For Writers

The Most Important Thing About Children’s Books: For Readers and Writers During COVID-19

Last night, my son asked for something extraordinary. He requested I read him a goodnight story. From my shelves, I pulled out a picture book, The Keeping Quilt by Patricia Polacco. At first glance, this might not seem that unusual.

Except my son is a ninth grade, a newly minted 15-year-old, and I couldn’t more proud. He wasn’t afraid to ask for what he needed– the comforting ritual of a bedtime story read aloud by a parent. He wasn’t embarrassed. His ears didn’t pinken. This wouldn’t have happened pre-COVID. Well, it would have but like six or seven years ago.

This was not an isolated incident.

My oldest son, who graduated from college last year and is a software engineer for a celebrated car company, is back home and after reading some non-fiction, picked up The Subtle Knife by Phillip Pullman. My son had first read this very book and the rest of His Dark Materials series when he was ten. He said he relished re-reading it even more because “there was so much that I didn’t understand” the first-time round.

My middle son, a 20-year-old, and college sophomore has been asking for back rubs after sitting in his chair digesting his third Zoom class for the day. He also has been introducing us to some of his favorite board games.

In fact, all three of my sons have asked that we play family games at least once a week. Our favorite is definitely Exploding Kittens, which is silly, involves a little strategy and a lot of luck.

I’m not trying to glorify sheltering-in-place. It’s been, at times, incredibly stressful and full of grief. Two of my students have lost their grandparents. Three of my students have been hospitalized. Childhood friends are struggling to recover from COVID-19. My youngest son may have had COVID-19 for a month in March, but at the time we couldn’t get him tested. But I don’t need to tell you of all this woe. We’ve all experienced heartbreak in one form or another, collective grief and loss in many forms.

So I’m really trying not to be a Pollyanna.

But I do feel like COVID-19 has helped me put priorities and values into sharper focus.

Health. Wow. That’s important.

Friends. Community. Books. All Vital.

And it’s clearer than ever before that children’s books are not just for one particular life period. And reading aloud shouldn’t have to stop when you’ve graduated from the HarperCollins I Can Read Level 4. Nope. The pleasure of children’s books are for every season of life. The idea, for example, that you read middle grade just when you’re 8-12 is merely a state of mind.

And as creators of children’s books, it’s especially imperative to embrace this perspective.

Next month, starting on June 15, I’ll be teaching Middle Grade Mastery, a four-week interactive, remote course for the The Children’s Book Academy with Rosie Ahmed (Penguin Random House/Dial Books) and Mira Reisberg (Clearfork/Spork). It’s a class I’ve taught for several years now, and one that I love. We focus on craft and mentor texts. But this year, I plan to remember what I’ve learned from this sheltering in-place. I want to emphasis more reading aloud at any age. And to remember that no one is ever too old for children’s books; they open hearts and minds, pose and answers questions, as well as (perhaps most importantly right now) mend and delight the spirit.

Hillary Homzie is the author of the Ellie May chapter book series (Charlesbridge, 2018), Apple Pie Promises (Sky Pony/Swirl, 2018), Pumpkin Spice Secrets (Sky Pony/Swirl, 2017), Queen of Likes (Simon & Schuster MIX 2016), The Hot List (Simon & Schuster MIX 2011) and Things Are Gonna Be Ugly (Simon & Schuster, 2009) as well as the Alien Clones From Outer Space (Simon & Schuster Aladdin 2002) chapter book series. She’s also a contributor to the new Kate the Chemist middle grade series (Philomel Books/Penguin Random House 2020). During the year, Hillary teaches at Sonoma State University and in the summer she teaches in the graduate program in childrens’ literature, writing and illustration at Hollins University. She also is an instructor for the Children’s Book Academy. She can be found at hillaryhomzie.com and on her Facebook page as well as on Twitter.

Writing Prompts for a Pandemic

When I first sat down to write this post, I said to myself, “How about writing something NOT about the pandemic?”

And then I laughed and laughed.

Because of course, every inch of our existences is about the pandemic–whether our state is opening or not, whether we’re wearing masks or not, whether we’re working from home or not. It’s also whether we feel safe, or been sick–or not. Maybe we’re worried about getting sick or taking care of loved ones who are sick or we’ve lost someone who was sick from Covid-19 or something completely different. It’s also about the fact that the politicization of a national emergency has introduced an additional stress beyond anything we’d ever imagined.

Books Help Us Process

And so, instead of trying to be clever and find something to say that doesn’t have the tang of pandemic to it in some way (there isn’t anything) what I will do is this: add to the body of thinking that explores ways for creators and book lovers to process this time. We are all writers, teachers, parents, librarians, and readers. We think and feel through our fingers when we write, we feel connected and supported when we read or when we share books with other people.  You don’t have to be a writer to find catharsis in the act of writing, though, just jotting down your thoughts in a journal can be a truly helpful, healthy expression.

((Have you thought about keeping a journal? Read here for some ideas about journaling in the time of Coronavirus ))

Writing as Catharsis

But maybe you’d rather not write about yourself. Maybe you’d rather find your healthy expression in the act of creating story. And many of you probably already are pecking away at your work-in-progress, or starting new ones. Some of you have discovered a superpower–the ability to focus deeply as a way of protecting yourself against too much pandemic thinking.

Others of us walk into the kitchen from our home offices and stand there for long minutes wondering why we are there. (Okay, yes, that happened before the pandemic too, but now it’s truly epic.) So, the act of organizing an actual book is perhaps not feeling like a mood-booster.

Writing Prompts for a Pandemic

Regardless of where you fall on the spectrum, writing prompts can be a soothing craft-building or venting exercise. Think of them as a mandala coloring book, only for writing. You can use them to explore your craft or just free write to release tension.

mandala writing prompts

I’ve provided a few prompts below; choose one that suits your fancy and let your fingers take over. It doesn’t have to be a book (but it may turn into one,) it doesn’t have to be anything more or less than what you want it to be: a character sketch, a short story, a one-act play, a scene, poetry, a letter, or a journal entry.

  1. You (or your main character) are taking a long, solitary drive to get a change of scenery. Most states are still recommending quarantine, so you are surprised to find a huge party happening in a secluded beach town, where they tell you they’ve managed to beat the coronavirus. DO you believe them? Do you stay?
  2. It’s one year from now: May 2021. Your main character overhears a conversation between two middle-school teenagers; they’re talking about quarantine. What are they saying? Where are they? What’s their backstory? What is the effect of their conversation on your main character?
  3. Write a letter to a teacher who has been part of your/your child’s distance learning during quarantine.
  4. You’re writing middle-grade historical fiction about a previous pandemic. Read this: and then write the backstory for one of the protestors in the article.
  5. Write a poem naming and exploring an emotion you’ve felt during the quarantine.
  6. Use the voice of your antagonist in your work-in-progress to describe a Zoom conference call or distance learning classroom.

 

Make This Book Series into a TV Series, PLEASE!

Stay-At-Home orders, pandemic response, hand-washing, and social distancing. These are interesting times. Life has changed. It has been interesting but challenging. The science life will soon call me back full time, so I’m trying to make the most out of this period of my life and simplify my world moving forward.

With so much sudden creative free time for a creator who normally struggles to find creative free time, I must admit I’ve struggled. Not quite a Jack Torrance-level struggle, although I did catch myself writing, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” twenty or so times in my journal the other morning.

The Shining (1980) - All Work and No Play Scene (3/7) | Movieclips ...

Here has been my main writing problem. With so many new and old writing ideas streaming through my head, I have often felt like Lucy and Ethel on the chocolate candy wrapping line. 

That’s no joke. A lot of me wanting to write but with a healthy helping of spinning the wheels.

On a positive note, I started drawing again last year and this work-from-home period has given me time to take some online art instruction. I’m enjoying the process and have combined the writing life with art into attempting a couple of graphic storytelling projects (one is a STEM informative fiction!).

It’s all going to work out in the end. I’m 100% sure of that.

Another thing I thought I’d do was stream a bunch of TV shows and movies. You know, catch up on all these shows people are talking about. I haven’t. Maybe it’s not a bad thing. I can still nod my head and act like I know what the person raving about a Netflix series is talking about, right?

That said, I’ve put a considerable amount of thought the past few weeks into a question that was posted a few months ago during a Twitter chat. 

If you had complete control over the production aspects, what MG/YA book or book series would you sign to be made into a movie or streaming series?

A couple of book series I’d make into TV series or movies are technically considered YA but I’ve always believed they have great appeal to upper middle grade readers as well.

First, Terry Pratchett’s Tiffany Aching series. I’m currently almost through rereading the entire series again

The Wee Free Men (Tiffany Aching #1) Cover

A Hat Full of Sky (Tiffany Aching #2) Cover

Wintersmith (Tiffany Aching #3) Cover

I Shall Wear Midnight (Tiffany Aching #4) Cover

The Shepherd's Crown (Tiffany Aching #5) Cover

 

 

 

 

Second, Johnathan Stroud’s Lockwood & Co. series. I might reread this series next!

The Hollow Boy (Lockwood & Co. #3) Cover

The Creeping Shadow (Lockwood & Co. #4) Cover

The Empty Grave (Lockwood & Co. #5) Cover

 

 

 

 

In my humble opinion, these are two great books series that both pop visually in the reader’s mind and would translate well to the big or small screen. I invite and implore you, dear readers, to share your dream book-to-movie projects in the comments below or link to this post on social media with your suggestions. 

Who knows? Maybe a producer will see your ideas and put the wheels in motion.

Take care, MUF friends!

Be safe.

Be kind.

Learn something new.

 

BONUS: Here’s a couple of MG books to movie pieces by Mindy Alyse Weiss and Andrea Pyros post on the MUF blog:

Movies Inspired by Middle Grade Novels by Mindy Alyse Weiss from 4/17/2015

10 middle grade books made into movies by Andrea Pyros 12/14/2016