Secrets of a Children’s Bookseller: What’s Hot in the Picture Book Market?

To start off my Book-seller’s sneak-peek into the trends of the 2011 holiday season I thought I’d begin with picture books. And I’m happy to report that picture books are not dead! In fact, picture books sold wonderfully this holiday. The following is a re-cap of some of the hot books, trends, and requests that I got this season:

The Big Books of 2011:

These are individual picture books that we sold stacks and stack and stacks of!

  • I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen
  • Stuck by Oliver Jeffers
  • The Princess and the Pig by Jonathan Emmet
  • Stars by Mary Lyn Rae (Illustrated by Marla Frazee. Marla is a bit of a local celebrity, therefore the sales of this book may be related to her local fan base. Not to say this book isn’t awesome, because it is. However, this is a great point  for authors and illustrators – get involved with your local bookstores. We love you and your community will too!)
  • The Lego Ideas Book by Daniel Lipkowitz (This isn’t a picture book, it’s a non-fiction book of ideas of things to build with your left-over legos. It fit with this age-group which is why I’m mentioning it here, and it sold like crazy!!!)

And a few awesome honorable mentions that were also pretty popular:

  • Pirate vs. Pirate by Mary Quattlebaum
  • Llama Llama Home with Mama by Anna Dewdney
  • Press Here by Hevee Tulette
  • Every Thing On It by Shel Silverstein
  • Itsy Mitsy Runs Away by Elanna Allen

The Princess Trend

Princess books are still very popular! In fact, it’s the number one answer to “What does your three to six-year-old girl like?”  There are a lot of options already out there for princess (or very “girly” themed) picture books, including: Fancy Nancy by Jane O’Connor, Pinkalicious by Elizabeth and Victoria Kann, Lady-Bug Girl by Jackie Davis and David Soman, and The Very Fairy Princess by Julie Andrews. But it seems there’s always room for more. Plenty of parents needed NEW books as they already own the traditional go-to girly books mentioned above.

In contrast, there is also the “anti-princess” trend. This is when a parent comes in and wants to steer their daughter away from their obsession with princesses. In these cases they want a strong girl character who is independent, fun, and into things that are not pink, glittery, or covered in neon polka-dots.

Boys Love Trucks

The number one request for young boys (ages 2 to 6) are trains, planes, and automobiles. It’s so popular that we actually have an entire transportation section of the store. There are a lot of great classics in this category, from The Little Engine That Could to Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel. But some new popular titles include Otis by Loren Long and Goodnight Goodnight Construction Site by Sherri Dusky Rinker. Also non-fiction automobile books are popular, particularly those with lifting flaps and sounds.

Boys also love dinosaurs, sports, astronomy, and science. These are popular requests as well (and we do have whole sections for them too). However, many of the books on these shelves are primarily non-fiction rather than a traditional picture book.

The Cute Cuddly Animal Phenomenon

In general the number one picture book request is phrased like this: “Show me all your books with ____________ (insert cute cuddly animal) in them.” Usually this will be something like owls, or puppy dogs, or monkeys. Occasionally they will be something odd like moose or lemurs. It seems that kids go through phases where they’re really into one animal. The other reason this question is so popular (particularly around the holidays) is that adults like to give the gift of a book AND a stuffed animal. Pretty much any animal is game, the requests for “insert cute cuddly animal” are pretty vast so have fun with your next picture book character.

There’s Something for Everyone

This is only a small glimpse into the number of books sold over the holidays. Most sales are highly individual, and I spend a lot of time walking through the store giving suggestions based on the customer’s idea of the type of book they want to give for the holidays. The above are a few examples of things I noticed selling particularly well, or questions I was asked over and over.

Lets not forget that trends are exactly that – trends. And just because it’s popular today doesn’t mean it will be popular next year, or even in another city or state. I work at one small independent bookstore, so of course my observations will be skewed by our customer base. Still, I think it’s fun to see what’s doing well!

Happy New Year Everyone!

Got Gifts? My 2011 Picture Book Suggestions!

Hopefully you’ve enjoyed your turkey comas and tended to your Black Friday bruises and are ready for the big buying marathon of the weeks to come! Since I will be making quite a few holiday suggestions in the bookstore this season I thought I might share a few of my favorites with all of you as well! So here are my 2011, ready to be wrapped, picture book suggestions:


I Want My Hat Back

by Jon Klassen

A hilarious yet simple book about a bear who can’t seem to find his hat. It packs a final punch unlike any picture book I’ve seen before, and adults will love this book as much as kids (possibly more)! It has lovely illustrations and is fun to read out loud.


Grandpa Green by Lane Smith

A gorgeously illustrated book about the life and legacy of a grandfather as captured through the sculptures of his garden. A lovely book for grandparents to share with their grand-kids. This one will charm and tug on your heart strings at the same time.

Itsy Mitsy Runs Away by Elanna Allen

You will fall in love with the adorable illustrations and determined attitude of Itsy Mitsy, an idy-biddy-sized girl who decides she wants to run away. While she’s at it she realizes there might be a thing or two she needs to bring with her like her dinosaur, and her dog…and maybe even dad too. The whimsical and breezy illustrations sold me on this book, but the humor and charm of the storytelling makes the whole package a winner!

Pirate vs. Pirate

by Mary Quattlebaum and illustrated by Alexandra Boiger

Ahhhhrg Matey! Who be the greatest pirate in the world? In this fantastically fun read-aloud adventure Big Bad Bart and Mean Mad Mo battle to see who is brave enough to swim with sharks, juggle cannon balls, and hornswaggle their way up the tallest mast on this side of the Pacific! You won’t want to miss this swashbuckling adventure else it be you who’s left empty handed and walkin’ the plank!



by Mary Lyn Ryan and illustrated by Marla Frazee

A beautiful book about everything star. A lovely look at how stars are all around us: looking over us in the sky,  held in our pockets for good luck, found in forests, or given away for good deeds well done. This elegant book is both warm and musing and philosophical, and instant classic for your picture book treasury.

Five Publishers Give an Industry-Wide Picture

Editors Debra Dorfman, Beverly Horowitz, Jennifer Hunt, Allyn Johnston, and Julie Strauss-Gabel all spoke on a panel at the 2011 SCBWI LA Conference about the current state of the children’s book industry. Big issues like self-publishing, e-books, and digital trends were discussed, but deep down it seems that content is king. The following is my transcription of the panel discussion. Please note that these are my notes and not direct quotes from the editors mouth.

Moderator: Please introduce yourself and your company.

Allyn Johnston: VP of Beach Lane Books which she runs with one other colleague. They put out 18-20 books per year. Mostly these are picture books for very young kids and a few middle grade or YA titles.

Julie Strauss Gabel: VP at Dutton Children’s Books, which she has worked at for a decade. Dutton has moved to become a boutique company that does mostly MG and YA. She acquires 10-12 books per year (more YA now) and is looking for things that are literary and commercial.

Jennifer Hunt: VP at Dial Books for Young Readers. She just moved to this new company. Previously she worked as an editor at Little Brown. She is looking to build a high-quality literary book list and is interested in partnerships that broaden what a book can be.

Beverly Horowitz:  VP at Delacorte Press. Delacorte has evolved over the years and is now focused on MG and a wide variety of YA. The Newbery winner this year came from Delacorte and is a debut author! Their books include Fallen to Maze Runner, but they’re always looking for little gems (though that’s not the norm). Looking for books that will translate into international fairs, and she likes voices from other cultures.

Debra Dorfman: VP at Scholastic where they do everything from baby books to YA. In fact, lots of YA recently. Her focus is on middle grade and chapter books. Her group does hardcover series’ and works closely with book clubs/fair for paperback series’.

Moderator: Are there any genres that are endangered or growth spurting right now? (i.e. picture book, fantasy, etc.)

Beverly: With the demise of Borders we have to begin new thinking. Genres aren’t going to die, but they do cycle. Certain strong genres lead the pack. Borders demise is a sad thing. There’s an opportunity for independents to have great potential, but we should also not be afraid of the e-book. Be nimble! Big box stores are opening up to YA (stores like Walmart), though maybe not picture books yet. Everyone is going to need to re-think the business. With that, new ideas and opportunities will arise. The adult book world may have a harder time (in the short term).

Deb: I think there will be books moving to non-bookstore markets (mass retailers).

Beverly: Be optimistic AND realistic. Walmart and Target are not innovators. Don’t be too tough on the electronic future.

Julie: There is not one way to publish a book to success. Not being in Target is not the end of the world. Each will find their way. If the content is there it will find its audience. Take your time. Target can be a skewed view of the YA market.

Jen: Kids are always at the forefront of innovation. Meanwhile books with a 30th anniversary edition is an example of content that stays. Content is king.

Beverly: Sometimes you can be before a trend. Some cycle and come around. As publishers we look to the backlist to repackage a book. Suddenly a repackaged book can become big as it’s new to the audience ten years later. The kids market has a lot of turnover. Don’t use the old system. It doesn’t work anymore.

Moderator: What kind of skills does an author or illustrator need? What do you expect from them more than just the ability to write?

Deb: Put yourself out there. Websites, school visits, etc. Talk with your publisher. It helps if you create your own buzz.

Julie: Social media only works when it’s genuine to who you are. Do you want to do it? Do what’s natural to your marketing voice. Don’t force yourself to blog and tweet. It’s not what we expect. Do what’s genuine.

Jen: I agree. There’s a lot of anxiety for writers with social media. Focus on your writing.

Moderator: What about Self Publishing?

Deb: Amanda Hocking is a really interesting self publishing phenomenon. She’s been selling her paranormal YA novel online for 99 cents and gotten herself a multi-million dollar contract out of it. There’s a lot of different ways to do things now. In Japan girls are writing  YA novels and texting them to each other. People are putting things online and when it gets enough hits publishers are taking notice. However, these guys are the outlier and not the norm.

Beverly: It’s like Justin Bieber – he’s an outlier.

Jen: Independent publishing can be good for under-represented communities. That’s important. The LA Times did an article on the shifting face of what a family is and kids want to see themselves in print.

Julie: I firmly believe in voices finding their way. But beware of the “I submitted to some houses, got no’s, so they must be idiots” attitude. I believe in editing, and gate keeping. The book can be better! Or maybe it’s the 4th book you write that get’s published. We need moments of personal honesty.

Moderator: How does New Media affect Picture books?

Allyn: I believe in the traditional format, e-book included. The enhanced book is distracting and disrupts the purity of words and pictures. I’m not interested in moving stuff unless it’s about education.

Beverly: Can we put that in YA? These are questions being asked now. It’s evolving. Some of those enhanced book elements may work better with an older audience.

Julie: The content (or value) isn’t the book (the physical book). It’s the editorial team, the intellectual property, etc. That is the value that goes into the content.

Beverly: As things get cheaper (iPads etc.) the technology changes. Even the homeless have ear-buds in their ears.

Deb:  We are publishing all our YA books simultaneously in e-book and regular book, as well as a lot of MG. A lot of adults are buying and downloading YA today.

Moderator: Can you comment on the fact that NY Times Bestseller lists are not consistent? The hardcopy and e-books have different lists and are selling differently.

Beverly: Kids books are only 4% of the e-book market, while adult books have about 30-40%. We have a lot of room to grow.

Jen: Kids aren’t mini-adults. They are going to interact with technology in their own way.

Beverly: Browsing is the part of the e-book technology that hasn’t been figured out yet.

Moderator: Have you noticed a change in the reading habits of kids?

Deb: Looking to publish earlier chapter books, girls are jumping to chapter books rather than picture books.

Bev: I think it comes down to content. When someone says “My kid is reading Dostoevsky,” sure they understand the words, but do they understand the content? There are emotional needs of a child that need to be nurtured.

Julie: They are sophisticated readers but not emotionally ready. What do we give them? It’s a challenge. What are they ready for as a reader, but not as a person? We need to speak to the head and heart of a child. Older YA can be distinguished through voice or content. Some jump ship to adult books, but they don’t “get it.” They are not a mini-adults.

Jen: Something about the word “crossover” makes me bristle. I’d hate for us to ever not make the best book for that reader in the MG or YA market.

Moderator: Tell us about one of your upcoming books?

Deb: Ghost Buddy – it’s funny, heartfelt, and funny!

Bev: All the Earth Thrown to the Skythis is by an author who was originally an adult writer. It’s literary, compelling, and a lovely story. It’s a little game. I love the beauty of the writing and the passion.

Jen: Counting by Sevens is about exploring family identity and your place in the world.

Julie: I have two. The first is The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. It will blow open everything you know about John Green. And The Disenchantments by Nina Lacour which is a road trip book about figuring out what happens next once you discover that you’ve grown up. There’s a complexity and clarity in how she tells a story.

Allyn:  10 Little Caterpillars which is a poem picture book and Stars by Mary Lynne Rae which is an exploration of all things star.

Debra Dorfman is VP, Publisher Paperbacks, Non-Fiction & Licensed Publishing at Scholastic. She worked in the Scholastic Book Club division for twelve years, then move to Penguin Young Readers Group as President and Publisher of Grosset & Dunlap for seven years. In 2008, she came back to Scholastic. Some of her favorite books include Go, Dog, Go!, Stargirl, and Looking for Alaska.

Jennifer Hunt is VP of Acquisitions and Editor-at-Large for Dial Books. She was formerly Editorial director at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. She is the editor of many award winning books including The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian by Sherman Alexie, Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacugalupi, and Story of a Girl by Sara Zarr.

Allyn Johnston is VP and Publisher of Beach Lane Books which focuses on emotionally engaging, lyrical, and highly visual picture books for young readers. Allyn has worked with Mem Fox, Lois Ehlert, Marla Frazee, Avi, and M.T. Anderson.

Beverly Horowitz is VP Publisher of Delacorte Press. She began her career in the editorial department of Little, Brown in Boston. She’s held positions in all aspects of publishing including publicity and promotions, school and library marketing, and editorial. She has worked with Judy Blume, Louis Sachar, and many more!

Julie Strauss-Gabel is VP at Dutton Children’s Books.  A graduate of Amherst College and Harvard University she worked at Hyperion Books and Clarion Books before joining Dutton in 1992. She has worked with the authors: John Green, Galye Forman, Stephanie Perkins, Nina LaCour, Lauren Myracle, and many more.

Nuts and Bolts and Chocolate

Picture book author Tony Johnston has over 125 books for children in her repertoire! She was kind enough to speak at the 2011 Southern California SCBWI Writer’s Day and share her immense knowledge and insight. This was one of the most heartfelt talks I’ve ever been too. Johnston is passionate and moved by her responsibility as a writer.

The following notes were taken during her talk:

"Giant" by N.C.Wyeth

Where Do You Find Inspiration?

  • “Keep alive to everything.” – N. C. Wyeth
  • Bumble through life at the ready.
  • “If I keep alive to everything, a story will find me.” –Tony Johnston
  • “I have not exhausted the ground I stand on.” – N. C. Wyeth (on why he doesn’t need to paint the alps. There is plenty to see and explore where he lives.)
  • Notice things more and more. Inspiration doesn’t always come from an emotional core.
  • The LA Times is a great place to find stories.

 Let the Feelings Catch You:

  • “Be caught by feelings.”
  • “Words from the heart, enter the heart.” (Saying in the Torah ??)
  • Sentimentality is the cheapest lie.
  • You don’t have to include significance and meaning to have a heartfelt moment in your book.
  • Make ‘em laugh, but do it honestly.
  • Heartfelt silliness is also an emotion.
  • When writing about difficult subjects (like racism) remember that children don’t flinch. It is the grownups that flinch.

On Writing Picture Books:

  • Keep it simple.
  • “How difficult it is to be simple.” – Vincent Van Gogh
  • Writing simply does not mean words must be short and easy. It should be the words that belong.
  • “The difference between the right word and almost the right word can be the difference between the lightning and a lightning bug.” – Mark Twain
  • Don’t slip into Cinderella’s Syndrome. Don’t try to fit a story into something that doesn’t fit. The glass shoe is the shape/structure of your story, if you try to force it, it will break.” Johnston’s example of this was a picture book that was really a novel, but she didn’t realize it till an editor pointed it out to her.
  • Find the right form for your story.
  • Listen to your editor.
  • Don’t sentimentalize or trivialize.
  • The process for every book is different.

The Essence of Childhood:

  • Great picture books deal with the essence of childhood. Essence is the spirit, the pith, the heart of a story.
  • The language of essences is clean, like an arrow, straightforward.
  • “To the memory nothing is ever truly lost.” –Eudora Welty
  • You must get back to the place where it hurts.
  • “No tears in the writer. No tears in the reader.” –Robert Frost

Be Bold When You Write:

  • Don’t play it safe. Writing is about risk taking!
  • Writing is about sharing yourself.
  • “Don’t hold anything back. Don’t hold anything for the next one (book). It’s the only way to write. It’s the only way to live.” – ?

 Other Thoughts and Wisdom:

  • Any small goodness is of value.
  • We need to take time to halt our lives, become introspective, and focus on what is important to us.
  • “It is in the early morning that I think about what I believe and want to say.”
  • How do you write a novel? Hemingway’s answer: “First I clean the Fridge.” (He’s finding space to think).
  • Johnston is a bit superstitious. She believes it is “spiritually healthy” to let her manuscript to “rub elbows” with other great books. Before she submits a manuscript she puts it on her shelf between other great books and lets the essence rub off onto her work.
  • If you are in the middle of a cocktail party and inspiration strikes, politely say “I’m writing a novel, I’ll be right with you in a moment.” Then go and get out what you need to. “It is about the writing, not the cocktail party.”

Tony Johnston has written around 125 books for children. She studied under the renowned poet, Myra Cohn Livingston, and has taught creative writing at UCLA. Her awards include Honorary Texan for The Cowboy and the Black-Eyed Pea, Simon Wiesenthal Award for The Wagon, and the John and Patricia Beatty Award for Any Small Goodness.

The Quick Take Away: 2011 SoCal SCBWI Writer’s Day

It’s been awhile since I reported on a conference event, but never fear I’ve got lots of good information coming your way. I attended the 2011 Southern California SCBWI Writer’s Day this past Saturday with a variety of speakers from Susan Patron to Bruce Coville. Here’s a few quick take-away’s from the event:

Susan Patron Newbery Award Winning Author said:

  • Writing a novel is a thrill, it’s like riding off on a runaway horse, it’s thrilling and terrifying.
  • For children growing up is something that happens in the tiny details of everyday.
  • More on to come on winning the Newbery, new projects, and finding the heart of your story.

Tony Johnston author of almost 125 Picture Books shared:

  • If I keep alive to everything, a story will find me.
  • Keep it simple. But writing simply does not mean words must be short and easy. It should be the words that belong.
  • Don’t play it safe. Writing is about risk taking!
  • More to come on being inspired by your own emotions, the essence of childhood, and where to begin when writing a picture book.

Rachel Cohn New York Times Bestselling Young Adult Author said:

  • First impressions are really important with teen readers. You must get it right from page one.
  • Everything feels so big to a teen. It’s epic! It’s biblical!
  • Voice is the way you speak on paper.
  • More to come on what makes a good first page, working with a writing partner, and how to keep your teen voice authentic.

Bruce Coville Fantasy author of almost 100 books shared:

  • “Fairytale is the best way to tell the truth.” – C.S. Lewis
  • The world has become too small for the heart of a ten year-old. Fantasy liberates kids, it sweeps them off to a new place.
  • Ask the tough questions. Why are we here? What do we need? These are the riddles of our lives.
  • More to come on the difference between Sci-fi and Fantasy, tips for writing fantasy, and how to find the courage to dream.

Picture Book Layout – 32 Pages of Awesome!

At the 2008 SCBWI LA Conference, author/illustrator Adam Rex shared the secret to creating 32 pages of awesome in a picture book layout. Follow these secrets to success to find your own inner illustration-diva:

What Layout Choices Does the Illustrator Have?

  • It is the illustrator’s job to create the page breaks in the manuscript.
  • The size of the book is also up to the illustrator. It’s always good to consider price however when creating a size.

A Few Facts About Formatting:

  • The first page (with text of story) will always start on the right, and is usually page 5. It will look like a mistake otherwise.
  • Assume the book will be 32 pages, add more if you can’t fit it all. Look at other picture books for sizes and pacing, etc.

To Each His Own. Adam’s Process:

  • Adam’s uses a lot of photo reference and will often take his own photos using himself and his family.
  • He usually works about 150% of the size it will be printed and in some cases 200%.
  • However his last two books were completely painted digitally.
  • It takes him about 3-4 months to paint a picture book. That does not include the planning, sketching phases.

A Bit about The Business:

  • Yes, you will retain the rights to your artwork.
  • Adam actually sells about a half a dozen original paintings a year.
  • Usually, he deals with the editor far more than the art director. However, once he never spoke to an editor and did the entire project thru the art director.

Adam Rex is the illustrator of The Dirty Cowboy, Frankenstein Makes and Sandwich, Frankenstein Takes the Cake, Tree Ring Circus, and Pssst. His first novel The True Meaning of Smekday was published in 2007, and his second novel Fat Vampire came out in July 2010.

Follow Your Passions: Advice from Illustrator E.B. Lewis

Children’s book illustrator E.B. Lewis doesn’t refer to himself as a fine artist or an illustrator but as an Artistrator. He gave a keynote speech at the 2010 LA SCBWI Conference about his journey as both fine artist and illustrator, and the passion behind his craft. The following notes were taken during his talk:

The Role of the Artist/Illustrator/Writer:

  • This is an amazing job. But do you realize the work that goes behind it?
  • We are artists.
  • We are critical thinkers.
  • We are in constant observation of the world.
  • We change minds.

The Sacrifices We Must Make For Our Craft:

  • Whenever there is an overthrow of power, the artists are the first to see persecution.
  • A lot of work can lose you relationships.
  • You lose time with all the hours you spend in your studio.
  • It takes hours to make something look simple.

The Elusive Goal of Perfection:

  • What happens when we talk about passion? We try to reach perfection, but it is not possible.
  • What happens when inspiration dies?
  • There were 2 ½ years when Lewis wasn’t able to paint (fine art). He felt like h is work wasn’t important, it wasn’t relevant. At least not in his own opinion.

The Difference between a Fine Artist and an Illustrator:

  • An illustrator takes written words and turns it into images.
  • A fine artist takes a philosophical issue and makes something, in whatever form it must take.
  • Artists document life.
  • Some of the best art in the country is in children’s books.

A Gift of Support as a Child:

  • Lewis’ Uncle was a huge influence on him as a younger man. He was the only person who talked to him in an adult manner. He would look at his artwork and ask him “What is your patience.” At first Lewis didn’t understand, and later he realized his uncle was asking him about inspiration. Every month his uncle would give him a new book. His uncle helped him to discover his passion for art.

Starting Out In Children’s Books:

  • An agent saw Lewis’ work in a magazine about watercolor painting and called him up and asked him if he would be interested in doing children’s books. Lewis was initially not interested, but the agent asked him to go to a book store and look up some illustrators, such as: Barry Moser, Chris Van Allsburg, and Pickney.  Lewis went to the book store and was blown away. He agreed to sign with the agent. A few weeks later Lewis had nine book contracts.

Chasing the Monster (Doing the Work):

  • Lewis loves to work for about 2 hours on a piece, and then he can’t wait to get a new blank piece of paper.
  • He loves the excitement of putting a mark on a piece of paper and seeing what will happen.
  • Chasing the monster is what drives you, but you never quite catch it.

Technique and Process:

  • Lewis uses lots of photo reference for his books. He finds someone in his community to play the part and then sets up the images with photo shoots.
  • In the Jacqueline Woodson book about two girls of different races living on two sides of a fence, he used the gutter (book binding area) as a metaphorical fence. He never let the two girls be on the same page until the end of the book when they climbed over the fence.
  • Lewis discovered a whole new style for the book When You Were Born. He felt that it needed a new style, or visual language for the book.
  • At 10pm at night, Lewis calls an artist friend who is also painting late at night. The two of them will talk for hours as they both work.

When the Inspiration Well Dried Up:

  • Lewis would still go into the studio every day. He needed to feed that side of him, even if he wasn’t creating anything.
  • He goes to a museum in every city he visits/goes to speak. To help find inspiration in someone else’s work.

His Lottery Ticket/Child Project:

  • He found inspiration in a lottery ticket project, where the image scratches away to show children beneath. “We spend all this time scratching for wealth, but if we scratch past the lottery ticket, what do you find beneath? A Child.”
  • We don’t dig deep enough to find the true value of our children. They are more valuable than gold.
  • Our lives are like lotteries – you never know.
  • Don’t scratch too deep or you can destroy.
  • Fill yourself up to overflowing and then give it back!

E.B. Lewis was born on December 16, 1956, in Philadelphia, PA. He attended Temple University Tyler School of Art, and there discovered the medium of watercolor. Lewis is presently an instructor at the University of Arts in Philadelphia. His illustrated 30 books including Talking About Bessie, The Negro Speaks, The Bat Boy and his Violin, and the Caldacott Honor Winner Coming On Home Soon.

Experimental Fiction is Perfect for Children’s Literature

Author M.T. Anderson spoke at the 2010 SCBWI LA Conference about why experimental literature is perfect or children, even more so than for adult literature. The following notes are from his breakout session on the topic. Also visit my previous post “What is Experimental Literature” where Anderson breaks down the different techniques and terms of experimental lit.

The Three Main Points of This Session…

  • Experimental fiction is not really experimental. These techniques have been used for many years.
  • Experimental fiction is great for children because kids pick up on these techniques naturally and take to them better than an adult might. They are more accessible than in adult literature.
  • Experimental techniques teach us how to read the book. They are a process of learning in and of themselves. They will show us world and character. These techniques show more and are less subliminal.

A Reading of Kurt Schwitter’s Experimental Poem #25…

  • Anderson performed Kurt Schwitter’s poem #25. This was a poem entirely of numbers (i.e. 25, 25,26,27,25… etc.) However the key to the poem is not in the narrative but in hearing it out loud. It was about experiencing rhythms and repetitions, sets of numbers that create a language within themselves in how they are repeated and organized.
  • This poem was an example of form without content. The poem has complex structures despite its lack of content.
  • The poem teaches us how to enter the poem. It creates patterns through the relationship of numbers. Such as a number repetition (4,4,4) or the ascension of numbers (25,26,27). Despite the fact that there is no specific math in the poem.
  • There are surprises and disruptions in the poem. For example the introduction of a fraction. This creates new sequences, new rules, and new movements n the flow of the poem.
  • The poem relates to the operation of language.
  • The speech act (reading it aloud) creates structures of meaning. We define the words as we use them.
  • The repetition of the number 25 could relate to: memory, recollection of fate. The number does repeat itself later.
  • When we are sensitized to the underlying structures and patterns we create meanings when putting them together.

Why Experimental Fiction is Great for Kids…

  • Children learn narrative without even thinking about it.
  • As a child our learning is more malleable. Where as an adult we have already learned a set structure, we are less inclined to be open to alternative structure.
  • Children have a light and unpretentious approach to story.

The Experimental Work of Dr. Seuss…

  • Anderson also read/performed sections of Dr. Seuss’ book One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish. This is a book without a clear or cohesive narrative, but uses pattern and repetition to move you through the book, as well as teaches you the structure as you go.
  • The book begins with organization in counting, followed by organization in color. Then the book switches to emotion.
  • There are specific rhythms and differentiations in the book. The use of re-occurrence helps us to learn the structure as we go.
  • Units of sound are objects within themselves.
  • We find as the story progresses that fish are abandoned and replaced with children who now move us through the story. (Similar structure to Naked Lunch by Burrows.)
  • Seuss retains structures despite narrative non-sequiters.
  • Re-occurrence helps to unify the work.
  • Each spread of the story (two page spread) is a mini-form within itself.
  • Characters do reoccur throughout the story.
  • The book has no plot but the refrain, rhyming, and evolving numeric’s give the book structure.
  • The book is a wild chaos of fantasy.

Experimental Literature Shows You a New World…

  • All art is about seeing the world anew.
  • No one thinks about air until it is poisoned, and one realizes a need for it in the first place.

An Evaluation of The Arrival by Shaun Tan…

  • The Arrival is a completely illustrated story with no text.
  • We (the reader) are subjected to the same disorientation as the protagonist in the story.
  • We are surrounded with familiar elements but then show a contrast of things that are strange.
  • The name of the author on the title page is familiar (readable) but created in a semi foreign text so that it seems like another language at first glance. This is the first way it begins to prepare and teach the viewer the story.
  • The first page sets up a visual context for the story and a sense of repetition through panels.
  • There is a transition from one sequence (page) to the next. The final panel of the page leads us into the next page and the next page informs the previous one.
  • Small pieces (or snapshot like images) on the first page are then shown in larger context (one w hole image) on the next page. The artist draws all the visual terms together in order for us to see the whole equation.
  • The book is filled with images that are familiar and alien at the same time.
  • The book is wordless and thus must rely on gesture and visuals (character) to communicate the story.
  • We learn the visual vocabulary with what is between the panels. We learn to work backwards, and the book teaches us how to read it.
  • There is a final call back on the last page. It has the same format as the first page, thus creating a “book end” quality. The new world is incorporated into the old world.

M.T. Anderson has written stories for adults, picture books for children, adventure novels for young readers, and several books for older readers (both teens and adults). His satirical book Feed was a finalist for the National Book Award and was the winner of the L.A. Times Book Prize. His first volume of his Octavio Nothing saga won the National Book Award and the Boston Globe/ Horn Book Prize. Both the first and second volumes of the two-part series were Printz Honor Books.

What is Experimental Fiction?

At the 2010 LA SCBWI conference author M.T. Anderson dedicated a breakout session to the topic of experimental fiction and why it is important and relevant to children’s literature. As part of that talk he broke down the common techniques and terms used in experimental fiction, which are as follows:

Experimental Fiction Techniques and Terms:


This is when the elements of the story are about the story. For example the book There is a Monster at the End of This Book. The narrative is about the forward motion of the narrative. Grover tries to get the reader to stop turning the pages of the book, because the title say’s there’s a monster at the end. In this example the narrative refers to the book as an object. This draws the attention to the physical book. The dangerous presence is what draw us forward, and we discover we are moving toward ourselves. Other good examples of meta-fiction include: The Three Pigs, I Am Blue, Breaktime, Harold and the Purple Crayon, Go Go Go Cabot.

Fabulism and Magical Realism

Fabulism and magical realism is the use of myth, fable, and dreams to challenge one’s sense of reality. There is a very fine line between this and fantasy. Examples include: Princess and Goblins, The Old Country, The Ox Boy, The Old Man With Mysterious Wings, and Kelly Link’s Short Stories.

Intrusioning and Typographical Play

The use of typographical play reminds the reader of artifice. This is a type of narrative self-consciousness. You can change type for mood and emotion. Examples are using bold print or large words, etc. This is used a lot in poetry. Good examples include: Lauren Child’s work, John Scieszka’s books, Christopher (?) Raska’s Poke in the Eye.

Formalism: Formalism is linguistic play. Experimentation of sentence structure. All poetry is formalism. It is about rhythm and refrains. A good example includes You Killed Wesley Payne.

Words as Sounds Instead of Meaning: This is the use of nonsense words. It is a Dadaist technique. Examples include: One Fish Two Fish, and Once Dice Twice.

Nonsense and Whimsy: This is the defiance of strict sense. This will teach you to read in a new way, and allows for meaninglessness. Good examples include Gertrude stein’s Middle Grade Novel, and Damien Pinkwater’s Young Adult novel.

Hyper Text: Hyper text is text that doesn’t demand you read it in a particular order. Or a book that provides links or avenues to create order. Any book with foot notes is an example of hypertext.  Choose your own adventure is another example, as well as the Dungeons and Dragon’s books, Pale Fire, and The Mezzanine. The world is presented in a non-linear fashion.

Self Contradiction: I am the Cheese is a great example. It has two plot lines, but they negate one another, they cannot co-exist as stories. (Don’t line up). Self contradiction is the power.

Structures Without Plot: The use of organic non-plot.

M.T. Anderson has written stories for adults, picture books for children, adventure novels for young readers, and several books for older readers (both teens and adults). His satirical book Feed was a finalist for the National Book Award and was the winner of the L.A. Times Book Prize. His first volume of his Octavio Nothing saga won the National Book Award and the Boston Globe/ Horn Book Prize. Both the first and second volumes of the two-part series were Printz Honor Books.

The Bug That Plagued the Entire Third Grade

Boy, do I have a bug-tastic treat for you all today! My SCBWI friend and now DEBUT AUTHOR, Lori Calabrese, has just published her first picture book: The Bug That Plagued The Entire Third Grade. Woohoo!

Lori has also decided to make my blog a stop on her rockin’ bug-tabulous blog tour. She was kind enough to let me interview her and share with you some of the trials and triumphs of her publishing journey!

An Awesome Interview With Author Lori Calabrese:

First off, tell us a little bit about your book The Bug That Plauged the Entire Third Grade.

Lori: Hoping to win the upcoming Bug-A-Fair, Matt pries a strange bug off the grille of his Dad’s car. But as the fair nears, Matt catches a different kind of bug: a cold. Will Matt become student of the year or will he create a third grade epidemic?

Watch Lori’s amazing book trailer here:

Okay, onto the nitty-gritty writing and publishing stuff. What was your favorite thing about writing this book?

LORI: My favorite thing about writing The Bug That Plagued the Entire Third Grade was seeing it transform into what it did. As writers, we all know that the first draft is usually WAY different than the final draft and that was definitely the case with this picture book.

The Bug That Plagued the Entire Third Grade was a huge learning process for me and it will always hold a special place in my heart since it was my first children’s book.

What struggles did you meet in the writing process, and how did you overcome them?

LORI: I think the biggest struggle I met in the writing process was writing a good story in so few words. There are many people out there who think writing a picture book is a walk in the park. I know because I used to be one of them! But when you finally sit down and realize everything that goes into it—from the rhythm, meter, character development, plot, having your child protagonist solve his own problem, and making it entertaining, you become aware that writing a picture book is far more difficult than it looks!

To overcome the struggle, I read a ton of picture books. Fortunately, I’m obsessed with picture books, so that wasn’t such a hardship, but I really read and studied them to find out what works and what doesn’t.

How did you go about selling this book? And how did you find your small publisher?

LORI: Unfortunately, the picture book market is a difficult market to break into right now as most of us are aware from the recent NY Times Article and from reading agents ‘and editors’ blogs. Due to a tough economy, it’s hard for a debut picture book author to break in, but I truly believe that if you have the passion for it, it’s not impossible.

I found my publisher, Dragonfly Publishing, Inc., online. Since 2008, DFP has held a children’s picture book contest. DFP has to keep their submissions closed most of the time because they get too many and just can’t physically handle the volume, so Senior Editor Pat Gaines came up with the wonderful idea to give aspiring authors and illustrators an opportunity to get their books in print by holding this contest. I had learned of the contest and entered each year. Unfortunately, the manuscript I sent in 2008 didn’t make the cut, but I was pleasantly surprised to learn my entry for 2009, The Bug That Plagued the Entire Third Grade, won 1st place for Best Children’s Book.

Wow that’s so exciting! Now that that the book is published, you seem to have become a marketing GURU! Tell us about your marketing plan and how you’ve been using social networking to promote yourself and your book?

LORI: Well first off, thanks! That’s quite the compliment. These days, it’s not just about writing the book. It’s also about marketing it. As a small press author, a lot, and sometimes all, of the marketing efforts are the author’s responsibility. But I’m told that it’s the same with the bigger houses now, too and it’s expected that an author pitch in and do their part to market and sell their books.

Even though my book was just published two months ago, I had already started marketing two years ago. As authors, we’re not just marketing our books, but we’re marketing our brand, which is us the writer. It was important for me to have an online presence and network with other writers, so I always try to do as much social networking as I can. (Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn, etc…)

I have my own personal website at; I blog daily about children’s books and writing at I distribute a monthly e-mail newsletter called The Book Bugz  (you can opt-in at my website); I’m the National Children’s Books Examiner for; I contribute articles to article directories such as Ezine articles; I’m part of a marketing group called Indie-Debut 2010 (a group of debut authors who have joined forced to help promote each others’ books), I conduct school visits, and attend festivals and events. As you’re aware, I’ve also kicked off a virtual book tour, just held a virtual book launch party, I’ve sent my book out for reviews, contacted Independent bookstores, and so much more.

The marketing process for an author never ends and it’s another aspect of publishing that you really have to take the time to learn all the ins and outs. In addition to honing your writing skills, and reading all of those writing tips books, don’t be afraid to hit the library and search the marketing section as well.

What advice do you have for aspiring picture book authors?

LORI: To steal Nike’s slogan, JUST DO IT!

If you’re an aspiring writer, you’ve probably heard the tips I’m about to give you a million times—Read a lot and write every day. When I first started writing and read those tips, I’d say, “That’s it? Really? What else? C’mon. There has to be more!” I was certain these authors were holding back on the secret to success. But now that I look back at what’s helped me the most, it really is reading everything you can get your hands on, and keeping up with practice. You really have to keep at it and don’t get discouraged with rejections.

And just for fun, what’s your favorite picture book and why?

LORI: My favorite picture book is A Fly Went By by Mike McClintock. I love EVERYTHING about this book and to me, it’s such a classic! There’s just so much to it from the rhyme, repetition, and the nice little twist at the end. A lamb? Really? Love it!!

Thanks so much for stopping by the blog today Lori! I wish you the best of success with The Fly That Plauged the Entire Third Grade and hope it’s the first of many great books to come!

Lori Calabrese is an award-winning children’s author. Her first picture book, The Bug That Plagued the Entire Third Grade, was awarded DFP’s Best Children’s Book Award. She writes for various children’s magazines, is the National Children’s Books Examiner at and enjoys sharing her passion for children’s books at festivals, schools and events. Visit her website to learn more,

Check out the rest of Lori’s Bug-tastic Book Blog Tour at:

The Bug That Plagued the Entire Third Grade Virtual Book Tour
November 2 –  November 30
Lori Calabrese official website:

November 2
Mayra’s Secret Bookcase

November 3
Ingrid’s Notes

November 4
Penny Lockwood Ehrenkranz’s One Writer’s Journey

November 5
Book Dads

November 8
Brimful Curiosities

The Children’s Book Review

November 9
Mrs.Hill’s Book Blog

November 10
Miss O’s Library Land

November 11
Tara Lazar’s Writing for Children (While Raising Them)/ PiBoIdMo

November 12
N.A. Sharpe’s Realms of Thought

November 15
Beverly S. McClure’s The Story of a Writer

November 16
Elysabeth’s Stories

November 17
Raising Itty Bitty Bookworms

November 18
There’s a Book

November 19
The Iron Bodkin

November 30
Into the Wardrobe