[UPDATE: I am so honored and thrilled to announce that this story won first place! Someone pinch me!]
It’s time for ❤ Susanna Leonard Hill‘s<3 Valentiny contest! Her 5th one! She knows how to spread the love.
The challenge: Write a kid’s Valentine’s story in 214 words or less in which someone is curious.
I’m curious about love a lot these days. I’m curious about what we can do to increase kindness and equity. I’m curious about how to make this world a more loving and accepting place for the next generation. And sometimes this curiosity feels overwhelming and threatens to drown me. So I try and remember what I tell my students and my own children: start where you are with what you have. Little things can make a big difference. With open-minded and hopeful curiosity of my own, here is my story:
SEEDS OF LOVE (200 words) By Nicole Loos Miller
“The world needs more love,” says Grandma. She sets a flower pot on the table. We paint it with hearts for Valentine’s Day. I don’t know about love, but the world has more color at least.
The seed is tiny, but Grandma says not to underestimate it. What kind of seed is it? But she won’t tell me. “Life is better when there is room for wonder,” she whispers.
Poke. Dig. Poke. The dark dirt sticks under my fingernails. Scoop. Scoop. Scoop. Back over my seed. Like a cozy blanket.
See you soon, little seed.
You are my sunshine, I sing. My watering can is a gentle rainstorm. Push. Push. Up! A tiny bit of green starts to show. You can do it.
Grow. Secrets, bunched and waiting on a thin green stem. Grow. A little taller each day. Stretch.
At last! A tiny star surrounded by pink. Bright and delicate. Lovely and strong.
“Who should we give it to?’ Grandma asks. I want to keep it. “Love is for sharing,” she insists. We leave it on our neighbors doorstep.
“We did it,” laughs Grandma. And she’s right. I can feel it. There’s more love now.
It’s Sunday afternoon and my delightful winter break is drawing to a close. It’s time to emerge from the time-warp cocoon filled with too many cookies and delighted toddler shrieks. Wait, was that a delighted shriek or an injured shriek?
I’m sure they’ll be fine.
Back before I lost track of what day of the week it was, I had the privilege of interviewing one of my favorite people, Ciara O’Neal, about her debut picture book: Flamingo Hugs Aren’t For Everyone, illustrated by Alicia Young.
If you haven’t met Ciara and you are willing to take one piece of advice from me: get on that ASAP. Ciara is a mother of five, master of words, and lover of doughnuts. When she isn’t shaping hearts and lives in the house, she is bettering them in the classroom through teaching or in the world in general through writing hilarious stories with a big message. I am humbled and delighted to call her a friend, critique partner and my first ever interviewee! (Happy dance commence!!)
Nicole: Thank you so much for being my first interviewee and congratulations on your book! I know from your other interviews that this story was actually inspired by a trip to the ER for your daughter. I have found your ability to turn lemons into lemonade to be very uplifting in your writing, your writing feedback, and in the friendship you offer others. Do you have any secrets for how you are able to see the positive in life so often?
Ciara: Find the funny. Life has more than its fair share of bumps. On the bad days, find a favorite comedian and let the chuckles begin. Find the humor in your current situation and keep moving forward.
Nicole: Excellent advice! Laughter can ease so many aches. Moving on to your debut(!!!!!); what was your favorite part about writing Flamingo Hugs Aren’t For Everyone?
Ciara: Oh! That’s a tough one! Flaminga is near and dear because her character and flaws are a blend of my daughter and me. I guess that means the brainstorming phase where we laughed and giggled.
Nicole: Laughter again, such a theme for you. After the brainstorming, I’m curious about how many drafts of this story you went through.
Ciara: Ummmmmm… A thousand? No, really, I think I have about 14 versions on my hard drive. Even after this story was illustrated, I revised it. I realized I didn’t need several sentences because they were apparent in the illustrations. After I had my test copy, I tried out my book in some of my friends’ classrooms. Even though the kids enjoyed the wordplay and jokes, I realized I lost them in the middle due to much wordiness. So snip, snip, snip.
Nicole: Ah words, the picture book authors biggest love and biggest struggle. Speaking of struggles, what was the hardest part about this book’s journey?
Ciara: I think killing my darlings was the most difficult part of this journey. Flaminga’s story was 1,200 words in the beginning. Now she sits about 700 words.
Nicole: Whoa, excellent editing! Did Flaminga teach you anything along the way?
Ciara: Working with my illustrator, I realized that the pictures of Flaminga were just as important as the words. Alicia’s illustrations brought my clumsy flamingo to life, we worked closely together to make sure the words danced with the illustration as opposed to being two separate parts.
Nicole: That’s wonderful that you were able to work so closely. The pictures and words really do create a gorgeous kind of magic in this story. I know there are so many writers out there hoping to create their own published magic. What advice would you give pre-published picture book writers?
Ciara: Don’t get too attached to any particular manuscript. Write, revise, start something new. Challenge yourself to try different styles, themes, ideas. It will make you a better writer. Besides, you never know which manuscript is going to be the one that lands you an agent or a book deal. But being honest, the manuscript that gets published most likely won’t be the first book you write.
Nicole: It can be a hard pill to swallow but you definitely speak the truth! What’s another important truth you’ve learned about being a human being thus far?
Ciara: EVERYONE is going through SOMETHING. Sprinkle kindness like your decorating doughnuts and be just as sweet!
Nicole: I know for a fact that you live this advice! Writers often want to make an impact beyond the words they leave on the page for their readers. If you could plant one seed in the heart of your readers over the course of your writing journey, what would it be?
Ciara: You are worthy of being loved exactly for who you are right now. Right this minute. Not for who you will be, or who you want to be, but the you in the mirror at this exact moment.
Nicole: Thank you so much, Ciara! And congratulations again!
Isn’t she amazing? Her book makes my household happy and in an effort to sprinkle a little more kindness in the world, I am so excited to be giving away 2 copies of Flamingo Hugs Aren’t For Everyone.
Susanna Leonard Hill has another contest (I seriously don’t know how she does it). The challenge for this contest is to write an original story with kid-appeal, 250 words or less, that focuses on a holiday treat! My brain kept substituting “peppermint mocha latte” every time I read “treat” but maybe that’s just me. You can read more about Susanna’s contest and read the other entries here:
I usually enjoy a bit of wit in my contest stories but I just couldn’t get into the humorous groove this time. My kids are 2 and 4 and I am conscious of trying to shape the traditions and memories upon which they will [hopefully] fondly reflect for years to come. Family is at the center of my heart and mind this humble season.
A TRADITIONAL HOLIDAY TREAT (249 words) By Nicole Loos Miller
Christmas decorations were unpacked, dusted, stacked, and hung.
Emily and Eli felt happiness and heartbreak at the same time.
It was their first Christmas without Grandma.
Mom sang carols from the other room, but they could hear her voice catch and crack.
“Remember Grandma’s gingerbread houses, with the stained glass windows?” whispered Emily.
“And how she’d let us decorate them however we liked?” replied Eli.
“Some of them were so ugly!”
They smiled and their eyes welled up at the same time.
“I wish she were still here,” said Eli.
“If Grandma were here,” said Emily, “she’d remind us that ‘tradition is the best part of the holidays.'”
Their eyes locked. Emily smirked and Eli’s nose wrinkled. Plans were made.
That night, they moved about the kitchen on tiptoes, pulling ingredients out quietly and measuring from memory.
In the morning, their mother found them asleep at the kitchen table; a broken gingerbread house slouched before them. Flour covered the counters and the sink overflowed with dishes.
“We’re sorry, Mom,” said Emily.
“We wanted to surprise you,” added Eli. “But we only made a mess.”
“It reminds me of when Grandma let you decorate your first gingerbread house,” said their mother with a sad laugh. “You were toddlers: so excited and so messy.”
As they cleaned and mixed a new batch of gingerbread dough, they talked about their favorite holiday memories with their grandmother.
Tears and laughter filled the kitchen at the same time as a new tradition was born.
Susanna Leonard Hill, a true kidlit treasure, hosts these amazing holiday contests that challenge writers to think creatively and efficiently. With a limit of 100 words, I wanted to try some free verse this year. But then I wanted to see it rhyme. Rhyming is SO HARD!! I won’t even tell you how many “practice” stanzas I wrote but it was definitely fun.
The Contest: write a 100 word Halloween story appropriate for children (children here defined as 12 and under), using the words potion, cobweb, and trick. Your story can be scary, funny, sweet, or anything in between, poetry or prose, but it will only count for the contest if it includes those 3 words and is 100 words (you can go under, but not over!) Get it? Halloweensie – because it’s not very long and it’s for little people. You can read more about the contest here!
THE ITSY BITSY WITCH By Nicole Loos Miller (93 words)
Bitsy frowned on her web, Eight eyes and a scowl. The bugs flew right by, And her stomach did growl.
“A potion,” she thought “Should do just the trick!” She gathered ingredients, Her cauldron, her stick.
“A special new spell To make escape tricky. My cobweb will glow. It’ll be extra sticky!”
Dawn started to creep As the brew came to a bubble. She hoped it’d be ready And worth all the trouble.
“I did it,” she yelled As the silk threads did twitch. Not hungry, but happy, Was the eight-legged witch.
I have read over 350 picture books so far this year. I think it’s one of the most important exercises I can undertake as a picture book writer for so many reasons but here are a few of my favorite:
I keep track of every book I read which means I have a database – organized by my brain – of over 350 books. If I need a mentor text or comp title for myself or a critique partner, I search through the themes and genres I’ve listed for each book. It means I’ve gotten a feel for what themes and genres different publishers and imprints are interested in. And I have learned that the market seems to have a home for almost every type of book!
Soaking up all the different voices, characters, unique story-telling approaches and perspectives makes me a better writer but also a better human. Plus, I usually read the books with my kids and that makes everything better.
I practice writing pitches for every book I read and this has come in very useful!
I highlight my favorite books and when I’m in a slump, I go back to those books and read them again. And again.
I don’t like all of the books I read WHICH IS REALLY IMPORTANT. Because it doesn’t matter that if I don’t like a book – enough people liked the story that it was published. Which helps me appreciate how subjective this field is. My dislike to a book is not a dislike of the author – it’s not personal. Rejection will always sting but this knowledge helps take some of the deep, personal hurt out of it.
There are so many other reasons that reading what you write can be beneficial. What are your favorite reasons?
Do you know Kaitlyn Sanchez? If you’re in the world of kidlit, she’s a good person to know. She’s passionate, helpful, creative, and extremely hard working. And, lucky for all of us, she and Lydia Lukidis have put on a contest full of amazing prizes! You can check it out for yourself here!
With a photo prompt and a 200 word limit, here is my entry for this year’s contest:
THE AWAKENING by Nicole Loos Miller
Nessa couldn’t sleep.
Grandmother had told her to rest. But how could she sleep on the Eve of her Awakening?
It had to be close to midnight.
She pulled on the simple, black dress that had been worn by her mother and grandmother. She laced up her black, studded ankle boots. Tradition and personality.
Mew? A calico kitten wrapped around her ankle.
“Ready for our big debut, Orion?” asked Nessa, scooping him into her arms.
They crept down the stairs, expertly avoiding each creak.
“There you are.” Her grandmother stood at the bottom of the stairs. “Ready?”
Fireflies lined the worn stone path which wound through the fragrant garden and down to the edge of the stream.
Nessa closed her eyes. Her grandmother and aunt formed a small circle around her, humming deeply. Orion’s purr rose to a roar.
The vibration started at her toes. Like waves lapping up higher and higher until the magic crashed powerfully around her temples. Her eyes burst open and laughter escaped her lips.
Need a reason to throw a dance party? Oh, I see you are already dancing. Good for you. That’s why you write for kids.
Well, if you need ANOTHER reason for a dance party, please turn your attention to the #PBCritiqueFest!!
35 critiques are being given away! THIRTY-FIVE! By authors! Illustrators! Agents! Oh my!
Critiques are crucial to the writing process. I like to think that stories start as raw ingredients. I add some eggs, flour, baking powder. Some vanilla, cinnamon and chocolate. A little more chocolate. Mm, the batter tastes great.
But is it ready to go into the oven?
Enter critique groups and partner to make sure that story rises to the occasion! But even the very best critique partners can get a bit tired after their 8th slice of carrot cake . That’s why it can be so nice to get fresh eyes on your story. Especially PROFESSIONAL FRESH EYES like these!
So enter the fest, cross those fingers, and get dancing.
And if you don’t win, that’s okay! Maybe give the carrot cake a rest and try some cookies or a nice pie for a change. That carrot cake will still be there in a month.
I applied to the #PBChat Mentorship hosted by Justin Colon and my favorite question was about what kind of stories I want to write. For my first blog post, I thought I’d share my answer.
I’d love to write stories that readers want to read over and over again (and that grown ups don’t want to hurl out a window). I want to create stories that resonate with my reader’s heart. I would love to make readers laugh and convey respect about the depth of their emotions at the same time. Even little readers can have deep hearts. Most of all, I want my readers to know they matter and can make a difference – even a tiny difference can be a big deal.