The Power of a Wish

émerveillée devant la vitrine du magasin de jouets

Wishing for a doll …

Christmas, at least for me, brings back memories and feelings like no other season can. Every year, in early December, my mom would get out the decorations – glass ornaments, silver tinsel (re-used year after year), and large multi-colored lights.

My favorite ornaments were two metal birds with clips for feet. And I loved listening to the music (on 33-1/3 rpm records) on our big mahogany Magnavox stereo.

The books we read at Christmas as children can impact us too. For instance, The Story of Holly and Ivy, by Rumer Godden.

“This is a story about wishing. It is also about a doll and a little girl. It begins with the doll. … She was ten inches high and carefully jointed. …”

Holly is a true Christmas doll, with a red dress and shoes, and green socks and petticoat. She’s not the only one wishing, though. Ivy – a 6-year-old orphan who’s being sent to an Infants’ Home for the holidays – wishes too. (You can read more about this book under “Resources.”)

I was about 7 years old when I first read this story, but I still remember the feeling it left me with. The best way I can describe it is warmth, with a little bit of excitement and joy mixed in. And a deep feeling of contentment at the end.

Judging from the number of 5-star reviews of the book on Amazon (73!), I’d say a lot of others have probably felt the same way. (Three of these reviews were posted in the last month. This story never gets old!)

Godden was an extremely prolific writer, not just of children’s books but of books for “grown-ups” too. At least eight of the 40+ books she wrote for adults were made into popular movies, including In This House of Brede and Black Narcissus.

The takeaways for business writers from Godden’s writing are the same for anyone trying to communicate with others through the written word. First, is there a topic YOU are passionate about? If so, how can you turn that topic into something potential READERS and/or CUSTOMERS will care about?

Godden was passionate about many things, some of which found their way into stories. One of her biggest passions was India, where she lived for so long. Her spiritual life was also important to her. (She converted to Catholicism in 1957.) I love this quote of hers:

“To me and my kind, life itself is a story and we have to tell it in stories – that is the way it falls. I have told the truth and nothing but the truth, yet not the whole truth, because that would be impossible.”

* * *

Golden Textured Picture of Taj Mahal Scenery

Taj Mahal reflection

“I always thank God that we did not have sensible parents,” Godden once wrote.

The freedom she and her three sisters experienced while growing up in India – where their father moved the family from England in 1908, to run a steam navigation company – was quite different from the life they would have had back in Europe.

Godden was only 6 months old when her family moved to India, where she lived until the age of 12. Family members called her “Peggy” (her first name was Margaret).

They lived in a “vast mansion, where each room was as big as a ballroom, staffed by many servants.”

Born near the turn of the century (December 10, 1907), Godden spent almost 50 years writing books for children – from 1947 to 1996. The early years of freedom she and her three sisters had in India seems to have fed her imagination so well, she never ran out of new stories to tell.

“Part of the bliss of our childhood,” she claimed, “was that, being most of the year without the normal preoccupations of most girls of our ages, there was all the time in the world to think, avenues of time.”

While rereading some of her books that I’d read as a child, I saw something I hadn’t noticed before … a recurring theme of dolls wishing for things, and how those wishes interact with the children who own them.

Candy FlossImpunity Jane, and Tottie Plantaganet (of The Dolls’ House) are just a few of the “wishing” dolls in these stories. The resilience of these dolls in the face of over-whelming obstacles seems to echo Godden’s own resilience.

She learned how to survive (and thrive) on very little while raising her two oldest girls in India after being abandoned by her first husband. She returned to England after escaping their home in India when she discovered that their temporary cook was poisoning them.

Slowly but surely, Godden’s hard work paid off and her books became noticed. (She remarried in 1949 and lived for many years in Lamb House in Rye, East Sussex, England.)

‘A House with Four Rooms’

“Like everyone else,” wrote Godden near the end of her life, “I am a house with four rooms. … The room of the mind has always been mine. … All of us tend to inhabit one room more than another but I have tried to go most days into them all [physical, mental, emotional, spiritual] – each has its riches.

“My house is, of course, slightly worn now, but I still hope to go on living quietly in all of it, finding treasures, old and new, until the time comes when I shall have, finally, to shut its door.”

Godden spent the last 20 years of her life (she lived to age 90) in the small 10th-century village of Moniaive in southern Scotland, near her oldest daughter, Jane.

KEYS TO SUCCESS:  Hard work; being faithful to share the “gift” of writing with others, through stories; a balanced life; perseverance in the face of challenges and setbacks


The Story of Holly and Ivy (1958)
by Rumer Godden, illustrated by Barbara Cooney

When Ivy discovers there really IS a town called Aylesbury (where she claims she has a grandmother), she gets off the train and begins exploring the town.

Her wish for a grandmother and the doll’s wish to be held by a child combine to create some powerful “magic” that somehow brings the two together on Christmas Day, while guiding Ivy to the home of a woman who’s been wishing for a girl of her own to raise.

Impunity Jane (1954)
by Rumer Godden, illustrated by Adrienne Adams

This book is also about wishing, but in a different way. The story begins with: “Once there was a little doll who belonged in a pocket.”

Jane’s first owner is Effie, but more than 50 years pass before a child really takes notice of Impunity Jane in the dusty dollhouse where she’s been placed. That child is a boy named Gideon. Soon after Jane starts wishing “Rescue me, don’t leave me here,” Gideon sneaks Jane into his pocket, and the adventures begin.

Scheherazade’s Call (Nov. 3, 2014)
by Laraine Herring, Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing, Arizona State University

“Once upon a time is the gate to the entire world,” says Herring in this blog post. Books matter, she says, because even though the world is constantly changing and “leaving behind what no longer fits,” STORIES ALWAYS FIT.

“The reader is the wild card,” she says. “Each reader co-creates their own story, makes it personally relevant, and then engages with the world from that new, changed place.”

Why Creative Writing Belongs in Business Writing (Jan. 15, 2013)
by Erin Feldman, founder of Write Right

Feldman doesn’t believe in separating “professional writing” from “creative writing.” She says that letting your creativity flow into your business writing will greatly improve the chances of your content being read.

She suggests adding a few similes and metaphors to “dry facts,” along with some contrast and rhythm, to turn your content into material that readers will look forward to seeing.



I recently came across two good articles that give excellent reasons for doing each of these things every single day. I guess you could substitute “write” for “blog,” since having a blog DOES help motivate you to develop the habit of writing daily.

Why Walking Helps Us Think” (by Ferris Jabr,, Sept. 3, 2014) is an EXCELLENT article on the values of walking … for our creativity, our health, and just thinking in general. (I’ve been trying to get myself motivated to start walking again on a daily basis, and I think this article is helping!)

What Blogging Every Day Taught Me About Creativity(by David Santistevan) gives five pieces of advice. I especially like the first two: “Don’t Underestimate the Importance of a Morning Routine” and “There’s More Inside of You Than You Think.” (This last one relates to people worrying that they’ll run out of ideas.)

Santistevan says, “The more you write, the more creative you become. As long as you’re writing on something you’re passionate about, you’ll keep taking your writing to a new level the more you do it.”

* * *

Creativity is piercing the mundane to find the marvelous.”   – Bill Moyers

“Creativity can solve almost any problem. The creative act, the defeat of habit by originality, overcomes everything.”   – George Lois


This article originally ran in the December 2014 issue of The Write Stuff.

Posted in Blogs, Creativity, Storytelling, The Write Stuff, Writing | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Deep Stories from a Small Place

How many people know details about their great-great-great-great-great-aunt’s life? And know the details so well that they can write a fascinating story about an event some would say was a miracle?

black bear

Obviously, Natalie Kinsey-Warnock‘s ancestors kept the story alive by passing it down to the next generation through storytelling … a skill that’s taken on a new form in Kinsey-Warnock’s life through her books.

The Bear That Heard Crying is a picture book based on the true story of Kinsey-Warnock’s distant aunt’s experience when, as a 3-year-old, she wandered off into the woods and was lost for four days. When she was found, the family discovered that she had been cared for by a bear!

I chose Kinsey-Warnock as this month’s author because, although hers isn’t a familiar name like Louisa May Alcott (Little Women) or Astrid Lindgren (Pippi Longstocking), she’s been recognized by HarperCollins Publishers as having written “16 distinguished books for children.”

Which means her books do more than just tell stories. They also encourage, inspire, and teach life lessons in subtle ways … and sometimes get recognized as ALA Notable Books.

Besides, her own life is interesting enough to be the subject of a book in itself!

* * *


Natalie Kinsey-Warnock was born Nov. 2, 1956 in a place I had never heard of before: Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom (NEK), a tri-county area.

Her love of history and sports came from her father, who was a baseball and track star before becoming a farmer. Her mother, a former teacher, encouraged her love for words and especially books. “It’s because of her that my brother Leland and I are writers.”

Kinsey-Warnock figured out a way to continue spending time on both of her passions by earning a B.A. in art and athletic training. Since then, she’s led an extremely active life.

Her hobbies include running, cross-country skiing, wind-surfing, roller-blading, kayaking, rock climbing, bird-watching (she considers herself a naturalist), painting, and playing her bagpipe and fiddle. (She’s been a member of the Catamount Pipe Band since 1999.)

She’s also rescued many abused animals – a recent estimate is 21 … two Percheron horses, 11 cats, and eight dogs, which she cares for at her own home.

Each of Kinsey-Warnock’s books has one thing in common: they’re based either on her own life or on true stories passed down through seven generations of her family that have lived in that corner of northern Vermont.


Themes in her books range from nature and wildlife (as in As Long as There Are Mountains and The Wild Horses of Sweetbriar) to “tamer” topics like quilts, maple sugaring, and Christmas (as in When Spring Comes and A Christmas Like Helen’s).

In all of her books, Kinsey-Warnock has created scenes and memories that stick with you long after you’ve read them.

Twenty-five years after starting on her career of writing children’s books, Kinsey-Warnock is as prolific as ever. In a 2012 interview she had with reporter Sally Pollak from the Burlington Free Press, Kinsey-Warnock revealed that she was currently working on 56 books (coincidentally, she had just turned 56 that month). Fifty of those books were based on family stories.

Kinsey-Warnock still lives in northern Vermont, along with her husband, Tom … who, fortunately, shares her love for animals.

‘Lighting a Spark’ in Students

Over the past few years, Kinsey-Warnock has teamed up with several other educators in Glover, Vermont, to create a history curriculum for 4th-graders called Story Keepers.

Story Keepers is based on family stories. Using a variety of tools, students research their own family stories and create a final project that’s centered on those stories. You can see an introduction to the curriculum (posted in 2013) here.

KEYS TO SUCCESS:  Respect for family history, enthusiasm for life, ability to impact lives through stories, generosity with time and expertise


The Canada Geese Quilt (1989)
by Natalie Kinsey-Warnock, illustrated by Leslie W. Bowman

This 51-page chapter book was Kinsey-Warnock’s first book, and has been recognized as an ALA Notable Book.

The story is about a 10-year-old girl whose bond with her aging grandmother includes a mutual love of nature. It does an amazing job of showing how major life changes don’t have to be feared.

The Bear That Heard Crying (1993)

by Natalie Kinsey-Warnock & Helen Kinsey; illustrated
by Ted Rand

Despite the large amount of text on these pages, the story is fascinating. The fact that it really happened makes it even better, I think.

Kinsey-Warnock’s research into journal accounts by those involved with the four-day search for Sarah Whitcher in 1783 revealed details like Sarah thinking the bear she stayed with those four days was actually a big black dog!

A Christmas Like Helen’s (2004)
by Natalie Kinsey-Warnock; illustrated by Mary Azarian

The woodcut illustrations in this picture book, hand-tinted with watercolors – along with the author’s lyrical, simple-yet-powerful words (“… overhead the cold stars will be thick enough to scoop up with a spoon”) – make this the type of book that could easily become a family favorite for generations to come.

Your Company’s History as a Leadership Tool
(Harvard Business Review – 2012)

by John T. Seaman, Jr. & George David Smith

Employees of the British confectioner, Cadbury, weren’t happy when they heard Kraft Foods had plans to acquire their company in 2010. So senior executives at Kraft launched an intranet site called “Coming Together,” where stories about the founders of both companies appeared.

The parallels between the two men included a deep commitment to creating quality products for their customers and valuing their employees. Those stories eventually paved the way to a smooth transition for both companies.

The Winthrop Group is a professional archival services and history consulting firm serving organizations, families, and individuals around the world. They do oral and history video interviews, digital and Web-based histories, and business/institutional histories that companies can use in a variety of marketing materials.



So … you have a nice-looking website. You send out direct mail flyers every two months, informing customers about your latest products. And twice a year, you put on community workshops, educating those who are interested in learning more about your field of expertise.

Ten or 15 years ago, these things might have been enough. But now, you need to add another element to your “marketing mix” – social media. The trick is … where do you start, if you haven’t done so yet? And if you have, how do you keep it going?

In 2010, marketing expert and international speaker Gail Z. Martin published a book called 30 Days to Social Media Success, with the goal of helping small businesses and solo professionals develop strategies to start using several different forms of social media EFFECTIVELY on a regular basis.

The book includes guidelines on repurposing material, creating a social media marketing plan, and finding and telling your real story.

* * *

“If you don’t recount your family history, it will be lost. Honor your own stories and tell them too. The tales may not seem very important, but they are what binds families and makes each of us who we are.”  – Madeleine L’Engle


This article originally ran in the November 2014 issue of The Write Stuff.

Posted in Families, History, Storytelling, The Write Stuff, Writing | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Their Names Were Brat and Birdy

The thatched houses of Gold Hill in Shaftesbury, DorsetWhat kind of person sets out to become a ballerina by reading library books and practicing dance steps in her family’s driveway? Or spends hours studying large medical textbooks, trying to learn about anesthetics … at the age of 12?

Dedicated, maybe? Single-minded? Determined? At the very least, someone who looks at books as her best source of valuable information, even at a very young age.

Born on Oct. 4, 1941, Karen Cushman didn’t start out wanting to be a writer. “For my real job,” she says, “I wanted to be a movie star or a ballet dancer, an archaeologist or a brain surgeon, depending on what book I had just read.”

Since she had never known anyone who wrote for a living, becoming a full-time writer never entered her mind.

Instead, she earned a B.A. in Greek and English from Stanford, and two master’s degrees – one in human behavior and one in museum studies. And for 11 years, she was adjunct professor in the Museum Studies Department at John F. Kennedy University.

It wasn’t until 1996 – the year her second book, The Midwife’s Apprentice – won the prestigious Newbery Medal, that she resigned from her teaching position to devote all of her time to writing.

The things that pushed her toward writing the types of books she did, and the way her life has changed since then, is the focus of this month’s issue.

* * *

After seeing the types of things her own daughter struggled with as a teen, and because of an ongoing fascination with life in the Middle Ages, Cushman became curious as to how a teenage girl might have lived back then. But since she couldn’t find any books on the topic, she decided to write some stories of her own.

Judging from the main character in Cushman’s first novel, teenage girls haven’t changed much in the past 700 years. Catherine – who goes by the nickname of “Birdy” in Catherine, Called Birdy – is a 14-year-old girl living in 13th-century England who uses a wide variety of ploys to get out of marrying the young men her father, a baron, chooses for her.

Most of her tricks work, causing her suitors to change their minds. Except for one wealthy, middle-aged man … whom she REALLY doesn’t want to marry.

The book reads like a diary and is filled with trivial information like which saint is being celebrated on some days, what she had to eat on other days, expressions like “corpus bones,” and home-grown remedies like goose grease to deal with a rash. (“The dogs are following me everywhere,” she writes.) The book follows her life for an entire year: 1290-1291.

The research Cushman did for this first book made the writing of her second book a much easier task. In that book, The Midwife’s Apprentice, a young girl known only by the name of Brat is discovered sleeping on a dung heap. (Later in the book, she’s given the name of Alyce.)

The village midwife takes her on as an apprentice when she sees the girl is not afraid to work. The story follows her transition to a confident young woman whom villagers start seeking out more than her ill-tempered “boss.”

Cushman and her husband, Philip (a professor), now live on a “soft, green island” near Seattle, Washington. “Our daughter, Leah, is a librarian,” she says. “The love of books runs in the family.”

‘Passing It On’

I love it when I read about authors like Cushman who don’t just “rest on their laurels,” but instead find ways to encourage other writers.

She and her husband have partnered with SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) to create a grant for authors over the age of 50 who have not been traditionally published in the field of children’s literature.

“This award was established to encourage and celebrate late-bloomers like me,” says Cushman, who didn’t start to write until she was almost 50. “But then I bloomed, and I’d love to see others do so as well.”

Each year’s winner (entries are accepted March 1-31) receives $500 and free admission to one SCBWI conference anywhere in the world.

Staying Current

Cushman’s blog – What’s New? – makes for some fun reading. One recent post encourages readers to take a look at a book that was published a month ago by a new author, Esther Ehrlich. Amazon calls Nest a “stunning debut novel.”

Just another example of Cushman doing her best to encourage other authors … and not just unpublished ones!

KEYS TO SUCCESS:  Good research skills, being true to your passions, a generous spirit



Catherine, Called Birdy  by Karen Cushman  (1994)

Cushman’s first book was published when she was 53 years old and was named a Newbery Honor book the following year.

Personally, I preferred this book over her second book, which is why I list it here. The diary format is great, and I found all the references to medieval life fascinating. Birdy’s thought processes sound exactly like a modern teenager’s.

Eight Steps of Historical Research”  (National History Day –

These tips are excellent for anyone trying to tackle historical research. One tip – Analyzing and Interpreting Sources and the Topic’s Significance in History – is something I’ve recently learned is very important when checking facts online.




Understanding who you’re trying to reach with online content is a must if you want your marketing to be effective. Darren Rowse and Chris Garrett, authors of ProBlogger, suggest creating “pen portraits” for your audience (“reader group”).

Write down everything you know about your audience, describing them as well as you can “so you can have a fully formed impression” of what they’re like and what will please them. Then brainstorm ideas for content they would LOVE.

* * *

“Time in these villages moved slowly – not in a line from hour to hour, past to future, but … in a circle, marked by the passing of the seasons. … Most people did not know what century it was, much less what year.”  –  Karen Cushman  (“Author’s Note” at the end of Catherine, Called Birdy)


This article originally ran in the October 2014 issue of The Write Stuff.

Posted in Children's Books, History, Storytelling, The Write Stuff, Writing | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Now … the Rest of the Story

der böse wolfReading a book by Jon Scieszka is a little like walking through a house of mirrors at the fair. The story sounds similar to things you’ve read before … yet just a little off. In some spots, you do a double-take and reread the page. (Kind of like sneaking another peek at your image in that wavy mirror.)

Besides growing up in a houseful of boys, Jon had another good training ground for his writing: 10 years of teaching 1st through 8th graders in public school. It was during those years that he realized how smart kids are … and that they were the perfect audience for the strange stories he was always writing!

The first of those “strange stories” – and the one I’m most familiar with – is The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs. The author, A. Wolf, has decided it’s time the public heard HIS side of what happened with those three pigs and their houses.

Published by Viking Books in 1989 (after MANY rejections from publishers who thought the story was just a little too different), the book went on to become a best-seller. Big time, too. Over 3 million copies of the book have now been sold, and it’s been translated into 14 different languages.

Surprised ChildBusiness owners and those who write material other than creative fiction (blogs count too!) can learn a lot from Jon Scieszka.

He obviously had confidence his stories would sell … if they got published. He and illustrator Lane Smith created a product they were proud of. And Jon’s persistence has paid off with successful sales for each of his books.

He recently created a series of curriculum-style books for preschoolers called Trucktown.

* * *

Jon Scieszka was born on Sept. 8, 1954, in Flint, Michigan. He was, in his own words, “the second-oldest, and nicest, of six Scieszka boys – no girls.”

He had a normal childhood and was lucky to have two parents who were involved with their children’s upbringing. (His mother – a registered nurse – once took Jon’s Cub Scout den on a field trip to the prenatal ward. His father was an elementary school principal.)

Jon didn’t start out wanting to teach. He actually thought he’d be a doctor someday. Until he went to college, where he focused on English as well as science. After graduating, he decided to move to Brooklyn and pursue a writing career.

Before hitting the “big time” with his books, Jon spent five years painting apartments in New York City. That’s when he started teaching. But he knew he had a serious chance for literary success when he saw his stories illustrated by Lane, whom he met through his wife, Jeri (a magazine art director). Jeri had seen Lane’s magazine illustrations and thought his style was perfect for Jon’s writing.

The combination of Jon’s and Lane’s quirky humor has resulted in books that have been entertaining millions of young people (and their parents) for 25 years now.

Jon’s second book, The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales, is a spoof on fairy tales and the art of book design.

Math problemsMath Curse tells the story of how one girl figures out a way to break the “math curse.” For example: “Why do 2 apples always have to be added to 5 oranges? Why can’t you just keep 10 cookies without someone taking 3 away? Why?”

Squids Will Be Squids is based – very loosely – on Aesop’s Fables. The premise of the book is that it’s OK to gossip about someone if you change them into an animal when you tell your “story.”

The Time Warp Trio series (which includes over 30 titles) was influenced by Mr. Peabody’s “Wayback Machine” on the old “Rocky and Bullwinkle” show. The Trio series was also turned into a TV series (2005-2006).

Passing It On

Jon loves being interactive – with adults as well as with kids. Browse through the pages of his Guys Read website and you’ll see examples of some of the creative ways he inspires others.

For instance, he’s devoted one web page to TONS of resources for teachers, including lesson plans, and links to books and websites. (Click the “Time Warp Trio site” link.)

Another page shows a world map displaying the locations of all Guys Read chapters (over 160!) – including three in Europe, four in Australia, one in New Zealand, one in South Korea, and one in Bahrain! And a LOT in the United States.

Yet another page is filled with free downloadable resources.

One page, Books for Anyone Who Cares About Guys, is a gold mine of information for those who want to explore the reasons so many boys struggle with reading in today’s world. Included are details about books like:

Boy Writers: Reclaiming Their Voices
by Ralph Fletcher, 2006


 Reading Don’t Fix No Chevys: Literacy in the Lives of Young Men
by Michael W. Smith and Jeffrey Wilhelm, 2002

Reading Tips

Good writers like to read.

Encourage young people to become readers by following these four tips that Jon Scieszka shared in an April 2008 interview with Martha Stewart.

    • Broaden the definition of reading. Don’t overlook nonfiction and humor.
    • Embrace other technologies. Use TV, video games, and the Internet. Suggestion: Have them read a book that was made into a movie, and ask them to evaluate the differences.
    • Be a good role model. Be a reader yourself, and leave reading material laying around. Create a comfortable reading area in your home.
    • Avoid the reading “death spiral.” Don’t let kids start thinking of themselves as non-readers. Let them see that reading can be fun. Books should NOT be associated only with schools and tests.

KEYS TO SUCCESS:  Persistence, humor, going to great lengths to inspire others


Frank Einstein and the Antimatter Motor
by Jon Scieszka; illustrated by Brian Biggs   (2014)

The main character in this latest book of Jon’s is a boy (Frank) who wants to win the local science fair so he can use the money to save his grandfather’s fix-it shop from local developer T. Edison. The result: two “self-aware” robots called Klink and Klank.

The pictures, diagrams, and goofy things like knock-knock jokes help make science more attractive to young people. (According to the illustrator, this book is the first in a series of six.)

Truckery Rhymes
by Jon Scieszka; illustrated by David ShannonLoren LongDavid Gordon   (2009)

Think of Mother Goose combined with trucks, and you pretty much have the idea behind this book. Because Jon does such a great job with the rhymes, 43 out of 45 reviewers on Amazon gave the book 5 stars! One little boy even recites the rhymes while he plays with his monster trucks.

The Power of Humor in Blog Writing
by Carolyn Cohn   (2011)

When was the last time you injected humor into a blog post? Do you remember reading posts written by someone else that made you laugh? Chances are, those are the ones you can’t forget.

“Standing out in the crowd” is one argument for including humor in your blog.



The secret to boosting online authority is not really a secret at all … at least not for those already gaining an audience for products and services on the Internet.

But for those who are new to the Web, here’s the #1 THING to keep in mind, no matter what type of writing you’re doing:

   Know your topic . . . and know it well. (Liking the topic helps, too.)

For more tips, take a look at this article on “5 Ways to Boost Your Online Authority.”

* * *

Common sense and a sense of humor are the same thing, moving at different speeds. A sense of humor is just common sense, dancing.”     – William James


This article originally ran in the September 2014 issue of The Write Stuff.

Posted in Children's Books, Humor, Storytelling, The Write Stuff, Writing | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Simple Stories … or Are They?

Small family houseI don’t remember when I first read The Little House by Virginia Lee Burton, but the idea of a house with feelings didn’t seem that far-fetched to me. Maybe it was my age.

According to Christine Lundberg, a producer and filmmaker who’s been active in cultural arts media for over 20 years, Burton was “one of the most significant and groundbreaking children’s book author/illustrators of the 20th century. Her classic books have never been out of print and are currently embraced by a fourth generation of early readers.”

I chose Burton as this month’s author not only because she was born in the month of August (birth month is one of the criteria for each author I’ve chosen to feature this year), but because I had a personal connection with at least one of her books.

Also because I see her as someone who can inspire any type of writer, especially when it comes to giving her audiences stories they really want.

Whether you write stories for kids or stories for “big people” – through content marketing like blog posts, case studies, or eBooks – knowing how to truly connect with audiences is a talent that can only lead to success.

* * *

Virginia Lee Burton, born on August 30, 1909 in Newton Centre, Massachusetts, was nicknamed “Jinnee” as a child. Her mother was a lyric poet and artist from England, and her father was an engineer. When she was around 8 years old, her family moved to California (first San Diego, then Carmel) for her mother’s health.

Following years of art and dance lessons, Burton landed a state scholarship to the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco. But one year later, in 1928, she moved to Boston, Massachusetts to be near her father and sister.

In the fall of 1930, she enrolled in a Saturday morning drawing class taught by sculptor George Demetrios. Less than six months later, they married and eventually moved to the Folly Cove neighborhood of Gloucester.

After becoming the mother of two boys, Burton decided to try her hand at writing and illustrating a children’s book. However, her first attempt didn’t go so well. When the manuscript (a story about a speck of dust) was rejected by 13 publishers, she finally decided to try it out on her 3½-year-old son. He went to sleep before she could even finish the story.

From then on, she said she always tested her ideas on her children first. “I would tell them the story over and over, watching their reaction and adjusting to their interest or lack of interest. Children are very frank critics.”

A few years later, in 1937, Burton’s second attempt at getting a book published was successful. Choo Choo is the story of a rebellious little engine that wants to show off, runs away and, ultimately, learns an important lesson. Two years later, in 1939, Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel was published. (Burton dedicated the first book to her oldest son and the second to her younger son.)

Two years later, in 1941, Burton came out with a book that she hoped would give her boys an alternative to the comic books they always seemed to be reading. Calico the Wonder Horse or The Saga of Stewy Stinker was written in comic strip format and was filled with adventure.

And one year after being published in 1942, The Little House was awarded the Caldecott Medal. (This book was dedicated to “Dorgie,” the name Burton’s boys gave their dad.)

Universal Themes

Universal themes can be seen in all seven of Burton’s books, although the last three – Katy and the Big SnowMaybelle the Cable Car, and Life Story – were nowhere near as popular as the earlier ones. Teachers and librarians still use Burton’s books to teach history, language skills, problem solving, and even environmental awareness.

Creativity Lives On

Burton’s dedication to enriching her sons’ lives through good literature could be one reason both are now so successful in their professions.

Aristides, the oldest, is a sculptor of both figurative and abstract works, ranging from large commissions to private pieces. Michael, the younger one, was president of Marine World Africa USA for over 20 years and was involved with its relocation to Vallejo, California.

KEYS TO SUCCESS:  Seeing the “big picture,” thinking “outside the box,” a desire to enrich others’ lives

* * *


The Little House  (1942)  by Virginia Lee Burton

The “rosy-pink Little House” that sits on a hill surrounded by apple trees begins to notice, as years go by, the slow encroachment of city lights, big buildings, and horseless carriages.

The sad part, when “her family moves out and she finds herself alone in the middle of the city,” turns to joy when a “woman recognizes her and whisks her back to the country where she belongs.” Burton’s illustrations are great.

Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel  (1939)  by Virginia Lee Burton

This may not have won a Caldecott Medal like The Little House did, but it’s a winner all the same. Mike and his steam shovel, Mary Anne, are in danger of being replaced by modern diesel- and gas-powered equipment. The story’s ending (a good one, by the way) is completely unexpected but very satisfying.

5 Ways to Bond with Your Blog’s Audience”  by Henneke Duistermaat

Just as Burton learned how to connect with her audience (children), there are methods out there to help you connect with your own audience better.

Two ways to help you “engage with readers, make them feel at home, and turn your blog into a nice and warm get-together” are by: using metaphors and creating a common enemy.

11 Ways to Think Outside the Box”  by Dustin Wax

“Thinking outside the box,” says the author, “starts well before we’re ‘boxed in’ ….” Several of these tips are the same as ones I mentioned in my series on creativity four years ago, but some are new: study another industry, turn it upside down, work backwards, take a shower.

(Working backwards from one of my goals is something a business coach is now having me do. It works!)

* * *



“Reek of honest humanity” is what online copywriting expert Nick Usborne says in his book, Net Words (2002). He says you must “put yourself into the copy you write.” In other words, write as though you’re having a one-on-one conversation with someone.

People are very sensitive to tone of voice when they read content on the Web. If they suspect your sincerity in the slightest, or if they think you’re “talking down to them,” you will lose all credibility … and possibly any future chance of connecting with them again.

* * *

It is the essence of genius to make use of the simplest ideas.”     – Charles Péguy


This article originally ran in the August 2014 issue of The Write Stuff.

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He Was a Man of ‘Style’

vintage styleI first became familiar with The Elements of Style in junior college, in an English class.

It was one of the few books I did NOT return to the used book store at the end of the semester.

In fact, I still have that edition.

But it was years before I realized that the person whose name stood out on the front of that book also wrote Charlotte’s Web.

E.B. White may not have been as prolific with writing books as some authors are, but what he did write often turned into classics. That’s not something most authors can say about their writing.

Whether you’re writing a white paper for a new product, a new content page for your website, a letter to the editor, or a children’s book, White has something to teach you.

* * *

His full name was Elwyn Brooks White, but we know him as E.B. White. It wasn’t until college that friends started calling him by the nickname “Andy.” It stuck, and Andy was the name he went by for the rest of his life.

Born on July 11, 1899, in Mt. Vernon, New York, White was the youngest of six children. He graduated from Cornell University in 1921. His love for writing took him into the field of journalism, where he worked as a reporter, copywriter, and feature writer.

His job as a writer for the literary magazine, The New Yorker, lasted 11 years, although he continued writing for them for over five decades.

Between 1925 and 1976, White wrote more than 1,800 pieces for the magazine and established, in the words of editor William Shawn, “a new literary form.” That “form” was the personal essay … “light in style yet often weighty in substance.”

What IS Style Anyway?

“Style” is an elusive quality. Although I’ve been writing and editing professionally for over 30 years now, I still can’t really describe it. I thought White did a pretty good job of describing it, though:

“With some writers, style not only reveals the spirit of the man but reveals his identity, as surely as would his fingerprints.” – E.B. White (from The Elements of Style)

The more you write, the more your personal writing style emerges.

One reviewer on Amazon says she uses E.B. White essays to teach her 9th grade students how to write well. “White is humorous while wise and gentle while cutting. …. The old story is that, if you spend a month reading nothing but E.B. White’s essays, you WILL start writing well.”

I like the way White directed aspiring writers away from focusing too much on the mechanics of their craft:

“Writing is an act of faith, not a trick of grammar.”

‘Write up, not down …’

White’s first children’s book didn’t appear until 20 years after he began writing for The New Yorker.

Stuart Little (about a mouse, born into a human family, that has a series of adventures), was published in 1945.

Seven years later, in 1952, Charlotte’s Web (a moving story about how a pig’s life is saved by a young girl and, later, by a spider) appeared.

In recognition of the quality of those books, White was awarded the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award in 1970. (At the time, the award was given every five years, to authors and illustrators of books published in the United States that have made a substantial and lasting contribution to children’s literature. It’s now awarded every other year.)

That same year was when White’s third children’s book was published: The Trumpet of the Swan. (A mute swan’s father steals a trumpet to help his son, after which the young swan makes his way across the country, earning money to pay for the stolen trumpet, and eventually meets up with his “true love” once again.)

Because White was often asked by children if these stories were true, he eventually wrote, “No, they are imaginary tales. … But real life is only one kind of life – there is also the life of the imagination.”

Commenting on writing for children, White once said, “Anyone who writes down to children is simply wasting his time. You have to write up, not down.”

It’s no wonder his books have become classics.

KEYS TO SUCCESS:  Imagination, a sense of wonder, “keeping it simple”

* * *


The Elements of Style (4th Edition)  (1999)  by William Strunk, Jr., and E.B. White

This 105-page book, first published in 1959, contains many pearls of writing wisdom, including:

“Omit needless words. Vigorous writing is concise.”

“Avoid fancy words. Avoid the elaborate, the pretentious, the coy, and the cute.”

“Be obscure clearly! Be wild of tongue in a way we can understand.”

It covers basic rules of usage and composition principles, “matters of form,” and a list of words and expressions that are commonly misused. An illustrated edition was published in 2005.

Charlotte’s Web  (1952)  by E.B. White

Wilbur, Charlotte, Fern, Templeton, and Homer Zuckerman are names familiar to anyone who’s read this children’s classic.

The star of the story is Charlotte, a wise spider who also happens to be very literate. Through the mysterious messages she weaves in webs strung across the barn, Charlotte ends up rescuing Wilbur from being slaughtered.

In the year 2000, Publishers Weekly listed the book as the best-selling children’s paperback of all time.

One Man’s Meat  (1942)  by E.B. White

The upbeat essays compiled here first appeared in book form in 1942 and focus on White’s life on a small saltwater farm in Maine, where he retired with his family in 1938.

Most of the essays were printed monthly in Harper’s Magazine, from July 1938 to January 1942. They include a complaint about the effects of automobiles on community life and a reflection on the youth of soldiers.

The Simple Living Guide: A Sourcebook for Less Stressful, More Joyful Living  (1997)  by Janet Luhrs

Janet Luhrs gave up a law career to simplify her life, and fell so much in love with simplicity that in 1992, she started a newsletter on the subject, called Simple Living.

In the book, Luhrs demonstrates through many real-life examples how you can redesign your life and learn to savor every moment.

Here are two items on her list of “28 Secrets to Happiness”:Be kind to kind people. and Be even kinder to unkind people. She coaches too. Her motto: “Guiding you from chaos to simplicity.”

* * *



Especially with headlines. Brian Clark of Copyblogger wrote a post titled “How to Get 53% More Readers for Every Blog Post You Write,” in which he explains why being specific is so important in writing.

“While certainly not the only method for writing good blog post titles, just about any headline can be made better by being as specific as you possibly can,” he says.

* * *

“You do not create a style. You work, and develop yourself; your style is an emanation from your own being.”      – Katherine Anne Porter


This article originally ran in the July 2014 issue of The Write Stuff.


Posted in E.B. White, Marketing, The Write Stuff, Writing | Tagged | Leave a comment

Can You Hear the Story?

appalachian mountains

The places we live and the things we experience as youngsters stay with us forever.

For Cynthia Rylant, who grew up in the heart of Appalachia in the 1960s, that meant getting close to nature in a much deeper way than most of us do.

Jumping into muddy swimming holes (and ignoring the snakes) … pumping water from a well at the bottom of a hill … waking to cowbells outside her window … watching her grandfather sharpen her pencils with his pocketknife while she listened to a bobwhite whistling in the forest … seeing her grandmother use a hoe to kill a large snake that had entered their yard. These are some of the memories she shares in When I Was Young in the Mountains.

Born on June 6, 1954, in Hopewell, West Virginia, Rylant was only 4 when her parents separated. For the next four years, while her mother went to nursing school, Rylant lived with her grandparents in the small town of Coalridge, West Virginia.

Although she resumed living with her mother four years later, she never saw her father again. He died when she was 13.

During her 35-year career as a writer of children’s books, Cynthia Rylant has proven herself to be both prolific and eloquent. Her passion and laser-sharp focus on her goals have paid off big-time! Since she first started writing at age 23, over 100 of her books have been published.

Of course, in the process of writing all those books, Rylant became a master storyteller. That skill is something I see more and more business owners becoming interested in these days, too.

(If you need inspiration on how to get started writing your own story, check out “Enjoy the Process” on my blog, reprinted from an article that originally ran in the December 2012 issue of this newsletter. The last two items under “Resources” below should help, too. One of these was mentioned in the December 2012 article.)

* * *

When Cynthia Rylant was young, she had no idea she would someday be writing stories. Her favorite reading material as a youngster was light reading … Archie comic books! “I loved school, my bike, and twirling a baton.”

 After receiving a master’s degree in English, she took a job as librarian at a city library in Ohio. Rylant says she “fell madly in love” when she was moved to the children’s department of the library, where she worked in her early 20’s.

“I had never been in the children’s department of a library – I grew up isolated in the country…. Something deep in me lit up, and I knew my calling….”

Soon after that, armed with a typewriter and a recent copy of Writer’s Market, she began to write.

She wrote her first book in its entirety in one night: When I Was Young in the Mountains (1983 Caldecott Honor winner). This book paints a picture of her years as a youngster in Coalridge. Although she hadn’t yet started using verse in her writing, the words are lyrical. The last page reads:

When I was young in the mountains,
I never wanted to go to the ocean, and I never
wanted to go to the desert. I never wanted
to go anywhere else in the world, for I was
in the mountains. And that was always enough.

Rylant says she’s now writing poetry because it “seems the way I can say things that have meaning that is almost beyond language. Poetry is a hint, I guess … a whiff … of the depths of the heart.”

Rylant has never let herself get stuck in a rut, which is no doubt why her writing remains fresh. Her works include both fiction and nonfiction, including biographies of three authors (compiled into one book), an essay on Appalachian life, and eight(!) different children’s book series, including The High Rise Private Eyes mysteries and 28 Henry and Mudge books.

When asked by Harcourt Trade Publishers which book she would suggest to someone who had never read any of her work, she replied: “Maybe The Van Gogh Cafe. It’s not too many pages, and there’s hope in it.”

Hope … and animals … seem to be recurring themes in her books. Former pets have become characters in several of her books. For example, Martha Jane in The Bookshop Dog, and Edward Velvetpaws and Tomato in Cat Heaven.

Other books focusing on animals include The Great Gracie ChaseThe Cookie-Store CatThe Eagle, and a mystery series featuring titles like Troublesome Turtle, Sleepy Sloth, and Missing Monkey. The Journey: Stories of Migration andAppalachia: The Voices of Sleeping Birds are two pieces of nonfiction that she’s written.

On deciding which age group to write for, Rylant admits: “I don’t decide, usually. I just hear the story in my head. Words come out, fill up the pages, and there it is: poetry.”

“I get a lot of personal gratification,” says Rylant, “thinking of those people who don’t get any attention in the world and making them really valuable in my fiction, making them absolutely shine with their beauty.”

On her website’s “About” page, you’ll get an even better glimpse into her life philosophy:

We go through many changes in our lives, and some of them are hard. But the sky still has stars at night, the moon still shines. The world does not leave us empty-handed.

KEYS TO SUCCESS:  Passion, clear-minded focus on goals, being able to “hear the story in your head.”

* * *


Appalachia: The Voices of Sleeping Birds  (1991) by Cynthia Rylant

“In a certain part of the country called Appalachia you will find dogs named Prince or King living in little towns with names like Coal City and Sally’s Backbone…. The owners of these dogs grew up more used to trees than sky and inside them had this feeling of mystery about the rest of the world they couldn’t see because mountains came up so close to them and blocked their view like a person standing in a doorway.” The illustrations are watercolors based on photos.

The Old Woman Who Named Things  (1996) by Cynthia Rylant

The main character in this story is an old woman who’s outlived all her friends. Because she had no one she could call by name any more, she began naming the things in her life that she was pretty sure she couldn’t possibly outlive. Like her house, her car, and her chair. Then one day, a puppy shows up … something she’s afraid to name.

The Fortune Cookie Principle  (2013) by Bernadette Jiwa

Sometimes referred to as a female version of Seth Godin, Jiwa firmly believes the secret to a business’s success lies in creating a good story. “Real marketing is built into what you do and why you do it. It’s part of your story, something that you do organically …. [it] creates a deeper impact, leaves a lasting impression, and is as powerful as a smile.”

Business Storytelling”  by Mind Tools

A business story can’t be great unless it’s authentic. Stories tell others (employees, customers, partners, and so on) more about who you are and why you’re here. Good storytellers are also good listeners to others when they’re telling THEIR stories.



Infographic of the brain


Infographics (information graphics) are visual representations of data that help readers quickly grasp complex pieces of information, which comes in handy if you’re trying to explain technical or abstract information! Street signs and icons in reference books, for example.

David Macaulay’s The New Way Things Work book (written for 12-year-olds and up) – a fun “guide to the workings of machines” – is filled with them.

The fact that Pinterest, Instagram, and online videos have become so popular should be enough to convince anyone how visual forms of communication are becoming more important … and expected … these days.

The tricky part is creating them. is one source that can help.

In July 2013, Content Marketing Institute published an article by Brian Dean: “5 Steps to Create Compelling Content Through Infographics.”

The first step advises people to “Find an in-demand topic,” not a “hot topic.” It needs to be a topic YOUR target audience or industry is searching for. (Google Trends is one tool that can help you figure this out.)

* * *

“Memory is a way of holding onto the things you love, the things you are, the things you never want to lose.”  – Kevin Arnold (from the TV show, The Wonder Years)


 This article originally ran in the June 2014 issue of The Write Stuff.

Posted in Memories, Storytelling, The Write Stuff | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Along for the Ride?

road in mountains“It’s funny how ideas are; in a lot of ways they’re just like seeds. Both of them start real, real small and then … woop, zoop, sloop … before you can say Jack Robinson, they’ve gone and grown a lot bigger than you ever thought they could.”
– Bud Caldwell (from the book Bud, Not Buddy, by Christopher Paul Curtis)

Bud is a figment of Christopher Paul Curtis‘s imagination, but because of Curtis’s masterful storytelling skills, those who read this Newbery Medal-winning book often end up caring a lot about Bud.

Published in 1999, Bud, Not Buddy is about a 10-year-old orphan who runs away from an abusive foster home in 1936 and heads west with a friend. His goal is to find the man he believes is his father – Herman Calloway, a famous jazz musician.

Curtis puts a lot of elements from his own life into his books. For instance, Herman Calloway’s character is partially based on Curtis’s own grandfather, Herman E. Curtis, Sr. – a professional jazz musician. And the setting for many of his books is in the “Rust Belt” of Michigan, where he grew up.

Before throwing himself into writing full-time, though, Curtis spent 13 years working on an assembly line for an automobile manufacturer in Flint, Michigan (a typical career path for many who lived in that town).

Fresh out of high school, Curtis was thrilled with his new life. But boredom soon set in, which is when he started writing.

* * *

Christopher Paul Curtis was born in Flint, Michigan on May 10, 1953. His father was a chiropodist and a factory worker/ supervisor; his mother was an educator.

Immediately after graduating from high school, Curtis informed his parents that he was done with school and wanted to work. He wanted to buy a car. But, as Curtis said in a 2011 interview with Reading Rockets, “I really hated working in the factory. The thrill of being there and getting that big, fat check wore off very quickly.”

Writing stories during lunch and on his breaks throughout the day made the time go by faster. In order to give himself more time to write each day, he and a co-worker worked out a deal that allowed each of them to get 30-minute breaks (longer than the norm) between working on cars.

‘Along for the Ride’ with Stories

Curtis says that one of his greatest joys in writing is “not knowing where the story is going to go, or even having a concept of where it’s going to go and being told halfway through, ‘That’s not what happened. This is what happened.’ ”

Bud, Not Buddy was supposed to be about Curtis’ grandfather as a 10-year-old boy. “Back during the 1930s,” Curtis says, “he actually had a band called Herman Curtis and the Dusky Devastators of the Depression. I thought it was the coolest name in the world and wanted to write something about it.”

Well, when Curtis started to write, turns out the 10-year-old orphan was a different person – Bud. His grandfather came into the story as a crusty, old musician.

“You never know [how the story will go],” Curtis admits, “and that’s one of the real delights of telling a story. … it’s great entertainment. When I’m writing, I have a lot of fun. I’m laughing. Some of the time, I’m crying. I’m a real sight to watch when I’m writing.”

Rules for Aspiring Writers

Despite his passion for writing, Curtis knows the writing life is often challenging, especially when you’re getting started. So he’s come up with four rules for young people who want to write:

1.  Write every day.  The more you write, the better you’ll get.

2.  Have fun with your writing.  REMEMBER: You’re in control of everything that happens in your story!

3.  Be patient.  The older you get … and the more experiences you have … the easier it will become to express yourself.

4.  Ignore all rules.  Once you learn the proper way to construct a story and learn how to write, develop your own style. Do things a little differently … that’s what makes a story interesting.

These “rules” apply to ANYONE who wants to write … even if it’s just to create some fresh content for their company’s website or content marketing.

The Rewards

“To me,” says Curtis, “the highest accolade comes when a young reader tells me, ‘I really liked your book.’ The young seem to be able to say ‘really’ with a clarity, a faith, and an honesty that we as adults have long forgotten. That is why I write.”

Parents praise Curtis’s books too. William Wyatt of Cape Coral, Florida says:

“My son absolutely devoured this book [Bud, Not Buddy]. He talked about it all the way to the end. As a parent, I want more of these books.”

And here’s an excerpt from an 8th grade teacher’s comments about Elijah of Buxton:

“… None of my students had read the book and we were all on the edge of our seats together. This book has great voice and I especially enjoyed the dialect. My students and I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I would highly recommend it to students to read, parents to read to their kids, and teachers to read to their students! I cannot say enough good things about this book.”

 KEYS TO SUCCESS:  Willingness to “go with the flow” in your writing, patience, and developing your own style.
* * *


The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963  (1996) by Christopher Paul Curtis

A family decides to visit a relative in Birmingham, Alabama, the summer of 1963 – the same month of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing.

My son and I read this book together while he was in 6th grade. Has great characterization and taught me some things I didn’t know about that historical event.

Bud, Not Buddy  (1999) by Christopher Paul Curtis

After being bullied by older kids in an orphanage, followed by abuse in a series of foster homes, 10-year-old Bud decides to head west to Grand Rapids, where he hopes to find the man he believes to be his father.

Bud’s sense of humor and positive attitude make this book a lot less “heavy” than the topic makes it sound.

Elijah of Buxton  (2007) by Christopher Paul Curtis

Elijah is an 11-year-old living in Buxton, Ontario, Canada, in a settlement of runaway slaves near the American border. He’s the first child in town to be born free, but risks his freedom by venturing south to recover money stolen from his friend.

Part of Curtis’s research for the book was done by interviewing some of the 200 descendants of the original settlers who still live in North Buxton (a terminus of the Underground Railroad).

A Writer’s Book of Days  (1999, 2010) by Judy Reeves

A lot of our “hang-ups” with writing involve not knowing where to start. And that’s true whether it’s a story, an article for publication, or a company project. Writing prompts can help.

This book is filled with suggestions, tips, and tricks to help you find ways to start writing more easily. I like the list on page 65: “The Effects of Writing Practice.” Perks include seeing your writing improve, gaining more confidence, and having notebooks filled with material you can later draw from for new projects.

Another section suggests writing by hand, at least when you’re trying to get your first thoughts down on paper. Your mind has time to focus on ideas much better than it does when you’re typing on a computer.

* * *



One way to better promote your own business is by directing those who visit your website to other pages on your site.

If you have one or two pages on your website that you want to make absolutely sure people see, create links to those pages. Links that are “natural” work best … that is, relevant text that has been hyperlinked to connect to the desired pages.

When Google sees more traffic flowing to those pages, it sees those pages as being more important. And THAT results in your entire website getting a boost in its search engine ranking.

* * *

“Stories are important … they can be more important than anything. If they carry the truth.” – Patrick Ness

“Stories are the creative conversion of life itself into a more powerful, clearer, more meaningful experience. They are the currency of human contact.” – Robert McKee


This article originally ran in the May 2014 issue of The Write Stuff.

Posted in Storytelling, The Write Stuff, Writing | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Let Those Ideas ‘Sneak In’


“Travel is the best way of getting new ideas.”  – Graeme Base

Graeme Base is what you might call a “Renaissance man.” His dream as a boy was to be an artist or a musician. He became both. But along the way, he also became a writer … of picture books.

“Writing came later when I figured out that if I wrote the stories myself, I could draw what I wanted instead of what someone else wanted,” says Base.

Writing wasn’t something Base struggled with, though, despite the fact that he was more attracted to visual arts and music. “I always enjoyed English and writing at school,” he says. “I was interested in things like grammar and spelling.

“The most important thing in doing work you are happy with is understanding that your first draft is NEVER the final draft,” emphasizes Base. “You can always improve on the work by careful editing, [but] you must be prepared to put in the hard work to create a good result.”

“I was born at a very early age in [Yorkshire] England,” Base writes in his website bio. “That was way back in 1958 [April 6], but since 1966 I’ve lived in Melbourne, Australia. I really like it here.”

Base may have lived in one place all these years, but his life has been anything but boring! His creativity, curiosity, and ingenuity show up in every book he’s written … and he’s done a wide variety of them.

I decided to focus this issue on Base because, while he’s primarily an illustrator, he’s also a master storyteller … something every communicator (business or otherwise) should aspire to if they want to reach a wider audience with their products and services. And to make others really CARE about what they have to offer.

* * *

As Base says in the quote above, most of his ideas have come while traveling. You can see evidence of his fascination with other cultures in several of his books.

Each page in the The Water Hole, for example, has small images in the background of well-known landmarks from different countries. Like the Taj Mahal, behind the “two tigers lapping at the water hole.”

Embedded within the illustrations throughout The Eleventh Hour: A Curious Mystery are portions of buildings Base saw during his travels in Africa, Asia, and Europe – Roman cathedrals, Scottish palaces, Indian stone carvings and more.

But Base’s books are also famous for the puzzles he creates. Messages are hidden on each page of The Eleventh Hour, in the form of Egyptian hieroglyphics, anagrams, and even Morse code. (Kids of ALL ages enjoy this book, including adults!)

The inspiration for Base’s book, The Sign of the Seahorse, came from his first experience with scuba diving in Martinique. Other times, Base has gotten ideas merely from being away from his “normal” life.

“My mind wanders in a receptive way, and that’s when new ideas sneak in,” he confesses.

Stories in Other Genres

Base’s books have expanded into other media too. His best-selling book, Animalia (a very “alliterative” alphabet book published in 1993), became a television series in 2007.

An orchestral version of The Sign of the Seahorse(which he wrote) was performed by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra in 2001.

The Worst Band in the Universe was accompanied by a CD containing music Base had recorded. He also wrote stage adaptations for My Grandma Lived in Gooligulchand Jungle Drums.

“A book is like a lake – you can paddle about, stop, go back a bit, plumb the depths, admire the scenery, take as long as you want,” says Base. “TV is a river – and a fast-flowing one at that – miss something and it’s gone. There’s no going back. So what works in a book doesn’t necessarily work in a TV series. This is why Animalia, the TV series, is so different from Animalia, the book.”

He even has a couple of apps now: Animalia (iPad, iPhone, and iPod Touch) and The Waterhole (iPad only).

For over 40 years, Base has been steadily adding to a “box of ideas” for his artwork … which means he was a teenager when he got started!

When asked which book is his favorite, Base says, “The next one – because I always hope and believe the next one will be better than the last. That’s why I keep doing them!”

KEYS TO SUCCESS:  Passion, perspiration (working hard to turn dreams into reality), persistence, and provenance (also known as luck). Try to be in the right place at the right time!

 * * *


The Water Hole (2001) by Graeme Base. This counting book does more than just teach numbers. The cut-out view of the water hole shrinks with each page, until it finally disappears altogether. The desperation of the animals when the water is gone turns into a very happy surprise at the end of the book.

The Eleventh Hour: A Curious Mystery (1993) by Graeme Base. Horace the Elephant wants to celebrate his 11th birthday in style, so he invites all of his friends to a huge party. But when the clock strikes the Eleventh Hour, just before the birthday banquet, a mystery is revealed.

Readers get to help solve the mystery, but are encouraged not to peek at the answers to the clues … hidden inside a sealed envelope at the back of the book.

Do Your Habits Hurt Your Creativity? I wrote this article for the October 2010 issue of this newsletter, as part of a series on creativity. Two of the five “creativity” habits I listed sound a lot like Graeme Base’s suggestions:

BE PERSISTENT – Keep moving toward the end results you see in your mind.

ESCAPE – Change your surroundings, and you’ll often change your thoughts.

Thinkpak: A Brainstorming Card Deck. This package of 56 cards – a creative-thinking tool created by Michael Michalko (author of Thinkertoys: A Handbook of Business Creativity and provider of a multitude of “creativity resources“) – will help you not only come up with new ideas more easily, but also evaluate them.

A 61-page booklet is included with the deck, which includes examples of how others have used Thinkpak.

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Brian Clark, founder of Copyblogger and host of New Rainmaker (a weekly broadcast showing businesses how to attract and engage audiences online), says inserting subheads (mini-headlines) into your online content “sells” a reader on continuing to read.

He advises writers to think of subheads as “sub-benefits” that spell out the benefits of each point they’re trying to make. They help create momentum and keep the reader’s interest strong.

Try mapping out subheads ahead of time by creating a list, with each subhead highlighting a new benefit.

* * *

“My ideas usually come not at my desk writing but in the midst of living.”  – Anaïs Nin


This article originally ran in the April 2014 issue of The Write Stuff.

Posted in Creativity, Storytelling, The Write Stuff, Writing | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Pay Attention with Your Heart

Girl comforting her crying friend on the couch at home in living room

“Writing is seeing. It is paying attention.” – Kate DiCamillo

Seeing people whom others often overlook – such as stray dogs, strange musicians, and lonely children – is something Kate DiCamillo does well. But in the beginning, she didn’t realize just how important that was.

DiCamillo’s first assignment for a creative writing class in college was a 500-word essay. Her topic was a tambourine-playing woman outside of a grocery store who sang about the “smug old moon” and asked for spare change.

“What I discovered,” says DiCamillo, “is that each time you look at the world and the people in it closely, imaginatively, the effort changes you. What stories are hiding behind the faces of the people who you walk past every day? What love? What hopes? What despair?”

Her first novel, Because of Winn-Dixie, was written during her first winter in Minnesota, where she still lives. It was the coldest winter Minnesota had seen in years. And being a “transplant” from Florida, life was tough that year.

“Also, it was the first time in my life that I had been without a dog,” she adds. “I was living in an apartment where no dogs were allowed, but there weren’t any rules about imaginary dogs. So I made a dog up, the best dog I could think of: a smelly, friendly, big old mutt.”

Finding ways to get around a problem, like Kate DiCamillo did during her first bone-chilling winter in Minnesota, is a skill that helps us survive. So is listening … being fully alert.

* * *

Kate DiCamillo was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on March 25, 1964. Five years later, for the sake of Kate’s health (she had chronic pneumonia), her mother moved her and her older brother to Florida.

Being a gifted listener – able to put the stories she hears and sees into words – is one reason DiCamillo has been elevated from relative obscurity to a position only three other authors have previously achieved: National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, a position that lasts two years. The announcement came in January of this year.

The position of National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature was created to raise national awareness of the importance of young people’s literature as it relates to lifelong literacy, education and the development and betterment of the lives of young people.

Alarmed at the rapidly fading interest in reading among children these days, especially when faced with competition from video games and other electronic media, the Library of Congress created the position of National Ambassador to stir up interest in literature once again.

For the next two years, through 2015, DiCamillo will make appearances throughout the country to promote reading.

(DiCamillo’s new position gives her the perfect opportunity to impact an even larger audience of youngsters for the sake of the written word and story. After all, these young people are the writers … and business leaders and strategic thinkers … of tomorrow.)

Reaching All Ages Through Story

Very telling about the importance DiCamillo places on what children think, is the way she got the idea for her Newbery Award-winning story: The Tale of Despereaux (published in 2003).

A friend’s son had asked her to write about an unlikely hero with “exceptionally large ears.” The subtitle of the book is: Being the Story of a Mouse, a Princess, Some Soup, and a Spool of Thread. It was one of my son’s favorite books.

Every single one of DiCamillo’s books has a quality that sets it apart from other books. Something a little out of the ordinary.

My personal favorite is The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane (2006) – a story of a china rabbit (Edward) that’s dearly loved by his owner, yet somehow manages to get lost at sea, left at the bottom of the ocean, rescued by a fisherman, then passed along from owner to owner until, one day, MANY years later, he’s purchased from a toy store as a gift for the daughter of the very same child (now grown) who first owned Edward.

Almost 500 reviewers on Amazon gave the book a 5-star rating, so I guess I’m not the only one who liked it!

Magical is the best way to describe DiCamillo’s writing. And inspirational.

Wanting to expand her reach to a younger audience, DiCamillo came out a few years ago with early reader chapter books about a “fun, rambunctious” pig – Mercy Watson. Mercy Watson: The Adventures of a Porcine Wonder (2011), is aimed toward children 5-8 years old. Her latest, Flora & Ulysses (winner of the 2014 Newbery Medal), was written with “tweens” in mind. She doesn’t want to leave anyone out.

DiCamillo has this to say about stories: “When we read together, we connect. Together, we see the world. Together, we see one another.”

Her passion for storytelling keeps her busy writing, regardless of how busy her new duties as ambassador keep her. Five days a week, without fail, she writes two pages a day.

“We get our ideas from listening and looking and eavesdropping and imagining. Stories are everywhere. All you have to do is pay attention.”   – Kate DiCamillo

KEYS TO SUCCESS: Listening, seeing, imagining. Paying close attention.

* * *


Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo.

India Opal is only 10 when she moves to Florida with her dad. Soon afterward, she rescues a mutt from going to the pound after he wreaks havoc in a grocery store.

Opal learns a lot of things from the locals in this town, including a librarian who introduces Opal to Littmus Lozenges. The flavor of the candy is unusual (root beer mixed with strawberry), but so is its secret ingredient: sorrow. The candy reminds people that even though life sometimes deals people a bit of sadness, there is always much to appreciate.

Active Listening: Hear What People Are Actually Saying by MindTools.

This article on MindTools’ website explains why listening well is so important. Avoiding conflict and being able to negotiate more easily are two of those reasons. “If you’re finding it particularly difficult to concentrate on what someone is saying, try repeating their words mentally as they say them. This will reinforce their message and help you stay focused.”

Five Games That Develop Listening Skills by Laurie Block Spigel.

Spigel homeschooled her two sons in New York City, both of whom have gone on to become successful in their chosen careers.

“Sometimes we work so hard to tune out the noise that we stop listening entirely,” says Spigel. “Or we are just listening at the surface, for the most superficial meanings of words.”

Her five “children-tested” games are:  How Many Sounds Can You Hear? … Isolating a Background Sound … Saying Sounds in a Circle … Identify Sounds and Make Up Sound Words … Mirror Speech.

* * *



Content made up of non-fancy words tucked into simple sentences is READABLE content. Microsoft Word has a tool that helps you determine how easy your content is to read.

The higher your content scores on the Flesch Reading Ease test, the easier it is to understand the information. (The range to aim for, according to Microsoft, is between 60 and 70.)

The Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level is based on U.S. school grades. A score of 7.0 means that a 7th grader could comprehend the document. (To find the tool, click the Microsoft Office button, click Proofing, then select Check grammar with spelling. Under “When correcting grammar in Word,” select Show readability statistics checkbox. The level should be between 7.0 and 8.0.).

* * *

“… listening is a magnetic and strange thing, a creative force…. When we are listened to, it creates us, makes us unfold and expand. Ideas actually begin to grow within us and come to life.”      – Brenda Ueland, The Art of Listening


This article originally ran in the March 2014 issue of The Write Stuff.

Posted in Awareness, The Write Stuff, Writing | Tagged , | Leave a comment