Cooking up a mystery!


July 8, Who Stole Grandma’s Million Dollar Pumpkin Pie?

One thing mystery writers know for sure, if you don’t have a good puzzle to solve, you don’t have diddly. Well, maybe diddly isn’t in the mystery writer’s handbook, but you get the drift. And building suitable, engaging puzzles in mysteries geared toward children is essential.

What I loved about Martha Freeman’s book, Who Stole Grandma’s Million Dollar Pumpkin Pie, A Chickadee Court Mystery ($16.95, Holiday House), was the clever engaging way she blended mystery and humor. What really impressed me and got my old writer’s juices pumping was how she absolutely left the mystery solving to the kids.

Alex Parakeet and Yasmeen are eleven-year-old neighbors and friends. The pair have already established themselves as being mystery solvers when a few days before Alex’s dad is set to appear on a live television broadcast reproducing his mother’s delicious pumpkin pie, the recipe disappears from the binder.

Who among them could have taken it?

Alex and Yasmeen are determined to get an answer. Some interesting facts to take away from the story to use in your writing:

Pay close attention to the almost farcical names of people and places. Freeman does a great job of getting just to the edge of going over the top, then pulling back. The town’s big football team is called the Knightly Tigers. The fancy important chef who is set to host the show on which Alex’s dad plans to appear is Zooey Bonjour. What reader could forget a name like that?

Then there is the structure of the mystery, which hinges around the disappearance of grandma’s recipe. Alex’s dad is a great cook and an awesome dad, but he’s also a bit scatterbrained. Which is why, even though he’s made the pie before, he can’t for the life of him remember grandma’s secret recipe.

Alex and the gang take us along in a fast-paced race to find the recipe, nab the culprit and decipher grandma’s code for the missing ingredient.

Freeman delivers a delightful blend of food, family, fun and friendship. Young mystery fans are sure to be pleased. Novice mystery writers should come away with an encouraging recipe for building a tasty tale any publisher would be proud to have on its menu.

The irony is. . .


June 30, A Couple of Boys have the BEST WEEK EVER

One reason I wanted to do this blog was to reach out to people with a yearning to write children’s fiction but feel they don’t know where or how to get the “good ideas” necessary for an engaging book. This week’s book illustrates how moms, dads or anyone subject to the constantly changing weather report that is childhood, has access to the greatest inspiration of all — children.

I first read A Couple of Boys Have The Best Week Ever, by Marla Frazee ($16, Harcourt), standing in the kids’ section at Barnes & Noble. What first drew my attention werethe soft, expressive illustrations. But it was the story that made me smile and ultimately purchase the book. Frazee went on to earn an esteemed Caldecott Honor Award for her book.

Here’s where observation and thoughtful, honest analysis elevate what could have been just a “cute story” into a tale that resonates with the child in us all. Frazee gets that kids don’t always mean what they say, they get distracted and what bums them out one moment might delight them the next.

Eamon and James are so excited to visit Bill and Pam, Eamon’s grandparents. They say they love adventure and can’t wait to get there to do a bunch of nature camp stuff. So the grandparents plan neat little adventures to nature parks and hikes to entertain the kids. But once they arrive, the boys just want to play and run around with each other.

Oh, boy! How many times have I carefully plotted a birthday party theme or a vacation based on the “I absolutely have to have it I must, I must, I must” proclamation of one of my girls only to have the event arrive and their entire focus shift to something else? I’d tell you how many times only I stopped counting years ago.

Frazee demonstrates through ironic prose and beautiful artwork that children often act in opposition to their stated wishes. If grownups get caught up in every little nuance, it’ll drive us mad.

Check out this very typical, yet artfully articulated scene from early in the book:

The first thing Bill wanted to do before nature camp started was to take James and Eamon to the penguin exhibit at the natural history museum.

Pam offered to pack a picnic of peanut butter-and-honey sandwiches. James and Eamon discussed their options.

They decided to stay home and enjoy Bill and Pam’s company.

Frazee clearly mastered the art of detection. She didn’t just observe, she deduced, she saw, she felt. As writers, we all must challenge ourselves to truly see our subject. If you are still believing that you can’t find a good idea, think of the last time your child or a child in your class or your niece of cousin’s kid asked for some super amazing thing only to receive it and be more interested in something else. Jot down some notes about the event. Ask yourself:

  1. What was the child’s stated objective?
  2. What was the grownups objective?
  3. What hoops were jumped through in order to achieve the objective?
  4. What was it that the child truly wanted from the experience?
  5. Where was the humor or irony of the event?
  6. What makes this event stand out in your mind?
  7. How can you elevate the event beyond a cute story among friends to a great story that touches a large audience?

To answer No. 7, the first step is to stop thinking about it and write something down. Not long ago my nephew, then 8, was mesmerized by magic. Yet when my daughter helped him learn to do a magic trick to make a ball “disappear,” he was crestfallen to learn that it was a trick and the ball didn’t actually vanish. That story just oozes with book potential. I know you’ve got little life vignettes, too.

Challenge yourselves to truly look whatever silly, funny, sad, poignant event starring a child that resonated with you. Then pull it apart and reconstruct it. Don’t get me wrong, what I’m proposing isn’t easy. Everyday analysis and the ability to deconstruct it and rebuild it in our own words and images are the hallmarks of such best-selling authors as Jerry Seinfeld, David Sedaris, Amy Sedaris and Chelsea Handler.

However, if you’re willing to do the work and take your time, you, too, can master the craft of everyday analysis. Don’t wait until your kid does something big or grand; or until you plan “the perfect trip.” Focus on some common occurrence, like the routine that ensues when our kids first come home from school or nap time or a trip to the restaurant. Slowly, expand from that event and build a story that is filled with life.

Frazee has inspired me take more time to infuse my characters with humanness. Maybe I’ll even resurrect a long put-away draft of a picture-book manuscript. Just for practice. Hmm… sounds like we’ve got work to do. See you soon!

Character and plot workshop!


June 16, Al Capone Does My Shirts

Last week’s column was cancelled due to illness. I think an impending deadline literally made me ill? Can you die from writer’s block?

Gennifer Choldenko, author of Al Capone Does My Shirts ($6.99, Penguin), has become my new hero. Why? Because Choldenko clearly invested a lot of time and research into her Newberry Honor Award winning middle-grade novel that features 12-year-old Moose Flannagan growing up in 1935 on notorious Alcatraz Island. Despite gathering buckets of information about life for the children of prison personnel — Moose’s dad is an electrician and guard at the prison — as well as facts on the infamous prisoners populating the island such as Scarface, Machine Gun Kelly and of course, Capone, Choldenko kept the light shining on Moose. Character is everything, and Moose was a character who shined.

Despite all of this, plus the intense under story of Moose’s sister, a mentally challenged teen whom his mother insists is only “10,” Choldenko created a cohesive, tight-knit novel that never strayed from its purpose — to make us feel the incredible strength and courage it took to walk in Moose Flannagan’s shoes.

I’ve been working on a new project for my editors at Little, Brown about which I am very excited. It’s the kind of storytelling that got me interested in storytelling at an early age. My desire to put my All into the project, however, resulted in an “everything but the kitchen sink” effect. I spent a full year developing the look and visual style of the character. Another year doing background and research. Whenever I start a project I like to know tons about my character. I keep journals, sometimes in the character’s voice. It helps me get inside their heads. It also helps me understand their day-to-day lives. Who are their friends? What do they eat? What activities do they love? What do they fear?

Because the story is going to be my first mystery, I also invested a lot of time into setting up the pieces of the plot — where do things need to go, what is going to happen, why is it important and who are the good guys and who are the bad guys. Altogether, that means gathering, comprising and compressing a lot of information.

When I worked as a columnist for the Sun-Sentinel newspaper in Fort Lauderdale, my editor learned quickly that I was often filled with great story ideas, but like a kid on a field trip, I’d go on an assignment and come back overwhelmed with my subject. That usually meant I’d wind up with way too much story for my news hole — the space allotted for the story. So Gretchen used her best parenting skills to help me peel away parts that I loved but were not necessarily integral to the story.

Gretchen might be happy to know that though columnists may grow up to become authors, they do not necessarily change. Now my editors at Little, Brown are continuing to direct my writing eye same as my newspaper editor once did.

Their advice for my new multi-layered heroine: Choose five key elements worthy of building the book around. Five as opposed to the dozen or so character traits and subplots I included. Thank goodness despite all of that they were able to see the potential in the story and urged me to continue on.

Reading Al Capone Does My Shirts was like going on a character-and-plot workshop. Choldenko earned the award based on her intense understanding of her character. If she received the same advice from Penguin that I got from Little, Brown, the five character traits that she highlighted to bring Moose to life were: 1) a need to please 2) big for his age 3) easy to make friends 4) overwhelmed with his mother’s mania surrounding his disabled sister 5) deeply connected with sister, Natalie, yet in desperate need of some attention himself.

From chapter one right to the end, these are the character traits that guide Moose and define who he is and how he handles his journey.

In chapter seven, Choldenko writes:

Now I get to walk into a school where I don’t know anyone. Correction. I don’t know anyone except a piece of work named Piper. One enemy, the rest strangers . . .this is not good, for cripe’s sakes, plus it’s midyear so everybody has made all the friends they want already. No one will need a friend except me.

Here the writing is succinct and distinct. This is Moose talking, plain and simple. But the introduction to the chapter is followed by an even more telling paragraph, further highlighting the deep connection he feels toward his mentally challenged older sister who was sent kicking and screaming — literally — to a special school.

Was this how Natalie felt on the way to the Esther P. Marinoff School? Maybe some big ladies will come along and drag me inside kicking and screaming too. Sometimes it seems easier to be Natalie. People force her to do stuff. I have to force myself.

For any writer struggling to organize her manuscript in a way that always drives the action around the main character, Choldenko demonstrates what precision, planning and control can bring to a finished work. I can’t wait to read the follow up, Al Capone Shines My Shoes. Great job, Gennifer. (If I can coax my new main character to life with the adroitness of Moose, Gennifer, I owe you lunch. Pick and place and I’ll meet you there!)

Character building


Who’s that girl?

Clarice Bean is a curious, opinionated, passionate litte Brit. For a girl of around nine or ten, she has quite the caustic wit and a very interesting world view. She is also hopelessly, utterly committed to her one true love — the Ruby Redfort spy series.

If, based on my description, you’re not sure whether Clarice Bean is an actual child or a book character, thank author Lauren Child. London-based Child, creator of Disney’s Lola and Charlie, came up with a character so lifelike and irrepressible that it’s nearly impossible to think of her as anything other than absolutely, positively real.

For moms (or dads) wishing to dip your toes into the scary, scary waters of fiction writing, one truth must guide you: without character you’ve got nuttin’. Sorry about the mob-boss vernacular. No coffee yet.

In a Don’t Look Now (5.99, Candlewick Press), part of an inventive Clarice Bean collection that combines part picture books with middle-grade readers, illustrator/author Child infuses her unique little lady with an authentic voice that makes Clarice Bean too yummy to ignore.  Although previous engaging Clarice Bean stories have been written in picture-book format, Don’t Look Now is a first-rate middle-grade novel that keeps you wondering what is this girl going to do next. Whether your children are just the right age to enjoy Miss Bean or if they’re way too filled with teenage angst, too preoccupied with finding hairs in peculiar places on their bodies to care about a sardonic grade-schooler, do not be deterred. You must think of it as proper research.

While you’ve been stashing away ideas based on great and amazing story-ideas, plots that take us on adventures, spirit us to distant lands or thrust us into hostile futures, remember the most important thing: no one wants to take such a journey with a boring main character who is forgettable as soon as we put down the book. Whatever fictional adventure you’re planning, it all begin with character. Who is that girl? Why do we care about her? What is she afraid of? What change does she fear most? What will change her most by story’s end?

Don’t Look Now takes us into the Bean household at a time of tremendous turmoil and change. Marcie, Clarice Bean’s older, much, much wiser sister, sets up a mega catastrophe when she ignores running water in the tub because she’s taking a very important phone call about boys and school and friends and such. Faster than you can say, “LOOK OUT BELOW!” Clarice Bean has water dripping into her cereal and the ensuing chaos causes Clarice Bean to wonder how things could get any worse. Well, of course, things do get worse when she learns her longtime BFF Betty Moody is moving to another country, and thanks to the mess Marcie made in the bathroom, the Bean family could be ditching Clarice’s beloved home. How does our girl handle the hardships? Ahh, that is the question.

After reading Clarice Bean or any favorite young fiction, imagine inviting that child over for a play date with your kids. Picture her in your kitchen or den or the bedroom of your child. Now imagine some catastrophe strikes — a thunder storm that kills the power, a tree falling into the driveway and crushing your car and their bikes, a toilet that overflows into the hallway. Whatever. How would your child handle the calamity? How do you think Clarice Bean would handle it?

If new writer’s allow themselves to get comfortable putting their make-believe people in the real world, it will help take two-dimension ideas and turn them into three-dimension personalities.

Character is first. Period. So go get yourself a big scoop of character-building goodness. Read Clarice Bean, Don’t Look Now. Child’s deft handling of language, setting and milieu will instantly jettison you into the world of an intrepid young person who definitely leaves an impression. The quiet, yet insistent repetition of her young character’s full name, Clarice Bean, throughout the book, drives home the notion that this is not a child to be forgotten. Remember the name, and your assignment.

Ta, ta for now, my darlings. I’m off. My coffee awaits!

Writing for children

Beautiful language elevates the soul

Gentle repetition, powerful emotion and evocative language meld to form the wonderfully compact yet transcendent tale in Kate DiCamillo’s The Magicians Elephant ($16.99, Candlewick Press Publishing). I read it with my 10-year-old daughter, so I had the chance listen and speak the story. When you read aloud, you hear the magic of language and feel it touch your lips, your skin, and your soul.

If you want to write for children, nothing replaces reading quality fiction. DiCamillo, the award-winning author of The Tales of Despereaux, is much celebrated and acclaimed for her fascinating introspection and ability to combine disparate pieces into a meaningful collage. Taking the time to read a book like this elevates our thinking; gives us something higher to which to aspire.

OK, that’s all very high-minded sounding and if you’re a busy mom with a few screaming kids, lunches to make, and of course, the laundry monster growling from a nearby hamper, perhaps you can’t fathom the notion of being “elevated.” Maybe you’re just too darned tired.

Well, good news. The Magician’s Elephant is a very quick read. Ethereal, filled with lyrical repetitions that evoke a surreal time and place, the tale is set in the town of Baletese “at the end of the century before last…”. Peter Augustus Duchene is a heartbroken boy forced to live with a spirit-broken ex-soldier, Vilna Lutz.

Peter’s parents are dead and Vilna Lutz is his guardian, a guardian intent on training the boy to one day become a soldier. But Peter can’t stop thinking the unthinkable — that somewhere out there in the world exists a little girl, his sister. And though Vilna Lutz insists the child died during childbirth, Peter Augustus Duchene is desperate to prove otherwise.

Good reading informs good writing. It also keeps up-and-coming future-authors current on what is hot (and what is not) in children’s literature.

The Magician’s Elephant is a truly good-for-the-soul read. Stay-at-home moms could dedicate a few mornings while waiting for the laundry to dry and poof–just like that–you’ve elevated your souls and tamed the dreaded laundry beast. Working moms, take it along a few nights this week while you’re playing chauffeur. The long wait for a soccer practice or ballet lesson to end could be just enough time to give you that little spiritual boost you need to take the next step and begin your novel.

Be well, my loves. Go forth and be literary!

Lesson No. 1: You’ve gotta’ love it!

Writing for children

For those who aspire to become writers, to share stories, to transport audiences into worlds unknown, passion, perseverance and dedication trump talent every time.

When I was 12, I took my first family trip across country. We drove all day and all night from Michigan to Mississippi to visit my father’s family. More than three decades later, I can still remember that feeling of being suspended in time, as though my uncle’s car was some sort of urban-cool time machine and we were traveling into my father’s childhood past.

I can also remember the family forming a receiving line in front of the old-fashioned, shotgun-style house. Aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents stood on a carpet of bright clay mud and one-by-one tugged us tight into each and every bosom. We were family.

During the trip, my aunts and uncles, all of whom had or were earning advanced degrees, wanted to know what I was going to do when I grew up. Without hesitation, I told them the only thing I’d ever wanted to be — a writer and illustrator. I wanted to write books and illustrate them.

My assuredness made them froth with laughter. “You do, huh?” said one aunt. Another chortled, “Honey, you’ll change your mind a thousand times between now and then. Don’t worry. You’ve got time.”

It was like being slapped. They thought I was telling them some childish dream rather than my life plan. They mistook my passion for youthful hubris. They were wrong. I would show them.

I didn’t know whether I had the talent. In fact, I often questioned my skill level. Even so, I knew I wanted it more than anything and no matter what, I’d do whatever I could to reveal the story people populated my inner-world.

Now, decades after that fateful trip, I’ve put to bed a career as a journalist that spanned more than 20 years, and embarked on the passion that always gave my life a sense of purpose — writing books for children. I’ve been a journalist, a mom, a volunteer and a bunch of other stuff. Through it all, though, I’ve been a writer. How did I go from being a single mom nursing the tendrils of a childhood dream to a child-at-heart with her very own agent in New York and well-known publisher? And can I help other writers-at-heart to turn their lifelong dream into wishes-come-true?

Stay tuned. Next week we will explore the very beginning of beginnings, getting started and staring down the blank page. Moms, writers, lend me your ears! Or your pens. You know what, I’ll bring the ideas, you bring the questions and enthusiasm. See you right here in a week!


Writing for children

Rebecca Stead, winner of the 2010 John Newberry Award — a very prestigious and haughty-taughty big deal, I assure you — has reminded me why I became a children’s author. When You Reach Me transports us back to 1978-79, into the lives of Miranda, Sal, Marcus, Annemarie, Julia and the “kicking man.” Miranda is a sixth-grader in New York City living with her hardworking single mom. When four mysterious, hand-scrawled letters tumble into Miranda’s life, her world gets knocked on its head.

Stead takes us on a time-travel journey. As a rule, I’m not big on the whole time-travel genre. I have enough trouble keeping up with myself in this dimension. I don’t even want to think about how much junk I’m failing at in the twilight zone. Stead’s well told tale of shifting time dimensions, however, has made me kick my rule to the curb.

Miranda’s journey isn’t about time travel so much as it encompasses the sort of out-of-body experience that is middle school. That was three years of my life when I felt like a moon-cheese eating alien and prayed to be zapped into another world. Miranda’s close friendship with neighbor Sal has existed her entire life. Then in what feels like the blink of an eye, he stops hanging out with her. If that isn’t freaky enough, two girls with a very glamorous, trendy-looking friendship take a break from each other and Miranda finds herself right square in the middle.

Moms of a certain age will love all the references to Dick Clark’s old game show, $20,000 Pyramid; young readers will identify with Miranda’s struggle to make sense of her life when everything around her seems to be changing and pulling in different directions. When You Reach Me is a great book to read for the sake of reading. When you’re done, share it with your little Gremlins. Now that I’ve read it, I can’t wait to pass it along to my kids. If you’ve read it, tell me what you think. And if you haven’t, run, run I tell you! Get theyself to the book store, order up a big coffee and a yummy pastry, then find a nook and drift away. It’s a quick read. You’ve earned a break today.