Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Thoughts about HOW

Mari L. Barnes
When it comes to writing for children, the WHAT we write about is only as good as HOW we write it. Almost everything is seed from which you can grow a story. The trick is in how you tell it. You don’t have to wait for that original idea that no one has ever thought of before. Think of how many fairy tales and fables have been spun into popular books, like the Fractured Fairy Tales cartoons or Tara Lazar’s Little Red Gliding Hood, in which Little Red Riding Hood is a figure skating enthusiast.
We’re always told to write what we know. If you have any experience with children you have probably observed enough to get a good story start. From potty training to losing teeth to being picked for the team (or NOT picked) to shopping for training bras—everything writes. What spin would you use to make it fresh and yours?
Dr. Seuss gave us permission to play with words and sounds, fun without the anchor of complex plotting. Before planning your children’s story, why not take some time to play? What could you do with a story of a kid who NEVER lost his baby teeth? Or a society in which “training bras” was something girls had to DO?
Difficult topics have long been addressed in children’s fiction. Old Yeller was written by Fred Gipson in 1956. Has there ever been a sadder story? But the genius was not in the universal themes of responsibility, loyalty, death and love. It was in the thoughtful handling of the subject, a rich accounting of life that included boredom, excitement, fear and humor to create a book that still touches the most cynical youth, 60 years later. Today, even subjects that used to be taboo are ripe for writing if done with care. Think of Heather Has Two Mommies about same-sex parents or Love You Forever, which has young people tackle such difficult topics as aging and death.
Author Tara Lazar sponsors PiBoIdMo (Picture Book Idea Month) every November. During that time, writers are challenged to record at least one idea for a picture book each day. Daily blog posts by picture book authors, illustrators, editors and other kidlit professionals entertain and inspire. By the end of the month, writers have compiled a file of ideas to generate stories. The challenge offers freedom to have fun and encourages skewing your own perspectives—not only thinking outside of the box, but painting the box pink and making it out of jelly beans!
How we tell our stories can lead us in interesting directions, quite far afield from our original plans. My book, Ruby’s Red Squiggle, published this year by Progressive Rising Phoenix Press, was an idea I got while doing the challenge in 2014. My first thought was of a little girl sketching with her artist mom. It took some time to get to HOW the story could be told. I decided to tell it from the viewpoint of the child’s drawing. To get to my HOW, I employed the methods suggested by the PiBoIdMo challenge: don’t edit yourself; keep your eyes, ears and mind open to all possibilities; and enjoy yourself!
Staring at an empty screen? How would you write The Adventures of a Blank Page?
Mari L Barnes writes for children under the pen name of Mari Lumpkin and for adults as ML Barnes. Her company, Flying Turtle Publishing specializes in books that families can share. With a lifelong passion for helping young readers and writers, she spent many years working with experts in child development, creating and implementing children’s literacy programs for YMCA and Salvation Army after school programs. Mari’s newest books are Ruby’s Red Squiggle (Progressive Rising Phoenix Press) and Cracked Magic (Flying Turtle Publishing). She can be contacted at or

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