Sunday, September 20, 2015

I Just Want to Write About Halloween; I Don’t Want to Answer the Door!

Here's my article for NJASL (New Jersey Association of School Librarians) and I bet it will be the CRANKIEST HALLOWEEN ESSAY EVER from a prolific author of Halloween books!

I don’t like holidays; I just like writing about them. Carving pumpkins and making gingerbread men (or, heaven help us, gingerbread houses) have no appeal for me. I dread the thought of holiday preparations – the shopping, the anticipation, the work – that’s it – the work! I don’t want to do it, I just want to write about it.

As a children’s author of many holiday books, including five Halloween stories, you’d think I’d look forward to the actual holiday. But I can’t stand it. What I love is writing stories, playing with words, playing with kids (the idea for one of my Halloween books came from a tickling game I used to play with my daughter). But what does any of that have to do with people ringing the doorbell every two minutes?
“Just turn off your lights and don’t answer the door,” one friend advised. But we live in a neighborhood where everyone knows each other. It would be considered grossly antisocial to go dark on Halloween.

Last Halloween I put out a big bowl of candy with a sign that said “Help Yourself,” but someone absconded with the whole thing almost immediately. The trickster even took the bowl.

Back when we lived on a farm, I thought I was safe from trick-or-treaters. Then one Halloween night a little boy showed up unexpectedly from a house across the field. I had nothing to give him but a stale health-food “treat.” The poor little guy left looking very doleful under his vampire makeup.

I know, I sound horribly cranky. But I feel that I should contribute to the greater good according to my talents. I have no talent for answering the door and making small talk. I do have a talent for writing, especially writing about holidays. And, after I’ve finished the text, the illustrator crowns the story with deliciously detailed illustrations of holiday activities that would be hellish if I had to actually do any of them.

Recently, my daughter came home from college for fall break. While she was here she decorated the front porch with pots of bright yellow and orange mums and carved a big pumpkin

for the window. When I described these festive additions to my friend, Katie, she said, “Really? You have Halloween decorations? That doesn’t sound like you.”

It isn’t me. It also isn’t up to me. No matter what I do Halloween is growing closer, and the doorbell is going to ring. A lot.

The truth is that writing about the holidays has nothing to do with reality, and that’s the point. I’m good at writing; I’m just not good at reality. 

Friday, October 3, 2014

Books for Halloween

"On Halloween for trick or treat,
two monsters mixed a stew to eat.
They mixed it in a garbage can
and laughed about their clever plan
for making monster stew..."

I'm pleased to announce that MONSTER MISCHIEF is back in print, by demand.  Print-on-demand, that is!  To order call Simon and Schuster at 1-800-223-2348.  The ISBN number for this edition is 1481425358 (paper).

"Written in bouncy rhyme with glowing watercolors, this tale will capture the hearts of all who love the magic and mystery of Halloween." Children's Literature

And, of course, LITTLE GOBLINS TEN is still available, and will soon be followed by a Christmas sequel, LITTLE ELFIE ONE (Harper 2015) also illustrated by Jane Manning.

So come on and get spooky!

" the team of Jane and Manning to conjure up an impressive new vision in time for Halloween." starred, Kirkus Reviews

Friday, June 20, 2014

The Power of Picture Books

Honey for Tea by Patience Strong
Not long ago, The New York Times published a front-page article* about the declining sales and possible death of the picture book.  Increasingly, parents and teachers are bypassing picture books for chapter books in the hopes of accelerating their reading skills and boosting their standardized test scores.
But there is nothing standard or predictable about the imagination or how it is developed and nurtured.
As an author of thirty children’s books, including many picture books, I cannot imagine what my life would have been like if not for the pictures in the books I loved and poured over long before I could read.
I’m not an illustrator, but the images in the books I loved as a child made a deep and lasting impression.  My parents used to read to me from a book of nursery rhymes filled with pictures of old-fashioned children in knickers and lace pantaloons skipping through meadows in a faraway land called Long Ago.

Up in the green orchard there is a green tree
The finest of pippins that ever you see;
The apples are ripe, and ready to fall,
And Reuben and Robin shall gather them all
                                                      (Mother Goose rhyme)

Because of the old country rhymes, I came to associate the world of stories with a rural past irrevocably lost to me, for I sensed that the world of cottage gardens and country lanes was fading, at least in our corner of Connecticut.  How I longed to climb into the book and skip away into that land of long ago!  Standing at my bedroom window gazing down into our big shady back yard, I imagined I could glimpse this faraway land through a fold in time.  I saw a boy in knickers and white stockings scrambling over our backyard fence, and a girl in lace pantaloons running through the shadows.  Or was it just a trick of the mind, the sunlight flitting through the leaves?
This sense of a past forever lost became part of my developing writer’s sensibility.  Somehow, some way, I had to get back to that deliciously elusive land. And the only vehicle that could take me there was my own imagination.
But what if it had not been for the pictures in the books I loved as a small child?  Would I have devoted my life to discovering the stories I felt waited for me, half-visible, in the shadows of a vanished world?  One of my favorite games was to make up stories to go with the pictures.  But if there had been no pictures, would I have made up stories to go with the books?  Would I, in fact, have become a writer at all?
The imagination develops in strange and unexpected ways, in out of the way places, in odd thoughts, through the stories we love and the images that became a part of us when we were very young.  Without the images, the inspiration of an illustrator’s rich imagination, the world would be a more arid and desolate land for our children. 

*October 7, 2010 “Picture Books No Longer a Staple for Children”

Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Amazing Things You Could Do - If you Really Wanted To!

Mittens with cat mouse pad (at least the cat on the mouse pad has its eyes opened.)
Mittens with cat mouse pad (at least the cat on the mouse pad has its eyes open.)
My cat, Mittens, is – how can I describe it?  Let’s just say he doesn’t have a lot of personality.  It’s not his fault that he was born with no street-smarts or even house-smarts, and sleeps 23-1/2 hours a day.  He’s also terribly timid and runs away meowing if he even sees an ant.  The most dangerous thing he’s ever attacked is a Starbucks straw.  So imagine my shock and amazement when Mittens recently caught a mouse in our living room!
 I’ve seen similar things happen in my own life and in the lives of others.  People who "couldn't write" became writers, while others who "couldn't do math" became mathematicians.  Someone may think he or she knows what you can – or can not do. But the truth is no one really knows.  My friend, author Joyce McDonald, was told by a high school counselor that she wasn't "college material".  Now she holds Ph.D. in English literature, has been a college professor and is the author of six published novels for middle-graders and teens!
When I was in eighth-grade, my English teacher, Mr. Eul, gave us an assignment to write a short story.  As an aspiring writer, I was thrilled.  Back when I was in school, we were never given writing assignments, and I never imagined there were any living authors.  I pictured a cemetery filled with tombstones of my favorite writers with their last names first, like card catalogs in the library:
Baum, L. Frank 1856-1919.
L. Frank Baum failed at many things, such as running a chicken farm, before he wrote THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZL. Frank Baum failed at many things, such as running a chicken farm, before he wrote 
“Remember,” Mr. Eul called as we filed out of class that day, “no stories from TV!”
I hardly heard him.  I was too excited about getting started.
That night, I set my parents’ old Smith Corona typewriter on my wooden writing desk, rolled in a fresh piece of paper, and began writing a story about a mute boy living in an eighteenth century seaport. 
seaportFor the next week I stayed up late every night, tapping away.   All we’d written in Mr. Eul’s class up until then were check marks on multiple choice tests.  I couldn’t wait to see the look on my teacher's face when he discovered the brilliant writer hidden behind those check marks – me!
A couple of weeks later, Mr. Eul announced that he was returning our stories.  I could hardly wait to see what he wrote on mine, as he walked around the classroom passing them out.  When he came to my desk, he stopped.
“You didn’t write this,” he said, holding up my story.  I was stunned.  This was the last 
This was the last thing I expected!
thing I had expected!
“Yes I did,” I said.  But my voice sounded very small, and Mr. Eul looked very big looming over my desk. 
“I don’t believe you, " he said. 
The classroom was suddenly very quiet.  Everyone was watching, waiting to see what would happen next. Mr. Eul leaned over, his eyes boring into mine.  “I’m going to keep this story so you won’t try to use it again in high school.”
Mr. Eul didn’t think I was capable of writing the story I handed in, and I couldn’t find the words to explain that stories were part of me; they were who I was. I loved to write.  I would never "use" a story again! 
Don’t let anyone tell you what you are and are not capable of.   Qualities such as excitement, courage, determination – and the fact that you probably don’t take 23-1/2 hour naps – make a huge difference in what you can achieve.  Whether you’re writing a story or chasing a mouse, remember no one really knows what you are capable of, not even you!
"Don't underestimate me!"
underestimate me!"
As for Mittens, he’s back to attacking Starbucks straws.  But I have new-found respect for him.  You never know what he might do next!

Note:  This is a version of an essay posted by Pamela Jane on

Thursday, August 16, 2012

What Happens When You Get Stuck?

When I visit schools, kids (and often teachers and librarians, too) ask me what's it's like to be a published author.  Do I ever get stuck?  Do I ever feel frustrated with my writing?  I've thought about this a lot, and this post is an answer to that question!  I hope it will help all the kids out there who wonder if we authors ever get stuck and if so, what do we do about it?  I'll begin with a story.  
Recently, I started writing Little Elfie One, a Christmas sequel to my Halloween picture book Little Goblins Ten (Harper 2011.) I was thrilled about the new book.  Jane Manning, who illustrated Goblins would be illustrating the sequel too, and I think we make a great writing and illustrating team.
Although the manuscript (writing) for Elfie wasn’t due for several months, I sat right down to write a first draft.  This was going to be so much fun!  But after several hours of writing random rhymes, I started to panic.  The story was so obviously not working.  The idea of a Christmas sequel (which was suggested by a fan of the Halloween book) was a huge mistake, I realized.  Why had I even thought I could do it?
I knew what the problem was, too.  Little Goblins Ten had a natural story line in the building excitement of all the monsters in the forest getting ready to go trick-or-treating.  But the Christmas story didn’t lend itself to that format.  In fact, it didn’t lend itself to any format.  My editor had mistakenly placed trust in me.  I’d have to return the advance (that's the money you get ahead of time for your book, like an advance on your allowance.) But wait, I didn’t even have the advance yet!   What was I going to do?  
My husband, John, says that panic is part of my writing process.  He says I always panic and then I figure out a way to make it work.  But at that moment, as I sat staring at a jumble of disconnected rhymes, I knew he was wrong, at least this time.
I really truly could not do this.
Since I've thought so much about the problem of getting stuck, I've come up with three tips to help writers of all ages get through those times:
I'm-stuck-writing Tip #1 – Talk to a friend
Talking to a friend, a teacher, or your mom and dad about the problem can help a lot.  Just by stating out loud what the problem is can help, especially if that person is a good listener.  You hear yourself asking the question and suddenly you have the answer!  Or your friend may see the story in a different way, which gives you a new way to look at it.  Instead of a "dead end" you suddenly see an open door.  
I'm-stuck-writing Tip #2 Put it in your pocket
Writing isn't just sitting down at the computer or with a notebook and pen.  It's what happens when you're in the shower, walking your dog, or eating lunch.  Take your story idea, problem and all, and "put it in your pocket."  Carry it around with you (not literally, unless you can fit your notebook in your pocket.)  Mull it over as you go through your day, until the perfect solution comes to you.
I'm-stuck-writing Tip #3.  Stop trying to "write."
Everyone, even writers, gets intimidated by thinking, "Now I'm going to write" as though that's a formal act separate from all the other things you think and do all day.  Or they think the words have to be perfect.  A story you write when you're trying to be perfect might look like this:
One day...
The day before yesterday
Wow, no wonder it's not working!  You're trying too hard to "write."  You're not going to believe this, but guess what?  Writing is NOT about the words!  It's about what you really want to say, what feels is important or funny or exciting to write about.
It's about you.
The morning after my bad day of trying to write my Christmas book, I woke up and thought, forget the random verses.  Think of the story.  What happens in this book? Once I figured that out, the book wrote itself in three days.  It still needs work – a lot of work – but the frame is in place.
So the next time you get stuck, remember to talk to a friend, put the problem in your pocket or the back of your mind, and most importantly don't try to "write."  Just relax and tell the story on paper.  You'll be surprised at how much easier and more fun that is. 

Monday, November 14, 2011

Creating for our Readers

I have to admit that I’ve always had a little trouble with reality.  Maybe that’s why I love to write, to immerse myself in a world of fantasy.  Even when I’m writing a non-fiction piece (like the one you're reading) I’m shaping the narrative into a story by choosing what to put in, and what to leave out.  We can’t do that in real life!
But what really shaped me into a writer is a combination of things, including disappointments and loss. 
I was fortunate to have parents who surrounded my brother and me with a rich library of children’s books when we were growing up.  But neither my mother or my father saw any special talent in me, or any possibility of what I might become.  No one was paying attention.  Oddly enough, this worked in my favor.   While my brother was busy collecting insects and butterflies for his growing collection, I was dreaming about escaping to the land of Oz.  (My brother is now a happy and highly-successful entomologist.)  But my day-dreams were productive, too.  In them were the beginnings of stories I would one day write.
When I was seven we moved from our two-story colonial in Stamford, Connecticut to a small bungalow on a tiny, postage-stamp sized yard in Berkley, Michigan.  I felt a deep sense of loss.  I had loved our old  neighborhood with its big shady backyards and uneven stone walls.
But there was a kind of beauty in the simple and unassuming suburb we moved to.   Because it was so ordinary, Berkley was an ideal canvas on which to weave my dreams and fantasies.  Where one green yard flows into another and the long summers are yours to fill anyway you want, one is free to do and imagine anything.  Living in a place where I had to create the beauty, mystery and adventure for myself turned out to be an advantage.
When I was eight, something amazing happened.  I discovered I had a gift for writing.  With only a pencil and a spiral notebook from Kresge’s Five and Dime, I could create magic.  
We were never asked or encouraged to write in school.  Once again, no one was paying any attention.  That could look like an oversight.  But it was also freedom.  I was having fun doing what I loved.
All these things went into making me a writer, and in particular the kind of writer I am.  I’m grateful now that I had the freedom to daydream as a child, and that when I was seven we moved to what could have been a boring suburb if not for my imagination.  And I’m glad we didn’t have writing programs in school when I was growing up.  For most kids, such programs are overwhelmingly positive.  But I needed to find my own odd and very individual way.
I told you I wasn’t very good at reality.  What I am good at is creating a reality for others, through my writing.  I still have fun doing it. And I am always surprised by the way children bring themselves and their own imaginations to the stories I’ve written. 
And that’s the most fun of all.