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I pressed pause on the blog but realized–hey, now is the perfect time to be talking about books! We all need them, and thanks to much of the country being shut down, people need to learn about wonderful new ones.

Last week, Lori Mortensen released her newest book and it’s a wondrous NONSENSE! romp. No, the book isn’t filled with language you can’t understand! It’s about the quirky genius, author-illustrator Edward Gorey.

Lori, why did you want to write about Edward Gorey?

I was reminded of Edward Gorey one day while I was out on my morning walk and happened to catch a podcast about him on “Stuff You Missed in History Class”. As I listened, his name and dark style reminded me of a book from my childhood. When I arrived home, I found the book I’d been thinking of—THE MAN WHO SANG THE SILLIES. It was a collection of odd poems written by John Ciardi and illustrated by Edward Gorey.

One of the most memorable poems, “The Happy Family” began:

Before the children say goodnight,
Mother, Father, stop and think:
Have you screwed their heads on tight?
Have you washed their ears with ink?

The poem was accompanied by Gorey’s memorable illustration of children trying to catch their floating heads.

As I delved into the research, I couldn’t wait to write an equally memorable picture book biography about this curious, whimsical, one-of-a-kind artist.

Why do you think we don’t see more books with children’s heads floating away? I mean, it’s dark, but it’s equally zany and humorous!

Bring on the floating heads! Actually, while THE MAN WHO SANG THE SILLIES was a bit of silly unexpected fun in 1961, I’m delighted children’s literature has continued to grow, expand and evolve in so many wonderful directions. The best part has been, and is, being part of this wonderful industry as well. Some of my favorite picture books include I JUST ATE MY FRIEND by Heidi McKinnon, SAM AND DAVE DIG A HOLE by Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen, and RUDE CAKES by Rowboat Watkins. Zany. Silly. Clever. Sign me up! It doesn’t get better than that.

Telling a life story in the compact space of a picture book is a difficult task! How did you find your focus for this biography?

People’s lives are always vastly more complex than what can be included in a picture book. As you noted, the key is to find that thread or focus that ties certain events in a subject’s life together in a meaningful way. Interestingly, as I researched Edward Gorey’s life, a particular thread stood out right away—how a brilliant child turned into the curious, mysterious, eccentric and whimsical creator we know today and influenced so many others along the way.

After writing about this creator of silly and zany, do you have any plans for those kind of fiction PBs yourself?

Humorous, zany picture books are some of my favorites and I’m always excited to write (and read!) new ones. One of my most popular silly and zany titles is COWPOKE CLYDE AND DIRTY DAWG, where Cowpoke Clyde spots his ol’ dirty dawg, but when Clyde tries to give him a bath—the chase is on! It was great fun to figure how it would all turn out. Does Dawg get his bath? That’s the question, isn’t it? Next year, Abrams will release my new silly and zany picture book, ARLO DRAWS AN OCTOPUS, illustrated by wonderful Rob Sayegh.

Do you have any surprising “making of” stories?

Interestingly, before the coronavirus hit, I would have shared where-I-got-the-idea stories about some of my favorite stories, such as CINDY MOO (I saw a cow-jumping-over-the-moon figurine at the thrift store) or COWPOKE CLYDE AND DIRTY DAWG (my neighbor’s dogs used to regularly escape from their backyard and race down the street, hence the chase to catch the dog for a bath), but these days, I’ve entered a whole new realm of surprising “making of” stories when I began tackling author videos for some of my publishers who encouraged them.

Yes, it’s a whole new world for book videos! Not something authors are used to doing!

For my first project, decided to do an author reading of my picture book biography, AWAY WITH WORDS, THE DARING STORY OF ISABELLA BIRD. You’d think it would pretty straight forward—sit down and read the book, for goodness sake! Over the course of a week, I filmed in my office, then in the backyard, then to a local park, but every location had its problems from neighbors bouncing their basketball, to chatty people wandering by in the park. Then, my husband said, “Hey, why don’t we drive up to the mountain top where I go paragliding?”

Suddenly, the only location that made sense was the mountain top. So off we went. An hour later, there I was. By now, I’d read the book about a zillion times, and after recording a read aloud for the third time for good measure on the mountain, we went back home. Surely, we’d done everything we could do. However, when I looked at the video more closely at home, (I’ve since learned how to see results on location—duh!) I realized the shot was pulled in too close. Shouldn’t you be able to see the book in my hands while I’m holding it? And wasn’t the top of the video too close to the top of my head? Ack! I tried to convince myself that it didn’t matter. And, after all, if I wanted to redo it, I didn’t have to go back to the mountain. Now that we knew what to do, we could go to the nice woodsy park.

But somehow by morning, only the mountain would do. So we went back and videoed again. The good news is tomorrow, April 7, Peachtree will be sharing my reading of AWAY WITH WORDS on Instagram. Although I’m not riding a horse up a volcano, or hiking across the numbing, windswept desert at the roof of the world like Isabella, I think she would be pleased. (I am, anyway!) Since then, I’ve made several other author videos. Check them out here!

Lori, thank you so much for this quirky look at a visionary creator. And I also have to thank you for nudging me to blog again! We all need the hope that new books provide! 

Blog readers, leave one comment below and you can win a copy of NONSENSE! THE CURIOUS STORY OF EDWARD GOREY.

Of course, it will be shipped when publishers get back to their offices. Good luck!


Lori Mortensen is an award-winning children’s book author of more than 100 books and over 500 stories and articles. Recent releases include her picture book biography, AWAY WITH WORDS, THE DARING STORY OF ISABELLA BIRD (Peachtree), about the first woman inducted into the Royal Geographical Society, IF WENDELL HAD A WALRUS (Henry Holt), CHICKEN LILY, (Henry Holt), Mousequerade Ball (Bloomsbury) illustrated by New York Times bestselling illustrator Betsy Lewin, and COWPOKE CLYDE RIDES THE RANGE (Clarion, 2016). When she’s not letting her cat in, or out, or in, she’s tapping away at her computer, conjuring, coaxing, and prodding her latest stories to life. For more information about her books, events, critique service, and upcoming releases, visit her website at lorimortensen.com.

by Lori Mortensen

I love picture book biographies. They’re right up there with chewy, chunky chocolate chip cookies.  With those first delicious lines, I’m drawn into someone else’s world that reveals what shaped them and why their story is important. Unlike biographies for adults that pack in everything but the kitchen sink, I love picture book biographies because there’s only room for the good stuff.  The best stuff.  Stuff that allows readers to sidle up to remarkable people, past and present, and wonder what they might do with their own lives. Short as picture book biographies are, writing them can be challenging. Here are my tips for writing picture book biographies:

Who

Deciding who to write about is BIG. If they’re well-known like Benjamin Franklin or Abraham Lincoln, there’s a million books about them already.  If you’re determined to write about them, you need to find an intriguing episode of their life that hasn’t been told before.  The other option is to write about someone who isn’t well-known, but still has a great story to tell. Whatever it is, it needs to connect with young readers.

How Much

Although you may be tempted to tell someone’s story from the moment they’re born to their last breath—reconsider. Most trade picture book biographies either highlight the time of the accomplishment, or the formative years which led to their accomplishment. Not always. But mostly. The point is, there are options. One great example of highlighting the important moment in someone’s life is Ruth Law Thrills a Nation by Don Brown, one of my favorite picture book biographers. He opened Ruth’s story with these lines:

On November 19, 1916, Ruth Law tried to fly
from Chicago to New York City in one day.
It had never been done before.

There’s no growing up. No wanting to fly. No wondering whether to do it or not. Ruth Law was ready. Making the flight was the story. Page by page, Brown lets us see what happened the day she flew to New York City and the challenges she faced.

A great example of the second approach is also written by Don Brown in his book, Odd Boy Out, Young Albert Einstein. He opened the story with these lines:

On a sunny, cold Friday in the old city of Ulm, Germany,
a baby named Albert Einstein is born.
It is March 14, 1879.

Why the difference? By starting from childhood, Brown showed readers how Einstein’s brilliant mind worked even at a young age, and how it led to his Theory of Relativity. 

Beyond the Facts

Lastly, when you start writing picture book biographies, it’s tempting to stick close to the facts as if you’re on the ledge of a tall building.  Stray too far and you won’t be safe. Stray too far, and you can’t cling to the pillar of facts. However, the only way to succeed is to step off into the literary void and find your voice. How do you want to tell the story? Let yourself go and find out. It’s okay. That’s what editors and readers want.

This idea was a turning point when I sold my latest release, Away with Words, The Daring Story of Isabella Bird, about the first female member of the Royal Geographical Society.  My first versions were lyrical, but very conservative and I revised the manuscript so many times for my agent, I lost count. Each version was lovely and dramatic, but something was missing. More revisions and rejections followed. In time, I parted ways with my agent and put the manuscript away.

Then, a few months later, I got it out again. I loved Isabella’s story too much to give up on it completely. At that moment, without an editor or an agent waiting for results, I felt a certain freedom to change things up. How did I want to tell her story? When I looked at it again, a metaphor sprang to mind that became the opening heart of the story.

Isabella was like a wild vine
stuck in a too small pot.
She needed more room.
She had to get out.
She had to explore.

You won’t find these words in the research. That’s me, letting go, telling Isabella’s story my way. It made all the difference.

So, the next time you’re writing a picture book biography, remember the good stuff. The best stuff.  And treat yourself to a chewy, chunky chocolate chip cookie.

We are giving away a copy of Lori’s new book AWAY WITH WORDS: THE DARING STORY OF ISABELLA BIRD!

Leave one comment to enter.

A winner will be selected at the end of the month.

Good luck!


Lori Mortensen is an award-winning children’s book author of more than 100 books and over 500 stories and articles. Recent releases include her picture book biography, Away with Words, the Daring Story of Isabella Bird (Peachtree), about the first woman inducted into the Royal Geographical Society, If Wendell Had a Walrus (Henry Holt), Chicken Lily, (Henry Holt), Mousequerade Ball (Bloomsbury) illustrated by New York Times bestselling illustrator Betsy Lewin, and Cowpoke Clyde Rides the Range (Clarion, 2016) a sequel to Cowpoke Clyde & Dirty Dawg, one of Amazon’s best picture books of 2013. When she’s not letting her cat in, or out, or in, she’s tapping away at her computer, conjuring, coaxing, and prodding her latest stories to life.

For more information about her books, events, critique service, and upcoming releases, visit her website at lorimortensen.com.

 

by Lori Mortensen

Inspiration.

The Muse.

The first crumb of an idea.

That’s where all writing begins, right? But what if you’re sitting there and you have no idea where to begin? When I first began writing, I heard the phrase, “Ideas are everywhere.” Although this was supposed to be encouraging, it made me feel even worse. Oh, oh! I thought. I’m surrounded by ideas and I still don’t know what to write about.

Initially, not knowing where to begin shook my confidence and made me wonder if I had anything to say after all. However, as I persisted and kept trying, I discovered the main ingredient.

Me.

Including myself might seem obvious, but at the time it wasn’t. I was a beginner. What did I know? Ideas were somewhere “out there.” However, as I made a conscious effort to notice what stirred my imagination, what to write seemed to grab me by the lapels and say write about this!

Cowabunga!

One of the biggest moments occurred several years ago when I was roaming around my local thrift store and noticed a figurine of a cow happily sitting on a crescent moon. It was one of many used knickknacks clustered on a shelf. Ordinarily, I would have strolled right on by. But this time as I stared at the accomplished cow, I was intrigued. How did she get there? I wondered. In a heartbeat, I knew I wanted to write the story. I bought the figurine and went home. As I wrote, it was exciting to figure it all out. How would she try to jump to the moon? Would she really make it? I loved coming up with the unexpected twist at the end.

Nobody else cared about the cow sitting on the moon. But it stirred my imagination. The story about a spunky cow trying to jump the moon became my rhyming picture book CINDY MOO. I was thrilled when HarperCollins snapped it up.

Houdini Hounds

Then, there were my neighbor’s dogs. Houdini hounds, really, that regularly broke out of their backyard and raced down the street. Moments later, my neighbors sprinted after them. “Come back, Rollie and Wendy!” they yelled.

Although the dogs’ antics certainly annoyed my neighbors, the dogs stirred my imagination. I thought, Wouldn’t it be fun to write a story about somebody chasing a dog? After a few false starts, my story took off–just like the dogs. As I wrote each verse, I couldn’t wait to see what would happen next. How would the determined main character try to catch the dog? Would the main character really catch the dog in the end?

My rhyming picture book, COWPOKE CLYDE AND DIRTY DAWG, became one of Amazon’s best picture books of 2013.

It was the “me” factor once again–the main ingredient—and how I reacted to what I saw.

Imagine

In April, my picture book IF WENDELL HAD A WALRUS will hit the bookshelves. This story began a bit differently. At the time, I’d been reading a variety of quiet picture books where the main character had an inner longing of some kind. I loved the idea of an inner longing and wondered where an inner longing might lead. As I thought about it, I imagined looking up into the clouds and seeing something that pulled at my heart. When “walrus” popped into my head, I was hooked.

A walrus?

The fun, quirky idea captured my imagination. Why would someone want a walrus? What would they do if they got one? Would they really get one in the end? When I came up with the unexpected twist, I was delighted. An editor at Henry Holt fell in love with it too.

So the next time you’re scouting around for an idea, keep an eye out for forgotten figurines, Houdini dogs, and the like. Then, add the all-important main ingredient.

YOU.


Lori Mortensen is an award-winning children’s book author of more than 70 books and over 350 stories and articles. Recent releases include Chicken Lily, (Henry Holt), Mousequerade Ball (Bloomsbury) illustrated by New York Times bestselling illustrator Betsy Lewin, and Cowpoke Clyde Rides the Range (Clarion) a sequel to Cowpoke Clyde & Dirty Dawg, one of Amazon’s best picture books of 2013. When she’s not letting her cat in, or out, or in, she’s tapping away at her computer, conjuring, coaxing, and prodding her latest stories to life. For more information about her books, teacher activities, book trailers, critique service, events, and upcoming releases, visit her website at LoriMortensen.com.

Lori is giving away a copy of COWPOKE CLYDE RIDES THE RANGE, the sequel to DIRTY DAWG.

Leave ONE COMMENT on this blog post to enter. You are eligible to win if you are a registered Storystorm participant and you have commented once below. Prizes will be given away at the conclusion of the event.

Good luck!

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My Picture Books

COMING SOON:

BLOOP
illus by Mike Boldt
HarperCollins
July 2021

ABSURD WORDS
illustrator TBA
Sourcebooks eXplore
November 2021

"PRIVATE I" SERIES #3
illus by Ross MacDonald
Little, Brown
2022

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