Sub-zero weather and my cat ventures out. No wonder felines have nine lives. My cat’s only three and she’s on her eighth life.
Her snowprints remind me of how we all leave impressions every day by our words, our actions, our silence. Sometimes our impact is small, even unnoticed. Other times we do something bold, outside of the safe zone.
Reading the recently-published young adult novel, Agnes at the End of the World, I reeled from the impact of Kelly McWilliams’ bold writing and narrative. McWilliams carves out a genre-defying story that begins in the uncomfortable life of The Handmaid’s Tale and moves into our contemporary world while challenging our values and beliefs.
The young Agnes loves her home of Red Creek until her beliefs are shattered upon learning she lives within a cult dominated by the rules of a false prophet fighting his own fears. McWilliams’ novel weaves faith, values, connectivity, forgiveness, and life’s purpose within the complexity of her plot and characters.
Her blog states that she’s a “mixed-race writer who has always gravitated towards stories about crossing boundaries and forging new identities.”
Isn’t that what we’re all attempting? To forge out renewed identities as we age, grow, suffer, celebrate. Be more compassionate with others who don’t share our beliefs. Be more accepting of those who live differently, choose differently. To sense the connective spirit, the omniscient God bonding our global community. All living beings, creatures, plants, trees, and waters are connected—no matter their evolving or stagnant condition.
What will remind us that the steps we take leave an impact in this fragile life? A Fitbit? A Smartwatch? The sun, stars, snow, spring flowers? What will help us grow more mindful of our footprints, words, actions, silence?
Maybe for you, it’s walking on trails, jogging on sidewalks, riding bike paths, staring at stars or the stages of the moon. Besides all of these, we can discover authors and illustrators who take our breath away and leave us looking a life and ourselves a little bit differently, a little bit lighter, a little bit better.
So, if we’re inclined to venture out in whatever weather we face today, remember that unlike my cat, we only have one life to live. Let’s make an impact with the steps we take.
Finding the inspiration to stay positive during a pandemic year of “unusuals” was draining, if not pointblank depressing. Amid the chaotic climate of 2020, patience and impatience for “normalcy” bounced out of balance. All across the globe, emotions tipped up and down as if riding a teeter-totter. Sheltering in place, isolated us from what we knew. Would our “usual” ever return?
As an author, I did my normal story-storming, read posts by favorite writers, and participated in author webinars. My brain hurt. My passion dulled. Maybe I wasn’t a writer after all. Then one dreary morning in February, I zoned out gazing at a favorite painting of mine. A gift given to me during my stint as Anna in the musical “The King and I.” The watercolorists were two artsy elephants from our local zoo. Staring at their broad brushstrokes, I had an epiphany. Their silly, joyful, random way of exploding color on canvas epitomizes for me what fuels inspiration. It pumps the heartbeat of living and growing.
Here are five lessons these gentle giants taught me. May they feed your muse as well.
Lessons from Elephant Art
ONE: Don’t think about where to start. Just get doing.
TWO: Explore on a broader canvas, beyond what’s usual.
THREE: LOVE the mess. Imagine the process is a playground.
FOUR: Forget about failure. Nothing’s ever wasted.
FIVE: Keep joy in the journey.
Ready to begin a new venture? A fresh attitude? Think like an elephant. Congratulate yourself as you climb each slippery step toward your goal. Stay strong. No wavering…hesitating. When the newness wears away, hold on. You’ll be wowed by what’s beyond your “usual.”
Early this morning, I rolled out my cat-scratched, hole-poked mat once again and pressed Shuffle for my yoga tunes. With bones shouting and muscles complaining, I ebbed and flowed through my poses. I ended in the calming tree pose with one leg bent and a foot to my knee. Well…almost to my knee. My arms stretched from my heart to the sky. Gazing out the window, I saw a tree staring at me. Oddly enough, it posed in mirror image to me. We bent and swayed together in a ridiculous dance…the tree buffeted by wind…I battered by age. I was struck by the intricate balance between humanity and nature. And when that balance is betrayed, both are damaged.
During my practice, I thought of the profound connection humans have with one another and the world. It’s forged by kindness, spirit, compassion, goodness, pain, loss and love. If broken along any of those bonds, balance is restored by selfless acts. Caring for our planet and one another. Respecting God’s love for His world and creations.
After gaining stillness and centering from yoga, I washed my sweaty face. Started my computer for storytelling. I’ve submitted two picture books recently and am a player in the “Waiting Game.” Or is it the “Praying Game”? Well-loved, KIDLIT guru Julie Hedlund (“12 x 12 Challenge”) says, “Passion, patience, and perseverance.” True about life, too.
For a change, I’m writing a YA historical fiction novel. My 13-year-old neighbor and I had text-brainstormed the overall arc. Each week, she begs for the next chapter’s draft, returning it within the hour plastered with notes. A true teenage taskmaster!
In MAY, I’m playing host for the annual KS/MO SCBWI Critique Group online event. The humorous Christine Schmidt, author extraordinaire, is a marvelous organizer. With my group of five, I’ve discovered fun, authentic, encouraging, and supportive writers. What more could we ask of strangers? Perhaps storytelling connects “goodness” across the globe.
Within our surreal environments, the new “normal” will not be the old “normal,” if there ever was a “normal.” Finding balance within the changes takes time and effort. The delicate connection depends on us caring enough to act. Selfless acts come is all sizes. We’re fully equipped give one every day. To create a world where we wake up grateful for living. Radiating all light possible…even in the worst of circumstances…even as we make mistakes…sheltering within our homes and friendships. We are enough.
Cheers and grins for Rebecca Koehn’s debut picture book After the Rain! Rebecca’s clever storytelling leaps off the page into a splashy tale of how teamwork is key to building friendships. A perfect read for anyone!
When my copy arrived, I ripped off its wrapper and hugged it. Thrilling! Goose-bumping! Rebecca’s a favorite author, critique partner, and friend. I knew of her hard work behind the book. I knew of her hours drafting and revising. Of how she dug deep to make every word count while keeping the rhythmic read-aloud text. After the Rain delivers with a rollicking story that embraces sound, heart and humor.
Illustrator Simone Kruger’s lively artwork captures the story and its characters with charm, adding fanciful fun and excitement to each page. Her rainbow colors create childlike delight. Simone’s style will enchant readers, starting with the cover’s rainy rumpus!
Here are The Three Amigas! That’s illustrator Mary Ann Hendrix, me, and Rebecca. Our first Road Trip together to the 2018 annual SCBWI KS/MO Regional Conference solidified our friendship and support for one another. We decided to meet monthly for a “crunch-and-munch” lunch while critiquing our work and lifting our spirits. Oh…laughing is key to a successful session for us! Writing is a solitary adventure but the journey to good writing is one of community—the Kidlit Community and trusted Critique Partners. Within these groups, we celebrate successes and lighten rejections. We remind one another to keep believing. Persevere. Be patient. And the rewards are stellar!
Zip-a-dee-doo-dah! Whoooopeee! Congrats, Rebecca! Polish those tap shoes…next critique meeting, we’re all doing the Happy Dance!
Offer your support for Rebecca and the Kidlit Community. Purchase your own copy and gift copies. Recommend After the Rain to your local library, friends, teachers and more. Visit Rebecca’s Website. Write her a celebratory note! Website:www.rebeccakoehn.com
“One of the
sanest, surest, and most generous joys of life comes from being happy over the
good fortune of others”—Archibald Rutledge. And…I’M HAPPY for Emily
Lim-Leh! Her as-yet unpublished picture book manuscript My Grandfather’s Rojak placed in the Top 3 for the Scholastic
Picture Book Award 2019.
Emily and I met
as participants in Julie Hedlund’s 12 x 12 Challenge: https://12x12challenge.com/ . We’ve both learned so much from each other about
Kidlit storytelling that we’re online Critique Partners as well.
Goodreads writes: “…Lim is an award-winning
children’s book author. She was the first outside North America to win three
Independent Publisher Book Awards (“IPPY” awards) for her books, Prince
Bear and Pauper Bear (Bronze
Medal 2008), Just Teddy (Bronze
Medal 2009), and Bunny Finds the Right Stuff (Silver Medal 2010). [She] is also
the first South-east Asian recipient of the Moonbeam Award, for her book, The
Tale of Rusty Horse (Moonbeam
Gold Medal 2009)….”
ME:I’m thrilled for you, Emily! You must still
tingle from the Scholastic Book Award announcement. I understand The Scholastic
Picture Book Award (SPBA) is a shared initiative between Singapore Book Council
(SBC) and Scholastic Asia. Will you tell us more about this award?
EMILY: This Initiative is one of the significant
highlights of the Asian Festival of Children’s Content, which is organised by
our Singapore Book Council. The SPBA has been established with the purpose of
birthing quality children’s picture books of Asian content from content
creators in Asia.The top 3 winners get publishing
contracts with Scholastic Asia, so this is a very precious win.
ME:When I researched rojak, I discovered that it’s a mixture of Asian fruits and vegetables. I’m curious to know more. Why did you write about rojak? What inspired your story?
EMILY:I wanted my story to represent something distinctly Singaporean. At breakfast, we discuss lunch. At lunch, we are planning dinner. Food is a very important part of our Singaporean culture. We have a diverse range of food from all nationalities and cultures represented here.
Secondly, the Rojak dish is a popular and well-loved
local street food here. Our neighbouring countries also have their own kind of
rojak dish so it is also relatable to other Asian countries.Thirdly, ‘Rojak’ means ‘mixture’ or ‘eclectic mix’ and
the ingredients are precisely that. For me, that’s symbolic of the Singaporean.
We are a mix of different races and cultures but we see ourselves first and
foremost, as Singaporeans.
ME: How long did it take you to write
My Grandfather’s Rojak?
EMILY: I took about two months to write and revise a couple of times. I had two friends and critique partners look at it and give me feedback for story gaps. The SBPA competition criteria is unique because submissions need to include both manuscript and draft storyboard. So, I had to get my story out quickly for my friend to illustrate draft storyboards for our joint submission.
ME: How many revisions did your story go through before submitting to the SBPA competition?
EMILY: Interestingly, this has been one of my quickest-written-and-revised manuscripts. I had about four drafts before I submitted.
ME: You have several award-winning picture books. Did you always want to write for children or did something lead you into the Kidlit universe?
EMILY: I enjoyed writing as a child, but when I “grew up” and entered the working world, writing was the last thing I wanted to do. It wasn’t a career choice because it doesn’t paymuch financially. Things changed when I developed a rare voice disorder shortly after marriage. I went through a journey of searching for a cure. In the process, I found God and a new voice in writing. Now, I cannot imagine doing something else.
ME: What have you learned about writing picture books from the experiences of winning international awards? Have these honors changed the way you create your stories?
EMILY: Winning the awards in themselves has not changed the way I write my stories. But awards have certainly encouraged me in my writing journey and given me that affirmation to keep at it on days when I feel discouraged.
ME: What qualities do you look for in a critique partner or group? How has participating in critique groups helped you as a writer?
EMILY: I wrote my first 4 children’s picture books
as a winner and grant recipient of my Book Council awards. The market was very
young then and I went at it alone – without critique partners – and that was
really tough. So, I’m amazed that these are my bestselling books.
I found 12×12 through a blogger friend and found the critique support there very helpful to improving my writing. I look for critique partners who give their comments to me straight up—both the good and no-good feedback. And I reciprocate with the same. Iron sharpens iron, so I like to critique with people who challenge me to push myself in my writing.
ME: What’s something you’ve learned that you wish you would’ve known starting out as a writer for children?
EMILY: Nothing! It’s been a providential journey right from the start, so I just go with the write/ride.
ME: What does your writing “routine”
EMILY: I went through several personal and family crises in the past few years so I actually could not recall what my writing routine was or if ever I had a proper one…haha.
A heart doctor friend asked me this exact same question over dinner recently and it sparked me finding and keeping a writer’s routine over the past two months. I have a lovely writer’s calender journal gifted from someone. Now, every day, I bullet-point each day with at least two writing related activities, be it reading a Kidlit book, working on a manuscript or watching an online writing class. It helps me to track my time better and make time for writing if I find I have slipped over the week.
ME: Is there anything else you’d like
to share about your writing journey?
EMILY: My writing journey has been something
totally unexpected and providential. I lost my voice to Spasmodic Dysphonia, a
rare voice disorder, and recovered it along with a writing voice 10 years
later. God has been the Author of my writing journey and it’s been one filled
with favour and flavor! You can read
more about my backstory at a recent interview here:
ME: Thank you, Emily! We’re so
grateful to you for sharing your thoughts. Your journey and thoughts inspire us
to keep believing in ourselves, practicing the art of storytelling, and
submitting our work. We send you energy and inspiration for your continued
Thank you for spending part of your day with me! If you have thoughts or questions for Emily, please comment below. Emily and I will enjoy reading your words. And if Emily has the time, I’m sure that she’ll respond.
Mary Hendrix is a gifted artist, plus a good friend and critique partner. Mary’s insight from an illustrator’s point of view is invaluable for the writers in our group. Her artistic eyes see beyond the words and in between the spaces.
I asked Mary if she would tell us how she approaches a story to bring her imagination to the page. Mary said, “Sure!” Lucky us!
ME: Thank you,
Mary, for helping us better understand how illustrators think. I’d like to
start by asking yourself.
some children’s illustrators that you admire?
MARY: The 90’s
illustrations of Diane Goode, “When I Was Young in the Mountains,”
caught my attention as art work so well rendered, evoking such emotion of a
family…one of my favorites. I remember thinking I could do that!!! Of course,
I am also a great fan of Jan Brett. Her
attention to detail, color and layout are beautiful.
ME: How did you
know that you wanted to illustrate children’s books?
MARY: I love
paper, books and drawing. It took time for me to realize that
illustrating a children’s book combined all three! It also took time to
gain the confidence that my artwork was valued.
ME: What does
your “Illustrating Time” look like?
MARY: I sit at
my table with my sketch book and pencil, envisioning what the characters of the
author’s story look like and what they do from page to page. Then I revise,
revise, revise! It is lots of alone time with my paint brush!
ME: As the
illustrator, what do you do to help visualize the characters and arc of a
MARY: I do
research about the character if that is part of the story. Otherwise, I draw
and draw until I can find that character appearing on the page with all the
right characteristics! Often times this is the easy part as the
illustrations flow and the book gets laid out.
The hard part is making the spontaneous drawings “look right” on a page!
Time and revision is necessary for making the characters stand out.
ME: What advice
would you give a beginning writer about including Art Notes?
MARY: Be very
general. Let the artist bring out the best in your book.
ME: What do you
see as the artist’s role when illustrating a picture book?
Artists tell a story with pictures rather than words. We want to make your
words come alive with color, interesting characters and vivid backgrounds that
will encourage a child to read forever. Aart develops a greater depth to your
story to enhance its influence on the reader.
ME: How would
you describe a meaningful collaboration between author, editor and illustrator?
MARY: Work together and accept advice and criticism. Don’t get caught thinking the revision process and collaboration is a hindrance…everyone just wants a successful project. Remember everyone is working toward the same goal. That being said, know how to stand up for yourself and the story you want to tell. Art is an integral part of the process.
ME: We know
authors invest blocks of time on social media to connect with other authors and
publicize their books. What should do illustrators to connect and display their
MARY: Always do
your best work and then put it out on Facebook, Instagram, and other social media. Click “like”
on author blogs that interest you. We
have so many modes of communication that were not available in the past. Use
them to connect with others and expose yourself to more ideas. This has
been particularly influential for me. YouTube has exposed me to so much variety
in the art world!
ME: Is there
advice you can offer picture book illustrators who are starting out?
MARY: The best advice is to practice, practice, practice. Always strive for the best. Don’t give up or get discouraged! Join critique groups, attend conferences such as the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, find artist communities in your area that challenge you to try new mediums and ideas. Read lots of children’s books! Someone will notice you with time and dedication.
ME: As picture book authors, we tend to take over the page. Thank you, Mary, for reminding us that we work 50-50 with illustrators. Gifted artists expand our stories beyond our visions to bring out the magic! We wish you success in your illustrating journey. Do I hear a whisper that you’re illustrating a picture book debuting in the near future?!
MARY: I was asked to collaborate with the Flying Ketchup Press to produce illustrations for a delightful folk tale about bar-b-que sauce. I have such fun characters to develop, and Polly McCann, the editor, has been delightful to work with.
As authors, we create
and craft stories, working to find magic in the storytelling and characters.
Mary has encouraged us to remember how much of that “magic” can be created by
talented illustrators. Picture books are truly a collaboration of creative
minds and hearts. What a wonderful Kidlit World we live in!
Bursts of belly-laughs. Raised eye-brows. Teary trickles. Heart tugs. Grumbly mutters and more. Good storytelling sparks emotions and memories in us. It connects cultures and generations. The best words create melodies on a page we can sing reading aloud. These story songs expand, challenge, affirm, and delight us. My hope is that my storytelling creates this magic for you.