Writing for Children

This Needs Fireflies!

I attended the SCBWI Wonderful Midwest Conference last weekend in Naperville, Illinois, just outside of Chicago, and after taking last Monday completely off to reflect on all I’d learned, I’m jumping into some revisions with a new sense of purpose.

After you’ve been writing for a while, revising becomes a funny thing. Getting rid of words, scenes and even characters for the greater good of story isn’t nearly as difficult as it used to be, and cutting word counts by 50 percent can produce the same feelings you get after cleaning out a long-neglected closet, cabinet or dresser (think Marie Kondo here). The stuff sitting in bags waiting to bless someone else feels like the right benediction for things you no longer want or need. Writers don’t physically put words into trash bags and give them away, but releasing long-held sentences, ideas, thoughts and dialogue back into the universe to be repurposed can bring lightness in ways nothing else can. And once you let go and free up some mental space something amazing happens…you make room for fireflies.

Fireflies? Huh? Here’s what I mean. . .

I’ve been sitting on a middle-grade novel for a while now. It hasn’t been completely at the back of my writing closet—a few times I’ve pulled it out, reworked a chapter or two and submitted it for feedback, to an agent or contest—but I haven’t been committed to making it all it needs to be. Not sure why, other than I’m probably a little afraid of it. Kind of like that pair of shoes I hang onto, even though they’re uncomfortable and I can’t wear them for more than a few hours at a time, it feels good to say that I write middle-grade novels, even though I know it’s not really what I’m working on. But like I mentioned before, conferences do funny things to writers. Just about the time I’m committed to revising other projects because they are really important to me right now, I wake up in the middle of the night, see the darkness of the forest floor that is the setting for most of my novel and there, darting in and out of the 1000-year-old trees are 100’s of fireflies…something I’ve never seen there before.

It could be that as I’ve been cutting and rearranging words over the past week and organizing which projects to let go of and which ones to tackle, I made room to let in something new and different. My story asked me for something, and maybe, just maybe, I was ready to hear what it was trying to say.

I’m a big believer in God whispers. But I also know that like any other whisper, if you’re not still enough to hear it, the message might get lost on the wind and pass you by. I want to be listening. I long to be an on-purpose writer who is quiet enough to hear what God and my stories are trying to tell me. Last night it was fireflies. Who knows what it might be in the days and weeks ahead?

But I’m ready for more fireflies. . . are you?


Sensibility- Fireflies, new scenes, new characters, new ways of looking at story, all come when we quiet our spirits, clean out what’s getting in the way and listen for God whispers.

Sense- Prioritizing projects, planning your writing day, setting up an editorial calendar and spending time in quiet reflection are all ways to make room for new ideas.


What are some things you do to quiet yourself as you get ready to write?


SPARKY! A Practically-Perfect Picture Book

As most of you know, some of my favorite books are picture books. I read them, collect them and write them. I’m pretty much passionate about them. The form seems simple to those who do not study the genre, but picture books can be one of the most difficult types of books to create. Young readers are some of the most discriminating, and keeping them informed and entertained is a big job. So when I find a picture book that I think works in every sense of the word I like to share it with my readers.

SPARKY! written by Jenny Offhill, illustrated by Chris Appelhans, (Schwarts & Wade Books, 2014)

Not long ago I was at a literature conference with some of my writer friends and I ran across SPARKY! (written by Jenny Offhill and illustrated by Chris Appelhans, Schwarts & Wade Books, 2014). It was love at first sight.

My Sloth Obsession

In the past few years I’ve developed a deep love and admiration for…the sloth! These amazing creatures spend most of their lives in trees, and if you’re not paying attention, you can completely miss their slow and purposeful movements when they happen (and that’s not often.) Sloths have permanent smiles on their faces. They make the cutest little noises and love a snack of hibiscus flowers whenever they can get their very long claws on them. The sloth is the master of taking it easy, and in this world of instant everything, I find these creatures quite refreshing (and strangely cute).

SPARKY is a sloth, but he’s not just any sloth. He’s the perfect pet for the heroine in the story. When a little girl wants a pet, she’ll say almost anything to get her parents to agree. Even if that means finding a pet that “doesn’t need to be walked or bathed or fed.” Enter SPARKY!

Why SPARKY! Works

SPARKY! works as a practically-perfect picture book because we know exactly what the story is about in the first line. The girl at the center of the tale says it in four words: “I wanted a pet.” Not only do those four words grab a young reader who has the same thing or her mind, but they also grab any adult who remembers what it’s like to be that little girl or boy and want a pet more than life itself.

SPARKY! also works because the most unlikely pet in the world is the one she chooses. Hey, it fits the criteria her mother sets exactly. So of course it’s the answer to her dreams. Kids are literal creatures, and if you tell them to find a pet that doesn’t need to be walked, watered or otherwise entertained, they will.

SPARKY! has simple illustrations which match the tone of the sloth perfectly. There’s just enough color to make the story feel warm and inviting but not too flashy. After all, the need to keep it all as sloth-like as possible is important. Warm browns, soft blues, a splash of pale red here and there and the illustrator sets the perfect stage for the simple and direct text. SPARKY! is a perfect marriage of word and picture.

And does the girl in the story love SPARKY even though those around her cannot see what she sees? Of course she does. Children love simply and completely, especially when the object, person or pet is underappreciated by others.

So hats off to SPARKY! A lovely story of an unlikely friendship that starts with a simple statement true for almost every child…”I wanted a pet!”

Sensibility- A well-written picture book can speak to readers of all ages.

Sense- Spend time studying picture books and learn all you can about the genre before ever attempting to write one. You owe it to your audience to get it right.


What recent picture book have you read? Did you like it? Why or why not?




What is Your Writing Dream?

I had the chance to sit down with an aspiring high school writer yesterday and “talk shop.” This young lady was visiting her aunt, who happens to be a dear friend of mine. My friend asked if they could have a hour or so of my time so her neice could ask me questions about what it was like to be a writer for children and what it takes to be successful. Since I love young people and I love talking about what I do, it was a treat for me- not to mention there was really good ice cream involved!

We started in right away talking about what she was working on. I could see she was a little shy, and I wanted to quickly get below the surface so we could make the most of our hour together. So after she talked a bit about her book, I asked her, “What is your dream?” She looked a little bit stunned, so I asked the question again but more specifically, “What is your writing dream?”

And her answer was simply, “I want to be a writer.” We went on to talk about what that looked like, and I shared a little of my journey, about getting into a critique group, joining SCBWI and building an on-line presence. Things that are the essential building blocks to getting started in this business. A gave her a few books I don’t really use anymore to help her get started, and I sent her on her way- hopefully with some perspective about what it means to “be a writer.”

On my way home and throughout the evening, I thought about the very question I’d asked her, “What is your writing dream?” and I realized I hadn’t asked myself that same question in a long time. I could have answered it easily 25 years ago, and it probably would have sounded something like what my young friend said.

“Throes of Creation,” by Leonid Pasternak

But what about the dream? The spark that makes me passionate about what I do and keeps me sitting down for hours every day crafting new stories and working on revisions between other writing jobs. Is the dream anything close to what I envisioned all those years ago?

I think it’s important to get back to dreaming as writers. It’s so easy to get caught up in the social media-writer-challenge/educational-and-marketing-opportunity life that is the world of writing these days. We forget that it’s the desire to tell a good story and give something of beauty and value to the world- that God-spark if you will- that got us started in the first place.

Don’t get me wrong! Writing is a business. And like any other business, it needs feeding in order to flourish. But getting too far away from your original, starry-eyed dream of writing may begin to diminish your creativity.

So, what is your writing dream and what are you doing to keep that dream alive? Slowing down and answering that question honestly may be just what you need to add some joy to the journey!

Sensibility- Writers are dreamers. Let your mind wander this week to where your writing dream was born.

Sense Find balance between the business and creative side of writing to keep story ideas fresh and flowing.

“Miracles are a retelling in small letters of the very same story which is written across the whole world in letters too large for some of us to see.”

― C.S. Lewis


How has your writing dream evolved over the years?


Highlights from the Festival of Faith and Writing

Every two years, Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan plays host to one of the largest faith-based writer’s conferences in the United States, the Festival of Faith and Writing. I’ve wanted to go for some time now, and when I discovered one of my favorite writers, Anne Lamott, was a keynote speaker, I knew this was my year. So my BFF, Melissa Riddle-Chalos, (who also happens to be one of the most amazing writers I know) and I started making plans to go. Of course there’s never quite enough money or time when you want to do something like this, but our husband’s insisted and we took the plunge. Sometimes we writers just need a break from everyday life to regain some perspective on why we do what we do; and sometimes best friends just need a road trip, some good food and a great pedicure to remind them that all is right with the world- even when it isn’t. So our goal was two-fold: a little writing talk and a lot of quality time together, and I have to say, we achieved both.

Rachel Held Evans talks about “The Year of Biblical Womanhood.”

On the writing side, we were reminded that to create a biography that works, you need to try and get in the skin of the person you’re writing about. We also re-learned the importance of primary sources when working on historical fiction, and how that “getting it right” from a historical perspective is a sacred trust when writing about people of different time periods. We loved the Rachel Held Evans interview about her “Year of Biblical Womanhood,” and what it means to be a modern woman who is also part of an ancient tradition. We laughed at her experiences and sighed as she talked about trying to do everything right and failing miserably, while experiencing at the same time the truest kind of grace there is. And we sat in silence with an arena full of other writers while Anne Lamott talked about her faith journey as a person and a writer, and how being the hands and feet of Jesus means putting skin on skin, showing up and loving like He loves.

On the personal side, we learned that if you have a handicapped placard for your car- which I do thanks to my ever-temperamental rheumatoid arthritis- you always get the best parking places, even when you probably don’t deserve them (another example of grace). We also learned when the same placard gets caught in a gust of wind you’ll do anything- including running through a parking lot- to save it. We were reminded when you get to a seminar late, all the seats will be taken except for the ones in the middle or back of the room, and that most likely the only doors will be at the front of the room near where the speaker is already talking. Oh, and if you’ve stopped for a snack of French fries and cheese curds on the way, you might have to stuff them in your pockets if you don’t want envious or irritated looks from the other writers in the room. But most of all, we were reminded that the truest of friends never ever get tired of talking, listening and just being there for each other, and that is the best part of our stories after all.

Anne Lamott speaks about faith and writing.

So, I highly recommend writers conferences, and especially this one. But go with someone you love. Even more than the speakers, it may be the thing that gives you the courage you need to try one more time and know what you’re doing each day to enrich the lives of others really is enough.

Sensibility- Writer’s conferences are worth every penny when it comes to nourishing your muse and feeding your confidence.

Sense- Choose writer’s conferences that focus on your genre, but don’t assume you can’t learn something from a general conference as well.