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A year ago last autumn in Chicago during the Architecture Biennial, one exhibit captured my imagination. Situated in the middle of a large room were several dozen waist-high stands, each holding small everyday objects, such as fake flowers, egg crate foam, or a crumpled mini plastic water bottle.
What made the objects startling, though, was that the artist/architect had included tiny plastic people on or by each group of objects. Those plastic people changed the objects from everyday to fantastic—no longer just things you’d find in a junk drawer, they were now a whole new landscape for those little people. I had a moment of vertigo. I was looking at something small, a pile of Pringles, but to the plastic people, the Pringles were hills. And if the Pringles were hills, what did that make me?
At this point you’re probably thinking, “Did I click on the right blog? Isn’t this supposed to be about WRITING?” But writing is the first thing that came to mind when I saw the exhibit, particularly writing for children, because the everyday can become fantastic if you just change your perspective. We do it all the time as writers of kids’ books. We imagine ourselves as we were when we were three or seven or ten. We remember what it felt like to be younger, smaller, under our parents’ control.
But as writers, we’re not limited to imagining ourselves as children. We can imagine ourselves as anything at all. A monkey. A vampire. A purple two-headed dragon. A little plastic person in a field of giant fake flowers. We can picture ourselves on the outside looking in . . . or on the inside longing to get out.
Perspective has been on my mind a lot lately. This year, I had two books come out that look at perspective differently. The first, LADY LIBERTY’S HOLIDAY, features a larger-than-life main character, the Statue of Liberty, and views America through her eyes. To her, Niagara Falls isn’t just a gorgeous waterfall—it’s the perfect spot to shower. And the Golden Gate Bridge? A great place to nap. The only thing that makes her feel small is the Grand Canyon.
MARTA! BIG AND SMALL, on the other hand, takes on the idea of how perspective differs depending on what something is compared to. So compared to an elephant, Marta is small. Compared to a bug, she is big. (Or “grande”—it’s a bilingual book.) It’s the whole idea of me, the Pringles, and the tiny plastic people. We are all big, and we are all small. Everything is relative.
And this is where the inspiration comes from. If you’re looking for a new idea, change your perspective. What would it be like if you were the size of a mouse? What would you eat . . . or wear . . . or play with? What if you were as big as a Brachiosaurus?
Look around. A pile of Pringles can be a hillside. A handful of twigs can be a forest. A piece of egg crate foam on its side can be a modern housing development. Lie on the floor. Crawl on your knees. Climb a ladder and see what it’s like to be eight feet tall. Take an elevator to the top of a tall building and look down. Then look up. Who sees the world that way? There’s your character. What challenges would they face? There’s your plot.
In one of the explanations of the exhibit, the artist/architect wrote “Anything stacked is architecture.” He found inspiration for his craft in the everyday, just as I found inspiration in his exhibit. Who knows where your next idea might come from? Like architecture, inspiration is everywhere!
For more on the exhibit, Sou Fujimoto’s “Architecture Is Everywhere,” click on this link.
Jen Arena writes, edits, and finds for inspiration in the world around her for everything from easy-to-reads to picture books to early chapter books. Her recent titles include BESOS FOR BABY (Little Brown), LADY LIBERTY’S HOLIDAY (Knopf), and MARTA! BIG AND SMALLl (Roaring Brook), which the Huffington Post named in its Best Picture Books of 2016 as an Honorable Mention in the category of—you guessed it—“Best on Perspective.” Her next picture book SLEEP TIGHT, SNOW WHITE will be published in 2017 by Knopf. Visit her on twitter at @hallojen or at her website: jenarenabooks.com.
In honor of the very first Storystorm, Jen is giving away a thirty-minute brainstorming session/Q&A/editorial consult phone call. She has twenty years of experience as an editor with Putnam, Golden Books, and Random House and has been writing for kids just as long. Ask away!
Leave ONE COMMENT below to enter. You are eligible to win if you are a registered Storystorm participant and you have commented once on this blog post. Prizes will be given away at the conclusion of the event.
When I was an editor at Golden Books, I was lucky enough to work with many wonderful authors, but one who stood out for his good humor, his generosity, and his absolute joy in writing for kids was George Stanley. Around Golden, we had a nickname for him—Captain Hook, because, more than any other author we’d worked with, George had a knack for coming up with books with hooks, books that kids really and truly wanted to read based on the idea alone.
The first book I edited of George’s was Ghost Horse. It had a horse . . . who was a ghost! What’s cooler than that? The second book was Snake Camp, about a snake-phobic kid who accidentally gets sent to a camp for snake lovers. Both were brilliant, attention-grabbing ideas that kids were sure to like. (And they did!)
My boss and I began to joke that George had a sure-fire way of coming up with great ideas—a George Stanley Idea Generator. Back then, we pictured a hat, full of slips of paper, each printed with an idea that kids loved to read about. He’d pull out two pieces of paper, and no matter how crazy, mash those ideas together in one book.
By that point, I had written a few books with hooks, usually nonfiction titles on cool topics, like Pink Snow and Other Weird Weather or Bugs, Bugs, Bugs, and, yes, my own snake book, called Slinky, Scaly Snakes, but the idea of mashing together hooks opened a new window on fiction for me. Everywhere I looked, I saw “George Stanley”-type ideas, not only in kids’ books, either. There were kids’ TV shows like Dinosaur Train, adult bestsellers like Pride and Prejudice with Zombies, and movies like Snakes on a Plane. Last year a true George Stanley-type idea became a cult hit—Sharknado, anyone?
So here it is, your shortcut to inspiration! Just pick any of these two words (or throw in some hook words of your own), and you’ve got a book idea. How do you know what a hook is? Animals are always popular. Holidays are great hooks because stores, teachers, and librarians feature these books seasonally. Don’t forget disasters and the supernatural. Dinosaurs are The Once and Future Hook, with dogs a close second, while something like ninjas probably wasn’t popular fifteen years ago, but is surging big time now.
Try it for yourself! Spider Baseball? I’d buy that. Dream Witch? Camp Halloween? Puppy Palace? Wait . . . I think that one has been done.
Of course, the idea is the easy part, the 10% of the iceberg that shows above the water. Now you have to find the inspiration in that idea and figure out what the story is, which is the other 90% of the iceberg. What does Pirate Panda want? What are the obstacles facing her? How will she overcome them? And that, PiBoIdMo’ers, is what being a writer is all about.
Last fall, I had a genuine George Stanley-type picture book published, called 100 Snowmen. ((jpeg cover of 100 Snowmen)) The number 100 ties into a holiday, the 100th Day of School, and snowmen are both seasonal and, especially after Frozen hit, very popular. I know that somewhere George Stanley was smiling down at me. “Yes, grasshopper,” he’d say. “That’s how it’s done.”
Jen Arena writes, edits, and mashes together ideas for everything from easy-to-reads to picture books to early chapter books, including her latest, a bilingual board book with Little Brown, Besos for Baby. Her picture books Lady Liberty’s Holiday and Marta Big and Small will be published in 2016 by Knopf and Roaring Brook respectively. Visit her on twitter at @hallojen or at her website: JenArenaBooks.com.
What? The George Stanley Idea Generator wasn’t enough of a prize? Okay . . .
Jen is giving away a thirty-minute brainstorming session/Q&A/editorial consult phone call. She has twenty years of experience as an editor with Putnam, Golden Books, and Random House and has been writing for kids just as long. Ask away!
This prize will be given away at the conclusion of PiBoIdMo. You are eligible for this prize if:
- You have registered for PiBoIdMo. TODAY IS THE LAST DAY TO DO SO!
- You have commented ONCE ONLY on today’s post.
- You have completed the PiBoIdMo challenge. (You will have to sign the PiBoIdMo Pledge at the end of the event.)
Good luck, everyone!