Tuesday, March 31, 2009


The following was originally posted in January 2008. Some of you may have missed it then and since Donald is going to be this week's AT HOME profile, I thought I'd post it again.

Today I'd like to introduce you to the other half behind Skinny Brown Dog. Illustrator Donald Saaf is multi-talented. Besides illustrating Ten Little Sleepyheads, Jump Up and other delightful stories, Donald plays the banjo on Dan Zanes' Catch that Train CD. He also sculpts whimsical figures from wood and sandstone. On top of that, he's married to Julia Zanes, a fine artist in her own right.

I asked Donald to share his process of illustrating Skinny Brown Dog. Along with his comments, he sent along a few early sketches.

"For these pictures I used a sort of fake renaissance technique, where I painted them out in tones and then added the color in washes on top. I didn't have a special reason for making them all animals, except that I really enjoy putting animals into clothing, but I found once I did this, it transformed the story a little bit and emphasized the element of unfair exclusion.

"Why isn't a dog allowed?

"This story was a pleasure to work on and I really came to love all the characters."

More books by Donald:

Monday, March 30, 2009


Helen Levitt
American Photographer
August 31, 1913- March 29, 2009


Below is the last letter to my editor concerning writing Skinny Brown Dog.

I hope these letters and drafts have given you a glimpse into what the process of writing a picture book for me is like. The input from an editor is important. And of course so is the vision the illustrator brings to the story. Skinny Brown Dog would never have been the same without Donald Saaf's delightful interpretation. To learn more about Donald's process for this story, tune in tomorrow.

And to learn more about Skinny Brown Dog:

More Skinny

Friday, March 27, 2009


Let's sing with Ray!


New York City
March 27, 2009

Went to MOMA. There really should be unspoken museum etiquette.

Rule Number One: Please don't stand in front of Warhol's Gold Marilyn Monroe while talking on your cellphone.

May you find love at the top of the Empire State Building or at least a bird's eye view of the Big Apple,


Thursday, March 26, 2009


Where do you work best at home?

I am selfish and obsessive about the place I work, and always, always
have a room in the house that is designated "my study." I'm
surrounded with books, the bricabrac of nostalgia, photographs of
family, and one wall densely decorated with lapel pins from various
magazines, mottoes ("A victory for anybody is a victory for war" --
GB Shaw, "It doesn't have to be calm and clear-eyed, you just have to
not give up" -- David Mamet), objects that represent what I have in
the past worked on (a dried real seahorse, a prehistoric cutting
stone), business cards and post-it notes, a Namibian dollar, a brass
zebra. For a long while my younger son Alex was jealous of the
typewriter, then the computer, the phone and all the paraphernalia of
my study. Though there were three phones in the house, he preferred
mine. I would go to work and find the papers subtly rearranged. One
day my vocabulary calendar turned up the word "adytum" -- "a sacred
place that the public may not enter." I took Alex with me to the
trophy shop and had him pick out a brass plate, the lettering, the
edge design for a plaque of that word. We screwed it on the door of
my study. He enjoyed it. He understood. And continued to take his
phone calls on my phone, shove my papers gently into new configurations.

What time of day would we find you there?

You might find me there at any hour of the day or evening (I no
longer pull all-nighters), but you might also not find me there at
any hour. I work all the time and I also invent many reasons not to
go to work. But generally speaking, I start the day with breakfast
and the NY Times, do my exercises (bad back: I need them before I
sit), then answer my email, read around a little, reread what I'm
working on, scribble and despair. Sometime between ten and two I
decide to begin in earnest. If the work is going well, I may be
there with a break for supper till nine or ten. If not, I may escape at three.

What is your favorite comfort food while you work at home?

In my study I usually only have ice water and Altoids "curiously
strong mint" gum. When I detour to the kitchen I'm likely to nab a
cookie, a handful of salted nuts (deluxe, please), a chocolate. How
I do wish the answer were "carrots, celery sticks, and broccoli
flowerets." Well, I like those too.

How does home feed into your writing?

Home feeds into my writing in every way. First there is the
conflict: as a teenager I had two images of myself, one a strong
stout woman in tweed striding through the woods making great poetry;
the other a comfy cookie-baking mother with the kids gathered around
her feet for a story. I was perturbed about the choice between them,
and sometimes desperate. I did not suspect that I would never
choose, that the tension between the two images would remain forever,
and that my strong domestic streak would nevertheless becomes the
background and the spine of my writing self. Then there is the
confluence: My children were the constant in a life often otherwise
in flux or disorder. Other teacher/writers I knew wrote at the
office to avoid the kids. I worked at home (a door with a window
onto the living room) because only there was I at ease. Now, my
husband the wonderful Hungarian cook frees me to my haphazard
schedule by cooking every night. One of the hand-written scraps on
my wall is from Judith Ortiz Cofer: "If you don't cook, and you get
people to love you, you will be fed." Actually, I cook pretty well,
and like to do fancy dishes for parties, but Peter relieves me of the
daily distraction. Home is my subject matter, my metaphor, and my
model for both war and peace; the paradigm of comedy, of tragedy, of
tenderness and rage.

Janet Burroway is the author of eight novels, the most recent Bridge of Sand from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Among her recent works are the play Parts of Speech; a collection of essays, Embalming Mom; and new editions of her texts Imaginative Writing and Writing Fiction. She is Robert O. Lawton Distinguished Professor Emerita at the Florida State University in Tallahassee.

Visit Janet's website.

Recent At Home profiles:

Jen Bryant

Gabi Swiatkowska

Wednesday, March 25, 2009


If each of us reflected back, we could probably pinpoint a prophetic moment, a moment that would help define a part of who we are today. Janet Burroway describes such a moment in I Didn't Know Sylvia Plath, an essay from her collection, Embalming Mom. "I did not then know that I would spend my life teaching young people scribblative ilk, nor that the muted depression I felt would later earn my daily bread, but I took the discovery personally and very much to heart." Burroway was writing about her experience reading entries for the Poetry Center Award when she discovered "mountains of mediocre" among the handful of excellent and poor poems. Plath's husband, Ted Hughes, won the prize.

There are a lot of writers who owe Burroway a big thanks. I am one of them. Although I never sat in her physical classroom, I grabbed a front row seat in learning what she had to share in her book, Writing Fiction, A Guide to Narrative Craft. The book is now in its seventh edition. I own the fourth and its dog-eared condition proves its value to me. Time and time again, I return to those pages.

Recently a young writer that I mentored through her high school years wrote to tell me how excited she was when she realized that her college creative writing class was going to use Writing Fiction for the textbook. Actually it is a textbook with a textbook price tag. And it's worth every penny. Burroway explores in-depth more lessons than any other writing book I've ever read--structure, showing and telling (my favorite part is the chapter, Significant Detail), characterization, point of view, setting, comparison, theme and revision.

Please don't get the wrong idea. Burroway is not the kind of writing teacher who traded in her pen to solely discuss the craft. She actively participates, having written plays, poetry, novels and children's books. Her picture book The Giant Jam Sandwich uses whimsy and rhyme to delight readers.

Today is the publication date of her new novel, Bridge of Sand. The Washington Post calls it, “Dazzling . . . Like John Updike, she can eke out the poisonous beauty of suburban routine. Even her most ordinary characters are capable of unusual panache and introspection."

Because of my admiration for Burroway, I was nervous about contacting her. But she graciously accepted my invitation to do An Author at Home profile. Now I extend an invitation to you. Won't you join us tomorrow?

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Monday, March 23, 2009


The following is the second letter from Christy concerning this story. In it she mentioned considering cutting out "He's not my dog," in one of scenes. The text in the picture to the right clearly proves that I took her advice. When I first receive Christy's letter, I try to put it away for a while. Sometimes I disagree with some of her points. Often stepping away from her advice causes me to reflect and frequently I end up agreeing wholeheartedly.

And then sometimes I don't. My letter that accompanied the next draft shows that editors and writers are both working towards making the best book possible.

(You will need to double click to view the details of the pages. Please don't copy these pages without my permission. Thank you, kindly.)

The Skinny Brown Dog papers and letter now reside at the de Grummond Collection at the University of Southern Mississippi. There you will also find more drafts of Skinny Brown Dog as well as drafts and letters for Part of Me and Waiting for Gregory.

Next week, I'll share my last letter to Christy concerning Skinny Brown Dog.

Thursday, March 19, 2009


Where do you work best at home?

Like a cat, I prefer to be wherever the sun is. In the morning, I prefer to work at the kitchen table because that’s where the windows face East. In the afternoon, I usually go upstairs to the family den or to my office in the front of the house because the sun will have swung around there by then. I also work a lot inside my car. We have a state park with a mid-sized lake a few miles away. I like to drive over there and park by the lake, crack the windows and write for several hours. The scenery soothes me, I feel like I’m out in the world with other people—and yet I’m not distracted by them.

What time of day would we find you there?

I’m not a late-night or early-morning writer. I can do emails and other administrative tasks then, but I prefer to start any creative writing in the late morning and work through most of the afternoon.

What is your favorite comfort food while you work at home?

Hard pretzels with lost of salt. The Gettysburg Pretzel Company makes the best
ones. . . . followed by Toms Sturgis and UTZ. It’s a sad day when my pretzel barrel is empty.

How does home feed into your writing?

I’m a very a very tactile person, so the rhythm of daily household tasks (making coffee, caring for the dog, taking out the trash, making the bed, doing the dishes, etc.) is very grounding for me. I find I do a lot of good thinking when I’m engaged in these repetitive chores, especially (for some odd reason) when I’m doing the dishes. I also tend to keep a lot of memorabilia around the house: hand-written notes, photographs of friends and family members, postcards, artwork, etc. and all of these trigger memories that frequently result in scenes and ideas for stories.

Jen Bryant writes picture books, novels and poems for readers of all ages. Her biographical picture book: A River of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williams, illustrated by Melissa Sweet, received a Caldecott Honor award and her historical novel in verse RINGSIDE 1925: Views from the Scopes Trial is an Oprah Recommended Book for ages 12 & up. Other titles include Pieces of Georgia (IRA Young Adult Choices Pick), The Trial, Kaleidoscope Eyes(a Jr. Library Guild selection), Georgia’s Bones, Music for the End of Time, and Abe’s Fish: A Boyhood Tale of Abraham Lincoln.

Jen has taught writing and Children’s Literature at West Chester University and Bryn Mawr College and gives lectures, workshops and school presentations throughout the year. She lives with husband, daughter and their Springer Spaniel in Chester County, PA.

Visit Jen's website.

Did you miss these At Home profiles?

Gabi Swiatkowska

Tracy Porter

Hope Anita Smith

Kathi Appelt

Wednesday, March 18, 2009


One of the first biographies I read was about Harriet Tubman. Her story was my introduction to slavery. I cringed when I read about Harriet's beatings. I was hungry when she hadn't had much to eat. The writer also took me on a journey via the Underground Railroad. I've loved biographies ever since.

Jen Bryant must love them, too. She embraces her high-profile subjects and shows their humanness so that young readers might have a better understanding of their greatness.

In her new book, Abe's Fish, A Boyhood Tale, she tells the story of Abraham Lincoln's early thoughts about freedom. By the end of the story we learn a lot about Lincoln, but the reader never feels like they are being fed facts because the details are woven so finely through a single day in his young life. Now that's good writing.

Illustrator Amy June Bates' use of soft tones and realistic characters compliment Bryant's words. I especially love the picture of Abe walking with a pail as he is led by his giant shadow.

Loyal followers of this blog already know my admiration for both Bryant's writing and Melissa Sweet's illustrations in A River of Words, The Story of William Carlos Williams. This year the book won a Caldecott Honor. In case you missed my posting, you can read it here:

Silent Poetry Reading Day

Jen Bryant has graciously agreed to be this week's An Author at Home. I'll hope you'll join us tomorrow.


This weekend is the 24th Annual Louisiana Nursery Festival in Forest Hill. My family's roots run deep there and as many of you know, it is my emotional home. It's also the setting of my first book My Louisiana Sky and one of the settings in Part of Me.

I'm honored to have been asked to be the festival parade's Grand Marshal. And the organizer, Myra Poole, kindly asked if my ninty-five year old grandfather could ride in the parade with me. I can't wait. And neither can Pa!

I'll also be signing books afterwards. If you live in Rapides Parish, I hope you will visit the festival and drop by to say hi.

For more information:

Louisiana Nursery Festival

Tuesday, March 17, 2009


The book doesn't come out until August, but I thought you might want a peek at the cover. By the way, did you know that Piper Reed Navy Brat has a fan club on Facebook?

Sunday, March 15, 2009


One thing that I found interesting in gathering these papers for you was that my first draft of Skinny Brown Dog was very close to the final draft. That wasn't the case for my other picture books. Maybe this was one of those gifts writers receive every once in a blue moon because they've worked hard on other stories. I wish blue moons came along more often.

I neglected to scan the first editorial letter that accompanied this manuscript before I donated the papers, but an important point I remember was Christy mentioning that the dog wasn't a fully developed character. Her comment was golden.

Even without the letter, I think you will find Christy's notes interesting. (You'll need to double click to see the notes and if you are fortunate enough to have a mouse with the roller in the middle of the clickers, you can get an even better view.) On this first page, she points out repetitive words and suggests Free Broken Cookie Muffin Day instead of Free Broken Cookie Day.

I had forgotten that it was Christy who suggested adding butter with the slice of bread to show Benny's growing affection for the dog. Isn't it amazing how one word can achieve a big change?

Christy always includes positive remarks in her notes. I have to admit when I first receive her editorial letters and notes, I search them out. I was pleased when she loved Miss Patterson's line, "Yes, I can see that." And later I rejoiced with how Donald Saaf illustrated that remark. (Please see picture at above right.)

If you compare my first draft to this draft, you will see that I finally learned to spell raspberry. That's when I realized I had been mispronouncing the word for all these years.

Christy had suggested changing the sentences in the next to last paragraph below so that one sentence didn't end with Brownie, followed by a sentence that began with Brownie. But when I read it aloud, I liked how it sounded. Give it a try. What do you think?

One lesson I learned on my first picture book was that as the writer, I have to leave room for pictures. In other words the pictures sometimes need to show what happens next. When I wrote the last line, I knew the illustrator would leave the reader with an image that would satisfy.

(Note: Please don't copy the pages I've shared with you without my permission. Thank you.)

Next week, you'll see how I responded to Christy's notes. Until then, I have other fun things in store for you. You will meet another author at home and though I'll be on the road a lot the next few weeks, I'll continue to post about Skinny Brown Dog and the profiles. I also promise to send a few postcards to the nest while I'm away.

Happy reading and happy writing!

Friday, March 13, 2009

Thursday, March 12, 2009


I thought it might be interesting to see some of the steps I took to complete Skinny Brown Dog. So once a week for the next few weeks, I'll share some of those steps with you. If you have questions along the way, please ask them in the comments. Everyone will benefit from what you want to know.

If you have read any of my past posts, you may already know that writing this picture book broke a bad case of writer's block. Back then I was under contract to write a novel. My mother-in-law had died and I was experiencing grief and regrets. Facing my novel seemed a daunting task. Each day I avoided it. After weeks of not writing, I told myself that I could write about anything that day. When you haven't been writing for a while, you sometimes have to reconnect by taking several baby steps.

First step: Get in the car and drive.

Second step: Go to a coffee shop and order an extra dry cappuccino.

Third step: Find a place to sit.

Fourth step: Web for ten minutes.

For a moment, I stared at the blank page. Then an image of a dog showing up at a bakery entered into my thoughts. My web grew as ideas popped in my head. Cookies, muffins, broken cookies, raspberry muffins. Something lifted inside me. And I felt like a writer again. I quickly wrote the first draft on my yellow pad. Excited about my breakthrough, I rushed home and typed up the manuscript.

Those pages are below. In a way this is like a first and second draft combined. Since I write my first drafts by hand I try to type it into the computer the way I first wrote it. In other words, I try not to tinker with it as I go along.

After I finished typing this story into the computer, I put it away for a couple of days. Then I reread it and thought about the picture possibilities. Some writers make a dummy of their stories where they actually roughly sketch pictures and write the words beneath. For me, circling works just as well. So the circles in this manuscript represent where I thought picture breaks could be. Please note that doesn't mean the artist and editor will see it that way. But it's a good tool to aid the writer in creating a story that lends itself to pictures. Because remember, the pictures are as important as the text in a picture book.

As you can see, I also added in some text and changed the title. I loved the title That's Not My Dog, but someone else had used it. That's how the title eventually became Skinny Brown Dog. By the way, you'll need to double click to read the manuscript.

Next week, I'll share to copy of the manuscript that I sent in with my editor's notes on the copy.

(Important note: I'm posting these pages for your knowledge. Please don't copy these without my permission. Thank you.)

Tuesday, March 10, 2009


Last week Bronte and I went to the porch for our power nap. I'd just settled on the daybed and covered with a chenille throw, when I noticed a bird flying overhead. Jerry had left the screen door ajar.

I tried everything to get the bird through the open door. With Bronte following me like we were playing a game, I chased the bird around the porch. I dodged chairs and the daybed. I flapped my arms. I clapped my hands. Nothing worked.

The attempts energized me and I no longer needed a nap. So I sat down to plot an alternate rescue scheme. Another bird was on the outside chirping away at her trapped companion. She seemed pretty worked up about it. I could just imagine what she was saying. "You have a terrible sense of direction. If you would have just asked me, I would have told you not to go that way." Eventually the outside bird and I both gave up.

That night I asked Jerry to help me, figuring that he could stand at one end of the porch and I could lead the bird to the door. But when we went out to check, it seemed the bird had found its way out. We left the door ajar, just in case.

The next day I discovered I was wrong. The bird flew overheard, back and forth, back and forth. I couldn't understand how, in two days, that bird didn't discover his way out. The answer was right in front of him.

Then I had another idea. I sprinkled some birdseed on top of a container and put it near the door. I went inside the house and back to work on my manuscript. When I checked the next day, the bird was gone. After two days of feeling trapped, the bird had finally made his escape.

I can relate to that bird. When I started my historical novel years ago, I quickly ran into a roadblock. The story begins in 1833 and I wanted the main character to go to the Nebraska Territory to live with his aunt and uncle in 1834. They were going to be farmers. Then I found out that the only white women in the Nebraska Territory in 1834 were missionaries. No, I thought, that would not work. This was not going to be a story with missionaries. This was going to be a story with farmers.

Oh, how I fretted. I tried to figure another place that my main character could go, but I needed it to be in the Nebraska Territory because the boy's father would be taking him to his brother and sister-in-law on the way to trapping out West.

For days, I brooded. I even questioned my decision to write the book. (I've done that several times since then, but those are other stories.)Finally one day, I decided to spend some time researching missionaries in the Nebraska Territory. I'll ponder it for a day, I thought. Before the day was up, I got caught up in the story of Moses and Eliza Merrill who ran an Otoe Mission near Bellevue, Nebraska. The story contained drama--problems with the men at the trading post, communication barriers with the Otoe, a small pox outbreak, and death.

Not long after reading about them, I visited schools in the Omaha area. I planned a side trip to Bellevue and found the only remaining proof of the mission--a lone standing chimney. The man at a little museum who gave me instructions on how to get there couldn't believe I was going to bother to find it. But after reading about the Merrills, I knew I must. Standing there, peering through the fence at the chimney, made it all seem clear. Why had I fought so hard not to include a mission in the story? Why was I so stubborn about those characters being farmers?

As writers we sometimes forget to explore the endless possibilities when we create our worlds. Sometimes we hit a barrier and if we're too tunnel-visioned we may lose the chance at adding another layer or plot point that enriches our story. That's what almost happened to me, until I finally explored another way and discovered the Merrills. Even though my story is not about them, their lives and work definitely inspired that section. I would have missed it all if I hadn't finally seen the open door.