagine yourself as that camera, as you write. Here are some other tips for how to “show”…

Be specific! Specificity and accurate word choices make for interesting writing. Listen to how Dav Pilkey describes Oscar in the opening of The Hallo-Wiener:

There once was a dog named Oscar who was half-a-dog tall and one-and-a-half dogs long.

Pilkey could have said that Oscar was a wiener dog, or a Dachshund, but instead he found a fun and creative way to describe him. The unique description pulls in the reader and lets him figure out Oscar’s breed.

Writers should also avoid telling the reader how a character feels (which is probably the most common mistake with SDT. I believe that 99% of the time, the words “feels” or “felt” should be deleted from a ms). Declared emotions are vague (like the mayonnaise of writing) so think about what your character is physically experiencing at that moment. Here’s an example from my first book, Two Tales of Hawaii:

The smile left Pele’s face as a flood of waves came up from the sea. The fires were in danger of being put out. “No!” she cried.

What if I would have said “Pele was shocked” instead? No doubt, I would have identified her emotional state of mind, but I would have taken away the chance for the reader to look at the illustration and examine Pele’s facial expression and concluded that she was shocked. In other words, I would have cheated my reader.

Sensory details
Utilizing the senses pulls the reader into the story. And try going beyond the sense of sight (because the picture often shows what the reader would see). Listen to how I showed Pele as she set out on her journey to find a new home in Two Tales of Hawaii:

Her canoe was trapped between the fiery sun and the cool deep ocean. She had to find the perfect place to keep her sacred fires.

Here, I wanted to convey the temperature difference that one experiences when out on the ocean—the heat of the sun striking against the cool water—to put my reader in the moment.

Dialogue reveals character and can move the story along. Listen to how Phillip C. Stead uses dialogue to reveal the character of Amos McGee on page two of A Sick Day for Amos McGee:

He would wind his watch and set a pot of water to boil—saying to the sugar bowl, “A spoonful or my oatmeal, please, and two for my teacup.”

Amos’s speech reveals his character—he’s polite, a bit quirky in speaking to the sugar bowl, eats healthy but enjoys a bit of sugar too (he’s not perfect!). This is also a great example of using specific details to show his character (the watch that he has to wind indicates he’s a bit old-fashioned and his use of a teacup—not a coffee mug—also tells us a bit about him).

Avoid “to be” verbs
“To be or not to be?” To me, there is no question. “To be” verbs (is, was, are, were) weaken writing because 1) they’re passive, and 2) they tell the reader the state of things, and in picture books, illustrations already show the state of things. Think about this—what if Judy Schachner opened SkippyJon Jones like this?
Skippyjon Jones was a strange cat.

Well, Schachner certainly could have chosen to start her story this way. She could have told us how Skippyjon Jones was, but the problem is that the illustration shows him in a bird’s nest in a tree, so “Skippyjon Jones was a strange cat” wouldn’t be a very interesting opening. Instead, she opened the story like this:

Every morning, Skippyjon Jones woke up with the birds.

Schachner shows us he’s a strange cat by letting us know that he sleeps with the birds—every night!

A final caveat--in all fairness, I should say that sometimes, “telling” is good, even necessary. Can you imagine if a writer showed every single event in a story (especially novels)? It would become mind-numbingly tedious to get through it! Sometimes, writers need to summarize an event so we can move from one relevant scene to the next. However, for writing to absolutely shine and fully engage the reader, the writer must “show” what’s happening as much as possible, particularly in picture books and easy readers. 

Happy writing!