I would have been seven with Bread and Jam for Frances by Russell Hoban hit the shelves. Many years later I read it to my children and now my grandson enjoys it. What makes a picture book timeless? It’s the writing and illustrations, but it also has to touch on a universal feeling or truth. Francis is a picky eater. There will always be picky eaters and their parents. It’s frustrating for the adult, but as we see in Bread and Jam, it’s the picky eater that is losing out. Mother and Father know that. They give Frances the space to figure it out. They don’t say “I told you so” or “I knew you’d get tired of it”. Another universal truth,in parenting patience isn’t easy, but it can pay off.
Frances only liked jamon her bread but when I was a child a peanut butter & jelly sandwich was often in the brown paper bag for lunch. And I have memories of my dad eating it right out of the jar, often immediately after dinner! It was his dessert. I still love a PB & J or a peanut butter cookie or a Reese’s cup or any ice cream with peanut butter something stirred in! So, when I ran found a recipe for Peanut Butter & Jelly Cheesecake, I tried it! It was loved by all the PB & J lovers in my family!
1 cup graham cracker crumbs 3 Tbsp sugar 1 tsp cinnamon 6 Tbsp butter, melted 1 tsp cinnamon sugar 1 jar (16.3 oz) creamy peanut butter 2 Tbsp milk Filling: 3 pkg (8 oz. each) cream cheese, softened 1 cup sugar 2 tsp vanilla extract 4 Large eggs, lightly beaten 1 ½ cups seedless raspberry preserves 1 Tbsp lemon juice
Preheat oven to 350. Place a greased 9-in springform pan on a double thickness of heavy-duty foil. Wrap the foil securely around the pan. Place on a baking sheet. In a bowl, mix cracker crumbs, sugar and cinnamon; stir in butter. Press onto bottom of prepared pan. Sprinkle with cinnamon sugar. Bake until crust starts to brown, 6-8 minutes. Cool on wire rake. Reduce oven setting to 325.
Beat peanut butter and milk until combined. Spread over cooled crust; set aside. In a large bowl beat cream cheese, sugar and vanilla until smooth. Add eggs; beat on low speed just until blended. Pour over crust. In a saucepan stir together preserves and lemon juice over medium heat until preserves melt. Spoon mixture by tablespoonfuls over top. Cut through the batter with a knife to swirl. Place springform pan in a large baking pan; add 1 inch of water to larger pan.
Bake until center is just set and top appears dull, about 1 ¼ hours. (Center of cheesecake will jiggle when moved). Turn oven off and leave cake in oven with door closed for one hour. Open door. Seal with plastic wrap and let cool in oven. Chill before serving.
Do you like to be told what to do or how to do it?
Nobody does! Because children are new to life, to the world they are always being told what to do, what not to do, and how to do it. Adults are often solving the problems.
In a book a child can experience things that they normally would not at their age or things that are just new for them. They can think what they might do, learn from what the characters do. That’s why when writing for children we like totake the adult outwhen possible. It’s empowering for children to see someone besides an adult solve a problem.
Beside the fact that we all love a talking-hat-wearing giraffe, animals are often used in children’s books because a child can experience adult like behavior threw the animal character. For example, in my book No More Noisy Nights the main character moves into a house alone and finds that a ghost, boogey monster and pixie already occupy the house. When I was submitting this to editors, a reaction I got was that kids don’t want to read about adults and a child can’t move into a house alone. I knew both those things. I was planning for the story to use anthropomorphism. When animals act like humans. So a reader could feel what it is like to move into a new home where things might be unknown or scary. They could see how Jackson deals with it and think, hmm maybe I could do that too.
I wrote a lot of stories for Pockets Magazine. Each month there was a theme such as honesty, jealousy, thankfulness, etc. The goal of these stories was to show children learning about and dealing with the topics. So I might think of the lesson I wanted the story to portray. For example, honesty is important in big and little things and even adults struggle with it. Then I would think how can I show this without an adult providing the solution. In the story I wrote, the main character’s friend wouldn’t play a pirated video game. So our main character began to think about things he and his family did that weren’t honest. He challenged his family to a week of honesty in all things. So the kid characters learned from each other and had something to teach the adults.
Now there are adults in kids stories. Sometimes they are childlike and sometimes they do impart the wisdom. The goal is for them to lead to the “aha” moment, but not provide the solutions. In The Day I Ran Away, Grace tells her dad about her day as he tucks her in. In her mind it was a bad day and so she decided to run away. Mom is an integral part of the story and she does suggest the popup tent as an alternative to running away when Grace realizes she’s not allowed to cross the street. However mom still allows Grace to explore her feelings of anger and her need to run away, just in a safe way. And that also is something we want kids to see in stories. Adults that listen, try to understand and keep you safe.
So as you write or rewrite a story really exam the adults in the story. Are they necessary? Can you remove them? Can you keep their role to a minimum? Can another child help your character discover the solution? Or will your characters be talking hippos, beavers and porcupines!
April is National Humor Month so a trip to the library and I found a few books to share. Humor in kids’ books can be the in-your-face laugh-out-loud kind or more subtle. It can be a dance between the pictures and the words as they contradict each other or used to soften the blow of more serious moments in the book. Here’s a few I liked.
Written & Illustrated by Corey R. Tabor Balzer & Bray, HarperCollins 2020
Snail spies a luscious cabbage patch, but he needs to cross the road to get to it. His attempt is not without adventure. He saves some ants from the rain by inviting them into his shell home. We only see dark and eyes until “click” and the home is the wondrous snail home I’d love to crawl into. In his attempt to evade a crow he gets turned around and ends up back where he started. In the end kindness pays off as he sees a head of cabbage coming toward him across the road, carried by-the ants, of course! The illustrations were warm and inviting and showed the world from Snail’s perspective. One of the things I love about picture books is that the vocabulary can be rich as an adult is present to help explain unknown words. Snail was full of wonderful words like ponder, grumbling, antsy, evasive maneuvers and had a lesson in persistence and kindness.
Book’s Big Adventure
Written by Adam Lehrhaupt, Illustrated by Rahele Jomepour Bell A Paula Wiseman Book, Simon Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2021
Book is brand new. He finds himself on the best shelf in the library where he is sought after and taken on many adventures. In time his newness wears off, his cover fades and he is moved to less and less prominent shelves and has fewer adventures. He is lonely and ignored for new fancier books. Eventually he falls under a shelf and loses hope, but he is found and put in a box of books that are donated. Book is loved again and goes on new adventures. The text is simple with much shown in the inviting illustrations that show diversity of people and communities. The feelings Book is experiencing are perfectly depicted by just two eyes and a mouth. It is a heartwarming story that helps the reader experience sadness, empathy, hope and joy. Bonus-the author included information on where to donate books so they aren’t forgotten. After all, a book’s purpose is not to live in a box, but to share adventures with readers!
We Found a Hat
Written & Illustrated by Jon Klassen Candlewick Press 2016
This is a story in three parts told with simple text and illustrations. Klassen is a master at dry humor while showing honest emotions. Part 1: two turtles find a hat and decide it looks good on both of them. Since it is not right for only one to have it they decide to leave it. It is made clear one turtle still covets the hat. Part 2: they watch the sunset and one turtle thinks about the sunset and the other is still thinking about the hat but doesn’t share that. Part 3: they are going to sleep. The turtle that wants the hat is trying to confirm that the other turtle is sleeping so he can go get the hat, but when he finds out the other turtle is dreaming about them both have a hat he goes to sleep too and dreams they both have a hat. A lot is packed in a simple story that leads to discussions of sharing, making good decisions and thinking of others.
How to Catch a Clover Thief
Written & Illustrated by Elise Parsley Little Brown & Company, Hachette Book Group, 2021
A boar named Roy finds and claims a clover patch. His neighbor Jarvis, a gopher, quietly steals the clover while distraction Roy with various books-a clover recipes cookbook, a book about camping and one on aerospace engineering. Roy finally realizes Jarvis has tricked him and he goes to the library where he reads and looks up words. Later we see Jarvis tunneling under to get to Roy’s clover but Roy has built a machine (Rube Goldberg style) that shoots Jarvis to the sky on a rocket. And Roy is seen holding a book, How to Catch a Clover Thief. The full-page illustrations and expressive faces are a great example of how the illustrations tell the story with the words. The story shows ingenuity, that you can find answers and solutions in books, and is very funny.
I have always loved books. When I was young bookstores weren’t plentiful but the library was a place we visited often. I imagined that someday my home would have a library with wall-to-wall books. In reality that wasn’t going to happen, but my home from the first apartment to our present address has always had baskets and bookshelves filled with books. Not book arranged for the aesthetics but books that have been read and shared and loved. Some books have gone with me from New York to Connecticut to Pennsylvania to Ohio to Indiana to Kansas and back to Indiana. And some books were left along the way hoping someone else would pick them up and love them too.
Libraries have changed since I was a girl. They were quiet places holding adventures between the pages. With librarians that shushed, but more importantly always knew just the right book to feed my reading habit. Now libraries and librarians are so much more. The libraries still hold adventures and knowledge between the covers, but they also are hubs of technology, creative arts, community gatherings, a safe haven for some, they provide nourishment for children in need, and resources for those seeking employment. And the amazing librarians still help you find the right book but they always wear many other hats!
When my children came along bookstores were plentiful; they had story time and comfy chairs to sit. I could often be talked into buying a book! But the library was also part of their book experience. Who doesn’t love a magical library card of your own or a reading challenge that ends in you picking a book to keep? And of course, a video to take home and maybe a donut from the café!
I still love the library. The card catalog is gone, but searching for books online does yield lots of books with less effort. I still love to hold a book, but the library has eBooks when I need to use my e-reader. And when my first book was going to be published my son remarked that I would have a book in the library of congress! What an amazing thought for that little girl who always loved the library.