Yes, I am reviewing a friend's book that received my feedback early on, but my policy as an educator and K-12 retired librarian is that I only review books that I fully support and recommend.
From a writer's perspective, I see a well-focused book with many elements to note and emulate in my own work. The beginning spread captures a river come alive and a hint of the danger ahead. The vivid verbs and short staccato sentences heighten the stakes for main character Charlotte and her family. The refrain, "But still it rained" and the modification of that refrain, "But still, water seeped in," and "But still, I shivered" shape the relentlessness of a flood with no end in sight and a through-line that propels the readers forward.
With main character Charlotte, Ellen has created an emotional journey and internal arc. Charlotte knows she's too old to be comforted by her teddy, yet that's just what she needs. The use of close third person for framing the story is perfect. Through a child's eyes we experience the fear, frustration, and anger that comes from uncontrollable disasters. Charlotte gains strength from the "helpers" and becomes one herself as she passes on her precious teddy to a younger child.
From an educator and librarian's perspective, this is a book children need now whether it be for social emotional learning or to emulate Charlotte and pass on kindness in their own special way. The story gives children the agency to be "the helpers," too. With natural disasters such as floods and fires on the rise due to global warming or the pandemic we are living through, a book of empowerment like A Flood of Kindness can facilitate discussions on these issues.
Ellen has also created a campaign, "The Kindness Challenge," found on her website with activities to promote kindness. Kids can create kindness chains, play kindness bingo and write group poetry. Find the projects here.
First of all, thank you so much, Kathy, for having me on the Grog. I appreciate it a lot.
Kathy: I was lucky enough to see early versions as A Flood of Kindness developed. What revision changes made the story stronger?
Ellen: This is a fun question because I went back in my email and found what I sent you. EEK! So, thank you again for your help. There were a LOT of changes from the versions you saw. Some changes were major, and some were small tweaks.
One thing that made the story stronger was building a better arc. Charlotte’s emotional change came too quickly, so I spent a lot of time slowing the action down. I struggled with that because it’s tricky in picture books. Don’t have the change happen too quickly, but don’t use too many words. I worry about word count, but my editor wanted me to add words to strengthen the arc. I did get rid of extraneous things that didn’t move the story forward. I spent a lot of time making Charlotte likable, but someone with flaws. I wanted kids to relate to her.
Kathy: Please share your favorite revision strategies.
Ellen: As far as my favorite revision strategies, I use the acronym CARE when I revise. CHANGE, ADD, REARRAGE, ELIMINATE. I don’t always do all of this, but it’s a good guide. When I do school visits, we use this technique with a little “dance” as we sing, “Put words in, take words out, turn words around, and look at it again.”
For most stories, I use the old story mountain to check if everything is there. Often, I find I must use the ADD component of CARE when I see that perhaps the climax isn’t strong or clear enough or something is missing.
I do highlight the verbs to make sure they are strong, and don’t need the dreaded adverb to make the action clear. One trick I learned from a critique buddy is to try not to use “to be” verbs. That’s a clear sign of telling as opposed to showing.
I did something different with a PB biography recently that worked. I read an editor’s remarks, but I was so caught up in what to put in and what to leave out, how to make her like it, and how many words it should be that I chucked all the drafts I was working from and started from scratch. I knew the character well and what I thought was important and related to my pitch, so it wasn’t hard. The essential info rose to the top. I haven’t tried this with fiction, but I may. It’s freeing.
Kathy: You’ve said the themes of Flood are “kindness” and “empowerment.” Did the themes evolve as you wrote? This question goes to your writing process- do you set up certain parameters before you tackle draft one: theme, motif, obstacles?
Ellen: The theme of kindness was there at the inception of the idea. I think “empowerment” came a bit later in the process. As I wrote, I began to realize that kindness and empowerment can be intertwined. I know the feeling of helplessness, and I wanted children to know that they don’t need to feel that way in the face of difficulties. They have the power to help themselves and others by passing on acts of kindness.
As far as setting up parameters, I do usually start with a theme, a “want or need,” and if my story is the traditional format (as opposed to a concept book), I list possible obstacles. But so many times I go back and look at early drafts, and they look like totally different stories. FYI…that didn’t happen with “Flood.” I knew where I was going, and the changes were just how I got there.
Kathy: What were your experiences with illustrator Blythe Russo and editor Peggy Schaefer (WorthyKids)?
Ellen: I had a wonderful experience working with Peggy Schaefer. We spoke on the phone after I signed the contract; she went over what I should expect. She answered my questions and was honest and transparent. She sent back some edits that made so much sense to me. I was shown the rough art, and Peggy asked me a question about a certain picture to make sure it was depicted correctly. I appreciated that since they knew I had experienced floods.
Blythe and I didn’t work together at all. She worked with the art director. As I said, I saw the roughs and really liked them, but I didn’t even know who did them for quite a while. Once I found out who the illustrator was, I “stalked” her on Facebook and messaged her about how much I love her work. Then, we communicated a lot, and became friends. She is amazing in so many ways. I feel lucky to have had her illustrate this book that means so much to me.
Kathy: Any advice for new authors regarding illustrators and editors?
Ellen: Let the editors and illustrators do their jobs. It’s sometimes difficult to give up control (ok, it’s ALWAYS difficult), but it is important to remember that books, especially picture books, are a collaboration. In picture books, the illustrations are fifty percent of the story, so let the illustrator lend their creativity to your story.
When working with your editor, ask questions beforehand, but understand that editors know the market and have experience with how books will turn out. You editor will most likely give you some notes that will make your story stronger. Take notes graciously, but if there is something that concerns you, it’s fine to ask about it. If done well, the collaboration with author, editor, and illustrator can be magical. When your “book baby” goes to other people, know that they will begin to love it, just like you do.
Kathy: Ellen and I both belong to a cadre of writers called “The Caldecotts,” a group of writers 60+ . Many writers feel that they’re too late or too “old” for success. What do you say?
Ellen: That is definitely a misconception, but to be honest, I sometimes fall back into that belief. I think if it weren’t for the Caldecoots, I may have given up a few times. I am so thankful for the supportive and talented women who remind us that at our age, we are still have so much to give to the world.
So, my advice is to find a group of like-minded people who believe that age is just a number and lean on them when you’re feeling defeated. It happens to all of us. Remember at our age, we have the wisdom to understand life’s challenges and the experience to know that life is like a roller coaster. We’ve been around; things don’t knock us down as easily anymore.
Whatever you want to do -- write, sing, or start a new career, go into it with your eyes open, but with the confidence that your life experience will only help you. It is hard sometimes not to let the youth culture of this country intimidate us, but as someone recently told me, “You don’t have an expiration date, so do what you want until you don’t want to.” So, if you are 60+ and reading this, remember you are not a carton of milk and don’t have an expiration date! Do what makes you happy.
About Ellen and More on Her Process to Publication
- Cover reveal and interview with Ellen's editor and her by Manju Howard: https://tinyurl.com/4dw4tkpc
- Ellen's advice for book launches and interview with Maria Marshall: https://www.mariacmarshall.com/single-post/the-picture-book-buzz-interview-with-ellen-leventhal