Monthly Archives: February 2016

Windows/Mirrors Book Review: A Thirst for Home

© 2016, Logo by L. M. Quraishi

© 2016, Logo by L. M. Quraishi

A Thirst for Home“Emaye cried, and her tears were like raindrops so precious that I tried to collect them with the scarf she gave me.”

A Thirst for Home, by Christine Ieronimo, illustrated by Eric Velasquez

Walker Books for Young Readers (Bloomsbury imprint), 2014

In a spare, lyrical and moving debut, Christine Ieronimo tells a story inspired by her newly adopted Ethiopian daughter, whom she discovered one morning drinking from a puddle in the driveway. With deep empathy, the author portrays the complex issues of international adoption through the story of water, which “connects us to everyone and everywhere.”

Read this book because Eric Velasquez’s illustrations convey grief, love, privation, doubt, connection and transformation with uplifting composition and color. From beginning to end, this story honors the place Alemitu/Eva’s birth mother will always have in her life, beautifully symbolized by a long, floating yellow scarf her Emaye gave her when they parted. Alemitu’s bond with her adoptive mother grows from introduction to feeling “safe again” in just one spread, which feels a bit fast and unrealistic, especially for the the older girl depicted. However, Eva carries her homeland with her as she experiences her new world—whenever she gets water from a faucet, carries a backpack of books to school, takes off her shoes because she misses her feet, or remembers her mother. Without portraying either the birth family or adoptive family as “better” or “worse,” the story emphasizes both families’ fierce commitment to the bright future of this child.

Writers will enjoy the gentle cycling of lyrical language and ideas, such as when the sun whispering “my name with its hot, sticky breath” early in the book becomes the wind whispering “my name with its crisp, cool sigh.” The magnificent structure of the book centers around a key metaphor that occurs on the third spread, when Alemitu looks at her reflection in the watering hole and imagines that it contains a secret passage to “the other side.” The story balances on the moment when Alemitu leaves Ethiopia with her adoptive mom to become Eva, and the meaning of her name changes from “world” to “life.” The images that come up in the first seven spreads, all set in Ethiopia—names, water sources, shimmering surfaces of water, strong feet, “the fierce lion” of hunger, bundles of wood and sleeping with a parent—all recur in the next seven spreads in her new setting, on the other side of the journey—creating a subtle and satisfying resonance for readers.

Add this book to your collection because Ieronimo as a writer and a mother (see interview here)  grapples with an adopted child’s loss and culture shock in a way that is both honest and hopeful, and Velasquez paints his characters with realism and heart.

Other books illustrated by Eric Velasquez include:

Beautiful Moon: A Child’s Prayer

Twice as Good: The Story of William Powell and Clearview

Touch the Sky: Alice Coachman, Olympic High Jumper

Written and illustrated by Eric Velasquez:

Grandma’s Gift

Grandma’s Records

Watch a video of the author’s experience visiting her daughter’s home village here.

“The water has connected my two worlds, and I know who I am.”

Time to Listen Tuesday

© Steven Shorrock via Flickr Creative Commons

© Steven Shorrock via Flickr Creative Commons

Privilege cannot be evaluated in terms of black and white. Privilege by nature is comparative and perceptual. It seems to be part of the human experience to struggle, yet there is a quantitative difference between the struggle to put food before our children or overcome a history of sexual abuse or live with the increased likelihood of attack or incarceration because of skin color…and the struggle to find a parking spot in the city, or host the in-laws for dinner, or get our work published. No matter what the struggle, no matter how privileged we are in this way or that, we seem to have the tendency to magnify our own obstacles, and overlook our advantages.

If you haven’t yet read Ellen Oh’s magnificent article Dear White Writers about defending/creating space for people of color to tell their own stories, go read it now. She voices important concerns about the role of writers privileged by their skin color/ethnic background in supporting and participating in the movement for diverse children’s literature.

According to Lee & Low’s Diversity Baseline Survey, a 2015 statistical analysis of diversity in publishing for children, the #WeNeedDiverseBooks train is still parked at the station. In the past, there wasn’t a train at all, and diverse books just had to walk themselves to the publisher and wait at the back door for a turn to get in. Then maybe there was an occasional train, but no posted schedule and not enough cars. Now we’ve got one line, just one train that leaves once a day, and everyone’s crowding to get on. Who gets a ticket for that train?

What we need to do is take over the train station. When all of us consumed with creating books for children are writing from an expanded perception of the ways our society privileges some over others, and our own roles in that system, we will need more trains. Old lines of thinking and publishing will become obsolete, and those trains will refurbished for a more just and equitable world.

How do we expand our perceptions? It’s not easy and it’s not comfortable. But that’s something we writers already know a lot about. We know how to play with ideas and challenge the absurd. We know how to fill our pens with agony and write toward healing, how to break open the fiction of any -ism to write toward the truth. And we know how to listen.

Time to Listen Tuesday is a new series dedicated to listening to the voices that are speaking out for diverse books for children.

Today’s featured author is Libba Bray, whose post In Support of Ellen Oh challenges us all to confront our own racism, to “do it right…as truth-tellers”, to be “better writers and better humans.” Thank you, Libba Bray, for inviting us to listen.

Listen here:

Image thanks to Steven Shorrock, Creative Commons license

Windows/Mirrors Book Review: Ling & Ting, Not Exactly the Same

© 2016, Logo by L. M. Quraishi

© 2016, Logo by L. M. Quraishi

Ellen Oh‘s article Dear White Writers poses some interesting questions for me as a curator of this Diverse Book Review series. She challenges white writers to support #WNDB by reading, buying and promoting diverse books, not necessarily by attempting to write them. That is not to say that authors can never cross color/other lines in their fiction–many writers of many backgrounds do this successfully. But what happens when privileged writers claim the diverse spaces on publishers’ booklists when we know that those spaces are limited? Writers of color and other diverse backgrounds can get edged out of the opportunity to tell their own stories, as described by Jacqueline Woodson in her post “Who Can Tell My Story?”. Not okay.

So for today’s Windows/Mirrors Book Review, and in honor of the Year of the Monkey, I am pleased to present, telling her own story:

Ling & TIng Not Exactly the SameLing & Ting: Not Exactly the Same, by Grace Lin, Little, Brown and Company, 2010

“‘Oh good,” Ling says. ‘I know this story.’”

If you were ever a fan of Frog & Toad, you will love Ling & Ting. Grace Lin perfectly captures the back and forth of a close friendship between two very different people, and like Arnold Lobel, highlights those differences as the root of the loving humor in her stories.

Read this book because it’s the first of four, so you will get to spend a lot of time with these spunky sisters. The language of each chapter cycles back on itself in a way that always moves the story forward, so it supports readers without becoming repetitive. Likewise, the structure of the book builds a cumulative story to a satisfying ending.

Add this book to your collection because Lin has thoughtfully layered her work to be engaging, accessible to new readers, culturally normative AND culturally informative. Its main characters—two twin girls of Chinese descent—challenge the racist stereotype that “all Asians look alike,” something that Lin considered carefully when developing her story. In the illustrations, the Ling & Ting not only dress identically, but also look identical, until the fateful moment early in the series when the irrepressible Ting cannot sit still for her haircut. But in personality the girls could not be more distinct, even though they amiably share interests and activities in all the stories.

“Making Dumplings” was one of my favorite stories, especially with the artistic reference to In the Night Kitchen on the title page. Lin manages to weave in the cultural meaning of dumplings  without being the least bit didactic, in a way that further illuminates the premise of the entire book—to be twins does not mean to be exactly the same. The following story, “Chopsticks,” hilariously relates a common childhood experience for many—the challenge of chopsticks.

As a writer, I particularly admire the metaliterary element of the stories “The Library Book,” in which a book refers Ting back to an earlier story, and “Mixed Up,” which like Lobel’s “The Story,” contains a story within a story.

More Books by Grace Lin include:


Chapter Books—

Picture Books—

Illustrated by Grace Lin—

More from Grace Lin:

“Books erase bias, they make the uncommon every day, and the mundane exotic. A book makes all cultures universal.” —Grace Lin

Windows/Mirrors Book Reviews

Reflect/Refract by Pablo Fernández, Creative Commons license via flickr

Reflect/Refract by Pablo Fernández, Creative Commons license via flickr

“So, was your father Pashtun?” someone recently asked me at an SCBWI conference. I had to say that I don’t really know. My father, born in Peshawar, Pakistan, was my only window into my Pakistani heritage. And it was a cloudy window, unreliable, streaked with wishful thinking and invented memories. Growing up I searched the mirrors in our house as well, seeking the story of my ancestors in my own image. I found only warped shards of mirror, cursed to reflect an immigrant’s dream to start over in America, never the old world left behind. For people like me, daughter of an immigrant and mixed marriage, what allows us to know ourselves and understand where we come from? What encourages the people of this country to know and understand each other?

The #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign has jolted the world of writers, readers and makers of books into the realization that the books on our shelves offer only an incomplete view of the world to children. When the dominant culture and our own families fail to expose us to the realities of ourselves and others, where can we turn for this truth? Glass both reflects and refracts. The images we find in windows and mirrors slip sideways and don’t show reality exactly as it is. But a looking glass, like a good story, allows readers to slip into a view that, although not real, retains the power to connect us with ourselves and with one another.

This Windows/Mirrors Book Review series documents my own journey through children’s literature, in search of better ways to be myself, better ways to connect with others and better ways to write a good story.

I hope you enjoy some of these books as much as I have.

Ruby on the Outside, by Nora Raleigh Baskin, Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2015


“There are consequences for accidents, too.”

Ruby on the Outside weaves complex layers into a simple, beautiful thread with page-turning tension: Ruby’s coming of age as she wrestles with family secrets and the desire to trust her new friend Margalit. Ruby has never had a friend, because she doesn’t feel she can tell anyone that her mother was incarcerated when she was just a little girl. Ruby doesn’t know the truth of the night her mother was arrested; she only knows that it’s time to ask the question. What she discovers may threaten her growing friendship, and leads to a confrontation with her mother that transforms the way Ruby moves through the outside.

Read this book because it tells the truth about the cycle of abuse from a flawless middle grade perspective. Add this book to your collection because it tells a story with heart and hope about the child of an incarcerated mother, describes with humanity the indignities of prison, and reveals the complicated and enduring bond between a parent and child.

Other books by this author include:

  • The Truth About My Bat Mitzvah
  • Anything But Typical
  • The Summer Before Boys
  • Runt

“And I make a little sound….It comes from a place that is so deep, so old, and so wounded. It just escapes your heart without your consent. Like finding a piece of your own body that was broken off and now, there you see it.”

Check out the YouTube video of Nora Raleigh Baskin speaking about Ruby on the Outside here.

Buy the book here.

Sticky-Note Picture Book Dummy Template


In this post, I’ll share the way I use printable sticky-notes in a picture book dummy to develop my stories, playing with pacing and page turns. I used to hand-write my story on the sticky-notes, but then I stumbled upon this trick for printing on sticky-notes, and have adapted it for use with picture book dummies.

What is a picture book dummy? It’s a version of your story in the form of a tiny book, with text placement and page turns and sometimes sketches all in place. I am a NOT an illustrator, but I still use a picture book dummy to check each W-I-P for:

  • pacing
  • rising tension including the use of page turns
  • story arc and placement of the climax
  • progression of visual scenes and elements
  • appropriate number of words (200-800 for most picture books)

Background on Picture Book Construction

For historical and economic reasons, picture books almost always have exactly thirty-two pages, created with eight sheets of paper (called folios) folded in fourths. Sometimes a book will have as few as twenty pages or as many as forty-eight, but most debuts are published in the standard thirty-two page format. Tara Lazar gives a great explanation of the two basic variations of this format here. In a self-ended book, those thirty-two pages include the title, half-title and dedication pages, the copyright page, the endpapers, and the two pages used to glue the printed book into the cover. This leaves you with twelve two-page spreads in which to tell your story. An alternative format uses colored endpapers, leaving potentially up to fourteen double-page spreads for telling the story.

By industry standard, picture book manuscripts are submitted to agents and editors without page breaks indicating page turns. It is the illustrator’s job to read the text and decide how to split words across the pages to match the art. In some cases, the art director, editor or perhaps even author may have some input here, but it’s my understanding that authors shouldn’t expect it. However, if you construct your story with the picture book format, page turns, and potential illustrations in mind, you can craft a text that best supports the story YOU envision telling. I generally dummy my manuscripts toward the middle-end of my revision process, to help me tighten the storytelling and also to expose potential problems in my picture book formatting.

Making the Dummy Blank

I keep several handmade blank dummies on hand, made from used paper folded and glued back-to-back as described here. Once I’ve dummied out a story, I use the dummy to read the story aloud as many times as possible to different audiences, revising as necessary. After I’ve made final revisions to my manuscript, I usually remove the sticky notes and keep them in a stack in my project file. Then I can use the same blank dummy again for my next story.

Creating the Sticky-Notes

I copy and paste my manuscript sentence-by-sentence into this template, one sentence for each  square. I like to use 2″ x 2″ sticky-notes, so that I have plenty of room to also include sketches. By putting just one sentence on each sticky-note, I give myself lots of flexibility to experiment with different page turn possibilities. Once I’ve added all the text to the template, I print up one copy on plain paper. Then I cover each square with a sticky-note, being sure to align the edges smoothly and keeping the sticky strip on each note toward the top of the page to help with the printer feed. Then I print again, one page at a time, feeding the paper into the printer by hand (face down with the top of the sticky notes toward the back works with most printers). And voilá–I have a version of my story neatly-printed on removable sticky-notes, ready for my dummy!

Assembling the Dummy

Making sure to leave pages for the endpapers, optional half-title page, copyright/dedication, and title page, I begin placing the text the way I imagine it will fit best in the picture book. I use 4″ x 4″ sticky-notes for quick sketches to represent potential illustrations. With these sketches, I am mostly checking for visual movement across the book. I want to make sure that there are opportunities in my text for change of scene, action, landscapes and closeups, humor and tension. Ultimately it will be my illustrator’s job to accomplish all this, without my input. But when I’m constructing my text, I want to be sure to leave space for the possibilities. For example, if the first 300 words of my picture book text involve two people explaining things to each other in dialogue, this might prove difficult to illustrate in an interesting way. Creating a picture book dummy will highlight this problem and allow me to address it before ever submitting my manuscript.

Artists can choose to use full double-page spreads, single-page spreads or spot art to illustrate your story. Publishers and art directors can influence this decision too. Double-page spreads can lower the expenses of book production because they require fewer pieces of art, but there are many factors that go into picture book design, most of which do not involve the author. But when I’m making a dummy, I try to be cognizant of the visual possibilities my text implies, and place my story in the dummy in a way that makes sense.

Then, I make my revisions, polish up the manuscript, write a snappy cover letter, and let my story go out into the world, hopefully to meet the publishing team that will bring my book to life. I strip out the dummy and once again face the blank page, ready to begin storytelling all over again.

Get your template here!

PB Small Dummy Template Blank

PB Dummy Template