Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Where Do Ideas Come From?

As an author who speaks at schools and libraries, the question I get asked most often – besides “How old are you?” or “How much money do you make?” – is “Where do you get your ideas from?”

I don’t have an easy answer, like “I buy them at the Idea Store,” or “I have an idea tree in my backyard,” or “I belong to the “Idea of the Month” club.” I wish there were. But the truth is, writers are like anyone else. We have to work to come up with ideas. There’s no magic formula, no top-secret stash of ideas that only writers have access to, no place we can call to order an idea much like we would a pizza. Or, if there is, no one’s told me about it.

So, what do I tell these inquiring minds? I tell them that ideas are everywhere. Writers don’t have a corner on the idea market. Anyone can have an idea. They’re free for the taking, if you know where – and how – to look for them. The supply is unlimited.

Different authors get their ideas in different ways. I’m going to share two of my personal favorites. They’re simple enough for anyone to use, from a student wondering what to write about to the parent of a student who is still wondering what to write about the night before the assignment is due. Teachers can utilize them in their classrooms, or at home, when they’re working on their own writing.

The first way I come up with an idea is something I call the“what if?” method. I’ve used this for several of my picture books, including my newest one, What REALLY Happened to Humpty?. I started out by asking myself, “What if Humpty Dumpty didn’t fall off the Wall by accident? What if he was pushed?”

Another “What if?” came in response to one of my sons asking how his grandmother knew so much. I told him, “Maybe she went to school. A school just for grandmas.” So, what if there were a school where grandmas went to learn about all those things modern grandparents need to know, from how to change a disposable diaper to how to surf the Internet? That idea was the basis of my book, Grandma U.

The second way I come up with an idea is to let my mind “wonder.” This is especially useful for brainstorming topics for non-fiction. I might wonder why dogs wag their tails, or wonder what it’s like to be a skydiving instructor, or wonder what it’s like to be a kid in the White House. (My husband says I’m just nosey. I prefer the term “curious.”)

Asking a lot of questions is my answer to where I get my ideas. As for how old I am and how much money I make, those questions will just have to remain a mystery.

Jeanie Franz Ransom is an author and speaker who lives near St. Louis, Missouri. What REALLY Happened to Humpty? is her fifth picture book. You can find out more by visiting her website: www.jeanieransom.com

Monday, March 16, 2009

Sign the Wall!

Charlesbridge is 20 years old!

Thank you for your continued support. We'd love to hear from you.
Sign the virtual wall by leaving a comment. What do you think of us so far?

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Have I got a match for you!

Hello! I'm Caroline, the publicity intern at Charlesbridge. A few days a week, I wear another hat -- that of a bookseller at a local indie bookstore in Cambridge, Porter Square Books. My day-to-day life is filled with books, coffee, and the occasional 'spy session' for my upcoming 'tell-all,' What I Overheard at the Bookshop. Part-thriller, part-romance, part-self-help, part-humor, this book would encompass the complex relationship people have to text. No two customers look or act alike -- they resemble the myriad books on our shelves, each with a story of their own.

As a bookseller, the most satisfying feeling is matching a book with an owner. Whether it's the classic Make Way for Ducklings for that European couple bringing a book back for their child, the memoir last featured on NPR, or a "mindless, beach-read" to get one's mind off the current economic woes, we're there to make a match. Ever since I was a little girl, Fiddler on the Roof was one of my favorite musicals. In it, the three daughters, Tzeitel, Hodel, and Chava sing "Matchmaker," where they dream about their future spouses and tease each other of the potential disasters that yente (the matchmaker) could bring. I have always enjoyed making matches -- people-to-people, book-to-customer -- often using my family and friends as my next challenge. Perhaps this is my calling; after all, I am pursuing full-time work and exploring diverse career paths. In the meantime, stop by the bookstore, have some coffee, and let us make a match!

Check out my March staff pick -- Charlesbridge's own Pippo the Fool by Tracey Fern:

Posted by Caroline Litwick, of Porter Square Books and Charlesbridge.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Cool science, where are you?

As I read through the array of exceptional children's science books published in the last several years, I can't help but wonder: Cool science, where were you when I was a kid?

The answer, of course, is that cool science has always been around, just not always accessible to young readers, including the kid-me of decades ago. My memories of science books from that time consist of clinical, dry text with black & white illustration, often overly simplistic or of poor quality. It wasn't until I was a grownup looking for science books and magazines for my own kids that I came across dynamic children's writing that captured the "wow" of science. Science hasn't become any more wonderful or awe-inspiring in the last thirty years—the "wow" has been there all along—but effectively communicating that wonder and awe to children is relatively new. Oh, how the kid-me would have loved the vibrant well-told stories and detailed artwork and photography that kids will find between the covers of this today's science books.

So, what's changed? How have today's science writers made the move from dry and lifeless to cool? As a contemporary science writer, what am I trying to do differently than science writers of yesteryear?

One move I make toward "cool" is to keep things fresh. Not always easy to do when writing about things that were discovered long ago. In fact, if you hang around writers long enough, you'll hear something along the lines of "There are no new stories under the sun
. Only new ways of telling the same stories." In science writing, we sometimes do get new stories in the way of new discoveries, but for the rest, this old saying holds true. So one of the first things I do when starting a book is ditch the head-on view and look for an unusual angle. I tap my inner kid, looking for the "Ew!", "Cool!" and "Phew!" in the subject, some aspect that will get an emotional reaction from my young readers. For instance, Pascal's law (water can't be squished so the more pressure applied to it, the faster it leaves a pipe...yawn) becomes interesting and relevant to a 10-year-old when explained as the science of squirt guns. See? Physics can be cool. I also try to connect information in new ways. In Bubble Homes and Fish Farts, I use bubbles as the thread to connect an unusual assortment of animals. There are oodles of animal adaptation books out there, but the bubble angle gives survival a whole new spin.

Another big difference is that I don't set out to teach anything. Instead, my goal is to share. This may sound like splitting hairs or playing with semantics, but it's actua
lly an important distinction. Both involve the author imparting knowledge, but the mindsets are different, and so the attitude and approach to the writing is different, too. Teaching turns the writer into a teacher, and the reader into a student—an unequal relationship with the teacher in an authority position. Sharing allows for equality between writer and reader. I think of it as an invitation to a peer. "Come, sit with me. I just have to tell you about this amazing thing I found." Readers will learn a lot of interesting things in my books, but story always drives my tale, not the need to teach specific information for the readers' own good. When I approach the reader with this attitude of mutual respect, I never have to worry about talking down or becoming didactic, as often was the case in early children's science books. It just doesn't happen.

I take several more steps away from dry and lifeless by engaging readers in a more sensory way. Visually, the illustrations take on a big role, but I want the text to get readers feeling and reacting, too. I search for concrete references that will relate new information to something readers already know—this snail is the size of a large grape; gouramis look like they're shooting hoops when they spit eggs into a bubble nest. My goal is to create images in readers' heads so they really get how big or small (or whatever) something is. For example, saying a blue whale is "big" or "29 meters" doesn't mean much, but when I explain that it can be as long as a basketball court, with a heart the size of a small car, and blood vessels kids can swim through, the images conjured sure show the scale of BIG I'm talking about. I also draw on the other senses whenever possible, describing taste, smell, texture, and especially sound. I'm a huge onomatopoeia fan. Read "fwap-fwap-fwap-fwap", a hammer "clang!", or the "gulp" of a hungry seal, and those sounds instantly echo through your head, putting you in the moment. Lifting the words off the page that way adds layers of interest to the reading experience.

Dry writing often suffers from being too formal, so I like to take it down a few notches, using a voice that is conversational and kid-friendly. And [gasp] that sometimes means using sentence fragments, interjections such as Yikes!, Aha! or No kidding!, or starting a sentence with and or but. I also play with language, adding puns, homonyms, alliteration, double meanings, BIG WORDS, and lo-o-o-o-o-ong words as I would spice to a meal—sometimes none, a little, or a lot, depending on who's coming to supper.

These are the major techniques I use to bring the cool of science to kids...to write the books the kid-me would have enjoyed. The keystone to it all, though, is my genuine sense of wonder or enthusiasm for whatever I write about. A writer's passion has a mysterious way of seeping through the text and becoming contagious. And that's what I want to pass on to my readers—a taste of the wonder and awe I feel at the world around me, so that they'll start asking t
heir own questions, checking things out for themselves, and sharing their excitement with a friend: "Come, sit with me. I just have to tell you about this amazing thing I found."

Science writing has come a long way in the last 30-40 years. This generation of kids won't be asking, "Cool science, where were you when I was a kid?" That makes me smile.

Posted by Fiona Bayrock,
author of
Bubble Homes and Fish Farts