Little House in the Big Woods

by Laura Ingalls Wilder
Illustrations by Garth Williams
HarperCollins, 2004 (Full Color Edition); First published in 1932

The Easter Bunny can be a bit flighty sometimes. This year she (I’m sure it’s a she) left a copy of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s LITTLE HOUSE IN THE BIG WOODS in my daughter’s Easter basket. Great book and one I have been excited to share with the kids. But the EB brought the Full-Color Collector’s Edition, and I’m a stickler for the original. (In my humble opinion, Garth William’s drawings need no embellishment of any kind.) Then again, I shouldn’t criticize the Easter Bunny … I am sure she has a lot on her mind and would not have made such a silly mistake if she had even a moment of time to think straight.


The kids and I finished reading LITTLE HOUSE this week and I am thrilled to report that everyone—seven-year-old boys included—enjoyed it. All three kids were fascinated by the time period and the lack of amenities. There were constant interruptions as they asked me “What is a churn-dash? What is a bonnet? Why didn’t Ma just buy cheese at the grocery store? Could we stop using cars and start using horses and carriages? Could you and dad build a house? Why didn’t Laura and Mary wear shoes in the summer? Maple syrup used to come from trees?” They are certainly twenty-first century kids, but I was happy to discover they are genuinely curious about the past.

We plan to work our way through the series. As luck would have it, I found a copy of the second book, FARMER BOY, at a used bookstore. No coloration, no frills, yellowed pages with that lovely old book smell … and I’m certain I paid much less than the Easter Bunny did.


The Everywhere Cat

By William Corbin
Illustrated by Consuelo Joerns
Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, 1970

One of the things I love about books is the randomness with which they appear in my life. Take the picture book THE EVERYWHERE CAT, for example. Until last week I had never heard of it. This is not too surprising since it has been out of print for years, possibly decades. But someone recently donated an old hardcover copy of this book to our library book sale. No one bought it. And then the library donated all the unsold books to the elementary school in town. Apparently the school librarian didn’t want this book either, because it ended up on the “free books” table. Late last week my son picked it up and took it home.

It’s an adorable little story that explores the concept of irony. The everywhere cat is simply everywhere: in the protagonist’s cellar, in her yard, on her bed, in her drawer, everywhere … until that one moment when she really, really needs a cat. (Consuelo Joerns, the illustrator, came up with a truly funny scene depicting just such a moment. I won’t give it away completely, but it involves an army of rodents.) Aside from the limited-color art and the dated clothing on the girl in the story, this book could be on the shelf at the local bookstore today. And but for a string of seemingly random decisions on the part of other people—from the original owner to the book sale shoppers to the book sale coordinators to the school librarian to my son—I might never have seen it.

I wonder what random book will make its way onto my desk tomorrow.


Ps. Just for kicks, I checked You can pick up a used copy of THE EVERYWHERE CAT for two bucks!

Baby Whale Rescue

by Caroline Arnold and Richard Hewett
Bridgewater Books, 1999

Coincidences astound me. Don’t you think little ones happen at an alarming frequency?

This week I had lunch with a writer friend and she mentioned the author Caroline Arnold to me. I didn’t know the name, but my friend told me she was a prolific writer of children’s non-fiction and that I should look at her work. And this morning it rained, AGAIN, and work in the garden was postponed, AGAIN. You simply can’t thin radishes and lettuces in pouring rain. Instead, my daughter and I curled up on the couch with a stack of new books from Mimi. (Mimi, my mother-in-law, is a retired elementary teacher and she is in the process of cleaning out her closets … my lucky kids and I are inheriting books by the boxload.) The first book my daughter selected was BABY WHALE RESCUE, by Richard Hewett and … Caroline Arnold.

This book is a perfect non-fiction for children. It tells the true story of a baby gray whale found near death in the southern California surf in 1987. The whale, later named J.J., was rescued and cared for at Sea World in San Diego. The story of J.J’s dramatic rescue, rehabilitation, and return to the sea would capture the attention of just about any kid. And because the author’s are skilled at what they do, readers learn a few things as they make their way through the book. For example, my daughter has been wishing ever since we read the book that she could grow some baleen. Baleen is the brush-like fringe inside the mouth of many whale species … they use it to strain edible food and debris from the mud and guck they suck up off the ocean floor. It will come in handy, my daughter says, if the rain never stops and we are forced to thin vegetables in the mud!

Coincidences abound, I tell you. It’s plain amazing.


Making a Literary Life

By Carolyn See
Random House, 2002

Much to my surprise, I have developed a bit of a writing habit. It used to be that I wrote sporadically and willy-nilly. Some weeks I wrote a great deal, some months I hardly put pen to paper. One day I completed a solid draft of an entire picture book manuscript, one summer I didn’t finish—or start—a single piece. But it seems now that I have drifted into a process, of sorts, and that it is working very well for me. Go figure.

My habit involves working in the wee hours of morning when everyone else in my house is asleep. Go figure again. Because I am not actually a morning person, I start each session snuggled on the sofa in my office reading a chapter or two from a book on the craft of writing. It is a great way for me to get motivated for the morning’s work. For the past two weeks I have been reading Carolyn See’s MAKING A LITERARY LIFE.

I wouldn’t classify this book as a true “craft” book, although See does examine some of the fiction basics (character, plot, point of view, etc) in the middle third of the book. As the subtitle implies, this is more a book of advice for those who are considering a writing life. I did take away some good tips: “charming notes” are a wonderful idea; the life of a newly published book is approximately equivalent to the shelf life of a boysenberry yogurt cup (i.e. SHORT!). Overall, the book contains some very interesting insights from a professional writer. If you are like me and these sorts of insights inspire you to get to work then you might consider giving this one a try.


The Ha-Ha

By Dave King
Little, Brown and Company, 2005

The only thing better than discovering a great book is discovering that the author of a book you care about is a great human being. This happened to me just last night. First, I should tell you that I don’t read much adult fiction these days. It isn’t really a conscious decision so much as a frustrating reality. There are just so many books I want to read and so very little time to read them. And because I like to read across genres, the stack on my bedside table is always tall. Every now and again, though, my friend Jane recommends an adult novel, and when she does I slip it into the stack. (Jane is a true bibliophile. She introduced me to Lois Lowry and to Roald Dahl and, as a result, I trust her implicitly.) And so when Jane recommended I read THE HA-HA, I read it.

It is a lovely book. It is the sort of book that comes alive quickly and leaves you wistful at the end. If you are a writer, it is the sort of book that renews your drive and fills you with wonder and awe at the art of creating novels. If you love characters, it is the sort of book you will think about for a long, long time. I could tell you more about it, but I think it would be better if you just picked it up and read it yourself. It is that sort of book. Besides, I’d rather tell you about its author, Dave King.

Dave is a tremendously nice man. I met him for the first time last night at a library event that my friend Jane coordinated. He read from the novel (I was fascinated by the passages he chose to read) and then took questions from the audience. He was humble and exceedingly polite. His answers were honest and generous. He seemed to enjoy himself, and I loved that. I asked him about character development through the course of the novel-writing process, and he told me that for him, the characters don’t develop during the process so much as he (the author) moves closer and closer to understanding them (his characters).

Dave also shared this advice to writers: be generous with yourself. Allow yourself to admire your own ideas–even your silly and crazy and never-gonna-work ideas. Embrace them, be proud of them, weave them unflinchingly into your novel, at least for a while. Try them out. There will be time enough later to worry about whether the idea is good enough to stay in your book. What excellent (and freeing!) advice.

I was one of the last people to have my book signed and my short, personal moment with Dave solidified my good feelings about him. He found out that my own first book will be published soon (surprise, surprise … my friend Jane was involved in this revelation), and he was so sincerely excited and interested that I could have hugged him. He even suggested I contact him after the book is out so that he can alert his sister, who is a children’s librarian. In my copy of THE HA-HA he wrote: “To Loree, Thanks for your wise question and kind words. With best wishes, Dave King”

So, if you like discovering great novels, pick up THE HA-HA. And if you are inspired by honest and creative people, try to meet Dave King in person. I am sure you will like him as much as I did.


10 Little Rubber Ducks

Written and illustrated by Eric Carle
HarperCollins, 2005

You know all about my TRACKING TRASH, and yesterday you heard about Eve Bunting’s DUCKY. Today I will tell you about the third “tub toy spill” book on the market … Eric Carle’s 10 LITTLE RUBBER DUCKS. I am proud of the fact that the great Mr. Carle and I were inspired by the same story, and that we both chose to tell the story to children. Of course, our approaches are very different.

10 LITTLE RUBBER DUCKS is written for a young audience, 4 to 8 year-olds. It depicts a simplified version of the tub toy story, following the ducks from manufacture, to cargo ship, to ocean spill. Once they are set adrift, Mr. Carle uses the ducks to teach readers about ordinal numbers (first, second, third, etc) and direction (north, south, up, down, etc). In each spread, the ducks encounter a new animal depicted in Carle’s well-known collage style. As if all these devices were not enough to keep readers entranced, the book ends with a “Quack!” … produced when the reader presses one of the ducks on the final page.

Like all Eric Carle’s books, the art is superb. It is vibrant and fun and uniquely Eric Carle. I hope TRACKING TRASH will be vibrant and fun, too … and uniquely Loree Burns. There is room for both versions on the shelf, I think.


ps. Remember the kids I visited last week to talk about my work as a writer? Well, they sent me the most adorable Thank You cards. What a hoot! Here are a few of my favorites:

“Dear Mrs. Burns, I learned that you make lots of mistakes. Thank you for visiting. From, Erica.”

“Dear Mrs. Burns, You are a good book writer. It was nice to meet you! Thank you for the notebook. From, Zack”

“Dear Mrs. Burns, Thank you for coming in and for the notebook. I will find those ducks for you. From, Neil P.S. I’ve written eight books.”

“Dear Mrs. Burns, Thanks for coming in. I had fun listening to you talk about your job. I hope I become a writer like you when I’m older. I also appreciate that you followed my idea to give us those notebooks. When your book comes out I’m going to buy a copy. Love, Ben” (This one is my son! And the notebooks WERE his idea.)

How can you not LOVE first graders?


Written by Eve Bunting
Illustrated by David Wisniewski
Clarion, 1997

Last week I visited a first grade classroom at a local elementary school to talk about my “job” as a children’s book writer. I found myself in the awkward situation of presenting myself as an author and having no book to show the kids. And so I brought along other proofs of my job:

I prepared a storyboard that showed photographs of me at work on my first book. There were images of me in my office, at my computer, in the library, interviewing scientists, transcribing notes, interviewing more scientists, and beachcombing.

I also brought an eighteen-inch stack of manuscripts which represented three revisions of my manuscript. They loved this part. The markings of my editor’s red pen were a huge hit, and the kids suggested that an editor is “just like a teacher”.

With stunning lack of foresight, I passed out some of the bathtub toys that feature so prominently in my book. These caused all sorts of problems and had to be collected straightaway. (They were thrown and squeezed and tossed and bitten and fought over …)

Finally, I talked with the kids about storytelling. They agreed it was fun, and that different people can tell the same story in quite different—yet equally enjoyable—ways. I showed them some books written by other authors about the same tub toy spill my book explores, and they chose one of them for me to read out loud.

Eve Bunting’s DUCKY is a fictional account of the tub toy spill. The story is told from the point of view of a rubber duck, and Mr. Wisniewski uses colorful cut-paper art to illustrate it. This treatment definitely struck a chord with these kids … they grew very quiet when the duck found itself alone at sea and there were a few gasps when a shark showed up. I was struck (once again) at how quickly children of this age are swept up in a good story. They were completely mesmerized.

I finished the morning by giving each child a notebook in which to record their own stories and observations. In return, they promised to read my book when it comes out and to let me know if they find some rubber tub toys at the beach this summer.

Cool kids, every one of them!


Tracking Trash

I’m okay… I think. But it has been quite a week.

My editor sent me a note last Friday to tell me that the first pages of my book would be arriving on Monday or Tuesday. I was thrilled. After two years of research and writing, I was finally going to see text and photographs laid out in book format. The pages would not be bound, but they would give me a good sense of how TRACKING TRASH was going to look. Perhaps it goes without saying that I spent most of Monday and Tuesday looking out the window. Do you know how many delivery-truck-sounding vehicles pass my house in a given day? A lot. By six o’clock on Tuesday evening I was a mess. Where were they? Had they gotten lost? I resolved to call my editor first thing on Wednesday to have her track the package. Tuesday night was long and rainy, which I know because I did not sleep at all.

On Wednesday morning, before I’d even had a cup of tea, much less attempted to reach my editor, my husband came into the house with a worried look on his face.

“Um, hon? There is a package here for you,” he called from downstairs.

“Finally!” I shouted from upstairs. “At least they brought it nice and early.”

“Um, hon? I think it has been out here all night.”

I hurried downstairs to see my masterpiece. I remember thinking, ‘what was I so worried about? The darn thing was lying on the stoop, fifty yards from my bed, the whole night!’ And then I saw my husband, who was holding the package with two hands and trying desperately to prevent it from ripping. It was soaking wet. The package had indeed arrived the night before. But remember that rain? Although the delivery man had kindly put my package in a plastic bag (it would have been far kinder to ring my doorbell and tell me the package was here!), he never tied the bag closed. When my husband found it, my pages were floating in water.


The bad news is that the pages were ruined.

The good news is that my editor has already put a new copy in the mail.

The really, really good news is that the design (from what I can see in the sixty-four wrinkled and drying pages spread around the dining room) is GOREGOUS. I am so excited I can almost laugh about the fact that my TRACKING TRASH: FLOTSAM, JETSAM, AND THE SCIENCE OF OCEAN MOTION manuscript arrived in a trash bag full of water. Almost.


Mr. and Mrs. God in the Creation Kitchen

By Nancy Wood
Illustrated by Timothy Basil Ering
Candlewick, 2006

This is one of FOUR books I bought during the New England Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators Spring Conference over the weekend. You will hear about all of them, eventually, but this is the one I’ve chosen to start with.

In Nancy Wood’s take on the creation story, God is a couple and creation is a molding, mixing, whipping, and baking extravaganza. Mr. God makes the sun, the dinosaurs (who he soon regrets), pelicans and a giant blue whale. Mrs. God, not to be outdone, throws together the Earth, its atmosphere, and all the fish in the sea. Their masterpiece, however, is a joint effort: humankind. The art of Timothy Basil Ering adds colors and feelings that are at once zany (Mr.’s pelican eats up Mrs.’ Fish) and profound (Mr.’s whale is breath-catching). My favorite part of this book, however, will forever be the title page, which now reads:

For the Burns Family-
May you always know what to create next!
Magical wishes,
Your friend,
Timothy Basil Ering

I cannot recall ever being in the presence of a person so wholly devoted to sharing his passion. The presentation Timothy gave at the conference was nothing short of inspirational and his standing ovation (the first truly spontaneous standing ovation I have ever seen) was well-deserved.

So, if you have never been to the New England SCBWI Spring Conference, I highly recommend you consider it next year. And if you have never seen Timothy Basil Ering speak, you should put that on your to-do list as well. And while you are waiting for the opportunity to do both, read MR. AND MRS. GOD IN THE CREATION KITCHEN. It is a truly beautiful book.


Quabbin, A History and Explorer’s Guide

By Michael Tougias
On Cape Publications, 2002

Writers write for different reasons. For some writers, like Elizabeth George, it is “all about the beauty of our language.” For other writers, like me, it tends to be about the research. I just can’t get enough of it. I enjoy getting into a topic, uncovering primary sources, rooting around in musty library basements, meeting people who can tell me a little bit about the world that I didn’t know before. For me, writing is simply the best way to share all the incredible information I find while researching.

A good example is my current work-in-progress, a middle-grade historical novel set in Prescott, Massachusetts. Prescott no longer exists; it was dis-incorporated in 1938 to make way for the Quabbin Reservoir, one of the world’s largest manmade reservoirs of drinking water. Prescott’s unique history, however, and the dynamics of its demise make wonderful fodder for a novel. And so I have spent a great deal of time getting back to Prescott, through books and photographs and historical societies and museums and field trips and interviews with folks who once lived there. It has been a compelling journey, and today’s book is the one that set me on course.

QUABBIN contains a thorough introduction to the history of the Swift River Valley and the events leading up to its flooding. Readers get an overview, albeit a brief one, of the Quabbin towns, their taking by eminent domain, and the people who were displaced in the process. It is a fascinating history, even if you don’t live in Massachusetts. Mr. Tougias juxtaposes historical narrative with an explorer’s guide, strange as that may seem. The second half of the book contains maps, descriptions and hiking instructions for the greater Quabbin area.

All of this is meant to explain, I guess, how hard I am working on my new novel … and why my day-long hiking trips are NOT procrastination. It’s research!