Friday, August 29, 2008

Nathan Hale's Yellowbelly and Plum Go to School: More Than Just a "First Day of School" Book

Note: Photo credit to my 3.75 year-old son, who said these pages were about "saying 'cheese.'" So I had him "play" photographer.

A year ago, before my son started preschool, I checked out a ton of books from the library that dealt with a child's first first day of school.

As we read through these books together, one in particular stood out-- Nathan Hale's Yellowbelly and Plum Go to School. This was the only book of the lot that my son requested, "Read dat again!"

What happens when Yellowbelly gets separated from his best friend on their first day of school?

Yellowbelly and Plum is a world made of pages, one that is intuitively child-like, but never childish. For my son, the immensely loveable Yellowbelly and his quiet, but devoted friend, Plum, continue their school adventures even after the book is closed. Yes, Yellowbelly is the stuff that imaginary friends are made of.

Nathan Hale's talents as an illustrator are many, not the least of which is his prolific sense of imagination. Yellowbelly and Plum attend a unique school populated by a student body of diverse children and cuddly creatures. These creatures range from dinosaurs, animals, and insects, to plants, robots, and monsters (the super sweet kind).

The center spread features a wonderful Where's Waldo-esque scene that will keep you and your child intricately involved in discovering who's on the schoolyard. The fun grows when you can ask each other questions like: How many dinosaurs do you see? Where is the pink octopus? Where is the boy with a spider design on his t-shirt? (Semi-Spoiler********look on these same pages for characters from other Nathan Hale books.)

Hale's images richly reveal character, develop story, and illuminate the words all within an economy of text. Adding to his illustrative talents, Hale displays pitch-perfect story sense. Every scene contributes to a building momentum that concludes in both a clever and emotionally satisfying way.

The greatest thing about Yellowbelly and Plum Go to School is that it isn't just a "first day of school" book. This title can be read throughout the year as an endearing tale of friendship and the wonder of new experiences.

Newsflash/Extra Happy Ending: After writing this post, I learned that Nathan Hale will be illustrating my first picture book, Animal House. And, yes, I have Yellowbelly and Plum to thank for introducing me to their amazing creator.

Visit Nathan Hale at

Monday, August 25, 2008

Dueling Dualities of the Writer Personality

One of my biggest challenges in writing picture books has been reconciling two fundamental forces of the writer mind-- that of wordsmith with that of storyteller.

More specifically, my wordsmith-self has had to make room for and help nuture the nascent storyteller-self, not too unlike an only child adjusting to the birth of a new sibling. Not surprisingly, I am left as the puzzled parent trying to survive the sibling rivalry of my offspring.

The wordsmith in me wants to linger in language and explore all the possibilites without enough concern sometimes for where the story itself is going. I am the sort of writer who many times prefers reading the dictionary to fiction (nary); except, thank goodness, for picture books, which stimulate my eyes and brain.

The funny thing is, I've never completely gotten "storytelling." It has never appealed to me in and of itself. I've always been fascinated by words, the building blocks of stories. Growing up, I probably never completely embraced my identity as a wrtiter because I had always connected storytelling with writing. "Writers write stories," I thought.

Fortunately, I eventually discovered amazing voices from the past who redefined the boundaries of what it meant to be a writer. Thank you, Lewis Carroll, e.e. cummings, James Joyce, and Edward Lear. They blazed an exciting trail of word experimentation that led to astounding discoveries in the use of language.

Nowadays, I still struggle with story, but I can't let go of the how of storytelling. Sometimes, I feel like a mason more in love with the stones themselves than the castles they can build. This does seem strange, but I like to think that my love for the stones tells me what kind of castle to build. Otherwise, I would never know where to begin.

Thank goodness for the talent and skill of my agent and current editor, who have been able to help lead this wordworker through the maze of story and into a better understanding of how to put the wordsmith in service of the storyteller.